Critiquing Strategic Reviews

The Fifth Edition of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Global Strategic Trends (to 2045) was published in June/July of last year. Most people who are interested in this sort of thing would have already studied it and come to their own conclusions. Still, a six months delay has the virtue of offering us half a year of real history to test against the speculation.

Readers know that we tend to think prediction to be a mug’s game and that predictions thirty years ahead (the typical range for strategic analysts) are almost certainly going to be falsified by history and by technology but it is also true that anyone engaged in any form of planning must have some model or template of the future in which to test a succession of lived presents as they arise.

The efforts of the Developments, Concepts & Doctrine Centre [DCDC] of the Ministry of Defence are necessary but should not be immune to criticism. What, of course, is always fascinating about these sorts of report are the caveats: for example that the findings and deductions are only the responsibility of a think-tank within the system and not those of Government itself (or the MoD).

The report emphasises the breadth of its consultation – experts from academia, business and government – but there has to be that continual nagging doubt that similar bunches of experts failed to predict the economic collapse of the Soviet bloc or the 2008 crash except retrospectively and that a consensus of experts is almost certainly more likely to be wrong about the future than an outlier lucky guess or the analysis of fewer people with more detailed information.

The DCDC redeems itself immediately by denying that it is making predictions. Instead, it claims to describe ‘plausible outcomes’ based on ‘rigorous trends analysis'. As a simple modelling tool, they should be given the benefit of the doubt. The many, many caveats are pushed on to us as ‘emptor’. The model here is one we have discussed before as flexible preparation for probabilities and possibilities rather than one offering programme and plans.

But it is in the lead assumptions that you have to look for the degree of reliability in claiming that possibilities and probabilities are more or less likely. It is in these assumptions that one finds lacunae or the appearance of ideological presumptions and perhaps we will return to these in more detail in a later posting.

The introductory emphasis on technological change privileges employment, health care and communications which are current concerns and certainly new artificial intelligence developments will dramatically impact on these but the real risk factor may not so much be tactical impacts as the strategic impact of artificial intelligence itself emerging as an AGI (an artificial general intelligence) linked into every aspect of at least the developed world’s life through the internet of things.

We might similarly wonder about the past political origins of the emphasis on climate change and its effects and whether the almost-religious fervour about this issue, imbued throughout the British State structure, has not infected the analyses. In the other direction, there are similar political emphases implicit in the treatment of, say, gender but where one senses a silence because ‘things cannot be said’ politically. There may be ideological assumptions implicit here about the ‘good’ based on values that are prior to the evidence base .

This trends review is presented as a component of something greater – the national strategic and strategic defence and security reviews. The three elements for a critique that we have identified: conservatism about types of existential risk; politically-motivated consensus assumptions about existential risk; and possible silences on uncomfortable detail that contradict core values (to which we may return later): may come to affect the whole. There is thus still a place for outlier analyses and the place for them is probably at the final stage of the game. Until then, this will have to do.