international analysis and commentary

The shocks that always make a difference

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Marta Dassù makes a very good point when she reminds us of the difficulty analysts and policy makers face in anticipating dramatic changes on the international scene. We are simply very bad at predicting the future. International affairs experts and government officials, in particular, tend to fall back on linear extrapolations. We prefer to assess trends rather than hazard guesses on potential shocks. But it is precisely these shocks that give meaning to underlying trends. Examples abound. Trends in military technology and changing power relationships helped drive the world to conflict in 1914. But it took an assassin in Sarajevo to provide the spark, and European leaders were certainly surprised by the scale and duration of the ensuing war – though they should not have been. The horrors of World War I led most to conclude that war had become impossible among “civilized” states – another error.

From the 1973 Middle East War, to the financial crises of 1929 and 2008, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Pakistani nuclear tests, from the fall of the Shah to September 11th, it is the “shocks” rather than the gentle trends that tend to define international relations. In an odd sense, the public and the media have a better sense of this reality. To most people, foreign affairs are all about the surprising and unexpected things that happen and suddenly appear on their screens. Analysts and opinion shapers live in the world of longer-term trends. The public lives with shocks (and so do most policy makers, although their definition of what constitutes a shock is often more bureaucratic or political than geopolitically transforming).

So, what next? An Iranian nuclear test? War on the Korean peninsula? And because shocks can also be positive, let me add a surprise settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

To return to the Egyptian revolution, it was not just the Mubarak regime that was taken by surprise by the force of public protest. It also seems that some of the key actors in the Egyptian opposition were also taken aback by the shock of recent events. After a slow start, the Muslim Brotherhood shows every sign of mobilizing for a protracted struggle over the future of Egypt. They may well see this period of revolutionary shock as an opportunity to capitalize on what they perceive as deeper trends in society and politics across the Arab world.

Read also:
Egypt and the political science crisis
by Marta Dassù
The Architects, the Oracles and the Ones
by Pasquale Ferrara
The positivist illusion
by Michele Testoni
No prediction failure – but a lack of sound policy analysis
by Gregorio Bettiza
Reading the future: not our job
by Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Read also in Italian:
Previsioni e profezie
di Angelo Panebianco, Corriere della Sera
Per capire la crisi serve una laurea in buon senso
di Raghuram Rajan, Il Sole 24ORE