I am going to visit Moscow next week. I was invited by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations to speak on strategic analysis, their term for what Stratfor calls strategic forecasting. Going to Moscow would give me pause under any circumstances. I am a product of the Cold War, and for me, at some level, Moscow is the city of the enemy. For my father, that city was Berlin. For my daughter, it was Fallujah. In every war there is an enemy and a city that embodies that enemy. I have spent too much of my life fixated on Moscow to lose the ingrained sense that it is a city of darkness and conspiracy.
My children don’t have that sense of Moscow, and it is fading in me as well, like memories of old loves. It’s there, but it’s not there. Certainly, we are not on the verge of nuclear war, nor are we expecting Soviet divisions to pour into West Germany. But it is interesting to me that those I mentioned this trip to — people who are aware that I am constantly traveling and discussing such matters — have expressed concern for my safety. Some have asked whether I was afraid of being arrested or afraid for my life. Stratfor’s security director even took a half hour of my time to remind me of the potential dangers. We both are of an age to have enjoyed the conversation mightily.
The events in Ukraine are not a surprise to us, and our readers know that we have covered them carefully. But the distance between then and now is as important as the conflict itself. There must be a sense of proportion. If I were to identify the major difference, it would be this: In the Soviet Union prior to 1980, there was an overarching ideology. Over time, people became cynical about it, but for a long time, it was either believed or feared. Today’s Russia is many things, but it is not ideological. It is nationalist (what we call patriotic in other countries), it is an oligarchy, it is corrupt, it is authoritarian — but it is not a place of deeply held beliefs, or at least not a place of a single belief. The Soviet Union once thought of itself as the vanguard of humanity, giving it a strength and will that was daunting. Russia no longer has any such pretensions. It is simply another country. It makes no claims for more.
There are causes for conflict other than ideology. The United States has an interest in preventing the emergence of a new European hegemon. The Russians must maintain the buffers that sapped the strength of Napoleon and Hitler. Neither interest is frivolous, and it is difficult to imagine how both can be satisfied. Therefore, there is a divergence of interests between the United States and Russia, complicated by the European Peninsula’s myriad nations. That this had to play out was inevitable. As the Europeans weakened, Russia strengthened relative to them. When Ukraine reversed its orientation from Russia to the West, Russia had to react. As Russia reacted, the United States had to react. Each side can portray the other as a monster, but neither is monstrous. Each simply behaves as it is forced to under circumstances.
That is the entire point of strategic forecasting and analysis. It does not depend on hidden secrets but on impersonal forces. It depends on things hidden in clear sight. The current dispute over Ukraine is an example. The Russians have an interest in Ukraine’s fate, fair or unfair to Ukraine. So do the Americans. Several years ago I wrote about this crisis because it did not depend on policies but instead on the impersonal forces that shape national interest. Robert D. Kaplan has written on the realist view of foreign policy. I disagree in this sense: For me, realism is not a policy. It is a standpoint from which to observe the unfolding of reality. The subjective views of policymakers matter little. They are trapped in events. Regardless of what U.S. President Barack Obama wanted to do in the Middle East, ultimately predictable events have trapped him against his will. It is interesting to watch him try to resist the reality he finds himself in. There is little chance.
This is why I am going to Moscow. I want to talk to Russians who are looking at the world through a prism similar to my own and compare notes on how we see the world. We will be looking at the same realities using what I suspect are similar methods and will see how our visions differ. This is not a game of secrets. At this level, it matters little what Obama wants or what Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks. It is about forces far larger than individuals. I will tell them the following. I wonder what they will tell me.
The Nature of Strategic Forecasting
Strategic forecasting is that class of intelligence that is most alien to intelligence services: events that cannot be understood through sources and whose outcome was unintended and unanticipated by the actors involved. In addition, it does not enable decision-makers to decide whether the events will happen, but it lets them prepare for broad shifts. For most political leaders, immediate issues subject to control are more attractive, while strategic issues, which after all may be in error, require enormous effort with political costs. Careers in intelligence are not enhanced by broad and long-term thinking, even if completely correct. Given the frequent and radical shifts in history that challenge conventional thought, many strategic forecasts appear preposterous to the intelligence consumer. In this sense, it is a form of intelligence best practiced outside of government and state intelligence services.
Strategic intelligence is not source-driven; it is model-driven. This is not to say that strategic intelligence doesn’t depend on the inflow of information, but the level of information it requires is not necessarily information that is hard and dangerous to discover (although it could be, in some cases). Nor does it consist of massive collections. The entire principle of strategic intelligence is to ruthlessly discard the subcritical noise that is being collected in order to identify the center of gravity of events. A tiny hint may sometimes draw attention to a major process, particularly in military affairs. Finding that tiny hint, however, requires huge amounts of time and effort, and little time is left to understand the meaning. Moreover, in many cases, the process is in plain sight. The trick is to see it, and the even harder trick is to believe it.
We have a saying at Stratfor: Be stupid. By this we mean do not be so sophisticated that you do not see what is before your eyes, and do not value the secret that is obtained at great expense over facts that everyone knows but fails to understand. Excessive sophistication and excessive love of the secret will hide the strategic processes underway. Thus, for example, the fragmentation of the European Union, which is of great importance today, is based on the fact that the value of Germany’s exports is equivalent to 50 percent of its gross domestic product. This is a