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 fact that everyone knows, but few understand the implications, which are enormous. The sophisticated deal with levels of abstraction far beyond this simple fact. The truth lies in the open.
There are two foundations to the model. The first is that there is no distinction between economic, political, military and technological affairs. They are convenient ways to organize departments, but in reality, they are simply a different and linked dimension of the nation-state and related socio-political activities. The relative importance of each differs from time to time and from place to place, but they are always present and always interacting. Strategic intelligence must view things from an integrated standpoint.
Second, decision-makers are trapped by a matrix of forces that will break them unless accommodated. Successful decision-makers are those who understand the circumstances in which they find themselves. They make history, but not as Karl Marx put it, as they will. On the surface this is connected to a Marxist mode of thinking. In fact, Marx himself was not the originator of this idea. Adam Smith and his notion of the invisible hand, in which men pursue private interests and unintentionally increase the wealth of nations in the course of these activities, preceded Marx. Smith himself was beholden to Machiavelli, who argued that a prince cannot lift his eyes from war but must focus on the things he is forced to do by circumstance. The virtue of the prince rested in ruthlessly doing what he must, not in dreaming of power he didn’t have. Strategic forecasting and Marxism have similar views only in that they both believe the foundation of political life is necessity.
Necessity is predictable, particularly if you are dealing with rational actors, and successful politicians are extremely rational within the space they occupy. The actions required to rise and lead a million people, let alone hundreds of millions, necessitate extraordinary discipline and instinct. Few humans can even begin the climb, and only the most disciplined achieve the heights. It is fashionable among journalists and academics to hold politicians in contempt. They lack the politicians’ learning and cleverness. Thus, journalists mistake a radically different mindset and soul for inferiority. This satisfies their need to not feel inferior, but it does little to guide us. Obama and Putin have far more in common with each other than either has with their general publics. Each rose to power in his milieu, where almost no one else did.
If you watch a chess grandmaster play another, you will note that the game is rather predictable. Each understands fully the circumstance and knows that the apparent options are illusory. Each move is met with an expected countermove. On rare occasions, a brilliant player finds a variation. Most games end in predictable draws. A grandmaster is predictable in his game precisely because his understanding is so acute. An amateur is liable to do anything, but of course, the amateur never gets the opportunity to play at the grandmaster’s board. The same is true of politicians. The careless and random can’t be predicted, but neither do they survive. It is the gifted and disciplined who survive and who can therefore be predicted.
The Strategic Intelligence Model
The task of strategic intelligence is to build a model that takes into account the wide range of constraints that limit the choices of a leader, identifying the imperatives that he must pursue if he is to survive as a leader and if his country is to be safe. The obvious constraint and imperative is geography. Germany’s location on the Northern European Plain and its ability to produce efficiently and dominate markets to the east and southeast create an imperative to export and to maintain political domination in its markets. This has been true since the unification of Germany in 1871. At the same time, given its location and lack of natural barriers, it is an inherently insecure country. It must maintain its export markets while politically or militarily securing its physical safety. This simplistic model allows us to predict a number of things regardless of who is chancellor. First, to avoid domestic disruption, Germany will export regardless of circumstances. Second, Berlin will shape the political environment to facilitate this. Third, it will try to avoid military confrontation. Fourth, in extreme circumstances, it must initiate conflict rather than wait for its enemies to do so.
This model, which I provide only for the sake of understanding the concepts I’ve laid out, begins with the internal political constraints on a German leader. It follows to the only effective solution: exports. It then shifts to other concerns triggered intermittently by German success. Chancellor Angela Merkel must maintain exports or face unemployment and political opposition. Germany must export in part to the European Union, so it has shaped the European Union to facilitate this trade. Simultaneously, it must protect its national security by posing no strategic threat to anyone. Other options, such as cutting exports, allowing the European Union to function under other rules or moving Germany from the North European Plain are not available to her. Therefore, certain policies are imposed upon her.
The model involves imperatives that must be fulfilled, constraints that shape the solutions and decision-makers who respect these terms, with the variables extended into multiple domains and interacting with similar models for other countries. To manage this, the broad outlines of behavior can only be modeled, and the data that is used cannot be excessively granular; otherwise, it would overwhelm the analyst and obscure the point, which is to understand the broad patterns that are emerging. Without the existence of a prior model that controls the selection and flow of intelligence, the system collapses under the weight of random information. It is important to bear in mind that no attempt is made to engage in a psychological model of the decision-maker. This is not only because such a model is impossible to create but also because the psychology of power and powerful leaders tends to make them more similar than different. A psychology of power in general is more useful than a psychology of the individuals. There are two keys to strategic forecasting. First, focus on the community, nation and state rather than individuals. Second, do not confuse the subjective intent of the individual leader with the outcome.
My hosts should be comfortable with this theme, for it has elements of Marxism in it. The two differences are my focus on the state instead of the class and the fact that I regard this as the human condition, permanent and not evolving toward any “new humanity.” Ultimately I owe more to Adam Smith’s invisible hand and to Machiavelli’s description of the dilemma of the prince, who is powerful only so long as he exercises his power as necessity dictates. His power has little choice.
I will be looking forward to seeing how the Russians do strategic intelligence and how they see Ukraine. The board and the pieces are for anyone to see. Espionage undoubtedly has its uses, but not at this level and not in this game. I will report on what I find in Moscow.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article has been republished with permission of Stratfor.