Published in Megatrends in Global Interaction, Bertelsmann Foundation, October 2012.
In 1914, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a foreign affairs writer named F. Cunliffe-Owen looked for the bright side. “While it is only natural that one should be stricken with horror at the brutal and shocking assassination,” he wrote in the New York Sun, “it is impossible to deny that [the archduke’s] disappearance from the scene is calculated to diminish the tenseness of the [general European] situation and to make peace both within and without the dual empire.” The archduke was so universally regarded as a “disturbing factor and as committed to forceful and aggressive policies,” he added, “that the news of his death is almost calculated to create a feeling of universal relief” (Cunliffe-Owen 1914).
For anyone undertaking the project of imagining global security over the course of the coming century, poor Mr. Cunliffe-Owen’s article – and the many hundreds of others like it that, across time and subject matter, have gotten big questions spectacularly wrong – is a cautionary tale with a loud moral: Predicting the future offers many more opportunities to look stupid than to look prescient. Even with a horizon of just a few weeks, Mr. Cunliffe-Owen managed to misinterpret the triggering event for World War I – which was kind of a big event in the history of global security – as one of those moments of sudden relaxation that lets us all breathe a little easier. And it wasn’t that he was an idiot, either; in fact, he appears to have been a well-respected foreign policy analyst. If he couldn’t anticipate the coming month within 180 degrees of the right direction, one should probably begin with a certain degree of humility in anticipating the next 100 years.
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