on geopolitics

The Pitfalls of Patterns in Geopolitical Forecasting

Rodger Baker
Senior VP of Strategic Analysis, Stratfor
11 MINS READSep 19, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
Historical and other patterns point the way forward, but they don't provide a blueprint for forecasters.
(POR666/Shutterstock)

Historical and other patterns point the way forward, but they don't provide a blueprint for forecasters.

Patterns are paramount — at least as far as geopolitical intelligence analysis is concerned. Whether the patterns are based on history, geography, stimulus and response or the like, they help us build theories and rules to simplify the world, make initial assertions and raise questions. Used effectively — and critically — patterns point a path to the future, helping to identify the stimulus and conditions that lead to the emergence of the pattern in the first place.

But seeking and using patterns in analysis also presents several potential pitfalls. There is a tendency to see patterns where they are not, to create false causal links and to allow cognitive and information bias to shape and solidify theories about patterns that are misleading at best — or patently faulty at worst. Theories based on patterns can solidify into truisms, undermining analytical integrity and leading to inaccurate assertions. It's also possible to remove patterns from their temporal and spatial context: The idea that some stimulus "always" leads to a certain outcome is too blunt a deterministic approach. Times, context, knowledge, technology and circumstances change, altering the impact of the perceived causal factors and potential outcomes. And while pattern recognition is a valuable tool for forecasting, planning scenarios and reducing complexity, the buck often stops with individual humans, for they are frequently the final decision-makers. Indeed, all of us are susceptible to bad days, poor decisions and the tyranny of time pressures and incomplete information.

Patterns, ultimately, are a tool to seek causal factors that may account for apparent repetition, allowing one to short-list likely outcomes, which is valuable for everyone thinking beyond the next couple of minutes, whether in personal life, business, military or government. In this, patterns can illuminate the way forward, although their observer would be wise to avoid using them as a step-by-step guide to the future.

There is a tendency to see patterns where they are not, to create false causal links and to allow cognitive and information bias to shape theories about patterns that are misleading at best — or patently faulty at worst.

Germany: A Pattern of Two-Front Wars?

In thinking about broad geopolitical forces and their impact on countries' directions, one classic pattern analysts often highlight is the behavior of Germany in the 20th century. Two fundamentally different political systems in Germany each made effectively the same decision — to attack outward in two directions. Now, that is a significant oversimplification of World War I and II, but it raises a series of critical questions. Why would Germany repeat the failed strategy of World War I? What pressures led two different German governments to pursue similar paths and goals? Why did Germany not follow this pattern earlier in its history? Are there any aspects of the broader geopolitical forces still at play — in other words, could Germany go down a similar military path in the future?

A simplified geopolitical assessment of the questions yields a few insights. Located on the Northern European Plain, Germany is a country with few, if any, geographic barriers or secure frontiers on its western and eastern flanks. An alliance or alignment between the countries on either side of Germany could threaten its national security, economic and trade routes and, at times, disputed border areas. Germany's security, therefore, rests in aligning the country with at least one of its neighbors — allowing it to avoid pressure from both flanks — or expanding its security sphere to ensure no one threatens it from without. In both wars, Germany briefly attempted to stabilize relations with one border while attacking in the other direction, but ultimately found itself embroiled in a two-front war.

Again, that is oversimplistic, but it provides a framework from which to assess more detailed components of the two situations and questions about conditions that could lead to a repeated pattern. Why did Germany not follow this pattern before World War I? The simple answer is that there wasn't a unified Germany. Why has Germany not followed this pattern since World War II? From a historical viewpoint, one would like to argue that it is because Germany, and humankind, learned from history and decided not to use war to resolve perceptions of vulnerability. But that would suggest that World War II should not have happened — and indeed, many thought that another global conflagration was impossible after the carnage of World War I, the war to end all wars. Another explanation comes from the postwar global structure: Germany was initially divided, with each half integrated into a security pact that tied it to its immediate neighbor. The two-front possibility simply did not exist, nor did German unification. And though the end of the Cold War ushered in German reunification, it also accelerated the process of European integration, tying Germany economically, politically and, in part, militarily to France, again reducing the potential for a two-front threat.

But the question for the future is clearly more complex. Would the European Union's disintegration leave Germany feeling vulnerable again? The geography hasn't changed, the lack of strategic depth and geographic barriers remains the same, and there is obviously economic and political competition between Germany and France — even within the European Union as organized at present — on the way to best achieve stability and structure for the Continent. Have international interactions moved further from war toward other dispute mechanisms as the primary way to mitigate vulnerability and threat? Were there other factors that triggered the timing of German offensive action, driven not merely by the geographic vulnerabilities but also by social, political and economic trends inside Germany and its neighboring states? Context has a lot to do with whether patterns are likely to repeat, but pattern identification provides a way to home in on some of the key intelligence questions to identify risk or opportunity at an earlier stage.

China: Breaking the Dynastic Cycle

Recognizing and assessing patterns is also something nations do, and localized interpretations of patterns may shape responses to break an undesirable cycle. China provides an interesting case study, especially in terms of the broad idea of dynastic cycles. In the simplified view of Chinese history, there is a pattern of power: Some force (usually internal, but not always) centralizes power before expanding from a core to surrounding areas so as to acquire resources, strategic depth and geographic buffers. As the empire grows, an ever-larger bureaucracy is necessary to control the expanding empire. Over time, the bureaucracy itself grows more powerful than the center due to local priorities and issues, distance from the core and numerous other factors. As the center weakens and competing power centers arise, an internal or external shock typically occurs — perhaps a natural disaster, economic crisis or outside attack — that precipitates the collapse of the center, a brief period of fragmentation and the subsequent emergence of a new centralizing power. After that, of course, the cycle starts anew.

China's latest "dynasty," the People's Republic of China, appears to be nearing another of its cyclical turning points. It's a realization that doesn't appear to be lost on the country's leaders.

The latest "dynasty," the People's Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party, appears to be nearing another of these cyclical turning points. It's a realization that doesn't appear to be lost on China's leaders, prompting them to seek ways of breaking the cycle. China's economic expansion under Deng Xiaoping and subsequent leaders not only lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, but it also built up economic infrastructure on the back of an earlier Maoist attempt to diffuse industrial activity to avoid exposing a potentially vulnerable center to outside hostile forces. In other words, every province and every township pursued its own economic goals, frequently competing against each other in the same industrial sectors. By the turn of the millennium, this had produced massive redundancies and overproduction, risking broader macroeconomic stability.

But economic development, as well as local and regional drivers, also facilitated stronger local power bases and political relations that were intimately tied to business, finance and employment. Beijing sent out macroeconomic policy directives in an effort to rectify some of the inefficiencies in the overall economy, but regional and local officials often ignored them, since they hurt regional and local interests. Effectively, power in the center had weakened at the expense of the provinces, ostensibly putting China on the brink of a repeat of the dynastic cycle. Add in the rising competition with the United States, and internal stresses on basic resources, and China was facing potential triggers from without and within.

In this context, the behavior of President Xi Jinping appears to be an active attempt to counter the cycle by taking proactive steps. Xi has aggressively recentralized military, political and economic control to promulgate a sense of Chinese nationalism, using the idea of the 100 years of humiliation to serve as a rallying point to try and keep China united against a common sense of historical abuse. It is interesting to note that Xi's only challenger for leadership was the Chongqing Communist Party chief, who was also pursuing a neo-Maoist nationalist program that leaned toward a strong recentralization of power, rather than continuing the somewhat laissez-faire patterns of the consensus-driven governments after Deng.

Now, a three-paragraph explanation of the broad sweep of Chinese history, as well as its connections with the current leadership, obviously lacks nuance; what's more, it may be at risk of trying to force perceived historical patterns into a theory and "rule" that must be (and is being) addressed by China's leadership. These faults notwithstanding, it does create a framework from which to test assertions and better focus discrete questions that can be addressed. How strong is Beijing's ability to dictate policy at the regional and local levels? How strong are local political, economic and social networks? How do economic policies, employment rates, banking and industry interact at the local, provincial and national levels? Why has China found it so difficult to eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies in its manufacturing sectors? How do restrictions on labor migration affect decision-making at the different levels of industry and government? The framework is not a sacrosanct law of Chinese history, present and future. It is a way to focus on key questions, to test and challenge the broader theory, and to seek signs of future stresses, opportunities or likely paths. And how does the current context increase or decrease the significance of certain historical factors?

The Olympic theory may be more valuable not as a tool to say something is bound to happen, but rather to determine if there are similar stresses at work — and how those may play out in the current context.

The Olympic Theory

Just because something has happened more than once doesn't mean it must happen again; likewise, just because something hasn't happened in the past doesn't mean it won't happen in the future. Pattern detection and analysis, ultimately, is a tool, not a deterministic law. I used to have a theory relating to autocratic countries that host the Olympics and then go on to suffer a major crisis within 10 years — think Berlin 1936, Mexico City 1968, Moscow 1980, Sarajevo 1984 and Seoul 1988. The pattern appeared to suggest some commonalities may have been present, including the level of economic growth and international "acceptance" required before the countries landed the Olympics, the strong sense of nationalism, the attempt to prove the viability of the country and its political system, the necessary "opening" that occurred in preparation for hosting, the economic cost of organizing the event, the increased international attention and interactions, all of which meant that by the time the country actually hosted the Olympics, it was susceptible to other social, political and economic challenges that contributed to a massive crisis within 10 years.

This was no hard and fast rule, but it provided a way of looking at potential risks surrounding Beijing 2008. Clearly, the 10-year "pattern" is broken. But the pattern may be more valuable not as a tool to say something is bound to happen, but rather to determine if there are similar stresses at work — and how those may play out in the current context. Patterns help us put a world of so many variables into a sense of order, and then use that framework to ask more pointed and targeted questions. It is not, however, an exercise without problems; the misuse of patterns, the attempts to draw up rules, the efforts to shoehorn past events into recognized patterns, the inability to draw the right conclusions or the failure to place the precursors into the current context all remain very strong challenges to overcome. As a tool, patterns offer insights into the future, as well as a frame to hang, test and assess the massive flow of contradictory information bombarding us each day. Doing so, however, requires caution, lest a tool of simplification become a simplistic device that sends one jumping to false conclusions.

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