Friday, April 3, 2015

Thucydides Was Right: Defining the Future Threat Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray

The two page executive summary in PDF can be downloaded at this link ( the 76 page monograph can be downloaded from the web site at the link below.

I think this is very much worth reading and pondering.  From the EXSUM:

The monograph accepts the inevitability of some events in our future that truly will be of a “Black Swan” nature—which is to say that they will be both beyond any reasonable anticipation and will prove highly consequential. Prudent Army planners cannot know what will occur in the future that will astonish them as a very great threat, but they will know in advance that hugely surprising events and episodes do happen. The fundamental basis for U.S. Army planning should be a grasp of the nature of international political and strategic relations that can rest with high confidence on an understanding of strategic history in the past and the present. There have been and will continue to be changes great and small that are highly relevant to the Army mission, but also there will be continuities out into the future that, functionally regarded, link the United States in the 21st century to Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C. With the obvious exception of nuclear weapons, there is next to nothing of outstanding relative importance to Army planners and intelligence gatherers and analysts that, in functional terms, was not well known in Ancient Greece. Even nuclear weapons are addressed today with a strategic reasoning that was certainly familiar in times long past.

The monograph offers conclusions and recommendations in four broad clusters. First, prudence is recommended as the guiding light in the face of an irreducible ignorance about the future. Second, the monograph explains that there is considerable real (political and cultural) discretion about the particular identification and definition of threat: with very few historical exceptions, major threat is not a self-defining development. Third, the analysis flatly rejects the idea of historical analogy as a vital source of evidence on future threat; instead, I endorse robustly the concept of the historical parallel—the difference between the two ideas fortunately is very large. Fourth, I find that although the contemporary United States is indeed unique and exceptional as an actor on the world state, it is nonetheless simply a very large and powerful state that is obliged to behave according to the same rule book, and plan with a familiar playbook, as have other great powers of the past and present. All states have composed popular narratives explaining what they are, why they are, and where they have come from. The American popular story is a familiar mixture of verifiable truth, along with much legend and some myth. It is important for U.S. Army planners to appreciate their role functioning in the strategic (and national American) current of the great stream of time that had no certain beginning and has no commonly anticipated end. The definition of future threat requires prudent contextualization.

Thucydides Was Right: Defining the Future Threat

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray.
Thucydides Was Right: Defining... Cover Image

Brief Synopsis

View the Executive Summary

To define future threat is, in a sense, an impossible task, yet it is one that must be done. The only sources of empirical evidence accessible are the past and the present; one cannot obtain understanding about the future from the future. The author draws upon the understanding of strategic history obtainable from Thucydides’ great History of the Peloponnesian War. He advises prudence as the operating light for American definition of future threat, and believes that there are historical parallels between the time of Thucydides and our own that can help us avoid much peril. The future must always be unpredictable to us in any detail, but the many and potent continuities in history’s great stream of time can serve to alert us to what may well happen in kind.

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