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Learning to expect surprises

For nations as for people, flexibility, adaptability, and tolerance for a degree of messiness is the best approach for dealing with the unexpected.

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    RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SERGEI LAVROV (L.) AND U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY ENJOYED AN EXCHANGE DURING A MEETING IN ROME DEC. 14.
    EVAN VUCCI/REUTERS
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Who would have guessed a year ago that Russia, which was preparing to showcase its 21st-century look and feel at the Sochi winter Olympics, would decide to seize the Crimean Peninsula, instigate a shadow war in eastern Ukraine, ramp up militarism and nationalism, and end up at the close of 2014 staring at economic catastrophe?

 
Who knew that an exceptionally brutal Islamic group in Syria would rampage through Iraq, prompting a rethinking of the military disengagement strategy of the Obama administration? Or that there would be an Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, sparking worldwide concern. Or that policing would come under unprecedented scrutiny in the US.

 
If you or the soothsayers who forecast trends around this time of year had nailed any of those, congratulations, but why didn’t you speak up at the time?
Three hundred and sixty-five days can remake the world. Peter Grier’s cover story (click here to read it) examines the major news trends that emerged in 2014 and those that 2015 might bring. These are reasonable extrapolations based on today’s news. But there will always be surprises. Late next year, we’ll look back and wonder where they came from and why no one anticipated them.

There is one prediction, however, that is safe to count on: People, businesses, and nations that are structured to deal with the unexpected do better than those that always look as if they know what they are doing. Messy systems are more resilient than those that are “just so.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famous for his “black swan” thesis, which warned about underestimating unexpected events such as the 2008 financial panic, and Gregory Treverton, chair of the US National Intelligence Council, recently explored this topic in Foreign Affairs. “[T]he best indicator of a country’s future stability is not past stability,” they wrote, “but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.” 

Which means disorderly governments – those that are always arguing and shifting directions – are the ones that navigate change well. Regimes that seem firm, serene, and sure of themselves are prone to failure. Raucous nations such as Italy and Lebanon always seem on the verge of collapse but muddle through somehow. They listen, counter, reject, modify, accept, sigh, slap their foreheads, storm out, reconsider, hug each other like Lucy and Ethel, and carry on. This process is often uncomfortable, but varying beliefs are heard and assimilated. The tent is big and everyone is inside it, even if they aren’t all singing from the same songbook.

What makes a nation fragile? Mr. Taleb and Mr. Treverton point to five factors: centralized government, lack of political diversity, overdependence on one economic resource, high debt, and little or no track record in dealing with surprises. Seen through this lens, “the world map looks a lot different,” they write. “Disorderly regimes come out as safer bets than commonly thought – and seemingly placid states turn out to be ticking time bombs.”

Humans crave stability, predictability, and order. Those are laudable goals as long as they aren’t achieved by suppression or rigidity. Expecting surprises is the best way to travel Highway 2015.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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