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Good Reads: Predicting the end of history and the fall of China

Year-end pieces predicting future events may seem like just so much guesswork, but looking deeply at present events and guessing where they will go is part and parcel of journalism. 

Employees work at a garment factory in Wuhu, Anhui province in China on Monday. China's big manufacturers narrowly avoided a contraction in December a survey showed on Sunday, but downward risks persist and suggest the world's second-largest economy will need fresh policy support to counter a slowdown in growth.

By the time that giant glass ball descends over Times Square each year, most news organizations have already printed their assessments of the year’s great events. One magazine, Time, takes this time to name its Person of the Year, and often names a category of persons (“the Protester”) or even an inanimate object (“The Computer").

Articles that look back may feel subjective, but articles that predict the future tend to be absolute fluff, dodgy guesswork, or complete genius. Good arguments and persuasive evidence aren’t always a good guide for telling one type of article from the next. The best one can do is read selectively, keep a mental scorecard, and strut in front of friends when one of the articles turns out right.

Arab Spring? Yeah, I knew that would happen.

Predicting the future is risky business, but it’s also incredibly valuable. Fortune 500 companies pay big money for “economic intelligence” to help them plan for the next big thing. Governments assemble expensive spy networks to keep one step ahead of their enemies, and two steps ahead of their friends. Ordinary citizens can do all this too, by reading the news. And here are a few decent places to look.

Foreign Affairs. Yes, it looks incredibly stodgy, its pale blue cover untouched by designers since the cold war. But when it comes to far-out futurism, Foreign Affairs is the Rolling Stone of international relations. When Samuel Huntington wrote his “Clash of Civilizations” piece in the summer edition of Foreign Affairs in 1993, he predicted the broader outlines of September 11, 2001. 

This month, Foreign Affairs has published a veritable Pirelli’s calendar of wonkish delight with its collection of “Eleven Foreign Policy Insights.” Check out Stewart M. Patrick’s piece from this list, called “How does the debt debate affect foreign aid?” Even though the article was originally published in July of 2011, it still reads like today's news, and it suggests a decline in US influence abroad.   

While it’s easy to dismiss a piece because of its failure to predict events – as many do with Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 “End of History” piece in the National Interest – such articles still have value in looking at present events and drawing trajectories into the future.

In that spirit, one must read Gordon G. Chang’s piece in Foreign Policy, under the headline “The Coming Collapse of China: 2012 Edition.” To put it lightly, Mr. Chang’s viewpoint is not the dominant one, at a time when the Chinese economy continues to boom. But as the Monitor's own Peter Ford notes, there is growing unrest in the Chinese population. And Chang identifies three of China’s former strengths – its economic reforms, its massive and cheap labor force, and its emergence at a time of falling economic and political barriers – that have now turned into weaknesses.

… the global boom of the last two decades ended in 2008 when markets around the world crashed. The tumultuous events of that year brought to a close an unusually benign period during which countries attempted to integrate China into the international system and therefore tolerated its mercantilist policies. Now, however, every nation wants to export more and, in an era of protectionism or of managed trade, China will not be able to export its way to prosperity like it did during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. China is more dependent on international commerce than almost any other nation, so trade friction -- or even declining global demand -- will hurt it more than others. The country, for instance, could be the biggest victim of the eurozone crisis.

As a side note, it turns out the American official who will be doing the most to guide US policy on China in the next year or so will be Vice President Joe Biden, a fact that will either reassure or terrify, depending on one’s opinion of Joe Biden.

There is a reason why journalists tend to pay so much attention to the political leaders of the day, and it is because it is political leaders – and their belief systems and prejudices – that do the most to affect the course of political events. Paul Pillar, the former deputy of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, writes a strong piece in Foreign Policy refuting the conventional wisdom that it was bad intelligence that led the US into the war into Iraq. No, says Mr. Pillar, it was the gut instincts of the Bush administration that led the US to war, for good or for ill.

On major foreign-policy decisions, however, whether going to war or broadly rethinking US strategy in the Arab world (as President Barack Obama is likely doing now), intelligence is not the decisive factor. The influences that really matter are the ones that leaders bring with them into office: their own strategic sense, the lessons they have drawn from history or personal experience, the imperatives of domestic politics, and their own neuroses. A memo or briefing emanating from some unfamiliar corner of the bureaucracy hardly stands a chance.

Journalistic predictions, like diplomatic cables, may be guesswork. But they’re a useful part of analyzing a changing world. Are you keeping score?

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