Future prediction is a tricky business, especially when you don't have hard data to work with. If you're forecaster in a domain that uses lots of numbers; like a meteorologist or a demographer, then you can use statistics to help you make predictions with increasing degrees of accuracy and assurance. However, for people in softer domains - i.e. subjects that don't really lend themselves that easily to 'hard' numbers, getting a consistent baseline to make predictions from is tricky.
This is especially the case for 'Geopolitics' - which is in itself a hard subject to a get a handle on. Put simply, this is the study of what motivates a particular 'nation state' and how it intends to achieve its aims. Now, this is something that's very difficult to agree on (even my rough definition here could be contentious!). For example, how do you define what China wants right now? You can't really, you just have to make some assumptions based on what you know about the state in question and use this to come up with a rough idea of what 'China' as a functional entity wants.
So, often when we're trying to think long-term about the future, you not only have to form a rough classification for what constitutes a country (and what it's national interests are) but after you've solved this (!) you can start to think about what this state might do.
Using themes to understand the future
Using current futures analysis techniques to think about states can be a little tricky. Firstly, we like to use scenarios to predict (very roughly) how a particular state will behave in a particular context. This is kind of useful for giving a broad range of outcomes that could happen, but is highly subjective and speculative (great fun though!). Secondly, futures analysis often tends to deal with 'themes' - i.e. trends (things that could happen in the future) tend to fit into catergories. For example, in intelligence analysis there is a technique called 'STEEP'. This is a way of splitting trends into a rough categories that could happen in the future. For this, the trends are put into one of the following types.
As you'll see in the very brief, hypothetical examples I've given above, most of the classifications tend to discuss general concepts [Note - there are lots of alternatives and derivatives of STEEP that widen the system to think of other areas, such as military and law]. But, when you take Politics (or Geopolitics), you tend to be talking about something slightly different as you're not really talking about a particular driving force, instead you're talking about actions, choices and desired outcomes. And when you're doing this how do you differentiate between the needs and actions of a state? Aren't they just ransom to all the other trends described in the social, technological, economic and environmental areas?
This is a real challenge for forecasters. Chiefly, it seems because, when you get into politics you're starting to talk about behaviour. When you deal with geopolitics you are as much thinking about likely motivations and actions that a country is going to take. Additionally, you are also thinking about how a state acts and responds to the trends you've already described.
When doing geopolitical analysis on any country, you'll see that most of the events and trends occurring both at present and in the future for that country, relate to those points I listed above. Being procedural about it - you could say that these are generic issues for any state and Geopolitics is really a discussion of this.
This then becomes a real challenge for your forecast, as if you're not careful you end up duplicating all the generic trends you've captured in the 'STEE' data capture and then re-drafted them in your 'Geopolitical analysis' where you have effectively duplicated your thematic analysis but in the context of individual nation states and regions. The tell tale sign of this, is if you're ended up with a forecast that's as substantive for its geopolitical analysis as it is for its thematic, but is broadly saying the same thing you've already said but with a national focus!
So, what to do next? Is it time to take the 'P' out of STEEP?
P = Prioritization
What's the solution? Well, it's a tricky one. All that you can do really is be aware of your data and manage it carefully. If you've collected all your trend data, you then need to bring it together in a way that enables you to get a clearer understanding of which countries are the most significant in the future.
To do this, you need to assign and prioritize trends and then, once all the thematic data has been collected, somehow weight the trends and potential contributors to the trends. Doing this allows you to determine which countries are the most consistently contributing to trends in certain areas.
For example, if every trend you collect relating to rare minerals, mentions or attributes China. Then you have a key 'actor' with regard to that trend. Similarly, if you keep learning about health trends and that the UK is the most significant source of anti-cancer research, you then have another marker to assign to that particular trend.
You then get to a point, either in your drafting schedule or your analysis, where you are bringing together your trends and assigning meaning/ownership to them. Doing this enables you to start thinking about who is shaping and driving these trends, and if the same names keep coming up, you can make a pretty solid recommendation that certain actors are going to be significant in the future. For example, if the US is consistently associated with information technology development and that you collect 300 trends highlighting the role of Silicon Valley in the global knowledge based economy then you can probably say, with a degree of confidence, that the US is likely to be significant in information technology for a reasonable amount of time (perhaps 5-30 years?).
Geopolitics is important, it's just very challenging to predict and current futures methods don't really deal with human behaviour very well (to be fair, what models do?). By being clear on the data you are collecting it, classifying it appropriately and analysing it through a measured, considered and auditable process will enable you to at least quantify some aspects of what states are doing, by looking at the outputs they produce. This, at least, gives you some kind of rough quantitative basis for discussing the future behaviour of nation states.
And if else fails, you can always use scenarios. Or even better, just get everyone to play 'RISK'!