Prediction and International Relations

Unless you are the Oracle of Delphi, your predictions are probably cringe. Sadly the community of International Relations and PoliSci specialists is flooded by self-proclaimed Nostradami trying to predict the next big crisis. Our kind voices their predictions over a wide range of topics, similarly to investing in penny stocks: statistically there are so many predictions made that some are bound to be accurate. They will then highlight the successful predictions and downplay unsuccessful ones. So what about predictions in International Relations?

1. The fear of unknown
People want to know what will happen in the future, so that we are able to prepare. If a war is about to happen, we naturally want to know to reprioritise and prepare. If the stock market is about to crash, we want to be foretold to turn stocks into cash. Predictions become part of the intel we use for decision making. 

2. Prediction expresses academic value
Some academics, the ones who focus on methodology, even state that if a science is unable to predict, meaning that no paradigm works every time, then it is not a science. The same scholars usually use indexes to quantify all concepts imaginable, which is not necessarily a useful, accurate or transparent method. Besides this category of scholars, the vast majority use their accurate predictions to build their authority and increase their audience.

3. People like to theorise and argue 
Much like in politics, even if the other side agrees with your point they may adopt the opposite or a different approach, creating a non-genuine type of polyphony. This polyphony ensures there is always a correct prediction. The problem is that nobody is consistently correct, much like a bunch of stopped watches at different hours showing the right time two times a day.

4. What makes a prediction good?
The capability to predict is the capability to foresee certain events with accuracy, particularly in terms of “when” something will happen. To predict when a Taiwanese war will happen is much harder as opposed to whether it will happen at all. The cause of the effect is also, at times, as important as the prediction itself. Imagine two economists arguing whether the economic growth during this presidential term is a result of:
a) the policies of the current administration
b) the efforts of the previous administration.
While the hypothetical economists agree with the forecast of growth, the root cause is what makes the forecast scientifically valid. 

5. The strictly material world is much easier to predict
It is easy to predict that a rock thrown will always fall down. For such observations we have created laws of physics, laws of chemistry etc. Even in economics, laws regarding inflation, for example, we do see them apply, if nothing else is interfering. However, even in the case of the flying rock, there are interferences. Nobody can deny the law of gravity, but the trajectory, a result of gravity, depends on many factors, including the wind. It is easy to predict that the rock will fall but it is harder to predict where the rock will land. Now, let’s apply this logic to launching rockets and we can see how every small factor matters. The phrase Ceteris Paribus in economic models is best translated as an overoptimistic lack of such interferences.

6. Are International Relations a Rocket Science?
Yes, it requires extreme engineering ingenuity to understand how a state of the art rocket will fly. But the art (and science) of the state is much more difficult to truly grasp, due to opposing decision making. The opposition can be internal, from an institution, a party, public opinion or external, meaning from other states. To put it simply, we do not always know how the opposing state will react. We also do not know if they can predict what we are about to do and whether they will act first, making us the reacting party. Less math – Μore rock, paper, scissor, chaos.

7. Rationality
With this in mind, in order to predict, IR scholars try to understand the decision making process of an actor. This is exactly where most go wrong.
a) There are different decision making models. There is seldom a clear picture of the circumstances under which a decision is made
2) Not all people choose rationally while actors appearing as rational can make irrational choices or become irrational at a different point of time or situation. Old politicians, usually the ones who are in charge for an extensive period are usual suspects of irrational behaviour and impulses.

8. The appeal of geopolitics
Another thing to mention is how politics is often preferred to be linked directly to the material world. For example, the gas form of natural gas, forces its transportation through pipes. This is why Russia has a structural advantage in the European Gas market. The same problem does not apply to oil, which is in liquid form and can be transferred through shipping, meaning that the European Union can buy oil from many different buyers and not only from Russia. This is why Liquified Natural Gas is considered a game changer. The technology turns the gas to liquid, making its transfer similar to oil’s. This explains why many analysts support that Liquified Natural Gas will solve European dependency on Russian Natural Gas. However, this is a “law” or prediction that will only take place if the cost of Liquified Natural Gas, not to mention its supposedly sufficient quantity, becomes less that the cost of Russian gas (with the divisive political cost in the equation). In other words, for laws of international relations to be effective, certain conditions need to apply.

9. Are International Relations useless if they cannot predict?
Personally, I think that predictions should not be a measure of validity. It’s best to keep track of all possible scenarios and still be ready for the scenarios we have not even considered. These can happen as well. It is all about humbleness, preparation and the ability to take decisions despite the adversity of times.

To conclude, it is always fun to make a prediction but we must be aware of the side effects when voicing them. An advisor to a decision maker should be careful what they voice in the public dialogue. Also, it is perhaps unprofessional when people cling to something they were right about a decade ago. It is more a game of insurance, security, best practices, and not a game of “I told you so!” At the end of the day it is about doing your best with the influence you have and not about being right or redeemed.

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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