7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 14

Thinking about the future

Alastair Buchan

Things to Come: Thinking about the 70's and 80's by Herman Kahn and B. BruceBriggs (Macmillan £3.00) The future, as Theodore Roosevelt said seventy years ago, "looms before us big with the fate of many nations." And our sense of uncertainty about it concerns not merely the fate of nations but the whole future of our societies, of attitudes to authority, to work, to wealth, to race and to religion. It is not surprising that futurology, the attempt to delineate the kind of world which a projection of discernible political, economic, social, and technological trends will create at some given point in the future, or to build models of alternative futures and so assess the kinds of variants in these trends which will be necessary to produce them, is a growth industry. Nor is it surprising that Herman Kahn should have leapt upon this bandwagon. After doing some important work at Rand on the stability of nuclear deterrence in the 1950s, he then founded an institute which depends largely on the support •of big business, one of the elements in Western society most eager to know what the future holds. Immense, voluble, imaginative and unscholarly, he wrote an unreadable book about nuclear war f 0116V-zed by a second to explain what he meant, a book about the rise of Japan as a new super power which did damage to American-Japanese relations since the Japanese assumed from his popularity as a TV personality he must be an important American person, and a very ambitious piece of semi-sociological futurology, The year 2000, much of which was meaningless because the data for its judgements does not exist.

Now he has lowered the sights of his blunderbuss on to the next fifteen years or so. This time he has taken as a collaborator a historian, who is (or was), I deduce, British. But though there are scattered references to the past, and some sweeping Toynbeean historical generalisations, the outcome is little more scholarly than when this Strangelovian person was riding alone or in the company of sociologists and technologists. Like all his work it is a curious mixture of real insight and real nonsense.

The authors discern in the world around them a number of trends; towards a late sensate (a word borrowed from Sorokin) culture, secular, tolerant, enjoying; towards meritocratic elites; towards the centralisation of economic and political power; towards the continuing accumulation of scientific and technological knowledge; towards increasing military capacity despite attempts at arms limitation; towards increasing affluence in the West and Westernised parts of the developing world, Mexico, Singapore and so on; towards populations growth; towards urbanisation, the decreasing importance of primary industries and increasing literacy.

None of these are original observations but they lead the authors to the view that we in the West may be living through a Belle Epoque (though their proof-reading is so careless that it is spelt Epogue in the chapter heading) like that before 1914. Fair enough; this three car garage world may not last; it may be overthrown by the counter culture, or explode into war as the last one did, or one of accelerating violence, or economic depression, or all four. But just when we expect some rigour to be introduced into the analysis or risks to be taken in projection, it degenerates either into rumination or assertions that current evidence does not support. A multipolar world and the increasing importance of Japan, right; a Gaullist policy toward Europe in Britain, possible; the assertion of Welsh, Breton, Sicilian, etc nationalist movements against European governments, possible; a Welsh and Scots revolt against the poor economic showing of the English, impossible since they live on English subsidies; an East European common market detached from the Soviet Union, most improbable; an improvement in the process of developing backward counties, difficult to judge since the authors present no evidence; an increase in the importance of the multinational corporation, naturally; increased violence, no evidence; the emergence of a mosaic or patchwork world society of poverty and riches, opting in and opting out, anybody's guess.

This is not to write the book off entirely. Kahn has remarkable powers of assimilation and his analysis of certain trends in American society, notably populism and the possibility of a new MacCarthyism if .Viefnam turns sour is excellent. Moreover, his discussion of technological developments is expert (though he says curiously little about the problems of access to energy supplies and raw materials which are preoccupying so much of his constituency at the moment.) What prevents me from taking his projections seriously are first, the dubiousness of many of his assumptions. "The adherence of the United Kingdom to the EEC will bring in most of the other European powers, creating a body with a complex constitution which, in the long run, has good prospects -for playing the same role for Europe that the Continental Congress did for the English colonies in North America." "One can 'argue that ever since the Enlightenment, wherever the requirements of social order have come into conflict with the requirements of social justice, the latter have tended to win . . . ." Remember Hitler or Mussolini or the Japanese government of the 1930s? "The United States and the-Soviet Union can be expected to put greater emphasis on ballistic missile defences." Since the ink dried on the sentence.the two powers have signed a treaty of unlimited duration severely restricting deployment of ABMs. Or "We can confidently redict a world surplus rather than shortage by the mid seventies" (he hedges this into the next paragraph).

Second, the sweeping obiter dicta. "In 1985, the people of the world will be more culturally similar than they have been at any time in the history of mankind." "The prestige, capacity and authority of the United Nations are unlikely to increase in the next two or three decades to a point where it will play much more of a role in great power or European security issues than it does today." Third, the fuzziness surrounding such constantly repeated words as "stability," or "culture." Finally, the fact that although political, economic, social and scientific developments are all discussed, no attempt is made to analyse the interaction on one plane of relationships upon those on another, though their close connection is one of the most striking elements of twentieth century history as compared with that of earlier periods.

We need to know as much as we can about the future for a scare of different reasons. We shall not achieve perception by this kind of sweeping Wellsian panorama, but only by very scholarly analysis in depth of a number of discrete developments, as the eventual foundation of a more reliable synthesis than this book provides.

A Iastatr Buchan isMontague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford, and a former Director of the Institute of Stategic Studies.