What if Things Don't Go Back to Normal?

What if Things Don't Go Back to Normal?
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

One of the most frequently asked questions in these uncertain times, often uttered without the expectation of a definite answer, is “what’s going to happen next?” The honest answer is no one really knows. The failure of zero Covid, the Afghan collapse before the Taliban, the unexpected energy dependency of Europe on Russian gas, and the stubborn failure of Ukraine to collapse before the Putin blitz caught the experts by surprise and shows all too clearly the limits of prediction. Gone for now is the touching belief the policymakers had in models. For a time, due to the impressive increase in computing power, confidence in models became so great that predictions were treated as facts (‘trust the science’), forming the actual basis for government policy, in effect overconfidently moving reality to somewhere in virtual reality.


With industrial energy rationing on the horizon in Germany and Biden set to release 180 million barrels from the national Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the false light provided by the holodeck has been switched off for now, leaving us metaphorically in the dark. While no one can predict the future, we can still arrange our expectations of the coming months by degrees of probability so that surprise, though inevitable, may not be total, and preparation, while not perfect, can still be useful. Here are some things people worried about the future can consider.


The war will last a long time. Although the Russians may successfully relaunch a battle of movement, the war in Ukraine will probably become a war of attrition and even trench warfare along a relatively static front, as technology alters the balance between offense and defense and makes it difficult for Moscow to achieve a classic breakthrough.

There will be hard times. “Eighty-one percent of U.S. adults are worried about a recession hitting this year.” It could get really ugly in the Third World. A food and fuel crisis may erupt in weak countries like Egypt and Sri Lanka, to name only a few. The U.S. is already expecting trouble. “Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and other like-minded senators are warning that such widespread food shortages could trigger mass migration and political destabilization across North Africa and the Middle East, which could in turn threaten U.S. national security.”


The world will arm up. Seven European nations have increased defense budgets in one month — and more are expected.


In the next few months, many politicians will lose their jobs. The cast of characters will change. Recent events may trigger significant turnover in the political leadership of Western Europe and the U.S. over the coming year. Putin is not the only one concerned about regime change. Biden is worried that his ill fortune will leave him a lame duck if his party is thrashed in the midterms. CNN writes, “his entire presidency — born in one crisis, a once-in-a-century pandemic — is now likely to be defined by the West’s second great standoff with the Kremlin.” WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin said in exasperation of Biden’s bad luck: “If it weren’t for inflation, this president’s economic performance would be unmatched.”

The Imponderables

But while on the subject of might-have-beens, even given the likely developments, the status quo’s chances of survival seem grim but not hopeless. Thus encouraged, they are resolved to win. Yesterday may only be a day away. But everyone’s carefully crafted plan for survival might be upset by the arrival of an unforeseeable event, the what-ifs, some possibilities of which are listed below, but whose eventuation cannot actually be predicted. Imagine:

  1. Some revolutionary positive development like fusion power or a dramatically effective coronavirus vaccine;
  2. The escalation of the Ukraine war to include NATO or the use of nuclear weapons;
  3. A coup in the Kremlin or the murder of Ukrainian leadership by Russian agents;
  4. The emergence of a virulent and lethal Covid mutation; and/or
  5. Something no one has thought of

That would change things dramatically. Even given the probables, it is obvious that any attempts to predict a specific future are hopeless. We may be better served by replacing the question “what’s going to happen next?” — which is unanswerable — with another that admits of at least a partial answer, i.e., “how fast can we effectively adapt to a rapidly changing environment?” To borrow an idea from evolutionary biology, fitness simply means the ratio at which good ideas reproduce and bad ideas are driven to extinction relative to the rate at which competing political systems — like Russia’s or China’s — can adapt. The question with the most futurity is: can we learn faster than disaster can overtake us? Or can Washington learn faster than Putin or Xi?

By this metric, Washington’s record of adaptation to reality is not encouraging. The Beltway is a place where bad ideas live on forever like dinosaurs preserved from extinction. Giant beasts like open borders, the Israeli two-state solution, and the Iran nuclear deal still roam its fields and nobody can kill them off. It’s a place where nonsense reproduces and common sense is driven to extinction. The federal government, Elon Musk observed, has a “very, very ancient leadership.” He questioned how leading figures can “stay in touch with the people” if they are several generations removed from most of the population. This may not have mattered during the days of a stable international order when things changed but little from year to year, but it may be of supreme importance in 2022 when things are shaken from day to day. For many, the question is still “how do we get back to the way things were?” It has not yet transitioned to the more imperative “how do we survive until tomorrow?”


Books: The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict by Elbridge A. Colby. He was the lead architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the most significant revision of U.S. defense strategy in a generation. Here he lays out how America’s defense must change to address China’s growing power and ambition. Based firmly in the realist tradition but deeply engaged in current policy, this book offers a clear framework for what America’s goals in confronting China must be, how its military strategy must change, and how it must prioritize these goals over its lesser interests. The most informed and in-depth reappraisal of America’s defense strategy in decades, this book outlines a rigorous but practical approach, showing how the United States can prepare to win a war with China that we cannot afford to lose—precisely in order to deter that war from happening.

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