An intelligence perspective: Stop predicting and start 'living the questions'

An intelligence perspective: Stop predicting and start 'living the questions'
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I’ve learned something from my years studying intelligence and leading the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) that helps explain what we need to do in this pandemic and why policymakers are having such a hard time getting their arms around it.

In the face of disruptions that are not likely but very consequential, it is tempting — but mistaken — to try to predict the future. Rather, the challenge is to seize the opportunity, to “live the questions,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it in Letters to a Young Poet. What will emerge from this terrible disaster is in our own hands. 

Most of the disruptions that governments must manage are eminently predictable but uncertain in timing and consequence. A recession every “y” years is predictable, but “y” is not. Though a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland was predicted again and again in the 1990s, its date and shape could not be. In 2004, my predecessors at the NIC vividly painted the pandemic scenario we’re experiencing today, predicting it was likely to happen by 2020.


In this pandemic, like any crisis, people want answers from their leaders, not questions. Yet providing answers for the future now is folly, for the uncertainty is enormous; everything depends. Will the coming seasons see a second wave of COVID-19, then a third? Will there be a vaccine? What percentage of small businesses will never re-open? Will the European Union break up? Still more to the point, will the United States itself come together or further divide as states and cities, not the federal government, become the focal points of action? 

The only answer to all these questions is: no one knows. Many policymakers, like President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE and many of my fellow foreign policy establishmentarians, yield to the pressure to predict, mostly by predicting continuity. That should end.

To be sure, as predictions go, continuity is the easy choice: Tomorrow usually does look a lot like today. COVID-19 didn’t create Sino-American tension; it only exacerbated it. Economic and political nationalism were stirring well before the pandemic, including trade wars and “make x great again,” where x was not just Trump’s America but Britain and other nations. As a result, the European Union was experiencing its own form of “national” distancing even before its members stopped medical shipments to their partners. 

Rather than yielding to the pressure to predict and the default to continuity, let’s foreswear prediction and “live the questions,” no matter how uncomfortable that uncertainty may be. Foreswearing prediction means restoring agency: Yes, the uncertainties are enormous, but as we emerge from the pandemic, we don’t have to rebuild the same hugely unequal structure of vulture capitalism we had before the pandemic. 

Suppose our relief and rebuilding aid, which will run to many trillions of dollars, was guided by the principle of philosopher John Rawls: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are …to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” consistent with attention to the needs of future generations. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that when the most vulnerable among us are vulnerable, we all are. Rawls’ principle would mean that any aid would have to be justified, first, on the grounds that the greatest benefits went to the neediest Americans.   


Abroad, we can do better than the linear, often binary, approach to relations with other nations that predictions of continuity suggest. We can recognize that wisdom often consists in holding apparently contrary ideas at the same time. China, for instance, has behaved badly, hiding the virus and then blaming it on others. Yet our approach need not be binary: We can call China to task for its failings during the pandemic and for stealing intellectual property, while recognizing the imperative of working with it to end the pandemic. Beyond the pandemic, humankind literally has no future on cold, lonely planet Earth if we and China don’t work together to address the climate crisis. 

Gregory Bateson, the noted anthropologist, piercingly noted the fallacy of binary thinking a half century ago:  

“If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also continue to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation; and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure.”

Living the questions may lead us to the answers.

Gregory F. Treverton chaired the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014 to January 2017.  He is now professor of the Practice of International Relations and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California and chairman of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. He is the author of numerous books including “Dividing Divided States” (2014), “National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy” (2015) and “Intelligence for an Age of Terror” (2011).