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Is the Future Knowable?

Stephen Cohen

Edited by Ali Ahmed , Jagannath P. Panda and Prashant K. Singh
Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and Shipra Publication
, 2012, pp. 383, Rs.995.00

Edited by Ajey Lele  and Namrata Goswami
Academic Foundation and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,New Delhi, 2011, pp. 580, Rs.1295.00


If there were a prize for bulk, India’s Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) would undoubtedly be up there among the winners among the world’s think tanks. These two volumes are only the latest in a series of publications devoted to a single theme—in one case outlining a ‘new’ Asian order, in the other looking at trends that might shape Asia twenty years hence. There is, as one would expect, much overlap in content and style. Between them they run to 950 pages with fifty-two authors, plus additional material. While there is much here to praise, like all kedgerees there are some less useful chapters and some of dubious merit. The weaker chapters are generally those designed to peer into the future. Too many of them are mechanistic applications of a few ‘drivers’ or waffle through useless questions, such as this one posed by one of the editors: ‘Is Conflict Inevitable between the Great Powers in 2030?’ Of course, the answer is to be found in one, two or three scenarios, all of which are ‘equally viable and feasible.’ Why bother? Other chapters are no less banal (Aikin). A few other chapters seem to have been dusted off for the occasion (Yaacov Vertzberger’s on disaster management). In a few cases related chapters could have been grouped together, or perhaps dropped (sometimes less is more). The best contributors take the goals of each volume modestly, that the ‘Asian order’ is precisely unknowable, and that we must be modest in ‘imagining’ Asia in the year 2030. Of the latter, G. John Ikenberry provides a useful and cautious assessment of different futures from an American perspective. He knows, as do others, that no one has actually returned from the future, and that we must therefore be modest in our conviction that it is knowable. Of the individual chapters a few are quite remarkable for very different reasons. Nayan Chanda draws on his own vast scholarship for a chapter on the relative growth of nations; Judith Brown, a no less formidable academic, discusses population and diaspora in Asia; and Bob Art, a wise and experienced expert on American policy summarizes likely US policies towards China (and less so, towards India). Many of the single-factor chapters (on climate change, demography, economics, water, social identity, transformational technologies, and nuclear and biological weapons, and on particular kinds of military services, such as armies, air forces ...

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