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The Problem of the Future

Sebastian Rosato—

The problem of the future is one of both access and reliability. There is simply no way for states to access firsthand information about each other’s future intentions. The reason is that the future does not yet exist. As one author points out, “No man can have in his mind a conception of the future for the future is not yet.” This applies to intentions as much as to anything else. When it comes to estimating another state’s thinking years from now, notes Klaus Knorr, the insurmountable “intellectual difficulty . . . is that it concerns the future,” a subject about which “there is no information whatever.” Similarly, the historian Donald Cameron Watt observes that Hitler identified three kinds of decisions: “Those which were discussed with another. . . those which he kept to himself; and those which he held in his bosom, not having yet brought his thoughts to any definite conclusion,” before pointing out that “no intelligence could divine what had not yet been decided.”

To be sure, facts obtained about current intentions can serve as secondhand information about future intentions, since there is a link between what a state intends to do now and what it will intend to do down the road. The problem, however, is that intentions can change. Therefore, knowledge about the present is an especially unreliable guide to the future. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz cut to the heart of the matter in justifying Imperial Germany’s naval buildup early in the twentieth century: “We are building our fleet against no one. We have no grounds to build a fleet against anyone. We are strengthening our fleet because those who are our friends today might become our enemies tomorrow.” Or as his contemporary, British politician John Morley, mused, “In the great high latitudes of policy, all is fluid, elastic, mutable; the friend today, the foe tomorrow; the ally and confederate against your enemy, suddenly his confederate against you.”

What makes this issue particularly intractable is that intentions can change for many reasons and in unpredictable ways. They often shift in response to developments at the domestic level. New leaders come to power, sometimes armed with different intentions from those of current incumbents. In hindsight, some observers contend that Germany developed malign intentions after Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Bismarck, and that the Soviet Union formulated benign intentions after Gorbachev became general secretary. But no one could have predicted either development years before the fact. Alternatively, the same leaders may remain in power but rethink their intentions due to altered domestic conditions. British prime minister Lord Palmerston was apparently compelled to moderate his bellicose designs by anti-imperialist members of his governing coalition in the middle of the nineteenth century. Conversely, unrest at home led Napoleon III of France to look for opportunities to act aggressively abroad.

State intentions also change in response to developments at the international level. Great powers regularly encounter new opportunities or threats that lead them to alter their foreign policy thinking. Revisions of this sort are not predictably related to particular situations. One simply has to look at how states have reacted to military success. Napoleon Bonaparte’s aggressive intentions apparently multiplied as he defeated one rival after another. In stark contrast, Bismarck appears to have developed nonaggressive intentions following victories over Denmark (1864), Austria-Hungary (1866), and France (1870–71). There is also substantial variation in how great powers respond to military decline. Confronted by a rising Russia, Germany is said to have formed malign intentions before World War I. Yet facing the rise of Germany in the 1930s, Britain seems to have adopted benign intentions.

From Intentions in Great Power Politics by Sebastian Rosato. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.


Sebastian Rosato is associate professor of political science and associate director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also a fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.


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