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Looking Backward and Forward: Policy Issues in the Twenty-First Century

Looking Backward and Forward: Policy Issues in the Twenty-First Century by Charles Wolf Jr. Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 162 pp.

The modern aspirant strategist will have a rough time trying to stay current on all the issues relevant to his art. The huge growth in electronic and print sources presents a puzzling picture. Much of the information is analysis, and precious little is available in summary form sufficiently reliable to inform strategy. Looking Backward and Forward is an asset for strategists trying to develop a sound world picture to use in their work.

Author Charles Wolf Jr. inspires confidence. His undergraduate and doctorate degrees are from Harvard. He is a specialist in economics and military affairs and is blessed with an outstanding writing style as well. A senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California, he is widely experienced in government and academia and has played an important role at RAND, where he has long served as the dean of its graduate school. Wolf has authored a wide array of books on economics and military policy that go beyond his major works relating to the Far East.

Looking Backward and Forward is a short and highly readable collection of Wolf’s most recent articles on economics and military concerns. Those on economics seem fairly conservative in outlook, but there are some interesting surprises among the others. In general, those involving China’s politics and economy are reassuring and might even suggest that notions that China will soon be a threatening peer competitor are exaggerations. Wolf suggests that the worry that Japan would overwhelm the rest of the developed world with its economic progress is now in the past. That nation has now reached something of a comfortable “stagnation” that seems unlikely to change soon.

Wolf attends to other regions of the world as well. One of his arguments is that the European’s lament about US unilateralism may mask unilateralism of their own. As for the Middle East, he remarks on the valid point that planners must do their work based on the probabilities as they see them. Pundits and historians know what actually happened, so looking backward they can be critical of intelligence; when outcomes arise from improbable things, it makes the analysts look foolish. Looking at Russia, he suggests that it is too early for Americans to suppose that the sky is falling. Notwithstanding the current petroleum-based prosperity of Russia, it has demographic problems that are sure to limit its strength in the long term. Its population is declining in numbers, and it has very serious public health problems that will also hamper it on the international political and economic scenes. According to Wolf, we need not wring our hands excessively over the energy problem. As the price of oil goes up, he says, the problem will be mitigated by the increased use of other energy sources: nuclear, solar, and wind. In any event, in his mind, national independence in petroleum is a pipe dream.

Finally, one case in which Wolf argues that unilateralism was much superior to multilateralism was the US rejection of the Kyoto Accords on global warming. The fault, as he sees it, is that the quotas were to be assigned according to the “gross” emissions of carbon dioxide. He asserts that they should have been assigned according to the “net” output of the gas—as it was, it would not have accounted for the huge amounts of the gas that is absorbed by American forests and grasslands.

I recommend Looking Forward and Backward to the readers of Strategic Studies Quarterly with no hesitation. You can read it quickly, have a high confidence in the authority of the author, and find some original ideas that will certainly affect the way that you view the strategic problems before you.

David R. Mets, PhD
Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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