36 Black Swans, Gray Swans, and Pink Flamingoes to Watch in 2018

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

While driving along the shore of Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island in September 2011, I saw them for the first time.

Black Swans.

My wife and I pulled over, jumped out, and spent a half hour with the darkly elegant cousins of the waterfowl we were accustomed to in North America. Black swans, of course, were at one time presumed not to exist (so much so there was a Latin phrase coined to cement their perceived non-existence)—until later eras, when travel to Australia and New Zealand (where they are commonly found) revealed their earthly presence.

Since then, a famous book has popularized “black swans” as a commonly used metaphor for the disproportionate effects of previously unobserved, high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events (in Rumsfeldian parlance, “unknown unknowns”).

Another, similar metaphorical category—“gray swans”—are events that might be foreseen, but considered so beyond likelihood that they’re not considered when thinking through potential threats (“known unknowns”).

Then there’s Frank Hoffman, who has his own metaphor for “known knowns”: “pink flamingoes.” He describes these pink lawn-birds as “a predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces.” In this bin, Hoffman lumps “nuclear use doctrines in Russia and South Asia, the potential use of biological toxins, chemical weapons usage in Syria, and Russia’s actions in Ukraine as representatives of such a bright and ugly bird.”

Collectively, these three birds represent and describe the range of potential shocks, shifts, and surprises that may be in store for us in the coming year. The goal is to gain some advance warning; to see farther and spot a swan (clad in black or gray), or maybe even to catch a pink flamingo.

Getting such a step ahead is the aim of the exercise that follows. To think through the strategically impactful events that might come in 2018—precisely because, after the devastation on September 11, 2001, the great criticism of the national security enterprise was that “the most important failure was one of imagination.” This rebuke hurt even more because a plane-borne attack had been predicted, not by our own government, but in a Tom Clancy novel.

The list below—the flock of potential, future-shaking events to come—is every bit as speculative as a novel’s plotline.

So nearly all these will be wrong. But to look upon a high “failure” rate in such an endeavor would miss the point. The proper objective with such an exercise is to make many big bets that have highly lucrative upsides and massive returns on investment (like a venture capitalist’s investment strategy).  That way, getting 10 or 5 or even 1 percent “right” leads to outsize yields and incredible net gains.

In the case of this exercise, if even one of these turns out to be close to correct, then the advance consideration will have been worth it. (Mind you, the track record of American national security prediction hovers down around zero percent, so the bar is set fairly low.)

Without further ado, here are thirty-six black swans, gray swans, and pink flamingoes that we may soon see in 2018 (in no particular order; not binned by category; and with links to related issues or trends where appropriate):

  • China brokers an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal
  • North Korea fires a nuclear weapon at China
  • A peace deal officially ends the Korean War and begins an American military withdrawal from the peninsula
  • The British ally with China on several important measures (a new “special relationship”)
  • A Chinese economic collapse triggers global recession
  • Japan announces/leaks the existence of a short-range nuclear weapons capability
  • An AI breakthrough in one country causes other states to gang up and strike
  • A pandemic incubates and spreads from Yemen or Indonesia
  • Violent protests break out in Hong Kong (Tienanmen with smartphones)
  • A popular uprising gains traction in Russia
  • Russia gobbles up more of Ukraine; the front moves within conventional artillery range of Kiev
  • A Taliban Tet-style offensive wins massive strategic gain despite equally massive tactical losses
  • A siege of Damascus reverses Assad’s gains
  • A major terror attack hits Washington, DC
  • Australia and/or New Zealand effectively become Chinese client state(s)
  • Indians push for a Pacific “pentagon”: India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States
  • Catalan secessionists turn violent in Spain
  • Intense civil conflict wracks Brazil and/or Argentina
  • A grand bargain on entitlements means big changes for military spending
  • The first exchange of hostile fire in space between great powers is recorded
  • The Chinese military fights an expeditionary war in Africa
  • Evidence of the first successful micro-drone surgical kill is made public
  • Kim Jong Un is assassinated (or dies in an accident)
  • A stock market and housing crash reduces defense spending (in favor of “WPA0”)
  • The Saudis get the bomb and the press finds out, pushing Iran to breach the JCPOA
  • Anonymous takes on Russian hackers Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear in a widespread cyberfight
  • A lethal mistake at Monsanto or Syngenta breeds widespread distrust in the global food system
  • North Korea claims “super soldiers” in an enhanced genetic test program
  • An Israeli political leader is assassinated by an Israeli hard-right extremist
  • A major, complex, insider attack hits a US military base (e.g., a Vegas-style shooter at Fort Myer, spilling blood at Arlington National Cemetery)
  • North Korea announces a small, dirty nuclear weapon has been smuggled into a major US city
  • Uighur separatists stage an attack on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative
  • The Dalai Lama dies, leading to insurrection over succession in Tibet
  • Russia, with Chinese backing, claims an oversized, majority stake in the Arctic
  • A catalytic attack on the Olympics is blamed on the North Koreans (though not proven)
  • Puerto Rican violence breaks out, fueled by the perception of slow response/recovery to disaster there

Again, none of these are certain or even likely. Most will never happen.

But one, or even a few might, and having mulled the idea over we might get ahead of the curve. As Paul Wolfowitz once said, “Surprise happens so often that it’s surprising that we’re still surprised by it.”

Maybe in 2018 that won’t be the case. (But I doubt it.)

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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