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A year of unknowns
People made fun of it at the time, and long afterwards, but it’s a nice way of expressing a very important distinction.
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
This is the famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush. He said this back in 2002 at a Defense News Briefing.
When Rumsfeld was saying this, he was part of an effort to prove that Saddam’s government in Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, so the phrase is linked to efforts of obstructionism by statesmen. But the distinction is a useful way of thinking about the future.
Most interesting is the concept of the unknown unknown. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls these “Black Swans,” events that you aren’t prepared for, which strike without warning and turn your system upside down. You never know when unknown unknowns come, but I think these are more likely to occur in a confluence of known unknowns. It is like entering a pitch black room for the first time. The door is a known known, but for the rest, you don’t even know whether it’s a room, or an opening to another dimension, a heath, an abyss, whatever. I think there are enough known unknowns out there in 2017 for this to be happening.
The first known unknown is President Donald Trump. Everybody is talking about the possibilities for our region he brings. It is likely to be an era of direct communication, no diplomatic niceties or politically correct language. Get ready for a non-negotiable list of “do this” and don’t do this” attitude, a very transactional time. What else can you expect from a group of corporate raiders?
The second known unknown is the long-forgotten Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It might make a strong comeback to a totally different region devastated by the Arab Spring. Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a known unknown in the past, but now the changes in Egypt, Iraq and Syria together with Russian and Iranian involvement is making it less predictable. We know it as a conflict between Arabs and Israelis, we don’t really know what the sectarian civil war will do to it. It’s not possible to assign probabilities to outcomes here.
Coming to Turkey, the new presidential system is the major known unknown, if you ask me. The system that is designed by the draft bill (still being drafted in parliament) very much resembles the now defunct Israeli system of directly electing the prime minister. Under the currently proposed system in Turkey, the president would become the directly elected head of the executive branch endowed with the power to form his/her cabinet. He or she would then receive the authority to form the government not from parliament, but directly from the public.
When Israel decided to try a new system in the 1990s, it put two ballot boxes at the general elections – one for the Knesset and one for the prime minister. The only difference in the Turkish draft bill is that the executive vote would be for a president. The objective in Israel at the time, as in Turkey today, was to ensure political stability and the stable operation of the executive branch. But the systemic change was found to alter voting behaviors and lead to vote splitting. In 1999 elections, Ehud Barak was elected as the prime minister with 56 percent of the vote, but his political alliance received just 20 percent of the votes for parliament. The system worked against the wishes of its architects: More parties entered the parliament, curtailing the bargaining power of larger parties. There was more bargaining and less stability. Realizing this, Israel quickly reverted back to its classic parliamentary system in 2001.
I think such known unknowns are going to make the world more unpredictable in the year ahead, and lead to more unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know that we don’t know yet.
Until then though, happy new year.