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In a Zen-like moment, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld produced the following pearl of wisdom: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we 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.” The dawn of a new year is the perfect opportunity to ponder these many unknowns, to indulge in hypothesizing, and maybe even a little fantasizing, about what might unfold in the year ahead.

We know, for example, that there will be elections in Israel, Palestine and the United States. The first two hold out hope for a transformation of the political dynamic in the stalemated peace process between Israelis and Palestinians — if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (and his new party) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leading a rejuvenated and cleansed Fatah faction, win. A victory by hardliners — Likud president and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on one hand, and Hamas, on the other — could stiffen the stalemate or even resume a downward spiral in relations.

If unease and dissatisfaction with U.S. President George W. Bush and the Republic-dominated Congress produce Democratic majorities in either house during the off-year ballot — a possibility despite the gerrymandering of districts that empowers incumbents — then U.S. policies could shift considerably.

Since we know these elections will happen but do not know how they will turn out, they could be considered “known unknowns.”

Here in Japan, the event dominating the political calendar is the selection of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s successor. Since Mr. Koizumi has repeatedly promised to step down when his term as Liberal Democratic Party president expires in September, it seems safe to assume that he will indeed retire. Leading contenders for the job are well known, but to bet against any one of them at this point would be premature as there is too much time ahead and too many unknowns. Given Mr. Koizumi’s rise from obscurity, however, and the upending of Japanese politics that has followed, the process of choosing a successor is more uncertain than ever. File this also under “known unknowns.”

We can be certain that the war on terror will continue. How it will unfold is another unknown. Gradual disengagement from Iraq, which looks pretty certain as foreign forces there prepare to hand over more responsibility to the new government in Baghdad, may reduce hostility to U.S. policy and aid the war against terror. It may even help foster the spread of democracy in the region, as was promised. That is a scenario worth pondering as the year unfolds.

But more terrorist attacks are certain and there is the growing possibility that some group will finally get its hands on a weapon of mass destruction and perpetrate some horrific act of savagery. All governments and societies need to be prepared to mount an effective emergency response to such an event and, more importantly, to cope with it psychologically. Now we are venturing into the realm of “unknown unknowns.”

Contemplating the broad array of forces at work on the international system takes us deeper into the unknowable. Even though the fate of world trade negotiations remains uncertain, there is little chance that the economic interdependence that defines relations among states today will diminish. This process is mysterious and imprecise — it is also inevitable.

Yet societies continue to strain as they accommodate new technologies, new forms of economic competition, and new ideas. Will this lead to tolerance, cooperation and the harnessing of previously untapped human potential — another fantasy? — or will it produce reaction, retrenchment and resentment, as was all too often on display last year?

This process is most visible in East Asia as governments negotiate trade agreements that will more deeply integrate them, bind their futures together and spur the creation of an Asian community. At the core of the region is China, and no country is more susceptible to the forces identified here. As China continues to develop, internal contradictions will be magnified and pressures intensified.

A year from now, we may be debating “China’s rise” rather than its meaning. Yet as the region grows more tightly integrated, and its future increasingly interwoven with that of China, the questions surrounding China’s future will become increasingly important for its neighbors and partners.

Add other variables — bird flu, another tsunami, a nuclear accident, or more optimistically, a cure for cancer, a peaceful and permanent solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis — and the possibilities are staggering.

There are no ready answers about how the future will unfold. The only certainty — the “known” — is that there will be more surprises, no matter how much we try to anticipate those contingencies. In short, it will be a year much like any other.

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