Examples of Long-Term Decisions

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Long-term decisions occur when reflecting on potential events decades or more in the future causes decision makers to consider and perhaps choose near-term actions different than those they would otherwise pursue

Forming the United Nations

The United Nations organization was born out of the ashes of the failed League of Nations and the successful alliances between the victorious western powers in World War Two. The new organization’s objectives were similar to those expressed at the formation of the League of Nations: “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.” Fundamentally, the UN was dedicated to the long-term prevention of future worldwide conflicts, as well as the promotion of human rights, justice, economic progress, and improved health for all peoples–all long-term objectives that would require substantial commitments from participating countries. However, the representatives of the forty-five nations that developed the UN charter at the San Francisco Conference in summer 1945 took this long-term planning a step further, incorporating many lessons learned from the League’s failure to prevent the Second World War. Most notably, they gave the Security Council the ability to levy sanctions or send peacekeeping missions using member state militaries if a threat emerges, in contrast to the complete lack of enforcement power under the League of Nations. Debate continues as to whether the UN is able to successfully meet its objectives, and the organization has come under frequent criticism since its inception in 1946. Nevertheless, the development of this organization and continued dedication to it by the 192 current member states represents an important global commitment towards long-term collective discussion and decisionmaking.

More information:

History of the United Nations (official website): http://www.un.org/aboutun/history.htm.

Stephen C. Schlesinger (2003). Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.


Los Angeles Aqueduct/William Mulholland

The development of the modern water system in Los Angeles, which began under William Mulholland’s tenure as Superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is an excellent example of long-term planning that relied on quantitative analysis. Mulholland came to the job with an engineering background, and in 1904 used simple estimates of per-capita usage and a population forecast based on the city’s existing growth rate to show that the only local supply–the Los Angeles River–would provide only half of the city’s water needs by 1925. These dire forecasts (based on an estimated growth rate four times lower than the actual rate during his tenure) led Mulholland to search for additional supplies, and he eventually initiated the hostile and contentious acquisition of the Owens Valley water rights and the construction of the massive Los Angeles Aqueduct to transport this water from the Eastern Sierra to the city. There is no doubt that Mulholland’s visionary steps laid the foundation for Los Angeles to become a modern metropolis, and the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct set a precedent for more massive infrastructure investments such as the Hoover Dam and California Aqueduct to provide yet more water to the city. However, there remains a “chicken or egg” question about Mulholland’s aggressive pursuit of new water supplies: would the city have continued to grow rapidly regardless of where and how it obtained water, or did his policies instead serve as the catalyst for the subsequent growth?

More information:

LADWP History of the Los Angeles Aquaduct - http://wsoweb.ladwp.com/Aqueduct/historyoflaa/

Marc Reisner (1993). Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition. Penguin.


Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad was developed in order to link the rapidly growing United States together into a single economic entity, allowing people and goods to travel from coast-to-coast orders-of-magnitude faster and more safely than was previously possible. First conceived of by entrepreneurs and government officials in the 1830s, disagreement over the appropriate route and funding mechanisms delayed the start of construction until the 1860s, with the first complete east-to-west rail link finished in 1867. Despite these tactical disagreements, the Transcontinental Railroad’s advocates shared a strategic vision that the transcontinental link was an integral part of the country’s “manifest destiny” and would have a profound influence on the country’s growth over the long-term. Proponents understood that completing the technological marvel would cement the dominance of the United States across the continent.

More information: Stephen E. Ambrose (2000). Nothing Like it in the World; The men who built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. Simon & Schuster.


France’s decision to keep the sugar island of Guadeloupe during the peace settlement of the Seven Years’ War

During the peace negotiations for the Seven Years’ War, Britain offered the defeated French the choice of keeping either Canada or the sugar island of Guadeloupe. France chose Guadeloupe, presumably because the sugar business was so lucrative throughout the mid-18th century. It turned out to be a poor long-term decision; Canada’s GDP far exceeds that of Guadeloupe today. While the island may have been a boon at the time, the total revenue stream of colonial Canada would have far exceeded the total revenue stream of a Caribbean outpost. Moreover, if France were able to maintain posession of Canada until 1800, the revenue from this colony may have obviated the need for Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory to President Jefferson in 1803. The French could have controlled North America, forcing the early United States to remain a coastal republic.

More information: William L. Grant, “Canada Versus Guadeloupe, An Episode of the Seven Years’ War” The American Historical Review , Vol. 17, No. 4 (Jul., 1912), pp. 735-743


Monroe Doctrine (1823) and Open Door Notes (1899 and 1900)

Both of these decisions were in response to immediate provocations, but reflected the desire to establish long–term policies consistent with the United States’ founding principles– –and growing power. In each case, these policies reflected a long–term desire to thwart future European colonization and maintain an open marketplace for ideas and goods.

Please suggest your own examples of long-term decisions

Submit Your Suggestions for Examples of Long-Term Decisions

As an alternative, you may send suggestions directly to Robert Lempert, Director, RAND Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition at: Robert_Lempert@rand.org


Additional Candidate Long-Term Decisions

For a list of additional, candidate long-term decisions see: Additional Candidate Long-Term Decisions