Berlin, 11.01.2016

SWP Foresight Study: »Which Crisis Will Surprise Us Next?«

Lars Brozus
Lars Brozus

Lars Brozus, editor of the SWP Foresight study »Unexpected, Unforeseen, Unplanned«, speaks about academically sound scenario projections and the capacity of politics to act with foresight.

As you write in your introduction to the study, there is no shortage of warnings about coming events, but leaders often pay too little attention or ignore them completely – and are therefore taken by surprise. Why would you say that is?

Lars Brozus: The problem stems largely from capacity problems in hierarchical organisations like ministries. Only a handful of individuals possess the authority to make important decisions: the ministers, the state secretaries and perhaps also heads of directorates-general. But such a small number of people cannot follow and properly understand more than two or at most three major crises at any one time. Of course they have many people assisting and supporting them, but only this small group has the power to make important decisions. And the enormous frequency of urgent problems in recent years leaves little spare capacity for anticipating future challenges – just think of the Middle East, international terrorism, Ebola, the situation in Greece, the Ukraine conflict and most recently the refugee question.

To what extent can your Foresight Study help?

We generally assume that preventive action is better than retrospective action. So we hope to generate attention for conceivable future situations and events that – if neglected today – could demand massive intervention at a later stage. Of course no politician would dispute that early action makes sense. Yet we so often find a disjoint between early warning and corresponding responses. It would be unrealistic to believe that an SWP study will make some huge difference. But it can encourage people to think about topics that might appear rather obscure, such as the repercussions of an epidemic wiping out bee populations in North Africa or a Russian military jet with nuclear weapons on board crashing over Ukraine.

How did you select the scenarios?

We invited our researchers to participate in a competition. They prepared short, pointed sketches on international situations that they believe might become important. The fifteen submitted outlines were presented at a day-long workshop and discussed in depth. Then the roughly forty participants voted on the basis of three criteria: how plausible is the scenario, how relevant is it if it does occur, and how consistent is the description. Finally, seven scenarios were selected. The full versions then passed through the multi-stage review process common to all SWP studies

As well as seven future scenarios, the study also contains a review. What is that about?

That is a new element that was not included in the two previous foresight studies. The author looks back at his Foresight contribution from 2011, which was about a »race« between nationalist and European ideas about integration in the Albanian-populated areas of the Western Balkans. Today he asks: Did the situation develop as expected? What has turned out differently, what has been confirmed? It transpires that the fundamental trend is unchanged, although the dynamics have sharpened.

You write that all the contributions deal with crises of statehood. Was that intentional?

I was surprised myself to discover this common thread. A crisis of statehood reveals itself in various dimensions: There is a territorial dimension, which is most obvious in the Western Balkans scenario where Albanians abolish the borders between the regions they inhabit. But it also plays a role in the Russian Far East scenario, which is about ambitions for autonomy.

What other dimension is there?

The other dimension is the problem-solving capacity of states, which may be structurally or situationally restricted. For example, it is structurally limited in the scenario on police violence in the United States. The problem of racism in the American police and justice system is well-known. Nevertheless, structurally reinforced political opposition stymies most attempts to introduce reforms. A situational challenge is described in the scenario on the Asia-Pacific region, where an earthquake shatters the geopolitical balance. In the case of massive natural disasters, a situational inability to cope is pretty much the normal case.

What can be done to address crises of statehood?

Some of the scenarios also examine that question. One variant is to shift state powers to the supranational level, as in the scenario describing the dissolution of the German Foreign Ministry and its replacement by a European Foreign Ministry. Another variant is to strengthen governance at subnational levels, in regions and local authorities, as described in the scenario on the refugee crisis. Incidentally, the outlined developments line up with political research on the transformation of the state from “monopolist of power” to “manager of political authority”.

How can the ability to act with foresight be strengthened?

It might be interesting for policy-advising institutions to concern themselves not just with expertise about situations and events, but to examine how organisations would need to be structured to translate early warnings into concrete action. We tend to assume that the more information we provide, the better the decisions will be. That is plainly not enough. Here administrative science and organisational sociology could be useful, with their findings about optimising the capacity and readiness of organisations, for example by flattening hierarchies, decentralising decisions, and strengthening exchange and cooperation.

Interview conducted by Candida Splett, online editor.

Further Reading

Lars Brozus (ed.)

Unexpected, Unforeseen, Unplanned

Scenarios of International Foreign and Security Policy. Foresight Contributions 2015

SWP Research Paper 2016/RP 01, January 2016, 56 Pages

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