About Scenarios

Scenarios workshops bring together experts and policymakers from diverse fields and viewpoints to produce forward-looking, cross-disciplinary critical thinking on countries and issues critical to U.S. interests.

Policymaking and Surprises
If the Cold War was defined by rigid bipolar alliances and limited policy flexibility, the more recent past exhibits rapid change, fluid alignments, wide choice, and strategic surprise. America’s failure to anticipate events or to comprehend underlying trends is a defining characteristic of its response to post-Soviet challenges. Improvisation and impulse in response to unanticipated events have shaped (and degraded) policy more than close analysis.

A litany of missed signals and unpleasant surprises defines the chronology of the post-Cold War period: the outbreak of ethnic conflict in the Balkans; the Mexican and Asian financial crises; the magnitude of genocide in Rwanda; Indian and Pakistani nuclear brinkmanship; global trade meltdowns in Seattle and Cancun and the failure of the Doha Round; the attacks of 9/11; the absence of WMD in Iraq; Iraqi sectarian strife and resistance to U.S. occupation; renewed insurgency in Afghanistan; the Russian invasion of Georgia; and now a global economic crisis. These surprises reflect traditional forces in world politics–rising powers, emergent technology, sudden leadership change–that have always posed challenges to policy. They also reflect new and poorly understood factors, such as globalization, the empowerment of non-state transnational actors, the transformation of ideas about politics and society, and the spread of democracy and pseudo-democracy.

In an uncertain, rapidly changing world, surprise is to be expected. This does not necessarily inhibit policy if decision-makers are prepared to rapidly abandon outdated assumptions and have prepared intellectually for a changed environment. However, many recent surprises were consequences of unchallenged mindsets, of an excess of certainty confronting a dynamic world. Our reactions to surprise have more often demonstrated stubbornness than dexterity. Thus, the inherent limits to foresight are greatly magnified. Mirror-imaging, wishful thinking, entrenched policy positions, bureaucratic inertia, and lack of historical perspective and imagination have all played a part in the ‘intelligence failures’ and policy missteps of the last fifteen years, and are on public display today.

Alternate Scenarios and Reduction of Surprise
Alternate scenarios are designed to challenge the mindsets policymakers bring into policy debates by presenting alternative narratives that capture less conventional, but plausible, views of the future. Too often, the future is expected to parallel the recent past. Potential discontinuities are dismissed as implausible, intelligence that conflicts with prevailing mindsets is unseen or viewed as anomalous, pressure for consensus drives out distinctive insights, and the fear of being ‘wrong’ discourages risk-taking and innovative analysis. Too much good thinking falls to the cutting room floor; official intelligence estimates coalesce around lowest common denominator extrapolations of recent data, or around the policy commitments of ‘clients’.

The development of alternate scenarios addresses these blind spots by fostering imaginative thinking about the future, based on acute observation of existing potential seeds of change. Scenarios are designed as plausible (believable) narratives describing different futures that could emerge from current circumstances, with markedly different consequences for US interests and policies. They serve to expose alternate paths inherent in the present, sharpen debate about prevailing trends, and reveal the limited shelf life of extant conventional wisdom about the future and America’s role in it.

The Scenario Process
Scenario construction is an interactive process involving dialogue among experts and policymakers of diverse professional backgrounds, nationalities, and skill sets. Participants are selected based on an evaluation of emerging drivers of change and pertinent literature.

Workshops consist of coherent, but unscripted, discussion centered on drivers of change, potential surprises, alternative scenarios, and US policy implications. The dialogue is initiated by the facilitator, but then takes its own course as participants 1) identify potential scenarios, 2) select three to four distinctive, significant (for US interests), and plausible scenario concepts, and 3) explore narrative details of the selected scenarios. During the process, the objective shifts from identifying a range of plausible scenarios to making the best case for each. In suspending disbelief, participants often reach a new understanding of how previously dismissed possibilities might occur.

After each workshop, panelists’ insights are synthesized and published in a report. In each report, selected scenarios are described and accompanied with narratives that support their plausibility.

Current reports can be downloaded here.

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