May 15, 2009

Multiple Futures: anything new?

As befits a finale of an impressive marathon, last week the project team of the Multiple Futures Project (MFP) of the Allied Command Transformation (ACT) staged a grand show in the suburb of Brussels to roll out their final project report . In the pleasant surroundings of a SPA hotel, the birth of the Alliance’s view on the plausible alternative futures in 2030 was celebrated as the diplomats, military officials and academics discussed what should happen next. The show was complete with inspiring performances by such stars of future studies as Peter Schwarz and thought-provoking critical analyses by such heavyweights of strategic studies as Professor Colin S. Gray. As one participant aptly remarked, we definitely left the place wiser than we came.

As befits a finale of an impressive marathon, last week the project team of the Multiple Futures Project (MFP) of the Allied Command Transformation (ACT) staged a grand show in the suburb of Brussels to roll out their final project report . In the pleasant surroundings of a SPA hotel, the birth of the Alliance’s view on the plausible alternative futures in 2030 was celebrated as the diplomats, military officials and academics discussed what should happen next. The show was complete with inspiring performances by such stars of future studies as Peter Schwarz and thought-provoking critical analyses by such heavyweights of strategic studies as Professor Colin S. Gray. As one participant aptly remarked, we definitely left the place wiser than we came.

The MFP team certainly deserves much praise for what they have achieved. Process-wise, this was perhaps the most inclusive, open and consultative project ever undertaken by NATO. The team went out to solicit views, perspectives, ideas and analyses from wherever they could, be it defence organisations or independent think-tanks and universities. Given that a process itself matters probably even more than a result in scenario development, such inclusiveness is very commendable for at least two reasons: it carries the message that NATO is more than just a constellation of various headquarters and it helps developing a broader consensus on what the future may look like. Those tasked with drafting the new Strategic Concept of the Alliance will probably appreciate these rather intangible effects as much as the project report itself when pondering how NATO should prepare itself for the future challenges.

However, I have a feeling that, celebrations and rigorous processes aside, the MFP report delivers less than it claims to deliver. For a start, it is strange that, in order to avoid confusion among the military folk, the product was not named after what it should have been named – future scenarios. As those rooted in the paradigm of constructivism would tell you, language matters! The very word “scenarios” implies something which is not only logical, coherent and plausible, but also thought-provoking. They are supposed to challenge our mental maps, within which we often find ourselves trapped, and force to think the unthinkable – something which we refuse to ponder while sitting inside a familiar box. This fundamental point was very well underlined by Peter Schwarz and constitutes a core element of preparing for what he calls the “inevitable surprises”.

Does the MFP report pass this test? Hardly so. When you go through it, page after page, you cannot help but wonder – what’s new in it that we haven’t heard, read or discussed before? For all its methodological rigour and inclusiveness of the process, the multiple futures do not really make any significant inroad into our mental maps concerning the shape and character of international politics or international security. What they achieve is to arrange various existing ideas, observations and insights into four logical pictures – pictures which are not controversial and easily believable. While this is good for consensus and helps in the further bureaucratic process of the Alliance, it is not good for robust strategy-making. It is no wonder that, in the capital of one of the NATO allies, a senior policymaker declined to attend the summary conference or send someone in his stead with a single-handed verdict – “not interesting”.

And he is quite right! No amount of workshops and going out of the way to solicit various inputs can compensate for the fact that the multiple futures represent what we already, by and large, believe in as a security and defence community (does not mean that we are prepared for them, however!). Indeed, a good futurist would probably see the MFP report as something capturing the existing mental maps of the Alliance – just the very first step in preparing to shake up the organisation’s thinking about future. It is definitely important to articulate, in an eloquent and structured manner, what the organisation or community believes: we are often incapable of doing this without someone’s help. But, as far as NATO is concerned, this should not be the end of the story.

What General Mattis, Commander of the ACT, or his bosses on the Military Committee of NATO, should do next is to carry this openness of the process a bit further. Why not going back to the broader community – think-tanks, consultancies, academia, various NGOs – and asking them to come up with really unthinkable (yet, of course, plausible) scenarios that go well outside the familiar box within which the MFP report is so fluent? The data set could be the same, but the outcome might produce some positive shocks to our thinking and would serve the team drafting the new Strategic Concept even better than the MFP final report.

Of course, the time is running out given the ambition of the Alliance to have its new Strategic Concept ready so soon. But do we really want to end up with the document that reads almost the same as the existing one and with the transformation agenda not so much different from 1999? Do we really wish to sacrifice genuine preparation to cope with the “inevitable surprises” of the future for the sake of orderly, timely and efficient bureaucratic process within NATO? During the conference, some top NATO officials expressed the desire to demolish the old house completely and build a new one in its place when it comes to the strategic concept and concomitant changes in the Alliance. By showing willingness and readiness to expose their thinking to the range of scenarios residing outside the MFP, they would make an important step from words to deeds.

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