Strategic foresight and early warning are grounded in the idea of preventing surprise and more specifically strategic surprise. However, if we move away from the general idea of “strategic surprise” and try to be specific, i.e. if we try to apply the concept to a specific threat or issue we try to anticipate, then the exercise becomes remarkably difficult.
The “surprise” part of the concept is relatively easily understood and envisioned. When we imagine a threat or danger occurring, we can identify and explain easily the many reasons why this event could happen unexpectedly and find us unprepared. However, understanding, assessing, and estimating these incriminated causes, then remedying them, is more complex. This is indeed the raison d’être of strategic foresight and warning and risk management, and the topic of many studies.
The strategic dimension, for its part, is more elusive and far less intuitive. For example, if you were asked to specify in one or two sentences the strategic-level impacts of the use of nano-drones for hostile action, or of the global exponential increase of long COVID, or of the global or regional shrinking of the pollinators’ population and had to answer the question immediately, would you be able to do it? This is actually a very difficult exercise.
Try to carry out this exercise for any issue or problem that matters to you. Can you do it very quickly? Was it easier? Probably, if you have already thought about the question and researched it, if it is one of your area of specialisation and expertise, then the chances are that you will be able to answer easily. Yet are you really sure you are truly addressing the strategic dimension of the question? Or are you merely thinking – and wrongly so – that strategy is about the long term?
If the issue is about a threat that is obviously strategic, such as a war between Iran and Israel, or between China and the U.S., then it is easier to answer the question.
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Yet, even in those cases, some strategic implications can easily be forgotten. But what would be your answer and how easily could you give it if the danger or the threat imagined relates to an entirely new area, as is most likely to happen if you try anticipating and getting ready for the future. How difficult would you find the endeavour if the danger of concern does not belong obviously to the more classical geo-strategic realm, for example an aspect of a pandemic? Would you even think about looking at the strategic aspect of the potential surprise?
This article focuses on the strategic component of the idea of strategic surprise. It underlines some of the major challenges that make it difficult to answer the “strategic-level impact question” and suggest practical ways forward (summarised in the conclusion). The aim of this article is modest and only hopes to contribute to facilitate debates on strategic impact and significance. Those debates will remain, and are necessary to obtain the best possible strategies.
Thanks: I am very grateful to all those, throughout workshops, who have made this article possible, through rich and enlightening discussions, as well as with their comments and suggestions.
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Featured image: USS California slowly sinking, USS Shaw burning – Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. By U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – recolorised.