Over the last decades, strategic surprises have accumulated and accelerated rather than receded. They continue to do so. Most actors, from governments and international organisations to businesses through citizens seem to be constantly and increasingly surprised by events they fail to anticipate, and thus for which they are unprepared.
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In this article we explore the idea that one of the reasons for this constant state of unpreparedness and surprise could be that we are not faced with surprises but with shocks.
This idea of shock is not unknown in military circles dealing with strategic foresight and early warning or more broadly anticipation. This approach may help us understanding better what is currently at work, including why we are not faced with one shock but with a series of them. Thus, first, we delve deeper into the idea of shock and contrast it with surprise. We start with examples, while also bringing in knowledge and understanding from future studies.* Second, we explain that both surprise and shock are located onto a continuum of unexpected changes and we explicate the dynamics leading to a shock. Finally, we underline some consequences of considering shocks for strategic foresight and early warning, risk management, and, more broadly, for the anticipation of crises.
Surprise and shock
From the Arab Spring to the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. Why the COVID-19 is NOT a Black Swan Event, the apparition and spread of each SARS-CoV-2 variant, the rise and development of the Islamic State, with shocking series of murders and terrorist attacks (see Portal to the Islamic State War), the recurring European refugee crises, the Arab Spring (e.g. Ellen Laipson, Ed., Seismic Shift: Understanding Change In The Middle East, Stimson, 2011), for example, are all events that were actually surprises, considering the lack of preparedness and the difficulty to design and then implement a proper answer.
Similarly (in terms of surprise), the scale and scope of the chaos in Ukraine in 2013-2014 with the aftermath lasting up until 2022, constitute another series of surprises. Those include the incorporation of Crimea in the Russian Federation, with heightened and novel tensions between notably the U.S., its allies and NATO on the one hand, Russia and its partners on the others, and the multi-dimensional impacts of these events, for example on farmers and the agricultural sector in Europe (Impacts of the Conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (3), November 2016 and Lessons from the Conflict in Ukraine – Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (4), December 2016; Charles Clark, “Riot police in Brussels are struggling against 4,000 tractors blocking the streets“, Business Insider UK, 7 Sept 2015).
It is highly likely that the coming crises that will result from planetary boundaries being overstepped will soon constitute another series of “surprises” (e.g. Steffen et al., “The nine planetary boundaries“, Stockholm Resilience Center, 2015; and panel 1 in “Speech at Alterre Day: Unsustainable! Towards Solutions…“, 21 January 2022).
First series of explanatory causes for unpreparedness: communication and capabilities
Another, related cause, could obviously be a generalised lack of adequate capabilities to properly consider and foresee crucial issues. Notably, increasingly, staff members handling strategic foresight and early warning matters are not trained in methodology of foresight and early warning, nor – when needed – in international relations and political science.
Shocks, an intensifying cause for unpreparedness
However worrying the situation described above, we must also consider another explanation: we are not only faced with surprises but with shocks.
A shock would then combine with the causes highlighted above such as communication challenges and absence of proper capabilities, to further heighten uncertainty, favour inadequate answers to an initial surprise and, as a result, multiply unforeseen crises.
Indeed, in many of the examples of surprise cited above, a strong emotional element is present. When referring to them we spontaneously use the idea of shock.
The “West” was shocked by the rapid move of Russia to secure the bloodless incorporation of Crimea within the Russian Federation (Ibid.). It was shocked, in the case of Ukraine, that another “peaceful revolution” did not end up into something peaceful, smooth and happily accepted by all (Ibid.). The world was shocked that a commercial plane flying over a war zone could be shot down (Ibid.). The “West” is shocked to see that Russia feels threatened by NATO and does not accept all demands benefiting the U.S. (read for example the excellent article by James Dobbins, Senior Fellow, Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security, “Should NATO Close Its Doors?“, Rand Blog, 2 Feb 2022).
The international “community” at large was shocked by the apparently sudden progress of the then Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) during the first part of 2014 (“Timeline of ISIL related events“, Wikipedia). It was shocked by the massacre of the Yazidis (e.g. Raya Jalabi, “Who are the Yazidis and why is Isis hunting them?“, The Guardian, 11 Aug 2014). It was shocked by the horrendous videos of beheading and of the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot (H. Lavoix, “The Islamic State, Puppet Master of Emotions“, 5 February 2015). It was shocked by the various terrorist attacks, starting from the one in Paris in January 2015, without forgetting those in Tunisia and elsewhere, even if some of them were foiled more by miracle than by any preventive action (e.g. “2015 Thalys train attack“, Wikipedia; for a list of terrorist attacks instances for the sole first part of January 2015, H. Lavoix, The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War, 19 January 2015).
People and governments were repeatedly shocked by Middle Eastern and African migrants drowning or freezing when trying to reach Europe or England (e.g. “France formally identifies 26 of the 27 people who died in Channel tragedy“, The Guardian, 14 Dec 2021; “Migrants freezing to death on Belarus-Poland border“, NPR, 21 November 2021; “2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck“, Wikipedia), by the picture of a dead little boy (e.g. Jessica Elgot, “Family of Syrian boy washed up on beach were trying to reach Canada“, The Guardian, 3 Sept 2015), by the sheer flow of migrants, potentially refugees, entering various countries of the European Union (e.g. 2015 refugee crisis: The Guardian, “live updates“).
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, the word shock is also often used (e.g. European Parliament, Uncertainty and the Pandemic Shocks, November 2020; Caixa Bank, The COVID-19 Crisis: an unprecedented shock, 15 April 2020; Jillian MacMath, “The story behind the mass grave photograph that has shocked the world“, Wales Online, 10 April 2020). We may also wonder if the shock is not so strong that it is the reality of the pandemic itself that is sometimes denied.
Introducing the ideas of “surprise” and “shock”
In 2007 the “Strategic Trends and Shocks” project within the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (OSD) Policy Planning introduced the idea of strategic shock (Freier, Known Unknowns, 2008: 38, fn 5). The new concept was defined as:
“An event that punctuates the evolution of a trend, a discontinuity that either rapidly accelerates its pace or significantly changes its trajectory, and, in so doing, undermines the assumption on which current policies are based… Shocks are disruptive by their very nature, and … can change how we think about security and the role of the military.” (Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Transformation Chair, Forces Transformation Chairs Meeting, 2007)
The idea of shock is similarly used in the U.K. Ministry of Defence Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre’s (DCDC) Strategic Trends Programme and its products (2007-2035; 2010-2040; 2014-2045; 2018 -2050 The future starts today), and is defined as
“Events – or ‘shocks’ – [that] only have a low probability of occurring, but because of their potentially high impact, it is important to consider some in more detail, allowing for possible mitigating action to be taken.” (Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045, MoD, DCDC, 2014: ix)
In the latest edition the idea of “shocks” is systematically added to the concept of “surprise”, but not defined anymore (2018 -2050 The future starts today).
Until 2007, Strategic Foresight and Early Warning (SF&W), i.e. “the organized and systematic process to reduce uncertainty regarding the future that aims at allowing decision-makers to take decisions related to security with sufficient lead-time to see those decisions implemented at best”**, or more broadly anticipatory activities for national and international security, had essentially focused upon surprise.
“Strategic surprise” referred initially to “surprise military attacks” (Grabo, Anticipating Surprise, 2004: 1-2; J. Ransom Clark, The Literature of Intelligence: A Bibliography of Materials, with Essays, Reviews, and Comments, “Analysis: Strategic Warning“, Muskingum University). During the first decade of the twenty-first century, with the dawning awareness of the complexity of issues and related multi-disciplinarity impacting national and international security, the idea was enlarged to any “surprises with strategic significance” (Crocker, “Thirteen Reflections on Strategic Surprise”, 2010: 1).
Strategic surprises correspond approximately to futurists’ “wild cards” (low probability/high impact event)** and to Taleb’s (2007: 37, 272-273) “gray swans” (“rare but expected events that are scientifically tractable” – see also, H. Lavoix, “Taleb’s Black Swans: the End of Foresight?“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 21 January 2013). This coincides with the way the U.K. MOD uses the idea of shock, as presented above. We may also consider that Wucker’s coined term “gray rhino“, defined as “highly probable, high impact yet neglected threats” corresponds to some strategic surprises (Michele Wucker, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore, St. Martin’s Press, 5 April 2016).
There is, however, also more involved in the idea of wild cards and strategic surprise. Indeed, in 2003, Steinmuller (“The future as Wild Card”) underlined that wild cards “change our frame of reference,” and, in 2007, Schwartz and Randall (“Ahead of the Curve”: 93) stressed similarly strategic surprise’s “game-changing dimension.”
As Freier (Ibid. 5-6) highlighted, strategic shock and strategic surprise appear to be almost identical. Do we thus need two different concepts? If yes, how do we recognise one event belonging to the first category from one belonging to the other?
According to Luttwak (The Logic of War and Peace, 2001: 4), “surprise at war” needs to suspend strategy, however briefly and partially. Thus, it does not necessarily imply any in-depth revision of mindset, as is expected from the idea of shock (Freier, Ibid: 8). Hence, surprise and shock are two different phenomena, which will each demand specific kinds of actions. SF&W having as aim to be actionable, then losing the specificity of both strategic surprise and shock may only lead to less efficiency, when the introduction of a new idea could, on the contrary, be fruitful.
When we compare different shocks as given by various authors, e.g. the 1929 financial crisis, Pearl Harbour, the fall of the Soviet Union, or 9/11 (Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), 2007; Arnas, 2009: 5), with “the poor performance of Israeli’s military machine during the 2006 Israeli—Hezbollah War,” (Balasevicius, “Adapting Military Organizations to Meet Future Shock”, 2009: 9-10), it would seem that all are not equivalent.
Could we thus have another phenomenon hidden within the idea of shock?
Even if the 2006 Israeli—Hezbollah War was a game-changing event, thus a strategic shock, because it forced the military of various nations to revise perceptions and concepts on warfare (Balasevicius, 2009: 10), in which way is it different from other cases?
The common definition of a shock describes it as:
“A violent collision, impact, tremor; a sudden, disturbing effect on the emotions, physical reaction; an acute state of prostration following a wound, pain; a disturbance in stability causing fluctuations in an organization.”The Concise Oxford dictionary, 8th edition.
Many of those components are absent from the U.S. OSD definition. Nonetheless, including the scope and depth of the event’s emotional impact in the idea of strategic shock tends to confirm and explain the previous distinction between cases. It also points towards the subjectivity of a categorisation in shocks – or surprises – as actors and populations directly involved are more likely to feel a deeper shock than unrelated actors.*** To include emotion enhances the difference with strategic surprise.
Yet, if strategic surprise and strategic shock are different, then, how could an event, for example Pearl Harbour, be categorised as both (Arnas: 1-2; Hans Binnendijk, 2008; Grabo, 2004; Wohlstetter, 1962, etc.)?
Surprise and shock on the continuum of unexpected change
Freier (2008: 7-8) and Balasevicius (2009: 9) underline that surprise and shock are two similar phenomena with no “scientific break point” between the two, shock being linked to a higher degree of unpreparedness in terms of policy, strategy and planning.
If we also use the Oxford dictionary definition of shock, then we must consider that the emotional reaction (prostration, panic) heightens the disruption, making it more difficult to find adequate answers. Meanwhile the emotional effect’s spread to other actors potentially changes both the initial impact of the shock and consequent policy and strategic planning. The potential for long-term destabilization is thus amplified with the depth and scope of a shock.
Hence, if an event is a strategic shock, it is also a strategic surprise, whilst the reverse is not true. Both strategic surprises and strategic shocks are unexpected changes occurring in a society’s or polity’s environment and to which actors will and must react. Shocks imply a considerably more difficult coordination than surprise, because, notably, of the depth and scope of the created emotion. Thus, strategic surprise then strategic shock are two ideal-types located on the continuum of unexpected change and ordered according to the ease with which humans coordinate their activities with changes in their larger environment – those changes that caused surprise or shock, accordingly – for security and ultimately survival (Lavoix, “Strategic Foresight and Warning”, 2010: 3 building upon Elias, Time, 1992).
Now, all events that are likely to occur and to constitute shocks are the outcome of dynamics. They do not happen out of the blue.
In fact, two possible processes, which are not mutually exclusive, will underlie a shock and its level. The first possible process takes place when an acme (violence and impact), a new stage in the dynamics of escalation, is reached. This new stage will then be perceived as a phenomenon that is both new and sudden, even if, actually, the event was building up unnoticed, and was thus neither sudden nor fully novel.
The second process results from an accumulation of non-perceived or improperly perceived grinding alterations (not necessarily linked to an escalation), which lead to a change. The latter takes then the characteristics of a shock, e.g. a tipping point (see also Elina Hiltunen, “Was It a Wild Card or Just Our Blindness to Gradual Change?”, 2006: 61-74). This idea of a tipping point was noted by the U.S. Department of Defence when it stated,
“Shocks can be sudden and violent, and are often unanticipated. They can also occur when a system passes a critical point and undergoes a phase change. This type of shock results from the gradual accumulation of change in a number of variables (e.g. increased violence and frequency of hurricanes as a result of rising ocean temperatures).”United States Joint Forces Command, 2008: 3
The idea of “creeping catastrophe”, as described by Steinmüller (2003: 6-7), can be seen as a mix of the two processes.
Thus, a shock and its level result both from the impact that is inherent to the dynamics involved (and that should ideally be observed), including emotional consequences, and from our perceptions, as the abruptness of the perception enhances and transforms the emotional component of the impact, adding to it the component specific to shocks. In turn, a new awareness will be born (Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, 1999).
In terms of policy-making and decision, to consider we are prey to shocks is of tremendous importance.
Indeed, first, we may surmise that the successive shocks we have faced over the last decade or so have likely impaired – or contributed to do so besides other factors – proper decision-making, which ideally necessitates a cold objective analysis.
Second, not only the existence of a shock, but also the repetition of shocks imply that the change of mind-set, including how we think about security, about geopolitics, about strategic foresight etc., that is demanded by the initial strategic shock has not taken place.
As a result, shocks succeed to shocks and are more likely to do so until the necessary evolution of mind-set(s) takes place and thus until adequate answers are found.
Note that, again here, we find elements that indicate a paradigm shift is likely to be at work (see H. Lavoix, “Towards a new paradigm?“, 2012).
Looking out for future shocks: some consequences for strategic foresight and early warning
The most important consequence for SF&W would take place at the analytical level, with an enlargement of the object of analysis. Indeed, when trying to foresee and warn about surprise, one is mainly concerned with others, in terms of intentions, capabilities, and actions. We analyse what is exterior to oneself through events befalling us.
If we want to look out for shocks, then we need to devote as much analytical attention to ourselves, not only the institution where the SF&W office is located, but also our society and polity. Considering the way intelligence and security thinking, and, as a result, state agencies as well as corporate offices are usually organised, i.e. with a clear separation between the domestic and international realms, this would be a major change. For states, that would demand ethical discussions if individual freedom is to be respected. Appropriate legislation would need to be created and voted.
We would also need to include into our impacts’ evaluation emotions, somehow following Gigerenzer (“Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire: Behavioral Reactions to Terrorist Attacks”, 2006). We need to include areas such as the media and the world-wide-web as propagating, enhancing or dulling emotions.
This is all the more important considering the widespread and rising use of social networks by all actors. For example, the Islamic State made a constant effort to trigger strong emotions through its propaganda on media and social networks (see our Islamic State’s psyops series). “Anti-radicalisation programmes” to face the Islamic Sate’s foreign fighters threat had to include emotions. Reinsertions programmes for ex-fighters will similarly also have to consider emotions and social networks.
Efforts to include all these elements in anticipation analysis must continue.
Looking out for future shocks would too put to the test the intelligence principle to “speak truth to power,” as self-scrutiny would imply analysis of policy, past, present and planned, and of its consequences. Meanwhile we should also consider the unintended consequences of one’s actions, as highlighted by Crocker (Ibid.) Nolan, MacEachin, and Tockman (Discourse, Dissent and Strategic Surprise, 2007).
Our struggle against biases would need to be enlarged to emotionally-induced biases, as we do here since 2011 when lecturing at Master’s level in universities, and of course in our training programmes. Maybe more difficult, emotionally-induced biases must also be incorporated into our impact assessments (see for example (Helene Lavoix, “Geopolitics, Uncertainties and Business (6) : The Psychological Impact of the Islamic State Terrorist Attacks“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 6 February 2017). Considering the reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic from all part of society, it appears obvious that strong emotions are work and should be considered.
The analytical widened scope affecting impact, likelihood and timeline, in turn, would have consequences on the prioritisation of issues.
Finally, an approach through shocks could change how horizon scanning is done, as exploration of weak signals according to issues could be supplemented and cross-checked with an identification of emergence of weak signals relevant to the dynamics leading potentially to shocks within our societies (for more on weak signals and monitoring see H. Lavoix, “Horizon scanning and monitoring for anticipation: definition and practice“, 2019)
Adding strategic shock to strategic surprise as focus for strategic foresight and early warning may only enhance our efficiency in ensuring national and international security and handling issues with geopolitical stakes. It would also contribute to speed the likely needed change of mind-set and thus the progressive adoption of adequate responses to the host of problems besetting the world.
Notes & Bibliography
*This article is the third edition, fully revised and updated, of an article initially written for the RSIS, Singapore: H. Lavoix “Looking Out for Future Shocks”, Resilience and National Security in an Uncertain World, Ed. Centre of Excellence for National Security, (Singapore: CENS-RSIS, 2011).
**This definition we use here and throughout the website was compiled out of Thomas Fingar, ”Myths, Fears, and Expectations,” & “Anticipating Opportunities: Using Intelligence to Shape the Future;” Payne Distinguished Lecture Series 2009; Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence and National Security; Lecture 1 & 3, FSI Stanford, CISAC Lecture Series, March 11, 2009 & October 21, 2009; Jack Davis, “Strategic Warning: If Surprise is Inevitable, What Role for Analysis?” Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, Occasional Papers, Vol.2, Number 1 ; Cynthia M. Grabo, Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning, edited by Jan Goldman, (Lanham MD: University Press of America, May 2004); Kenneth Knight, “Focused on foresight: An interview with the US’s national intelligence officer for warning,” September 2009, McKinsey Quarterly.
***“A wild card is a future development or event with a relatively low probability of occurrence but a likely high impact on the conduct of business,” BIPE Conseil / Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies / Institute for the Future: Wild Cards: A Multinational Perspective, (Institute for the Future, 1992), p. v ; The idea was then popularised with John L. Petersen, Out of the Blue, Wild Cards and Other Big Surprises, (The Arlington Institute, 1997, 2nd ed. Lanham: Madison Books, 1999).
****See also the notion of “target groups” for the selection of wild cards, John L. Petersen and Karlheinz Steinmüller, “Wild Cards,” The Millennium Project: Futures Research Methodology, Version 3.0, Ed. Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J., 2009, Ch 10, p.3.
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