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Is scenario thinking useful in diplomacy?

Published on 29 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The army practices ‘war games’ – they simulate a battle, and this can be seen as a kind of ‘scenario’.

War games are, first of all, training exercises in de-multiplying a general’s order into action by an army of thousands of mean and weapons. It is easy for the general to order: ‘Advance!’ The order is confronted with reality – the unassailable master. The challenge is both organisational and logistic. A war game is first and foremost a tryst between the general’s will and the context: his army and the landscape. The map is king. It is meant to forge unity through verification of detail and repetition.

Such war games are accompanied by exercises in the field. Field data are fed back into the system. In iterations, the general acquires confidence in what the army can do in a given context. War games always start and end with the context: the situation facing the general and his army. War games are a study in attention.

War games also have a further purpose – to internalise doctrines and responses by creating an “artificial experience”. Under stress, errors are possible, nay likely. War games aim to create artificially a stress situation. This hands-on experience teaches participants not to make mistakes. Avoiding mistakes is far more critical than learning how to counter the unexpected, for the unexpected destroys the routines one wants to internalize. A concert pianist will learn the routine before he deepens the interpretation. War games are a training exercise in routine before they are an instrument for choice of strategy. War games prepare for strategy, they do not decide it.

The “grain” of the context in a war game can be fine or coarse. Which is the best way across a plain, or a mountain range? At a “higher level” of strategy, different approaches are compared and tactics merges into strategy. But the map as well as the parameters of the army remains the driver.

The next level is to have “war games” matching the wits of two generals in simulated battle. The perspective does change. Doctrines and styles struggle against each other. Internal weaknesses of one’s doctrines are ferreted out. At the same time, however, distancing from reality takes place. War becomes more akin to a chess game, with set moves and rules. The rules of battle change slowly – unless one introduces technological change. There a limits to creativity.

This distancing from reality has consequences. Stalin never tested in war games a German attack. He only tested his own army’s aggressiveness. This myopia cost him dearly on June 21st, 1941. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” War games are just what the name indicates – games. Games hone the routine. Admittedly, creativity is the rainbow at the end of the routine. The aim of games, however, is to internalize routine, not to develop creativity. Improvisation is for the battle field, and those generals who improvise successfully under stress are the best.

War is diplomacy by other means. And diplomacy, some diplomats think, is war by other means. Hence they plead for “scenario thinking” and “scenario policy analysis” in analogy with war games.

How useful is this approach?

Testing the execution of an order, or honing reflexes under stress, is of value, but not a core policy objective in diplomacy (except for hegemons). Emergency preparedness is of value; most of diplomacy, however, is not managing emergencies. Small and medium countries will not spend many resources in this way.

Scenario is a term used in military jargon. Scenarios, it is argued, are ways of enriching our thinking about the future, and a useful tool of diplomatic policy analysis. Instead at gazing at reality for prediction and prescription, one imagines and compares potential path-dependent outcomes. One attaches “probabilities” to these scenarios and, presto! policy prescription is concluded.

This is right – if scenarios force detail on the policy making process. Scenarios may be a way of combating slovenly thinking. Scenarios may disambiguate inchoate thinking. The problem is that there is no easy “map” as in war games. There are many actors in international relations, and many issues – all interlinked. Thinking beyond the immediate (or the jump-off stage) becomes an game with just too many variables.

Take the current conflict over Syria: A “Western” military intervention can have so many implications: building scenarios soon tests analytical capacity. Faced with such complexity, the discussion about the implications of an intervention surreptitiously tends to veer toward the “principled” discussion – whether it is morally right or wrong to intervene. The extreme complexity of the situation boils down to one of principle – with little relation to the facts on the ground (and the people involved).

I’ve come across scenarios in another field: internet governance. Internet governance groups over 50 outstanding issues (not counting the “orphan” ones) being argued in at least 100 gremia. What governance model is one to use? The question is a good one – but to me it is akin to whether a black or a white cat is best for catching mice. It all depends on the cat and the circumstances.

Faced with the impossible task of deciding on “one-size-fits-all” internet governance, the discussion has degenerated into a sterile and inconclusive debate over two scenarios, which reflect “polar” alternatives: whether “intergovernmental” governance or “multi-stakeholder” governance is best. This is a replay of the decade long discussion about the role of the state in society. The arguments are as predictable as last year’s sit-com comedy. The appeal of the latter is that situations are always repeated and never resolved.

“Multi-stakerism” is redolent of anarchic governance models of self-regulation and rejection of the state – arguments cartels voiced a century ago. (BTW: the finance industry was strong on self-regulation (and Greenspan thought that what JPMorgan felt was good for the business was also good for the country). The ghost of statist and intergovernmental totalitarianism is trotted out for predictable effect. Stasis ensues – which favors the status quo – and very lucrative business models running internet at the moment. These interests have the means to keep the discussion going, and consolidate their position through facts on the ground.

For scenarios to be operable, they need to flatten reality and ignore detail. Scenarios are abstractions. One, or at best two alternatives are created – cookie cutter views of the complexity that lies ahead. Scenarios tend provide dichotomies and veer toward essentialism.

I may be wrong, but scenarios are likely to sort people by “scenarios” and create divisiveness, accentuating difference (and the narcissism underlying much discussion of small difference). While war games tend to consolidate and unite, scenario thinking tends to divide. It may, in the end, take a “walk in the woods” to move beyond scenarios.

Scenarios? Handle with care.

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