Beyond a Politics of Surprise: Rethinking the Present
Dr Marcus Bussey
Visiting Fellow, Centre for Excellence in National Security
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
One of the chief drivers of the security environment might be termed the ‘Politics of Surprise’. Recently we have been ‘surprised’ to witness the toppling of long stable Arab regimes, the opening up of Myanmar to democracy and the global spread of the ‘Occupy’ citizen-driven economic protests that began in Wall Street. Such surprises generate endless commentary and feed the media machine that perpetuates the image of ongoing socio-economic and political upheaval and the drama of crisis that this entails. Keeping one step ahead of such drama is core business for security analysts. However, the level of currency this necessitates can overlook or sideline longer term developments and, to use Francis Fukuyama’s term, blindside us to the deeper processes at work both locally and globally .
When context is dominated by a politics of surprise social resilience is reduced because shock is actually perceived as being an inherent element of socio-political process. Thus Fukuyama opens his book with a litany of surprises:
‘The collapse of communism, the rapid emergence of China and India as major economic powers, the September 11 attacks, the appearance of relatively new diseases like HIV/AIDS and H5N1 bird flu, Hurricane Katrina—the past decade and a half has demonstrated that nothing is as certain as uncertainty in global politics.’
To work beyond the litany of surprise is the purported job of strategic forecasters. In an environment of uncertainty they draw on history, a range of theoretical models, statistical trend analyses and social-psychology to develop the necessary depth of perception to anticipate not specific surprises but general surprises and the conditions that foreshadow these.
Increasingly such work is seen as necessary but not the totality of strategic foresight. A quality of perception is being called forth by the convergence of global political, economic, social and ecological processes. To think and act effectively in such an expanded and expanding environment requires an expanded sense of presence for analysts and those engaged in strategic policy development. I see presence as a quality of self awareness in context. Presence thus is a measure of strategic readiness which buffers the context from reactive responses to a shock or surprise. Presence helps us see the present and the immediate future with new eyes. It is a necessary condition for social innovation.
For example, F. W. de Klerk and others in the South Africa of the early 1990s saw a new way forward for their country. This shift came as something of a surprise for those in power who awoke to a present in which the unsustainability of a political trajectory was suddenly apparent. Following this ‘opening’ de Klerk, and others with him, recognised alternatives in the present previously edited out of the script for action by ideology, habit and fear of the unknown. Anticipation, combined with political will and courage, opened the present to presence: The awareness that there is no one present but that the present is plural, multiple and experienced differentially according to where one sits within it. With this recognition the wicked problem before the apartheid leadership suddenly evaporated and it became clear what needed to be done.
It is easy of course to project such a reading onto the past. We can ask about the mix of self interest in such transitions as those in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the years leading up to South Africa’s own coming out. Similarly, we can wonder about the changes afoot in Myanmar, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt today. Yet, in itself, self interest is not a bad thing. All foresight and futures work has self interest at its heart. Strategic foresight is partisan by nature and seeks to optimize advantage for those who apply it to their context. The counterbalance to this partisanship is an ethical commitment to inclusivity, open-endedness and (in the best of best worlds) social and environmental justice.
This sensitivity to presence suggests another necessary shift in the security environment: a balancing of risk assessment with opportunity enhancement. This reorientation is inherent to forecasting which is anticipatory in nature. Anticipation implies a sense of openness to the future that risk assessment denies. To challenge the framing of risk and warning fostered by a politics of surprise will take determination on the part of security analysts.
Stanford University’s Thomas Fingar identified this imbalance when asked to lead the development of a National Intelligence Priorities Framework in 2008. He describes how his team had to ‘winnow’ a set of 2300 ‘issues’ so that the number was both credible and useful to the Intelligence Community. Thus Fingar observed drily:
“Doubtless reflecting a widespread conviction that it is more important to identify and prevent bad things from happening than to find opportunities to effect positive change, the process used to winnow requests to a manageable number focuses more attention on threats than on opportunities. The resultant guidance to collectors and analysts has real world consequences for what is targeted, what is collected, what is processed, what is analyzed, and what analysts look for. The net effect is that opportunities receive less attention than do threats.”
It is this insight that needs to be unpacked. The inability to recognise opportunities when they present themselves has real world impacts on the adaptive capacity of states and their institutions. I argue that awakening to presence leads to adaptation in response to the environmental conditions that constantly reinforce the logic of present centredness, structure and risk. Adaptation seeks to maximize advantage for the natural or social systems that take it up. It is, in the foresight context, a form of social learning and in the context of National security it is a necessary condition in a complex and uncertain environment.
Timing positive futures needs to become a core element of national security thinking and analysis. Such timing depends on an expanded sense of what foresight offers the security environment. It also demands an expanded sense of security to include possibility in the positive sense. To return to the South African example – it was necessary for the apartheid government to reframe the risk of cultural annihilation and imagine an alternative future which was inclusive of their fears but also of the possibilities that lay beyond these. In this the importance of both de Klerk and Nelson Mandela cannot be underestimated. Yet, behind them stand many who invested in this possibility and did the hard yards to enable the aspirations that these leaders stood for.