Brexit, another strategic surprise

Written by Michael Oppenheimer, Clinical Professor, NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs

In a piece I did for the OUP blog in October 2015, occasioned by the Russian military intervention in Syria, I wrote: “another strategic surprise; another flat-footed, perplexed (U.S.) response. Repeatedly blind-sided, chasing the latest crisis, reacting to new realities established by others, and trying to find silver linings in the storm clouds (the latest: Putin will have an Afghanistan experience in Syria), the Obama administration has failed to adjust its grand strategy of restraint, a strategy that has demonstrably reached beyond the point of diminishing returns.”

Brexit now offers another in a series of object lessons in surprise, and how not to prepare. David Sanger, in his New York Times news analysis of June 27, observed that “Like the Arab Spring, the result of Britain’s referendum took Washington by surprise. As late as early last week there was something between a hope and an assumption that the vote would ‘go the other way’, as Secretary of State John Kerry said in Rome on Sunday. As a result, there was no serious planning for the all-consuming work of reimagining the European relationship, a task that will face President Obama for the next six months, and his successor for years to come.” This complacency was, unfortunately, reinforced by experts and observers, including the ‘super forecasters’ of Philip Tetlock’s Good Judgment project. who predicted a win for the Remain campaign.

This adds to a litany of strategic surprise and ill-preparedness: Russian military moves in Ukraine and Syria, Chinese assertiveness in Asia, the Arab Spring and its consequences, the European refugee crisis. There are powerful reasons for the myopia: a liberal aversion to the use of force that encourages overly benign expectations of the behavior of others; an over learning of the lessons of Iraq; strategic priorities and commitments to Asian rebalancing that incentivize wishful thinking about stability in Europe and the Middle East.

This combination of short sightedness, willful ignorance and wishful thinking is hardly unique to the current administration. The Obama strategy of restraint is subject to inherent risks, of passivity, risk avoidance and denial of unpleasant realities; but the Bush Administration’s strategy of assertive primacy proved equally vulnerable to its own form of motivated thinking: of threat inflation and falsification of intelligence, exaggeration of US capabilities, minimization of obstacles. Both produced an ‘official future’ that stubbornly resisted the contours of unfolding reality, and perpetuated policies that worsened the damage produced by wrong headed initial assumptions.

In this turbulent world, subject to sudden, revolutionary change precipitated by bottom up, populist forces (in the US itself, in Europe, in the Middle East; in China?), surprise is to be expected. Such upheavals are not unprecedented, have discernable and powerful root causes, and in an era of globalization have consequences far beyond their original borders: but the precise location and timing of such events are not subject to prediction.

The cognitive challenge is to imagine (not forecast) future strategically significant events with sufficient clarity and plausibility to enable prevention (if negative for our interests) or encouragement (if positive), and to better manage their consequences should they occur. In effect, we must improve our preparation for an uncertain world that will continue to frustrate the most rigorously prepared predictions.

This is achievable through a structured alternate scenario process, embedded in strategy formulation and management at the highest level. In my recent book on the strategic uses of alternate futures, I described the approach as “designed to challenge the mindsets policy makers bring into policy debates, by presenting less conventional but plausible views of the future. They are not predictive…but are intended to make explicit and to deconstruct predictions that force fit analysis to preferences or other forms of bias. In doing so, they can reveal dubious assumptions, conveniently overlooked policy trade-offs, and plausible wild card events and trend developments that can invalidate current policies and pose new challenges.”

With such a capability at its disposal, the Obama Administration might have found it easier to ask the right anticipatory question: not whether we should bet on one outcome or the other, but whether the combination of plausibility and negative impact of Brexit were sufficient to warrant more determined support for continued membership, and a head start on preserving a cohesive U.S.-European liberal security community, if the worst case came to pass.