Strategic Foresight
the Pathway to Sustainable Conflict Resolution
CASEY BRUNELLE
© 2017 FrontLine Security (Vol 12, No 1)

The collapse of the Berlin Wall and subsequent end of the Cold War brought about myriad dramatic geopolitical changes for all states, whether they were direct players in that confrontation or not. Over the course of short months, the top priority for the respective national security agendas of both the West and former Warsaw Pact countries was no longer dependent on the placement of massed conventional forces at geostrategic points on a map, supplemented by the omnipresent (virtually omniscient) threat of nuclear-capable mutually assured destruction.

The danger posed by asymmetric conflict between a traditional state authority and a force of unconventional fighters has always been an active priority for governments throughout the ages. But, with the demise of the bipolar world between West and East that defined geopolitics for almost half a century, the potency of asymmetric threats has evolved based on opportunity.

Too often, such an opportunity is seen as being consistent with a rise of religious extremism or a supposed centuries-in-the-making “clash of civilizations.” This assessment is short-sighted in that it does not recognize such external factors as merely incentives that may give rise to the opportunity for violence in any of its dizzying forms. Furthermore, it does little to prescribe an equitable and sustainable conflict resolution strategy – short of the fear-provoking rhetoric often stated by prominent Western nativist policymakers.

This shift to a focus on the threat posed by global terrorism was accelerated further by high-profile strikes against largely civilian targets, both within and beyond the West. Catalyzed most especially by the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent US-led “War on Terror” lingers well into the 2010s, in an evolved form, as a resurgence of al-Qaeda and recently established groups like Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) vie for strategic and theological supremacy.

Traditional doctrine that guided the Cold War like a geopolitical invisible hand was centred on the theory of deterrence and is more present and universally felt than ever before, thanks to the starkly bipolar capability of nuclear arsenals and the mutually assured threat they carried.

Whether such a theory might still stand in the year 2018, so as to potentially enable a détente between the contesting global powers (whether state-based or non-state-based in nature), is a question that remains to be definitively answered.


Syrian Refugee Settlement, Beqaa Valley, Lebanon. (UN Photo)

Non-truths and paradoxes
Today, a vast number of institutionalized globalizing processes – instantaneous communications, social networking, competing global and regional identities, and others – drive an already saturated field of extremist groups (both global and domestic in nature) in an attempt to outdo one another in both the physical and virtual battlespace.

The conventional knowledge of many international security scholars states that this same theory of deterrence – the one that empowered (and restrained) geopolitical action for generations – may no longer be effective in today’s world of chronic, low-level, and asymmetric conflicts that are both a catalyst for, and product of, such globalizing processes. There is a commonly held (mis)conception within the security and intelligence establishment that such measures of deterrence cannot be rebranded when it comes to those militants commonly purported by pundits to be simply “barbarians” or “savages” beyond the reach of the neoliberal orthodoxy. They claim the only countermeasure to deal with these threats is through reactive overwhelming military force and regime change to governments more agreeable with Western geopolitical aims.

This dichotomy is inaccurate in terms of both its analysis and its prescription for redress. The potential for strategic foresight borne of knowledge and understanding of the battlespace, as seen through the eyes of the belligerent in question, is the key to unlocking equitable and sustainable conflict resolution for all relevant stakeholders.

The U.S.-led “War on Terror” has been defined by a form of shock-and-awe method of ardent military reaction by so-called “willing” states, advocating for regime change and the proliferation of political and economic neoliberal institutions.

The errors in strategic planning and the failures of intelligence analysis that led to the bedlam of the 2003 invasion of Iraq can still be felt in droves, today – perhaps more so than at the height of the occupation. This considered, an analysis for how the post-invasion quagmire occurred, would do little strategic good when added to the many such dozens already evaluating that conflict. There is however, potential to employ such knowledge to further propel a renewed understanding beyond such a simplistic and archaic concept of international security and its relevant deciding factors.


Disputed Corner of the Sahara. (UN Photo: Yutaka Nagata)

In terms of both driving policy and its application in practice, the 21st century has brought about dramatic changes to the state of international security studies and, more specifically, the analysis of conflict resolution. The resurgence of militant Salafi jihadism in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIL, and their respective affiliates complement the potential for global confrontation between the West and the powers in Moscow and Beijing. This dynamic, mixed with the chronic voter fatigue and trepidation over immigration and macroeconomic woes, creates a situation no less dangerous in the long-run than the notion of mutually assured destruction at the height of the Cold War.

International security studies
Situational awareness of the battlespace (both physical and virtual) has never been more important – or difficult – to possess, regardless even of the significant financial and technological resources at hand.

Intelligence and security affairs transcend the conventional arena of espionage, surveillance, and war-gaming, and have now merged with the increasingly interconnected realm of global economics and communications. To mirror this broader trend, the nature of conflicts in the 21st century surpass the traditional notion of the state being the sole referent in a bipolar world of known factors and clearly demarked allegiances. Today, the greying of non-truths and paradoxes dominate the battlespace at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, alike – It seems this trend will only intensify as globalizing processes further catalyze local and regional instabilities to blossom into outright conflicts.

A brief case study analysis of the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) illustrates the shifting dynamic of conflict in the early 21st century. Socioeconomic grievances, accelerated by social media, catalyzed mass protests throughout North Africa and much of the Middle East. Today, a regional conflict involving the direct participation of most global powers has evolved into a proxy war with vast humanitarian and geopolitical implications across the world.


March 2016 – the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2275, renewing the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) for another year. 

Steady flows of disenfranchised Syrian civilians have long since saturated the capabilities of neighbouring states, with hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in the European Union and North America.

The implications for what began as a period of civil unrest in Tunisia have transformed not just the region, but the entire globe, and it is likely that the same politically realist assessment that allowed such an opportunity for violence to thrive, would do little in the way of eliciting an equitable and sustainable peace. This, done in tandem with addressing the socioeconomic instabilities that made Arab Spring possible (and, to many, an attractive alternative) in the first place, is virtually impossible unless new schools of thought based around strategic foresight replace the previous state-centric realist analyses.

In more straightforward terms, the same thinking that gave legitimacy to acts of violence as being a perceived alternative to already institutionalized violence cannot be used to force regime change (whether internally or externally-driven) for any longer than a relatively brief pause between regimes based around force and the proliferated fear of such force.

Likewise, to paint those who identify with a cause – even one borne out of extremist motivations – as simply irrational actors beyond the reach of neoliberal opportunities, will repeat gross geopolitical errors made by successive administrations over the last century worth of statecraft.

New theories must be developed so that strategic foresight might give way to long-term solutions, rather than quick and often irresponsible fixes brought about by external military force and unilateral regime change.

Case for strategic foresight
The study of international security can no longer be one proposed exclusively by security professionals. The evolution of conflict in its myriad forms has, in just the early years of the 21st century, radically shifted traditional understanding for the role that the state can (and should) play in the resolution of local and/or regional conflicts.

An evident and deeply rooted gap exists between the strategic studies of intelligence affairs and the increasing demand for a multi-dimensional security framework that retains the individual (regardless of where such an individual was born or lives at that point in time) as the central referent of such analysis. Two schools of thought that are often considered mutually exclusive (that of security vs. human development) can, in fact, be used to develop a constructive and contextually sensitive framework that recognizes the person as the central referent for security analysis.

The diffusion of refugees throughout the Middle East, and now the world, shows that the monopoly of the state to influence and direct global policy is a time long-since passed. New actors that complement (rather than replace) the authority of the state must be acknowledged at an institutional level so that unique experiences, forward-thinking, and alternative motivations might paint a path forward for the lowest common denominators – the individuals.

The case for strategic foresight as a resurgence for geopolitical policymaking is most attractive because of its inherent goal to prevent instabilities from flourishing into conflict, rather than the current model of reacting by necessity once such opportunities are allowed to take hold and achieve perceived legitimacy. International security scholarship, long since dominated by a realist ideology that purports states will do what they must, and what is “rational” in order to thrive, must take into account new advances in constructivist game theory that acknowledge the relative experiences and processes that drive state and non-state groups to conflict in the 21st century.

Strategic foresight, in principle, is likely to be perceived as an ultimately utopian alternative to the realist analysis of asymmetric threats. In the example of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the implementation of strategic deception (the doctrine of maskirovka – the use of disinformation and concealment to “mask” the battlespace) makes the prospect of strategic foresight unrealistic when used in the application of one such case study. This is true, only so long as such a model is purported to be a “one size fits all” approach – an approach that will likely lead to the same imperial practices and marginalizing policies that has brought about much of the socio­economic disparities, and thereby conflicts, in the world today.

Rather, the need for such a model to be contextually sensitive and to maintain the individual as the central (but not exclusive) referent for analysis, does indeed foster much potential in defining, describing, and analyzing the factors that drive or elicit contemporary conflicts. Through this methodology, it is the hope of those adhering to an approach of strategic foresight to employ geopolitical modelling and predicative analysis, so as to prevent instabilities from evolving into conflict, rather than strictly planning assessments for any number of possible eventualities, and implementing them only once one such eventuality materializes.

The intersecting dynamics of conflict in a globalizing era may be considered as both one of precarious risks, but also near limitless opportunities to revolutionize the established security dichotomy, while employing innovative tools and research to further strategic foresight. The potential to integrate two complimentary approaches of security studies and human development is especially evident in its ability to break down socioeconomic conditions, identify risk factors that have permitted certain (including extremist) attitudes to fester, and to determine how best to address such vulnerabilities and improve humanitarian outlooks in the long-term. Again, if this is done with the state as the sole referent for such analysis (rather than the individual as the central, but not the only referent), it is likely that such an approach would fail to fully appreciate the globalizing processes that are both a catalyst for, and product of, conflict in the 21st century.

Application borne of idealism
A realist diagnosis of contemporary geopolitics would almost certainly suggest that an idealist perspective for international security is not only naïve, but also irresponsible at the level of policymaking. Such a diagnosis, however, relies on theories borne of a time in which a general staff manœuvring divisions by the tens of thousands across the battlefield, a time in which the fate of international security would be decided through a metaphoric “red telephone” between two capitals half a world away. Today, the state of affairs is one borne of non-truths and the increasingly “grey” nature that allows such rhetoric to prosper in the eyes of perceived public opinion. The time of a “one size fits all” approach has long-since passed.

If idealism in such a pragmatic study of affairs as international security is deemed as either naïve or irresponsible, it is because the theory behind such studies must change. While perhaps less dramatic and certainly less acute in nature, the doctrine of MAD nonetheless remains today, albeit in a dramatically evolved form that combines political, military, economic, and social aspects into a globalizing, heterogeneous battlespace.

The dangers posed by reckless security policy and the evident lack of contextual understanding by top policymakers, in any hypothetical scenario of global proportions, suggest that an urgent renewal of strategic foresight is needed for any gains in conflict resolution doctrine to be sustainable.

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Casey Brunelle is a graduate of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. In 2015, he completed an internship at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, specializing in humanitarian response.

He is currently an intelligence advisor with experience in both public and private sectors.

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