Momentous out-of-the-blue events like the protests and upheavals convulsing the Middle East and North Africa inevitably prompt questions about why Washington failed to see them coming.
The usual response is that we must do better at detecting critical signals, connecting the dots and sharing information in a timely manner. These are all commendable goals. But they are not—in this case—where the shortcomings lie.
It is hard to imagine that anyone, or any early warning system, could have foreseen how the self-immolation of lowly fruit vendor in Tunisia would trigger the downfall of two heads of state — and probably more to follow. The random interplay of people and actions was — and continues to be —inherently unpredictable.
This does not mean, however, that we should resign ourselves to being forever at the mercy of events. We can prepare for the unpredictable in at least three ways:
First, we should complement our intensive around-the-clock effort to warn of short-term threats to the United States, like terrorist attacks or the provocations of rogue states, with a systematic effort to scan developments on the horizon that could plausibly coalesce to harm U.S. interests.
This should be kept to a meaningful time frame—no more than 12-18 months into the future, since anything longer would be too easy to dismiss or ignore. These assessments should also not be confined to negative developments but potentially positive ones as well.
It is not difficult to anticipate scenarios or contingencies that satisfy the dual criteria of plausibility and consequence. Some relate to the inescapable mortality of world leaders and the possible implications of their demise — Kim Jong-il and a potential succession crisis in North Korea come to mind.
Others relate to known dates on the political calendar — like elections or referenda in unstable countries susceptible to violence. Coming elections in Nigeria—a strategically important country—or the Democratic Republic of Congo are examples. The effect of critical commodity shortages or resource scarcities in certain countries is another category that can be factored in. The point is not to predict the future, but alert policy makers to potential risks and opportunities.
Second, we need a coherent government-wide system that plans for foreign policy crises of obvious import to the United States. Contingency planning inside the U.S. government is typically confined to individual departments and, with the exception of the Pentagon, done on an ad hoc basis.
Ideally, an effective interagency crisis planning process would be informed by the horizon scanning process described above. It would consider likely challenges and how they might be mitigated as well as potential opportunities and how they might be exploited.
Fixing this deficiency would not require another government agency or disruptive reorganization. In fact, the currently moribund National Security Policy Planning Committee established in the last months of the Bush administration to consider potential crises could do it.
This interagency group, with representatives from the intelligence community and the planning arms of the relevant government departments, reportedly produced some useful studies and recommendations. But lacking any real standing in the mainstream policy process, it was largely ignored, and then never reconstituted by the Obama administration.
To make a revived crisis planning committee work would require elevating its status and authority. Specifically, a suitably empowered deputy national security advisor for strategic planning should run it and report directly to the national security Advisor and ultimately the president.
Third, the best laid plans are useless if you can't implement them at short notice. The Pentagon has built up a phenomenal capacity to respond to crises virtually anywhere in the world. But not every contingency requires a military response.
Efforts to create an effective civilian crisis surge capacity at the State Department have been halting, and starved of funding. They are now endangered by further congressional budget cuts and a flexible spending account for emergencies has also been eliminated.
State Department recently declared its intent to make crisis prevention and management a “core mission.” But if that is to have any meaning, these cuts must be restored.
Such measures would not guarantee that the United States is ready for the next crisis. But they certainly increase the odds.
Paul Stares is the Gen. John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.