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Talking Policy: Michael Oppenheimer on Future Scenarios

World Policy Journal is introducing a series of weekly online interviews with intellectuals, government officials, and other prominent figures on the global policy stage.

Can the future of a country be predicted? Can these predictions shape foreign policy? World Policy Journal sat down with Michael Oppenheimer, clinical professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, to discuss his new book, Pivotal Countries, Alternative Futures: Using Scenarios to Manage American Strategy, and his trajectory devoted to the study of the future.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Those who know you are aware that this book is the product of years of work in the field of developing possible future scenarios through workshops. How did this idea come up? How did you decide that this tool was important for policymaking?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: You are right to ask the policy question because that is where this all really comes from; from an interest in policy and making policy better. You have to be asleep to miss the fact that American strategies and policy are frequently blindsided by unexpected events and some of those surprises are justified, and some are willful blindness (intellectual rigidity, failure to question and reexamine one's’ assumptions, and so forth), and some of those surprises are consequential because we were caught unprepared and because our responses themselves are often dysfunctional because we haven’t thought about them, we haven’t prepared for them. Since I was in Washington observing policy and doing reports to Congress on policy, I’ve always noted and pointed out the lack of preparedness, the lack of foresight in policy making. That’s where this grew. I’ve never believed that prediction is possible, I think that the world is too complex and developing too rapidly. Our knowledge and intelligence are inherently flawed, always will be, and therefore, prediction is wasteful and can be dangerous because it generates overconfidence by making you think that you know the future, when in fact you don’t. So the scenario process derives its value from being predictive but by exposing decision makers the possibilities about the future that they haven’t thought about. The purpose of this is making better policy, be a little more proactive and better prepared. 

WPJ: You have done more than 30 workshops and scenario initiatives in which you get together with a group of experts and develop possible scenarios, and you have been advising many institutions and actors on this, from the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) to the CIA. What have been the challenges that you recurrently face when dealing with policymakers?

MO: Specifically with policymakers, one challenge is that they are unavailable for long stretches of time, the kind of time that is essential to absorb the value of the proposition, understanding the value of this kind of thinking. Getting them to pay attention is hard. They are very busy, and the higher in the hierarchy you go, the busier they are, and the more driven they are by their inbox. The other challenge is that it’s hard to get policymakers to think outside of their inbox, and to pay attention not only to the immediate, but to the long term, even though a focus on the long term allows you to see current reality differently. A third challenge is that even when you get policymakers who are really interested and are really prepared to devote the time, they go back to their departments and they are rapidly sucked back into that system of immediacy. I always argue this, and I argue it in the book. The real maximum value of this is not in the event itself, it’s in the process, and unless you institute a process like this--of ongoing examination, reexamination, and testing, and so forth--the value will not be sustainable. 

WPJ: The last scenario you did was Syria in 2013. When are you going to do another one and what would it be about?

MO: I’d love to be able to answer that question but I don’t know yet. We did Iraq and Iran for the Carnegie grant, and then we got a grant to do China, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Pakistan, and China. Future projects require new grants. We are thinking about holding a meeting at NYU’s campus on Washington next year, but it is still taking shape.

WPJ: In all of the cases that you’ve analyzed, has there been one that was more challenging than the rest? 

MO: They all had their challenges. There is always resistance to doing this from people at the table. Many of the experts are very rooted in their way of thinking. They have been studying their country for a very long time and they think that they have it figured out. The interactive dynamic of developing scenarios demands that experts get out of their assumptions and it’s hard to get them there. In particular, I faced this challenge when we did the Russia and China scenarios. Eventually it works, but it’s a recurrent struggle. Then there is the problem of policymaker denial. When you come to them they often have committed to a certain course of action--Syria is an example. There is always resistance coming from policymakers. There is also a tendency that everyone has when thinking about change, to basically want to extrapolate: “the future is going to be just like the past.” The proposition of this approach is to broaden people’s minds and if you focus too much on predicting, you will end up repeating the historical trajectory. That’s Pakistan. A lot of experts look at Pakistan and think “Pakistan is a mess, it’s a disaster, it’s a state in permanent process of failure, but it will not fail, it will always find a way to avoid total failure.” That was the prejudice going into the Pakistan exercise, and it’s challenging. My job as a facilitator is to get people off of their “favorite” future.

WPJ: How do you follow up on the development of these scenarios?

MO: What we do is promote the dissemination of the scenarios and encourage policymakers to share with us their insights and incorporate them into policy discussion. After we finish each report we do briefings wherever people will listen to us. We have briefed the Council of Foreign Relations, the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, think tanks in Europe, in China, among others, and the book is part of this process. 

WPJ: What do you think about the use of software and technology in the field of forecasting?

MO: My technique is getting people to the table and making sure that all the skill sets are there. Depending on the country, we bring economists, political scientists, climate experts, demographers, sociologists, and so forth. You try to match the skill sets at the table to try to determine the forces that are shaping the future of that country. You want people with different ideas, different backgrounds, different nationalities, and different skill sets. Software does it in a different way, and there are quantitative methods that can be used, too. Even though these methods seem rigorous, they are always based on what people say, and I like the direct contact with the people and to be able to challenge them, instead of just sending an online survey. 

WPJ: Do you make recommendations based on your scenarios?

MO: To different degrees, the scenarios we’ve made have had sections on policy implications. They are more discussions of the challenges facing the policies. In the Syrian case we were quite explicit in the concluding section on what the U.S. should be doing. 

WPJ: This was a very interesting and insightful conversation. We look forward to hearing more from you and your projects. Thank you.

MO: Thank you.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy Journal interviews!

[Photo courtesy of NYU]

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