Today’s international order is changing into a multi-order one and is characterized by a high degree of complexity and uncertainty. In a new article, Monika Sus and Marcel Hadeed argue that scenario analysis can be used as a complementary method to traditional IR methods.
To grapple with the “epochal shift” and “to develop strategies to deal with uncertainty, to be prepared for the unexpected”, an increasing number of actors in the realm of IR conduct foresight exercises. NATO’s Strategic Foresight Analysis, for example, forms a fundamental pillar for its defense planning process; the new European Commission features a portfolio for Inter-Institutional Relations and Foresight. Yet, the methodology has so far gained little traction among the academic community. Scenario analysis can nonetheless be used as a complementary method to traditional IR methods. It allows scholars to simultaneously remain rigorous and to provide policy-relevant input.
For IR scholars, complexity and uncertainty constitute formidable challenges. Traditional IR methods examine present- and past patterns and cannot account for sudden changes or grasp potential future developments. They rarely question the assumptions underlying a particular line of reasoning and engage in interdisciplinary discourse only after the research phase. We suggest scenario analysis, as a systematic analytical process to create visions of alternative futures, can be a valuable additional tool in IR scholars’ toolkit to detect early signs of change and identify possible shifts in trajectories.
In our article we introduce the Multiple Scenario Generation (MSG) as a robust foresight method. It is multi-step process, centered around a structured exchange between experts, that produces a set of scenarios elucidating a plausible interplay of trends deemed likely to shape the future. The process can be summarized in three phases.
- In the preparatory phase, a common understanding of the world around us is established. A research question is defined, key assumptions tested (including against empirical data) the most important drivers of change identified and defined.
- In the developmental phase, these drivers are combined into sets and checked for internal consistency. Those combinations considered plausible are chosen as the kernels of the scenarios. Narratives are constructed around them, detailing the path from now to the timeframe in question. Once a scenario is completed, it is fed into a review process, where it is validated – commonly based on the criteria of plausibility, coherence, and innovation. Scenarios can also produce early indicators, allowing academics and practitioners to monitor the extent to which a scenario manifests itself and what indications of such a possible manifestation might occur.
- In the use phase, the scenarios serve as bases for innovative and relevant policy recommendations. They can also help draw attention to neglected, but potentially impactful trends. By elucidating blind spots in our thinking, scenario can increase policy-makers capacity for anticipatory governance.
But a crucial question for its admissibility into academic’s toolbox remains: Are scenario approaches academic enough? We argue that, if executed systematically, scenario analysis can satisfy the criteria of a social science methodology. In our paper, we tested scenario analysis against eleven criteria established by John Gerring. We found that it satisfies most of them as it can be considered a cumulative, evidence-based (empirical), generalizing, rigorous, skeptical, systematic, transparent and grounded in rational argument.
Of course, since foresight deals with the future, its results are inherently not falsifiable. Moreover, its results are neither nonsubjective, nor replicable. As interactive group exercise, they are reliant on participants’ perspectives, interpretation of data, as well as the interaction between them. This disqualifies the method for ardent positivists. However, falsifiability is not always a prerequisite for acceptance of the IR community. Some of the discipline’s most fundamental theories, such as Weberianism, Marxism, or rational-choice theory are hard to falsify. Moreover, while we readily concede the approaches inability to test knowledge, to appraise other findings, it excels in the generation of new knowledge.
Furthermore, scenario analysis can enrich the IR discipline. Making the case here for the proliferation of this approach among IR scholarship, we found a fourfold added value it can bring to the discipline.
- Confronting enduring assumptions: scenario analysis starts with participants revealing and challenging their own and others’ assumptions. This process uncovers and corrects enduring preconceptions and cognitive biases. The use of empirical data to justify assumptions ensures the eradication of false truths.
- Bringing forward new research questions: scenario analysis challenges its participants to break out of linear thinking, challenge their deeply held beliefs and consider the possibility of sudden shifts in trajectories. This explorative process focuses on detecting weak signals of change and overlooked trends. Discovering them and their potential consequences can drive researchers into new fields.
- Dealing with complexity and interdisciplinarity: scenario analysis allows for multicausal reasoning and nonlinear interaction between variables. The analysis is the result of an interdisciplinary exchange between participants. As opposed to more traditional academic exchange, this conversation takes place early in the research phase, and not ex post. Such multifaceted and dynamic analysis is suitable for the complex and changing nature of world affairs.
- Stepping out of the ivory tower: scenario analysis exercises are often centered around a workshop, at which practitioners and academics of different disciplines come together. The interactive exercise creates shared knowledge and understanding, and functions as a platform of exchange between the two worlds. Policy-makers get the opportunity to contemplate long-term trends, and scholars learn what issues drive politics. This enables them to check and ultimately enhance the relevance of their work.
The world of international relations is a complicated and messy one. The shift towards a multi-order world is accompanied by sudden shifts in trajectories and strategic surprises. We believe scenario analysis is a useful tool for IR scholars to confront the complexity of today´s world and – in the best-case scenario – inspire the policy world to be prepared to the unexpected.
Monika Sus is an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences and a fellow at the Center for International Security at the Hertie School. Marcel Hadeed was a research associate at the Dahrendorf Forum between 2017 and 2019. They are the author of “Theory-infused and policy-relevant: On the usefulness of scenario analysis for international relations”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.