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Members of the New York Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons gathered in Manhattan on August 6, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city of Hiroshima. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

We Can't Prevent Future Nuclear Wars Unless We Imagine Them Today

It is now more important than ever to anticipate what the future might hold due to the uncertainty surrounding tomorrow's strategic environment.

The desire to anticipate what the future holds is not new. The Delphic oracle in the eighth century BC held a prestigious and authoritative position in the Greek world, providing predictions and guidance to both city-states and individuals. In 1555, Nostradamus’ Les Propheties attracted an enthusiastic following, and even today many credit him with predicting many major world events. During the Cold War, techniques designed to anticipate the future were instrumental in informing strategic decisions. Analysts at the RAND Corporation, for example, pioneered the development of foresight methods such as scenario development to predict the Soviet Union’s nuclear strategy during the Cold War in their seminal 1988 report, “How Nuclear War Might Start”.

However, just as the Cold War ended, so too did the close relationship between foresight and nuclear weapons. Other sectors utilized and expanded upon futures methods in their work. The most well-known example is the use of scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell, which has been in use since the 1970s to better prepare for an eventful decade of oil crises and economic turmoil. The objective of Shell-style scenario planning is breaking the habit of assuming that the future will look much like the present. Today, many parts of the private and public sectors increasingly use strategic foresight to explore the future as part of their decision-making process. In comparison, futures methods are no longer in the mainstream of nuclear policy making, even though nuclear risks are rising. This dearth of strategic foresight in nuclear policy making is dangerous, but fortunately there are some easy remedies.

A fundamental challenge faces nuclear policy makers and scholars today: It is now more important than ever to anticipate what the future might hold due to the uncertainty surrounding tomorrow's strategic environment. Moreover, the inherent—and growing—complexity of systems and new actors has made it increasingly difficult to predict the future simply by extrapolating from the past. Futures methods provide the tools to address this challenge, along with a good dose of humility about how much we can control our world.

These methods can help develop foresight—insight into how and why the future could be different than today—which, in turn, helps to improve policy, planning, and decision making, all of which play an integral part in a world with nuclear weapons. We talk about futures in the plural because the objective is not to predict a single future, but to explore alternative futures. By envisioning alternative futures, we can better sense, shape, and adapt to the one that is emerging. Singapore’s foresight practice is an excellent example of how foresight readies us for change. For over 40 years, foresight has helped the Singapore government go beyond prevailing assumptions, better manage risk and uncertainty, and develop greater resilience to possible shocks. Futures methods also help to engender ‘knowledge humility’, where instead of seeking to deny or eliminate uncertainty, we learn to live with it through reflexive governance.

Even though there has been some recent work on foresight in nuclear policy, these efforts are scattered. There are a handful of nuclear policy analysts who use diverse futures methods such as wargames to help us deal with the intersection of cyber and nuclear conflict, future-oriented technology assessment to cluster emerging technologies according to their impact on crisis stability, and scenario development to identify cyber vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons systems. However, an absence of long-term thinking on (nuclear) security persists.

So, how might nuclear policy makers and professionals (re)introduce foresight in nuclear policy making? We offer three practical approaches that can be implemented in the short-term future.

First, shake up habitual thinking. The nuclear policy world is stuck in a Cold War mindset that centers on deterrence theory and the assumption that we live in a bipolar world. However, global power shifts, the increasing pace of innovation and technological change, a changing climate, rapid population growth, and growing resource scarcity will require new ways of thinking about the future of security, which may or may not include a central role for nuclear weapons.

Second, bring in new voices. Engaging diverse and unconventional thinkers from outside the nuclear space can help shake up static thinking. There are several initiatives that are focused on bringing new voices to the nuclear policy space (e.g., Girl Security and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security). Nuclear security demands a variety of perspectives, which is why we should aim for more diverse educational backgrounds and experiential backgrounds for a genuine diversity of opinions and approaches. Futures methods are compatible with these initiatives because they emphasize the importance of meaningful participation from a diverse group of stakeholders in order to forecast a complete and holistic future.

Third, design a preferred future. There are a range of questions that we can ask about the future, and about the future we want. The Shell Seven Questions technique is an excellent place to start, as it provides valuable insights for building a preferred future by collecting different narratives and desires for the future among stakeholders. In addition, Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons Framework offers a structured way of designing innovations that could help to get to those desired futures. Let’s imagine our preferred future is a world without nuclear weapons by a future date. What would our vision for success look like? What would be the dangers of not achieving that vision? What would need to change to achieve the desired outcome? What successes can we build on? The failures we can learn from? What would need to be done now to ensure that this vision becomes a reality? Finally, if you had a mandate, free of all constraints, is there anything else you would do?

To be clear, foresight, while an enlightening and often challenging process, is not without its flaws. First, there are limits to the extent to which empirical data about the past and present can be measured, obtained, and used to forecast future patterns of change. Second, the system or processes under consideration can behave in different ways as the future is uncertain and unpredictable. Third, many relationships that seem to have developed in a linear way in the past may follow a non-linear pattern in the future. Fourth, the future is unknown, so different and conflicting perspectives as to how the future may unfold can simultaneously be legitimate.

Exploring alternative futures—and thinking ahead about how we might respond or adapt to varied conditions—improves our ability to influence those conditions to get what we want. Paul Saffo, a renowned forecaster, concludes:

Prediction is concerned with future certainty; forecasting looks at how hidden currents in the present signal possible changes in direction for companies, societies, or the world at large. Thus, the primary goal of forecasting is to identify the full range of possibilities, not a limited set of illusory certainties. Whether a specific forecast actually turns out to be accurate is only part of the picture—even a broken clock is right twice a day. Above all, the forecaster’s task is to map uncertainty, for in a world where our actions in the present influence the future, uncertainty is opportunity.

Nuclear policy makers talk a lot about the uncertainty surrounding tomorrow’s strategic environment. It’s time to start seeing this as an opportunity to employ tools that help us think in a more creative and more robust manner about the future role of nuclear weapons. Foresight will better serve nuclear policies, no matter what future is ahead of us.

© 2021 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Marina Favaro

Marina Favaro is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.


Sara Z. Kutchesfahani

Sara Z. Kutchesfahani is the Director of the N Square DC HubN Square is a funders collaborative created in 2014 to introduce innovation and creative thinking into the nuclear risk reduction space.

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