The Art of Reperceiving Scenarios and the Future

Article excerpt


"Scenarios give . . . [decision makers] something very precious: the ability to reperceive reality."


In the days when pharaohs ruled Egypt, a temple stood far up the Nile, beyond the cataracts in Nubia, in what is now the northern desert of the Sudan. Three tributaries joined together in that region to form the Nile, which flowed down one thousand miles to produce a miraculous event each year, the flooding of its river basin, which permitted Egyptian farmers to grow crops in the hot, rainless midsummer.

Every spring, the temple priests gathered at the river's edge to check the color of the water. If it was clear, the White Nile, which flowed from Lake Victoria through the Sudanese swamps, would dominate the flow. The flooding would be mild, and late; farmers would produce a minimum of crops. If the stream appeared dark, the stronger waters of the Blue Nile, which joined the White Nile at Khartoum, would prevail. The flood would rise enough to saturate the fields and provide a bountiful harvest. Finally, if the stream showed dominance by the green-brown waters of the Atbara, which rushed down from the Ethiopian highlands, then the floods would be early and catastrophically high. The crops might drown; indeed, Pharaoh might have to use his grain stores as a reserve.

Each year, the priests sent messengers to inform the king of the color of the water. They may also have used lights and smoke signals to carry word downstream. Pharaoh then knew how prosperous the farmers in his kingdom would be, and how much he could raise in taxes. Thus, he knew whether he could afford to conquer more territory. As Pierre Wack . . . would say, the priests of the Sudanese Nile were the world's first long-term forecasters. They understood the meaning of predetermined elements and critical uncertainties.1

What possible connection could this vignette have with the practice of strategic and future force planning? The answer might be more surprising than you think.

Since our focus in this essay centers on planning for the future and strategic uncertainties, while not losing sight of the challenges and opportunities that face us today, we have paid attention most to what the nation needs to both defend and protect its interests in a time of discontinuous change. Yet just like the priests of ancient Egypt, we also argue that strategies and policy makers need to understand and recognize the constants, trends, and shifts that will shape and determine the future security environment. In many ways then, one's best "guesstimate" must be informed by an ability to read the "river of change," just as the ancient priests were able to "read" the Nile. Thus, to provide reasonable analysis and information to decision and policy makers, we believe that almost always we have to let the facts get in the way of our opinion. Therefore, our own assumptions, prejudgments, and even what we thought was a clear understanding of the world must be questioned. It may be a cliche, but it is also an evident truth that how we view the world subtly but definitely affects how we act in it. After all, the root from the ancient Greek for "geography" betrays the idea of a "mental map," an illustration of the world as we choose to see it. All of us, whether we admit it or not, come equipped with a "mental map." However, if we are to be worth anything at all in making analyses and decisions in an increasingly complex security environment, we must be willing to change that mental map over time.

This essay thus attempts to integrate some of the ideas of Peter Schwartz, whose book The Art of the Long View was used at the Naval War College for many years, along with the ideas of Schwartz's mentor, Pierre Wack, and others, with elements and issues of special interest to the student of national security affairs and future force planning.2


The challenge for strategic planners is to help decision makers understand what the future security environment might look like, to affect their perceptions, in essence, to help them "reperceive. …