Batten School Essay: Preparing For Global Challenges Demands Bolder Imagination

June 21, 2012 — How should America respond if Mexico were to become a failed state heavily influenced by drug lords? How would a lack of stability on our southern border hobble U.S. military power long accustomed to extensive forward deployments around the world? Do U.S. policymakers have a plan for this possibility, other than a very tall, 2,500-mile-long fence?

Such potential developments in world affairs with dramatic consequences should be considered and planned for, argues a new essay, "Fast Forward: Planning for Alternative Foreign Policy Futures," published in the latest issue of the Virginia Policy Review. The student-run public policy journal of the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy was launched in 2008 by the school's first class.

This "exercise in futurology" is co-written by two professors, one Republican and one Democrat, who spent decades in the middle of Washington policymaking. They make a case for the realistic possibility of six potential long-term developments in world affairs with dramatic consequences. They urge U.S. leaders, policymakers and students of public policy to be bolder and more creative in contemplating and planning for potentially dramatic changes in world affairs. With better foresight and policymaking flexibility, U.S. leaders can transform crises into opportunities, the authors argue.

One co-author is professor Gerald Warburg, assistant dean at the Batten School, a former senior legislative assistant to members of the U.S. House and Senate Democratic leadership and author of several works on U.S. national security interests, including "Conflict and Consensus: The Struggle Between Congress and the President Over Foreign Policymaking."

His co-author is Jeff Bergner, a visiting professor at Christopher Newport University and frequent lecturer at the Batten School who previously served as the Republican chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations under Condoleeza Rice.

Over decades in Washington, the two co-authors often engaged in policymaking combat, but with an eye toward bipartisan cooperation that "can actually advance the national interest. This is the spirit of the current essay, which rejects ideological pre-commitments," they write.

"Even though the intelligence community publishes a forward-looking report every four years to identify the most significant long-term national security challenges," the authors note, "these exercises in policy planning are striking for how often they fail to predict how rapidly and how fundamentally radical change will occur in the international arena."

They continue:

"The pace of change has increased dramatically as globalization accelerates virtually all trends. President Obama has dealt with an 'in box' as full of international crises as any recent president. The stock market collapse, a massive oil spill, a tsunami-driven nuclear meltdown, the collapse of political regimes across the Arab world, the rise of a nuclear Iran, and three wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan/Pakistan – many of these events were unpredicted, but all urgently required the attention of policymakers.

"Predictions made by U.S. policymakers today need to be far more imaginative than in even the recent past. Unlikely scenarios should be considered; no major assumptions should go untested. Change, as Heraclitus argued, is indeed a constant. The turbulent contemporary international scene demonstrates above all that the future is unlikely to bring a straight continuation of present trends. Here is where inbuilt bureaucratic tendencies toward caution create one of the nation's greatest sources of vulnerability.

"Predicting the future is, of course, difficult. But one thing is certain: doing so through the hopeful lens of one's own political ideology is a sure source of error."

Warburg and Bergner go on to contemplate six potential long-term future developments in world affairs that would have profound impacts on America and U.S. policy, including a major economic stumble by China, perhaps set off by a burst Chinese housing bubble or soaring global fossil fuel costs.

In that case, "All of the problems which are often associated with a rising China – declining American growth, Beijing calling in U.S. IOUs and Chinese nationalist threats to Taiwan and its neighbors – are more likely to result from a weakened China than from a growing China. Are U.S. policymakers ready?," the authors write.

Other scenarios they consider include cyber-attacks on the U.S.; world food shortages; and a future Europe reshaped by declining prosperity, a fraying social safety net and a restless Muslim immigrant population that combine to threaten its post-World War II political and economic stability.

"Since we both teach students with a keen interest in the future public policy challenges, we wanted to author a piece that presses for greater imagination from typically cautious policy planners," Warburg said. "Batten students are keen to focus on future problems of a transnational nature. And as scholars we feel it is important to challenge conventional wisdom."

– by Brevy Cannon