This post is the second of a series looking for a methodology that would fulfill the challenging criteria demanded by our time. Previously, we saw that a single “story” initially told at a general level, the political dynamics that are at the core of a polity, could be used to build the very specific model needed to answer a strategic foresight and warning (national security) question or a political risk interrogation.

Very practically, how shall we do that? How are generic dynamics going to help us with our task? How can we proceed? This is what we shall see now.

If we take as analogy a game of chess, we are in the position of someone only knowing the most general principles about chess (the political dynamics we identified last time) and trying to foresee how a game, which has already started, will end (including when, with how many captured pieces etc.).

The fundamental political dynamics identified will be the backbone upon which we can lean. They will determine the questions we must ask ourselves and help us identifying not only relevant variables, drivers or factors, but also the values those variables could take in the future. The time we shall devote to each question and thus the level of detail – and complexity – given to each answer, will depend upon both the overall strategic foresight and warning question and the resources (including in terms of time) available. For example, if the question is “Will a war between China and Japan starts within the next two years?” (e.g. Jonathan Marcus, “Risk of conflict in East China Sea“, BBC News, 25 Nov 2013), then we may not need to dwell long on, say, Japan’s whales and dolphins killing and the ensuing various tensions, or China’s pollution problems. That said, a factor that may appear initially as remote, may well be used strategically by one actor or another or have unintended consequences on policies/actions, etc.. Thus, the advice is to be as exhaustive as possible yet without losing oneself into details.

Understanding the board, the pieces and a first part of the rules

256px-Echecs_chinoisAs a preamble, we should, of course, proceed with at least an initial brief definition of our issue and wonder what it covers. This may be obvious for a straightforward country analysis (although we would then also need to keep in mind that “countries” are political entities answering to time-bound norms, which may thus change in the future). This is less so for other questions, for example those related to resources (what is water exactly? what are shale fuels? what are rare earth minerals? what are space resources?) or to conceptual issues (what do we mean by sectarianism – e.g. the future of sectarianism in the next twenty years? or by extremism – e.g. the future of extremist movements in Europe over the next fifteen years? etc.)

Using the generic model displayed in the previous post, those core questions – and thus the variables  – are:

What is the relevant geography for our issue?

The sub-questions below are only indicative, given as examples. We benefit from an accumulated body of knowledge that should never be neglected and that will, most of the time, point out relevant and critical features for our specific foresight and warning question.

  • Where is “it” (the issue) located?
  • Besides which main geographical features: rivers, deltas, mountains, coast (e.g. Russia does not have access to warm seas, most of the Netherlands is below sea level)?
  • Are there volcanos, earthquakes, etc.?
  • If our issue pertains to resources, we should also ask similar geographical questions and answer them in terms of pure geography as well as in terms of political geography (see the example of water security and deep-sea resources): where are those resources located, not only on earth but also geologically, in the earth? Are they shared by various countries? etc.
  • What are the known trends impacting these geographical features, if any (e.g. river erosion and submerging of coastal land in Bangladesh, Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean, etc.)?

What is the relevant ecological setting?

  • Alternative_chessboardWhat is the climate (or climates if different zones)?
  • Is the land arid or fertile, mountainous or marshy and where?
  • What is the forest cover?
  • What is the hydric condition?
  • Which biodiversity is present (vegetal and animal)?
  • What are the endemic, vector borne, diseases linked to the ecological setting (notably bubonic plague – flea; cholera – zooplankton (Lipp, Huq & Colwell, 2002); malaria – mosquito; dengue fever – mosquito, etc.)?
  • Etc.
  • What are the known trends for those settings (e.g. desertification; watch the video of Dr Rita Colwell on “Oceans, Climate and Health: Cholera as a Model of Infectious Diseases in a Changing Environment”, 2013)?

Who is “the population”?

  • Which types of categories of population do we have, and – most important – are those relevant for the population itself or are those categories placated upon the population by analysts or external ideologies? For example, we have the multiple warnings regarding the Syrian war and the danger to placate too rigidly categories upon the actors, including sectarian ones: e.g. most posts in Syria Comment, Philip Smith interview in Blogs of War.
  • Are those categories informal (people, most of the time, are not fully aware of them) or do they constitute more formal groups? Understanding the specific dynamics for each group and identity will be crucial to see any new pattern or behaviour emerging, as well as to see new categories being born. This is notably true for “ethnic identity”, but not only. For example, many foresight and warning efforts dealing with “ethnic” related questions, including famous ones such as the research done by the University of Maryland, e.g. The Minorities at Risk (MAR) Project and its database, although very useful as a starting point, tend to take for granted the existence of ethnic groups, seeing each of them as an eternal given. They thus adopt an essentialist and primordialist reading of identity (as upheld for example by Geertz, 1973/1993). By so doing, they most often fail to capture the constructed and fluid element contained in ethnicity or minority groups, and their related dynamics, which may be a serious problem when dealing with the future. For a little know but stunning example, the research done, among others, by Professor Evans on Laos, Laos: Culture and Society, ed. 1999 is fascinating; and to keep with the Laotian example, see also Charles Zuckerman, “Lao Lum, Lao Theung, Lao Suung: A Few Reflections on Some Common Lao Ethnonyms”, 2010. Similar constructions have been documented beyond the Southeast Asian region.
  • Keeping the previous points in mind, do we have ethnic and religious divide?
  • What is the division of labour in the country? How is it upheld? By which norms and belief system? Is it changing?red pieces scaled
  • What is the class structure? Is it changing?
  • Are each of those categories subjected to new pressures? Are pressures applied in a different ways according to categories (for example, if the country knows a successive years of drought, farmers will be more impacted than others)?
  • Note that, with a little stretch of imagination, we can apply exactly the same system to issues such as water, energy, coal, air, ocean, coral or most other topics. For an example of such an approach in the case of water, see Building upon the 2012 “Global Water Security” IC Assessment. A possible typology for a water related “population” can be found in the US IC assessment, p.v and, there, consists of the various river basins. This will also, most of the time, lead us to identify supplementary dynamics, specific to the issue at hand and crucial for its understanding, that must be added to the fundamental basic political model (for an example see again Building upon the 2012 “Global Water Security”…).

Who are the “political” actors?

We are not only concerned here with political parties but with all groups that are relevant for the political dynamics of the country or for the foresight and warning issue and that were not identified previously.

  • Which groups are vying for power?
  • Who are the elite groups? white army scaled
  • In the case of resources (or “things” if we want to foresee capabilities or technologies), we shall also have to look at real groups of people who use the resource (or “thing”) – or more broadly interact with it. For example, if we deal with water security, we shall have to consider the countries where the river basins are located and all their political dynamics, all the actors using those river basins from farmers to urban dwellers, without forgetting companies treating water, selling water, as well as those potentially impacting water, such as energy and industrial companies, or even biotech companies that could change the relationship of crops to water.

Who is the ruler / the political authorities?

  • Who is the ruler, or more usually nowadays, what are the political authorities?
  • How are they organised?
  • How do they function (e.g. efficiently or not, predatory or not, degree of predation, etc)?
  • What is the regime (democracy, autocracy, plutocracy etc.) in name and in reality?
  • Who is the current government (in most countries, save in the US, the government is constituted by the individuals currently leading the country and chosen according to the formal rules set out by the regime – in the US, the term government is used to cover also the state administration)?
  • Is it legitimate? Legitimacy will have to be estimated not only according to the regime but also to the mission of the political authorities (the security of the ruled) and to the historically constructed norms. For example, one may very well have a government that is elected according to the regime rules but that either repeatedly fails to ensure the security of its citizens or that introduces policies that are anathema to the belief systems built over time of the majority of the population, as for example in Egypt with the rule of President Morsi, or in Tunisia with the Islamist rule of the Ennhada party (e.g. Patrick Markey and Tarek Amara, “Tunisia stumbles to democracy in a troubled neighborhood“, Reuters, 25 November 2013).
  • How do the monopoly of means of violence function? Is it a real monopoly? Is it legitimate? Are there any specific characteristics related to the military and police force? This is a crucial point, as we currently witness in Libya for example, where the political authorities attempt with much difficulty to assert control over militia. Being unable to do so will lead to a weak state and at worst to renewed civil war.
  • How do the extraction of resources for governance work? Is it efficient? Is it sufficient? Here the ongoing major problems of so many countries in terms of public deficit exemplify the crucial character of this variable.

For each actor (group) identified

Each group identified, each actor, and this is all the truer if the group is formally constituted, will need to be studied. For an example of such an approach, here, see the state of play for Syria (1, 2, 3). We shall notably need to find out:

  • What are its beliefs?
  • What are its goals?
  • What are its resources and means of action?
  • How do the members of the group organize (hierarchy, network) and relate to each other (and here the fundamental political dynamics briefly outline previously will be again helpful)?
  • We shall also have to apply this approach to the ‘nation” as a group too (and potentially to any regional identity and group) and understand if there is such a thing as a nation, if there are core shared values, crucial historical and national experiences and perceptions that would overshadow any other group, etc. This is of utmost importance, for example, in the case of China, if one wants to understand the tension with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. This is true of any society and country.

With this we shall more or less have the fundamental state of play upon which our initial question depends. Using our analogy of a game of chess, we now have the board, the pieces and part of the rules.

All the rules, the interactions between pieces and a game already started

We now need to see how the actors relate to each other, thus to understand the web of interactions among groups. This may lead us to bring in other actors, which will also need to be studied as outlined previously (more or less briefly according to needs), as they may appear to be crucial in one dimension or another for our initial groups. For example, as far as the war in Syria is concerned, after having studied domestic actors, we would need to consider Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, Lebanon, Russia, Saudi Arabia, The U.S., Turkey, etc.

The actions of one actor will depend upon its beliefs, its goals, its resources (including in terms of mobilizing power) and its perception of the answer that his/her/its action will trigger from another single actor, from many actors and/or from its environment (or ecological setting).

BookFred_011 scaledThat perception is difficult to identify as it depends from the actors’ beliefs, including recent ones created by experience, as well as from its “cognitive abilities” (including what may be seen as the cognitive capability of an institution). Furthermore, for an analyst, there is always the possibility, notably here, to bias the analysis by imposing his or her own beliefs upon an actor. Using interviews and listening to what actors say (including through written media) is of crucial importance, but also demands skills, because the actor may try to influence its audience, willingly or unwillingly. More simply, the actor may also have a bad understanding or little awareness of the situation s/he is living, which may lead to decisions and actions that may appear to be “strange” or “illogical”.

Our game of chess is now complete, with its principles, its chessboard, its pieces and all the rules governing the relations between pieces, and a game has started. We now “only” need to play or rather simulate the whole game until the end of the chosen timeframe. This is where we shall develop scenarios, as we shall see with the next post.


Erin K. Lipp, Anwar Huq, Rita R. Colwell, “Effects of Global Climate on Infectious Disease: the Cholera Model“, Clin Microbiol Rev. 2002 October; 15(4): 757–770. doi: 10.1128/CMR.15.4.757-770.2002.

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, (London: Fontana Press, 1973, 1993 ed.).

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