This post is the fourth of a series looking for a methodology that would fulfill the challenging criteria demanded by our time. Having clarified with the last post the approach and mindset for the building of our scenarios, we shall now move to the practical part, how to do it, focusing here, in this post on scenarios for war, before moving to scenarios for situations qualified as non-violent crises with the next post.

Mutually exclusive scenarios

As a preamble, it is necessary to emphasize a crucial rule. To quote Glenn and The Futures Group International:

“When a set of scenarios is prepared, each scenario usually treats the same or similar parameters, but the evolution and actual value of the parameters described in each scenario are different.” “Scenarios” p. 4.

war, scenarios, scenario analysisThis means that scenarios should be mutually exclusive, initially. If they were not, then this would imply that we do not have truly two (or more) scenarios but two (or more) different perspectives on the same scenario. We may also see presented as different scenarios different timeframes for the same scenario, which is not recommended. This does not mean that initially mutually exclusive scenarios may not, when seen dynamically, transform into or lead to another. However, what should be done in the case of two or more scenarios corresponding to different points in time, is to underline that one scenario is a sub-scenario of the first one, located at a different time on the timeline. Note that, as, ideally, scenarios should depict an evolving situation with its critical decision points, such sub-scenarios may well be an astute way to emphasize those crucial crossroads.

These confusions may often be found when scenarios were not developed with an adequate methodology or were created under the pressure of time.

We shall not come back here on the methodology according to which we should use the model developed during the previous step to conduct an influence analysis or a revisited one as suggested previously (see Determining criteria: a revisited influence analysis), and then create the scenarios according to the result obtained (for an example of Syrian scenarios developed according to one such approach – however keeping only two variables as according to the GBN methodology – see Janssen et al., “Syria in 2013, Persistent Turmoil?” Clingendael, 2012).

We shall focus upon other possible complementary ways that could accelerate the process of scenario development without producing erroneous results or introducing biases and flaws. Those approaches, added to the usual methodology, could even improve the overall result.

War and scenarios

If we take the case of an ongoing war, for example, the set of scenarios that should be developed is pretty straightforward and grounded in logic:

war logic, war, scenario

Each scenario and its sub-scenarios will be more or less likely at one time, however, together, they define the cone of plausibility (see previous post) for scenarios related to a war.

If we absolutely wanted to use the more usual scenarios approach and to limit the number of scenarios to 3, 4 or 5, then which scenarios should we omit, or which ones should we choose? It would be absolutely necessary to confront the results stemming from the influence analysis and determining the choice of scenarios with this simple logical approach to check that no crucial scenario has been forgotten. This comparison could also lead to revise the model leading to the influence analysis… and to revisit the influence analysis itself.

What I suspect is done, unconsciously, when building scenarios, is to decide upon leaving out those scenarios that are either believed to be least likely, or less desirable, or less acceptable (read “politically correct”). In the first case, probabilities are implicitly reintroduced; in the second, exploratory and normative approaches become implicitly mixed; in the last we fall prey to group-think. In all cases, we are reintroducing biases or failing to fully struggle against them. A systematic comparison with the logical scenarios possible in the case of war should reduce the risk of seeing those biases being unwillingly reintroduced.

If we continue with our logical approach, and detail further each scenario, we shall get the following diagram:

war logic, war, scenario

The blue arrows actually start introducing not only logical links but also dynamical ones: for example, a fragile success emerging from a peace settlement imposed from the outside may only evolve as a failure or as a success. In terms of timeline, the scenarios resulting from a blue arrow will take place at a later time (the arrow may also be used to depict the probability that could then be portrayed through the thickness of the line). Note that the timeframe for each arrow may vary. For example, in terms of logic, a war will always, one day or another, end up into a no-war situation… but this may take a few years or a century. How long it will take and how probable it is are crucial elements in terms of decisions, strategy and policy. We should thus do our utmost to provide decision-makers with proper information and analysis regarding those elements.

The group of scenarios called “ongoing war” is absolutely fundamental. It is notably by changing the terms of the war that the “end of war” can be influenced in a way that is favourable to the objectives and interests of one or the other actors. It is thus crucial to explore it. For example, using again the case of Syria, the Saudi actions, lately, have been turned towards changing the terms of the conflict, notably as far as actors are concerned (see Facing the Fog of War in Syria: The Syrian Islamists Play the Regional “Game of Thrones”, or, among others, Scott Lucas, “Syria: Saudi Arabia Declares “We Will Act Without US Support” EAWorldview, 18 December 2013).

Now that we have our itemized scenarios and sub-scenarios, we may create the narrative for each of them, using the understanding and model developed previously, not forgetting to single out the indicators that will then allow us to follow the evolution of our set of scenarios.

What we have seen so far is useful for wars that have already started. Could it also be useful in other cases, such as non-violent crises when tension is already perceptible but when it has neither involved violence nor escalated into a full-blown war?

This is what we shall see in the next post.


Examples of Scenarios on the future of Syria

Ted Galen Carpenter, “Four Syrian Scenarios“, (no timeframe specified), The National Interest, 7 August 2012.

CGA Scenarios, “SYRIA 2018“, (workshop and research) New York University’s Center for Global Affairs (CGA), August 2013.

Philipp Holtmann, “Syria – a Best Case, a Worst Case and two Most Likely Scenarios“.Perspectives on Terrorism, North America, 7, jun. 2013. Date accessed: 19 Dec. 2013.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer et al., “SYRIA: ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES AND IMPLICATIONS FOR UK” (Scenarios to 2017, report of workshop), University of Exeter, Strategy and Security Institute, November 2012.

Floor Janssen et al., “Syria in 2013, Persistent Turmoil?“, (report of workshop), Clingendael Institute, August 2012.

Brian Michael Jenkins, “Syrian Scenarios“, (no timeframe specified), The Rand Blog, Rand Corporation, 8 August 2012, see also Charles Blair, “A ruinous road to Damascus: Can the US avoid it?“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 27 September 2013.

Helene Lavoix, Potential Futures for Syria in the Fog of War, (Scenarios to 2018 + updates on website, research), Red (Team) Analysis, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, July 2013.


Glenn, Jerome C. and The Futures Group International, “Scenarios,” The Millennium Project: Futures Research Methodology, Version 3.0, Ed. Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. 2009, Ch 19.

Featured image: 3 Possible scenarios of the Soviet invasion of Iran from the same CIA estimate 1985 by Central Intelligence Agency Office of Public Affairs Washington, D.C.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 thoughts on “How to Analyze Future Security Threats (4): Scenarios and War”

  1. Thank you for this interesting assessment, very useful for a better understanding of war developments. You could also make a similar analysis for potential reasons for going to war.

  2. Helene hi, in your earlier posts, do you cover why you are doing this, for example, in order to force structure or to prosecute a campaign. It looks very useful but my interest lies in Australia’s situation where the development of scenarios might be used to test force structures that are developed to cover the unpredictable. Hope that makes sense. Rgds Jim

    1. Hi Jim,
      In the first post of the series I indeed explain why I am revisiting the methodology. Those scenarios are meant to uncover possible futures for specific issues. Thus you should be able – if i understand you well – to use the methodology to develop scenarios that will then be “used against” different force structures. This should give you weak and strong points. By force structure do you mean military? If yes, then it seems to me that the key point, before to elaborate the scenarios, is to identify all possible issues where forces could/should be employed, thus to use the Australian defense and security perspective etc.
      I hope I answered your question,
      All the best

  3. Helene: I really appreciate reviewing the work posted on this site. Today I was especially pleased to have been exposed to the work of Charles W. Taylor–very helpful to my research and approach to scenario development!

    Happy New Year!

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