Coronavirus Changes the Global Threat Picture
Planners face taking a greater holistic approach to national security.
(Part one of a three-part series)
The nation must realign its strategic objectives to build out its future readiness in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, says an analyst specializing in anticipatory developments. Intelligence analysts, with the aid of new technologies, must be able to combine data from a variety of inputs both to foresee emerging crises and to anticipate future threats before they become a full-fledged menace. The intelligence community and national decision makers must be prepared to view multiple problems as part of a whole in which they enhance one another to generate more severe challenges.
The advent of the COVID-19 coronavirus brought a host of shortcomings into view, says James Canton, Ph.D., CEO and chairman, The Institute for Global Futures. A consultant to government and industry worldwide, Canton states that the pandemic threat has been foreseen by many for several years, but it did not trigger government action until it became dangerously apparent.
“Clearly, our situational awareness was not as future-smart as it should have been,” Canton says. “Though it’s impossible to go ahead and assign every potential risk factor, this was a well-articulated risk factor.
“We’re going to need to do better … where we’re looking at scenarios past lessons learned, developing more analytic frameworks and starting to break up the kind of bureaucracy that keeps us from paying attention to even emerging threats,” he declares.
The nation keeps making the same mistakes by not planning far enough forward, Canton continues. It doesn’t consider risk convergence, and that is an increasingly likely threat scenario, he offers.
“We need to do a better job at developing a future strategic capability, because there are going to be many other kinds of risks,” Canton says.
Viewing the future strategically, being able to understand emerging trends quickly and grasping the risk convergence of how these events play off each other is the key to changing the mindset of strategic readiness, Canton states. This is necessary for future pandemics, which are “surely in our near, if not farther, future,” he declares.
Preparing for the future will require more foresight about interactions between seemingly unrelated events. The biggest problem in confronting future threats will be in overlooking asymmetric events or those with weak signals, Canton offers. “We need to expand the platform of possibilities, so we can incorporate some of these weaker signals that have not emerged into those signals that have emerged—and that we understand,” he emphasizes.
He continues that COVID-19 is only one of about 10 risk factors that individually could have a disruptive effect on the nation. Other factors include the growing debt problem, global climate change, asymmetric weather, nonkinetic conflicts between nation-states and population migration. Many of these can have second- and third-order consequences when taken in context with the others. “The implications of COVID-19, combined with disruptive and largely unforeseeable and uncontrollable weather events, could lead to significant failed states,” Canton declares.
Already, climate change is having an effect on the food supply chain, potable water availability and even civil unrest. These asymmetric features can lead to other, more dire, factors that ultimately could lead to greater effects on a national or global scale. Analysts and planners must be able to consolidate these effects to have a proper view of the future.
India, which has undertaken drastic measures to prevent the virus from ravaging its large population, is an example of a nation that is seeing second- and third-order effects, Canton points out. Frameworks of primary and second- and third-order risks can reveal a larger threat matrix that magnifies the impact on the public. He adds that new threats might be born of COVID-19—possibly leading to the need to completely redesign supply chains around food, energy and pharmaceuticals, for example. Other larger effects involve the asset and market destruction being triggered by the coronavirus.
With many of these effects already underway, experts have a prime demonstration of how second- and third-order effects can emerge from an unrelated disruptive event. The next crisis might not involve a pandemic, but the far reach of this pandemic can serve as a template for preparing for whatever lies ahead.
“This is about lessons learned,” Canton says. “Let’s learn them, and use that to adapt and develop our risk capabilities to be able to envision future risks better.”