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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: May 2010

10 - Conclusion: managing strategic surprise


At the outset we acknowledged the exceedingly ambitious goal of attempting to use risk management in international affairs. Our take on this was that trying to “solve” the problems of warning, WMD proliferation, energy, etc., using risk management didn't make sense as a standard to judge performance by. The idea of an all-encompassing grand solution to any of these problems is unlikely to be a fruitful approach because they involve many broader political and economic considerations.

Instead of trying to solve these problems our goal was more modest. Having a productive conversation about them, one that specified the likelihoods and consequences of different developments, would go a long way to improving how we handle them. This “management” approach, rather than a solutions approach, fits the complex character of the problems. Our argument, in a nutshell, was that some framework was needed in order to have this productive conversation. Without such a framework the conversation would wander all over the place, and would have little prospect for mobilizing consistent attention in a useful way.

Of course, there are many frameworks that one could use to have this conversation. Risk management is distinguished from other approaches to making decisions, such as using abstract ideals (“stability,” “democracy”) as policy drivers. And it differs from relying on rules (“do not reward bad behavior”) to guide actions. Ideals are fine, but absent consideration of the likelihood of their success, or their costs and consequences, they can lead to catastrophic results. Rules also have their place.