This essay by Dr. Mathew Burrows, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, appears at Art of Future Warfare project media partner War On The Rocks.
John Maynard Keynes, the renowned 20th century British economist, once wrote that “the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.” Fiction is a great solvent, breaking down our resistance to imagining a radically different future. I recently published a book about the future that dared to be different; I devoted a third of the book to fiction because I thought that was the best way to get the reader’s attention about the increasing possibility of a different future. One of the four fictional stories I wrote for the book dealt with a possible future triggered by a nuclear war in the Middle East.
Why did I include a fictional story in a non-fiction book? Stories help to bring the point home in a way that streams of data are unable to accomplish. I think of myself as a highly analytical person. From my time as a CIA analyst to my present vocation in think tank world, I’ve generally been consumed with producing analytic work in one medium or another.
But I know from briefing my analysis to a variety of audiences that it’s the stories that policymakers eat up. Only later can one dissect a story or anecdote for its broader analytic significance. In my experience, only a tiny minority of policymakers are comfortable with starting at a very abstract level and then applying it to specific circumstances. They prefer to work the other way.