The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 1

Dr. Peter Scoblic is a co-founder and principal of the strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies. A former executive editor at The New Republic and Foreign Policy who has written on foresight for publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Harvard Business Review, Peter is also a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and an instructor for the Professional Development Program at Harvard University. Previously, he was deputy staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he worked on approval of the New START agreement and was the chief foreign policy speechwriter for Chairman John Kerry.

On the eve of a particularly fraught election and a turbulent moment in US political history, Peter joined me for a discussion about his career, ranging from post-Cold War nuclear arms policy to the relationship between policymaking and pop culture, plus the practical question of how and to what extent we can usefully predict the future. The interview will appear on this blog in three parts, but you can read it in its entirety as a PDF download here.

I began by asking Peter if he’d always been ambitious to work in foreign policy.

Foreign policy is something I’ve always been interested in, especially national security work, and particularly nuclear weapons work. There’s been a wonky streak running through me over the years, often focussed on these dark existential issues.

It goes back to being a child of the 80s; I believe the second movie I ever saw was War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, in which a teen hacks into the computers of NORAD, the aerospace defence command. I was probably too young to see it and the experience, combined with the actual headlines of that decade, planted a seed which I was able to explore as a student at Brown. 

My undergraduate thesis was on nuclear proliferation, and my second job out of college was editing a small journal, Arms Control Today, which focussed on weapons of mass destruction. Years later, I wound up writing a book on nuclear strategy and the impact of US conservatism on nuclear policy during the Cold War and the Bush 43 years, which presented something of a mystery for me.

War Games even has a climax where the military computer is running scenarios for thermonuclear war on its screens.

I spent decades studying the topic and my conclusion came down to what the movie encapsulated in a single line: “The only winning move is not to play.” 

It’s a strange feeling to realise that you’d had the insight given to you at the age of nine, and you just had to take a very digressive path to confirm it in the real world. 

It feels like that era of the two superpowers bristling at each other has gone, and yet, when Trump fell ill, there was all this panicked social media chatter about “doomsday planes” taking flight, which made it seem as if the fears were only waiting to be roused once more.

To what extent are we still living in a Cold War world, or the shell of that Cold War structure? 

It never fully went away, and at the moment it’s re-emerging in some frightening ways. When the Cold War ended, most people put the threat represented by those weapons out of their mind, and there was significant progress made in stabilising the relationships between the nations with the largest nuclear arsenals. Good work was done in reducing those arsenals, but the problem of nuclear proliferation grew, and the fact remains that the US and Russia still have thousands of warheads ready to use at a moment’s notice. 

During the Cold War, we almost stumbled our way into nuclear war on several occasions. The degree of misperception about other actors’ intentions which allowed that to happen still exists today between, for example, the US and North Korea. 

Ernest Moniz and Sam Nunn have argued this is actually the most dangerous nuclear time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s debatable, but certainly these structures and tensions are still with us.

The popular narrative in the 90s and 2000s was no longer about the nuclear opponent who was the West’s mirror, but it was about the dirty bomb, the stolen warheads, base commanders gone rogue. Matthew Broderick in War Games was switched for George Clooney and Nicole Kidman in The Peacemaker, or even John Travolta as the rogue military man in Broken Arrow

It seems as if the “rules of the game” for nuclear war were perceived as fairly stable from the Sixties through to the early Nineties, and then things got messy after the Soviet break-up. Did scenarios become less important when the old rules broke down, or did they remain useful in this more fragmented situation?

Scenarios, at least in the United States, grew out of the Cold War dynamic and especially the work of the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn. He challenged people to think the unthinkable precisely because they seemed to believe that either deterrence was stable enough, or the consequences of deterrence failing were so horrific that they shouldn’t even be contemplated. Kahn was very provocative and even gleeful in pushing people to look at these things they didn’t want to, which is one of the reasons he became the model for Doctor Strangelove.

Herman Kahn

Scenarios became crucial to keeping nuclear threats on the radar of policymakers and the public in the post-Cold War period. The nature of the threat could change, and we saw this played out, not just in policy circles but also in Hollywood. People assume that if Hollywood tells these stories, it can’t be real – but a lot of these Hollywood stories were quite plausible in their general thrust, if not the specific details.

A great example of this is Jeffrey Lewis’ The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, a novel which explores a fictional escalation of tensions between the US and North Korea. It’s essentially an extended scenario showing how perception and misperception can still lead to nuclear conflict.

Hollywood becomes a place where we can have this conversation at a public level, and after all, Kahn took the term scenarios from the movie industry, where it means the detailed outline of a proposed feature film.

Did Kahn himself have a moment of revelation, when he hit on the scenario as a tool for strategic foresight?

This question fascinates me, but I’ve been unable to nail down an answer. I’ve corresponded with Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, the author of Kahn’s one mainstream biography, but we’ve not been able to pinpoint a single precise moment when he comes up with what he called these “strange aids to thought”.

Kahn helped strategists to work with stories instead of calculations when projecting the future. Ghamari-Tabrizi calls him “the only nuclear strategist in America who might have made a living as a standup comedian”!

To what extent, as a foreign policy expert, were you being trained in narrative or quantitative approaches to the issues you were dealing with?

My experience fell into an unsatisfying middle ground of neither: theory without empirical data to back it up. This is what forms the uncertainty in this area of policy; although nuclear weapons have been used, no-one has ever fought a nuclear war before. Notions of deterrence and what will work, or won’t, end up being theoretical, and people sometimes accuse nuclear strategists and nuclear arms control professionals as working in the realm of theology, where we’re articulating policies based on faith rather than empirics. 

That’s not entirely fair, because there is an increasing historical record, and declassification helps us to piece together more of the story behind the Cold War. However, I wasn’t raised with either a quantitative or narrative view of the problems I sought to understand.

I heard a similar comment from the venerable scenario editor Betty Sue Flowers, who said that economics was also theological, because ultimately there were assumptions you simply weren’t allowed to question. 

People may debate that, but is there an element of truth to that when it comes to nuclear arms control? Are there certain premises you have to accept for the policies to make sense?

There are, and the problem is that the arguments are not resolvable. One can build very precise, ornate, logical arguments for or against the effectiveness and stability of deterrence, for example, but if you track the debate over the decades, it hasn’t advanced very much in some ways, because you can’t put the arguments to the ultimate test.

At some point, the arguments become so routine and well-worn that a former colleague of mine suggested that at conferences, we should be issued with numbered paddles representing the standard set of arguments. Instead of spending time re-litigating each one, we could just raise the appropriate paddle.

You wrote in the Washington Post in 2016 that Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was one that “we didn’t see coming, but could have”. You also spoke of that election as one that raised a “metaphysical question”, which sounds rather like your depiction of the 80s Cold War’s existential threat.

Was that Post article a waypoint in your journey from arms control policy wonk to the strategic foresight practitioner you are today?

The jump to foresight was a break which came about as a result of my interest in forecasting. I read Philip Tetlock’s remarkable book Expert Political Judgment, built on a twenty-year study of expert predictions of political and economic events. One of his findings was that expertise in a given field doesn’t actually offer a tremendous predictive advantage, but what really interested me was his discovery that some people were genuinely better than others at foretelling what came next.

That finding was the basis for a project funded by the US Intelligence Community which ultimately led to his book Superforecasting, in which he uses a mix of talent-spotting and training to bring together a cadre of people who are well-calibrated forecasters of the future.

The idea that you could predict, not with certainty but at a probabilistic level, the future of a complex domain like politics just blew my mind – it struck me as magic. I was an editor for The New Republic and Foreign Policy for many years, and one of the great things about that role is that whenever you find someone who has a cool idea, you can just pick up the phone and ask them to write something. I did that with Phil Tetlock, and he wrote a piece examining the CIA’s Global Trends reports, which explore the future twenty years out.

That conversation sent me back to graduate school, and when I got there, I realised that Phil’s work was about transmuting uncertainty into risk, finding ways to assign probabilities to mysterious future events – but I was also interested in the chunk of uncertainty that still remained after that process. What do you do with that?

There’s a joke in US doctoral programmes that “all research is me-search”, and we study what we don’t understand in our own lives. I started grad school at a point of enormous uncertainty in my life, both personally and professionally, and so the topic became a fixation for me. How do we think of future uncertainty in productive and constructive ways?

Did you have a first encounter with a particular foresight school or method?

At Harvard Business School I tried to find faculty members who were interested in studying how people think about the future. My adviser, the brilliant Amy Edmondson, was incredibly supportive, but many others looked at me like I’d just sprouted a second head! It made me question whether this was an academic question, or a business school question, at all.

I remember sitting down with the head of the strategy unit, Dennis Yao, who was very gracious and insightful, and asking who was looking into the ways we understand the long-term future, and formulate strategy around that. He told me that the strategy discipline doesn’t really deal well with dynamic change on that scale.

For a while, I was casting about blindly, but I then had a conversation with the futurist Brian David Johnson, who connected me with communities of foresight practitioners in both business and government. It wasn’t so much that I found a school of thought, as a group of like minds who had banded together for lack of institutional support, so that they might trade ideas.

Foresight, as a practice, seems to somehow be something that is “always already emerging”. It’s been around for a long time, but it remains something like fringe theatre – only pulled into the mainstream when it’s useful. Like in turbulent years such as this!

*

Join us for the next instalment when we talk further on the findings of Peter’s doctoral research, and the ways in which foresight work may actually transform our mental model of how we perceive time, plus how we can better understand which events can be predicted, and which resist forecasting. You can also read the complete interview now in this PDF download.

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