Crisis Early Warning: Berlin’s Path From Foresight to Prevention

29 June 2021   ·   Sarah Bressan

Combining crisis early warning and prevention could help Germany become a more strategic international actor. Regardless of whether Berlin reforms its national security architecture, the government should link forward-looking risk and resilience analyses with structures for meaningful political decision-making to fulfil its commitment towards preventive engagement.

The commitment to act “earlier, more resolutely and more substantially” to prevent conflicts from escalating into violence has long been at the core of German foreign policy. And Berlin has put its money where its mouth is: A look at the government’s recent implementation report on its guidelines for crisis prevention and peacebuilding shows that Germany has contributed concrete milestones and considerable resources for crisis early warning and prevention since 2017. This commitment is particularly clear at the German Federal Foreign Office, which has heavily invested in early warning analyses in recent years.

But early warning is not the same as successful crisis prevention. To bridge the gap, the incoming government should link forward-looking risk and resilience analyses with structures for meaningful political decision-making. By combining foresight and action, Germany could help improve its often-criticized inability to act strategically on the international stage. 

Data-Driven Crisis Forecasting: Full Steam Ahead

Over the past two years, the German Federal Foreign Office has become a champion for data-driven conflict analysis. The creation of the PREVIEW data tool and interactions with methodological experts have helped raise awareness on the possibilities – and limitations – of conflict prediction. The German government brings together leading scholars and practitioners, promotes international engagement through exchange platforms like the EU Early Warning Early Action Forum, funds key data sources such as the Global Terrorism Database, and helps shift the center of gravity for conflict modeling from the United States to Europe.

As one of the German government's digitization flagship projects, PREVIEW offers a range of applications to support information management. It is designed to complement existing analyses of crisis developments and conflict potential worldwide, increasing Germany’s ability to maneuver through forward-looking analysis. Since the end of 2020, PREVIEW has primarily served as a data dashboard with publicly available data tailored to the needs of government officials. In addition, the German Federal Foreign Office commissioned a third-party provider to help set up the infrastructure to run a conflict forecasting model. The model is similar to the European Union's Global Conflict Risk Index and generates a quarterly list of countries with great potential for violence.

In parallel, analysts at the Bundeswehr University Munich are developing a forecasting tool on behalf of the German Defense Ministry, which is comparable to PREVIEW “in terms of its purpose and functionalities”. Analysis teams in the defense and foreign ministries exchange regularly and hope to intensify their cooperation in the future. In the long run, Germany plans to extend PREVIEW into a government-wide platform for foresight and evidence.

Foresight as a Remedy for Weak International Leadership 

Since political crises are notoriously difficult to predict, the German government complements forecasting with scenario-based strategic foresight methods in its early warning toolbox. In addition to mathematical probabilities, experts and policymakers develop scenarios on potential future developments. Based on these, government actors design strategic policy options – such recently on COVID-19’s effects on the European neighborhood. Research shows how strategic foresight and data-based forecasting can complement each other to create better forward-looking and preventive political action and analysts are discussing how this can help achieve better preventive foreign policy. The German Federal Foreign Office is working on better linking those methods.

In fact, the German government has set an ambitious goal for its foresight activities: to strengthen its overall ability to act strategically in foreign and security policy. And it has a lot of catching up to do – be it in terms of overcautious engagement, inadequate security policy decision-making structures or obstacles to coherent inter-ministerial coordination and action. Germany’s expert Commission on the Root Causes of Displacement also recently criticized the inadequate link between early warning, strategy building, decision-making processes, and personnel on the ground.

Crisis early warning processes indeed offer a great opportunity for addressing Germany's leadership weaknesses. Joint departmental structures are already in place: A crisis early warning working group discusses the results of foresight analyses for the next 24 months on a quarterly basis. The group presents its recommendations for analysis and action to a coordination group at departmental management level. But these coordination rounds hold no substantial decision-making power over German foreign policy. To make its investments in early warning worthwhile, Germany’s new federal government will need to get serious about bridging foresight and preventive action and strengthen the following elements:

1. Jointly Develop Strategic Policy Options 

In addition to joint analyses, Germany’s various ministries responsible for foreign policy, development and defense should cooperate on developing options for preventive action. Practice and research show that the greatest added value of strategic foresight exercises is the direct impact that the negotiations have on the participants in the room. These joint exercises require the participants to balance interests and strategic goals, which provides ample fuel for controversial discussions. These discussions are key for developing a shared strategic culture for better interdepartmental decision-making processes toward early preventive action.

2. Form Follows Function: Integrate Foresight From Start to Finish

Cooperation between the different German ministries often functions better in missions abroad than between headquarters in Berlin. Gathering and classifying information on the ground – on the so-called ‘first mile’ of an early warning process – plays a central role in debates on forecast-based humanitarian action. However, this is not yet in practice in the field of political crises prevention, where the role of the first mile should be expanded. Building on the existing importance of country representatives’ analyses, German ministries should strengthen regional and local expertise in the early warning processes, involve country actors in a structured way and thus contribute to better interdepartmental prevention policy.

For early warning to add value in the long run, German ministries need to also align their goals, analytical methods and real decision-making processes at the last mile of the early warning process. Should anticipatory analyses help focus prevention spending based on risk assessments and – as in the case of the EU – regularly readjust Berlin’s engagement in individual countries and regions across all ministries? Should an early warning system generate crisis warnings, including for mass atrocities, to allow for a rapid response at the highest levels of politics? Does the German government want to include long-term, systemic changes to its international strategic foresight processes?

Until now, analysis teams in the German ministries have rightly focused on exploring how they can add value. To do so, flexibility is important, as different foresight methods can be combined to best fit specific objectives and use cases. But matching supply and demand of unfamiliar analyses within established bureaucratic structures is too often dependent on the analysis team's hierarchy within their ministry and the enthusiasm of individual officials for one data product or another. To focus limited resources, prioritization is key. The time is right for integrating early warning processes into German foreign policy from the first to the last mile for more strategic, forward-looking action. What this means: formulating clear goals, establishing analytical processes for different use cases and strengthening the role of foresight political decision-making.

3. Find Entry Points: Analyzing and Strengthening Resilience

At the level of the EU, the concept of resilience has helped to mediate between foreign, defense and development policy interests. The German government has committed itself to implement the resilience approach. Analyzing resilience factors and promoting societal resilience against crises and conflicts would allow Germany to contribute to prevention, even when many risks continue to be unpredictable. Conducting such analyses requires a better understanding of how the existing social, political and economic conditions of a potential crisis region favor resilience factors such as social trust, cohesion and legitimacy of government institutions.

Methods for combining resilience analysis, early warning and prevention are underexplored. The German government already uses some approaches in its foresight and context analyses for stabilization and development. To realize the preventive potential of societal resilience, Germany should work alongside partners like the EU, the World Bank and academia to further develop and resilience analyses and ways to strengthen societal resilience.

4. Put the Glory Back in Prevention: Evaluate and Adjust Regularly

In its recent guidelines implementation report, Germany lists transparent communication on early warning processes under the category, "what remains to be done." The implementation status of some activities remains vague, but building better early warning processes understandably takes time. And investing in a solid scientific foundation, international cooperation and pilot projects is far better than hastily establishing dysfunctional processes.

However, outside expectations of forecasting fluctuate between exaggerated (thanks to loaded terms like "artificial intelligence") or overly skeptical, given the financial expense and volatility of global politics. “There is no glory in prevention,” as the famous saying goes: if a crisis doesn’t escalate successful prevention is usually invisible. For a country whose core foreign policy objective – its Staatsraison – is prevention, this is a serious problem. If Germany wants to continue to invest public funds wisely in its post-COVID-19 budget, the government should have its crisis prevention efforts independently evaluated on a regular basis. The EU, for example, has recently evaluated the impact of its early warning system. A review of current and longer-standing warning and response processes, as in the case of Rwanda in 1994, is helpful for properly aligning capacities, constantly adjusting priorities and learning from past successes – as well as failures. Berlin should also support efforts to make prevention’s contribution to society more visible.

Transparency is equally important for methodological development – for example, in the context of prediction competitions, forecasting tournaments and peer-reviews for predictive analytics. To this end, the German ministries should cooperate and expand their methodological expertise to make sure that their methods complement each other, are integrated systematically and can be adapted to different political challenges, bureaucratic needs and decision-making processes.

5. Seize the Moment: Establish a System of Government Foresight

Finally, given the potential of foresight for strategic political action, the question remains whether Germany’s next government should give strategic foresight a more prominent role in its overall institutional structure. Why not combine the ideas of a national security council, strategic culture and the ability to lead with foresight?

While the German government is committed to early warning internationally and at the forefront of data-driven conflict forecasting, it can learn from countries like Finland and the United States when it comes to creating a culture of foresight and forward-looking policy. A number of emerging networks and forums on strategic foresight – including at the Federal Academy for Security Policy – show that actors are aware of the added value of the foresight toolbox. The German Chancellery's strategic foresight department goes beyond the scope of its crisis prevention guidelines, involving ministries such as environment and health – areas of the German government that also interface with modern security policy and have a wealth of experience in using predictive models. Finally, engaging the broader population in foresight processes about Germany’s desired future in the world would also be a welcome change – not just as democratic duty, but to shake up public debates on security policy.

If Germany’s incoming government decides to reform Berlin’s security decision-making with a national security council, the existing early warning processes will have to find a new place at its center. Even without a new council, better crisis early warning processes are an unavoidable alternative to fulfil Germany’s commitment of “earlier, more decisive and more substantial" prevention as a strategic actor on the world stage.

Early Action Conflict Prevention Early Action

Sarah Bressan

Sarah Bressan is a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin and the PeaceLab project lead. @bressansar