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Crisis Early Warning and Foresight in Peace and Security Policy: Earlier, More Resolute, More Substantial Action!

I have been active in peace and security policy for more than 35 years. In all that time, (civilian) crisis prevention has been a central theme for me, and crisis early warning (CEW) has been a key element of that. From the early 1980s onwards, one major factor that led me into politics was a future scenario that had enormous damage potential, was impossible to rule out, and even seemed to be becoming more likely: the failure of the nuclear deterrent in Europe, and a devastating nuclear “homeland defense” in Germany. Several times, European civilization only just narrowly avoided this scenario. We were all extremely lucky!

Surprising major crises

Since then, peace and security policy has had to contend with big surprises and unexpected major crises: the extraordinary series of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall; the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union; the return of war to Europe in the Balkans; the genocide in Rwanda; the Al Qaeda terror attacks in New York and Washington; the borderless war against terror and the international/German deployment in Afghanistan; German overseas deployments, mostly in regions that had never seemed likely; the rapidly clouding-over Arab Spring and the extreme consequences of the war in Syria, leading to the terror of the Islamic State (IS); the “discovery” of sub-Saharan Africa by European and German security policy; the refugee crisis around the Mediterranean; the frosting of relations between Russia and the West since the annexation of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine, as well as the associated return of Alliance defense; Brexit; Trump’s electoral victory in the United States and the global rise of national populism; the revolution in social and public communication.

In 2001, it was possible to prevent the next impending Balkans war in Macedonia, thanks to a last-minute recognition of the crisis, concerted international prevention efforts, and political pressure on the parties involved in the conflict. But this seems to have been something of a positive exception to the negative rule.

New impetus for crisis prevention

Given the increasing frequency of major crises and growing uncertainty, it is only natural that political crisis prevention and foresight in Germany has gained (a new kind of) impetus since 2014.

From 2000 to 2004, the German federal government’s overall concept and action plan for “Civilian Crisis Protection, Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Peace Building” provided the conceptual basis for the new policy field of crisis prevention. Following the disaster of the Balkan conflicts, new instruments and approaches were added to the infrastructure of civilian crisis prevention. These include the Center for International Peace Operations (Zentrum Internationale Friedenseinsätze, ZIF), the Civil Peace Service (Ziviler Friedensdienst, ZFD), the German Foundation for Peace Research (Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung, DSF), and the “zivik” program for civil conflict resolution. Moreover, there was a general increase in conflict sensitivity in development cooperation.

But while the crisis early warning action plan did identify a warning/prevention gap, it did not discuss it further. Strategic foresight was not even mentioned at the time. Partly because of the growing challenges of overseas deployments, crisis prevention came to be overshadowed in the following years as attention was focused on post-conflict rehabilitation. It was not until early 2014, with the debate over Germany’s international responsibility, the proliferating conflict environment, and the Federal Foreign Office’s “Review2014” process, that the political emphasis shifted back onto crisis prevention – and now, for the first time, onto strategic foresight. Crisis prevention and crisis management became one of three priorities in German foreign policy. Following consultative processes, for the first time in July 2016 the German federal cabinet approved the “White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces).” This was followed in June 2017 by government policy guidelines titled “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace” (translated from German). For the first time, both government documents prominently discuss crisis early warning and foresight, and in more specific terms than ever before.

The White Paper emphasizes that Germany’s fourth strategic priority is the “early recognition, prevention, and resolution of crises and conflicts.”1 This requires a “forward-looking, comprehensive, and sustained approach.” Early recognition of crises should “combine national and international, state and non-state expertise to create a clear overall picture.” An inter-ministerial approach to developing strategies will be promoted by “expanding and interlinking authority in the areas of strategic foresight, control, and evaluation.”2

The guidelines reaffirm the “primacy of politics and the priority of prevention” (translated from German). “Early recognition of crises is an essential basis for early and decisive action to prevent crises. It allows avoidable surprises to be reduced, and policies to be better prepared for possible escalations. This requires capacities for the targeted surveillance of countries and regions. The German federal government will refine its tools of analysis, so that it can keep sight of political, economic, and structural trends that favor the development or intensification of crises. At the same time, it is important to stay realistic: even with very good early warning mechanisms, crises cannot always be predicted in detail” (translated from German).3

In its guidelines, the German federal government makes a commitment to

  • “refine and more closely interlink its instruments for the early recognition of crises”;
  • “apply strategic foresight methods and seek close international cooperation in the early recognition of crises and fragility analysis”;
  • “promote joint situation assessments of potential crises” (translated from German).4

Fundamentals of foresight and crisis early warning systems

Strategic foresight is increasingly developing into an instrument for the systematic preparation of political decisions.5 Expectations occasionally surface to the effect that strategic foresight can provide reliable predictions about future trends, crises, and violent conflicts. It can identify preventative “adjusting screws,” so to speak, which would allow conflicts to be reliably prevented. But such expectations are unrealistic. Social and political processes are fundamentally different than the cause-effect relationships of the physical world: they cannot be exactly predicted and can be influenced only to a limited extent.

But at the same time, crisis and conflict escalations are not natural disasters; they are human-made. And in some types of crisis and conflict, escalations can be predicted with reasonable plausibility: e.g. humanitarian crises or mass violence including genocide. Many cases are known in which there were early and credible warnings as well as realistic options for action, but these were not followed up with appropriate political or military prevention. Rwanda in 1994, Kosovo in 1998, northern Afghanistan in 2006, and the 2014 ISAF pull-out are such cases, and I have personal political experience of them.

The examples show that the systematic view ahead can and should be significantly better: in short-term CEW and in strategic foresight; to sharpen our focus so that we are better able to deal with the general ­acceleration and fundamental uncertainty; in policy-making processes for short-term crisis prevention measures and for strategic planning.

Status of foresight and ­crisis early warning in German ­government ministries

For a long time, the embassies dotted throughout the world, their respective country sections in the German Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt, AA) and the German Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) were the main sensors in the Federal Republic of Germany’s crisis early warning system. But the early recognition capability of the overseas representations depended to a considerable degree on their respective staffing and the crisis sensitivity of their management.

Some ministries only recently gained early warning tools: the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung, BMZ) in 2005, the Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, BMVg) in 2012, and the Federal Foreign Office in 2015.

Development ministry: A majority of the focus countries for German development cooperation are considered to be fragile. Conflicts, fragility, and violence are obstacles to development. As a result of the 2005 BMZ strategy for peace building, and as part of the development cooperation crisis early warning system, the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) analyzes the crisis and conflict potential of more than 90 countries every year on behalf of the development ministry, based on 36 indicators (structural conflict factors, processes that intensify conflicts, strategies for conflict management and the use of force, definition of the conflict phase). Supplementary “politico-economic brief analyses” (politökonomische Kurzanalysen, PÖK) by external experts analyze societal actors and institutions, providing regional desks with a basis for preparing country strategies and the work of country teams. Finally, “Peace and Conflict Assessments” (PCA) ensure a peace building orientation for development projects.

Defense ministry: Division SE I 3 in the strategy and deployment department, and division Pol II 1 in the policy department at BMVg, as well as the department of futures research at the Bundeswehr planning office deal with early recognition and foresight in various scopes: SE I 3 with a time horizon of up to 18 months, Pol II 1 up to 5/10 years, and futures research until 2040.

As of 2012, in the context of the Bundeswehr’s departmentally coordinated task profile for countries under observation, information from the media, military intelligence, and other departments at first converges on SE I 3. In the process of assessment and consolidation, the relevant data is separated from the irrelevant. In addition to the risk situation (focus on military force, violent conflicts), aspects affecting Germany are considered too (e.g. potential risk to German citizens, facilities and interests, multilateral interests, regional aspects). Via “potential analyses,” the risks of role changes (from a partner to an enemy) are also taken into account. Furthermore, interdepartmental and inter-sectoral expert talks on crisis regions (e.g. Iraq) are held. These talks include non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The findings from SE I 3 periodically flow into the situation early warning system.

Division Pol II 1 aims to foster the strategic capacity of the German federal government. It looks at likely crisis areas of the future. The approach used now ranges from quantitative, IT-assisted methods to qualitative analyses. A “strategy and foresight” network was set up, in which the following organizations, among others, participate in regular thematic meetings: the new METIS institute at the university of the federal armed forces in Munich (Universität der Bundeswehr München), the Bundeswehr planning office, the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College (Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr), the university of the federal armed forces in Hamburg (Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg), various foundations (including the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), Bertelsmann Foundation, Konrad Adenauer Foundation), the Federation of German Industries (Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie, BDI), the German Trade Union Confederation (Deutscher Gewerk­schaftsbund, DGB).6 In addition, the METIS institute and the Hamburg Institute for Maritime Safety produce short studies on relevant security policy topics.

The department of futures research at the Bundeswehr planning office has been in existence for 11 years. The fact that the Bundeswehr have the longest tradition in this field is simply due to the extremely long planning cycle in the military. It is all about long-term considerations, so that signals can be better understood. Strategic foresight in the Bundeswehr forces begins broadly, but is application-oriented on the whole. In February 2017, the head of the planning department at BMVg – Lieutenant General (Generalleutnant) Erhard Bühler – for the first time presented a long-term perspective to 2040, titled “Strategic Foresight for the German Armed Forces” (Strategische Voraus­schau für die Bundes­wehr). This describes possible developments as well as capabilities that will be needed in the future.

Methods of futures research in the defense ministry are similar to those of CEW (e.g. Delphi method, scenario technique, road mapping, future workshops). The department has an interdisciplinary orientation, with experts in seven core areas, each with attached networks. Regular exchanges of views are essential for a constant change of perspective. These take place at conferences and in various networks with people from different specialist fields, cultures and regions of the world.

Federal Foreign Office: Department “S” has been growing since 2015. It deals with crisis prevention, stabilization, post-conflict rehabilitation and humanitarian aid. Within the department, two divisions are explicitly tasked with taking a systematic look into the future: S06 with strategic foresight, and S04 with crisis early warning.

S04 has been developing a CEW toolkit since 2016. This computer-assisted analytical system draws on 41 databases so far (e.g. World Bank, SIPRI, weather services, media). It should be completed by the end of the year. Political, economic and social indicators include, for example, the status and protection of human rights, political and social participation, poverty rates, migration pressure, price trends and economic data, and social inequality including ethnic, religious, and gender-specific indicators.

Findings are delivered to department “S” itself as well as to other recipients in the Federal Foreign Office. An early warning working group meets every four years. It represents all the key foreign policy and security policy departments.

S06 delivers analyses of conflicts and actors, alternative future scenarios and options for action on an as-needed basis e.g. to country sections but also to embassies. Time horizons extend to several years.

A so-called “Focal Point” for the responsibility to protect was set up in the Federal Foreign Office in 2012, and subsequently assigned to department “S”. The German early warning system for impending mass crimes is based on available CEW tools such as reports by missions abroad, the UN and its special envoys, and CEW reports from the BND and the new S04 division.

The Crisis Response Center (Krisenreaktionszentrum, KRZ) monitors and responds to crises worldwide, to protect German citizens in danger. Its task is not to prevent or provide early warnings of political crises, but rather to make the best possible provisions in the event of a crisis by issuing travel warnings and planning protective measures and evacuation operations (crisis prevention and response in relation to individuals). The various departmental capabilities are assigned to the KRZ, including the Technical Relief Service (Technisches Hilfswerk, THW) and BKA negotiating group. The KRZ is regarded as a good example of a clear understanding of existing capacities and capabilities. Crisis support teams assist contingency planning irrespective of location.

German Federal Intelligence Service (BND): Country-based CEW analyses are a key instrument of intelligence foresight. The BND produces these analyses with assistance from other departments in a cycle of 12 to 18 months. They are intended to record the conflict structure of a country, identify escalation factors, take resilience factors into account too, and support policy-making. They are also made available to the German federal government in the “crisis preparedness information system” (Krisenvorsorgeinformationssystem). Furthermore, the BND issues twice-monthly “intelligence and warning” reports. These provide a basis for short-term early warning, but they are secret.

German Federal Academy for Security Policy (Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik, BAKS): Since 2014, BAKS has served as a training and networking platform for strategic foresight. Whereas an estimated 200 different organizational units are engaged in futures research, BAKS is tasked with promoting the whole-of-government approach in this field. Heads of section from all departments participate in its methods seminars. Every year, the “Strategic Foresight in Practice” (Strategische Vorausschau in der Praxis) network stages a conference and workshop day at BAKS, in partnership with various ministries. This event is attended by dozens of foresight experts from nearly all German federal ministries and subordinate authorities, who meet to exchange experiences and research results.

When it comes to foresight, the ministries are for the most part still set up in very different ways. Some still lack a dedicated organizational unit, while at others this is already in the development stages. Often only two or three employees are available for the task. The futures research department at the Bundeswehr planning office is unique in having a staff of ten.

A fundamental change in thinking can be observed on the part of the Bundeswehr when it comes to strategic foresight: previously, analyses and responses were geared to what was presumed to be likely. But it is said to be better first to look at the possibilities, then the risk potential, and only then the probability.

Foresight experts point out that there is extensive foresight potential in Germany, but it is hardly used. One such example is the foresight enhancement work carried out over the last 25 years by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (Büro für Technikfolgenabschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag, TAB). Or in the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF), where it is reported that very many detailed foresight studies on a wide range of policy areas are available and accessible on the Internet.

On the level of crisis early warning, regular communication takes place in the early warning working group (Arbeitsgruppe (AG) Früh­erkennung) between the AA, BMVg, BMZ, German Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Inneren, BMI) and BKA at the levels of section head (quarterly) and department head (every six months). The “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace” guidelines announce for the future an “inter-ministerial crisis early warning meeting – horizon scanning” (“Ressortrunde Krisenfrüherkennung – Horizon Scanning”). This would convene as needed or at least every six months, to promote joint situation assessments of potential crises.

Recent years have brought a sharp increase in networking as well as dialog and education formats beyond ministerial boundaries, and with the involvement of think tanks, foundations, associations etc. As a result, hitherto different understandings of foresight and early warning may be brought into line with each other, or at least made compatible. BAKS offers a central platform for this.

However, institutional locations for an inter-ministerial, integrated CEW and strategic foresight system are evidently not yet in sight. One can only suppose that this gap probably makes it more difficult to take the desired “earlier, more resolute, more substantial” political action, especially with regard to operational and short-term crisis prevention.

The crux of it all: from the analysis to the decision makers 

The critical points are to be found in the transfer from theory into the political practice of policy planners and decision makers in the executive and legislature – in the gap between “early warning” and “early action.”

I have focused on international crisis management since 1994 in the German Bundestag and since 2009 in its environs. Over this time, I have encountered many factors, constraints, interests and mentalities that get in the way of or even block political attention and farsightedness, crisis sensitivity, strategic thinking – and hence the earlier action we are hoping to see.

The familiar “Cassandra syndrome” describes a situation where truthful warnings from competent persons acting in the common good are regularly ignored by incompetent decision makers fixated on short-term advantage. Yet this is an over-simplistic caricature. The reality is rather more complicated.

  • The double resource problem: foresight, strategic thinking and early warning do not come for free; they require sufficient personnel, time, space, and money. Usually, in the ministries, the growing demands of day-to-day work are so absorbing that little or no time is left for a systematic look into the future. When there is a permanent sense of urgency, a sense for what is important can be lost.
  • “Early action” requires options for action and always implies the use of resources. These are usually scarce, and less available in cases where there is no acute pressure to act.
  • Strategy weakness: For many years, primarily at the German Chancellery and Foreign Office, I experienced a downright defensive attitude to strategy developments. Some justified the need for “driving by sight” by referring to the runaway pace of change in international politics and the cost of developing an inter-ministerial strategy. This, they argued, was out of all proportion to the value of such a strategy in providing guidance. For other top politicians, strategy development evidently appeared to be an unacceptable limitation on the freedom to act of “men who make history”. By contrast, the security policy community has been calling for strategy development, as a top priority, for many years.
  • Reachability of decision makers: political actors and decision makers generally have to deal with all kinds of topics, requirements, deadlines and interests on a daily basis.
  • Given this competition for attention, getting through to them is always difficult – especially for issues where there is no acute pressure to act, but which might entail a slew of other tasks.
  • To reach decision makers, CEW is all the more dependent on the credibility of sources (for example the International Crisis Group), the relationships between analysts and decision makers, and on an orientation to the needs of decision makers. Warnings should be as clear and specific as possible. Recommendations should not be seen as completely unrealistic, as this would mean they could be dismissed.
  • Individual and collective perceptual filters in the form of suppression, refusing to believe, wishful thinking and denial of reality. During the German deployment in Afghanistan, I found that perceptual filters of this kind were particularly widespread. It was a sobering experience: warnings rejected for years on end, spin doctoring, losing touch with reality, first development illusions, then illusions about withdrawal, and a rejection of impact analyses that continues to this day. This was due to a combination of political interests (prioritizing loyalty to the alliance and domestic opportunity), the lack of a “no-blame culture” and defensive attitudes toward unpleasant truths, but also excessive demands resulting from a highly complex conflict situation.
  • In circles that disapprove of the military, there are patterns of perception which primarily focus on potential threats emanating from the West. In these patterns, threats from other actors play almost no part – and hence neither does the challenge of averting dangers.
  • Across parties and actors, there is a pattern of perception that sees only the faults of the other, but not one’s own faults. Yet meaningful foresight and early warning absolutely depend on having a self-critical perspective.
  • Decision makers should be concerned with people, the issue at hand, and the common good. In reality, party and group interests, as well as personal career and power interests, are often involved too. Individual ministers and those around them say that the decisive criterion determining some positions and actions is that the boss is presented in a favorable light. Prevented crises and conflicts are invisible successes, generally attracting little attention or merit. In terms of party tactics, a commitment to early warning and foresight is not likely to bring much advantage.
  • Where hectic day-to-day politics prevail, as in sections of the German Bundestag, early warning, foresight and strategic thinking have a particularly difficult time. So having the space and time for foresight and early warning is all the more important. In the previous legislative period, the “civilian crisis prevention” (Zivile Krisenprävention) subcommittee would spend the final half-hour of its meetings on less well-known conflict regions, as a way of drawing the German federal government’s attention to blind spots in CEW. Many country sections were extremely grateful for this.

Switching on the fog lamps 

It would be irresponsible to continue driving only by sight into the thickening fog of the future. An intelligent autopilot is not available. But whatever guidance exists should be used in the best way possible and developed further. In this respect, Germany is a long way behind other countries.

  • More common language, better dialog and a foresight network of educational institutions in Germany are required.
  • The organizational units for foresight and CEW must be given the staffing and funding they need to work more effectively. They should be more than just a token. Where thinking for the future is required, a two-person department is not much use.
  • Bodies that establish and foster links between the ministries should be supported. Common platforms for particular processes would be useful. It is recommended that different perspectives should be brought in, e.g. comparing trend analyses across policy areas from the perspectives of different ministries.
  • The German federal government’s guidelines on crisis prevention and peace building state more clearly than ever before: “The prevention of war and violence in international relations, the prevention of genocide and serious human rights violations [...] are fundamental principles of German governance” (translated from German).7 This categorical declaration of the responsibility to protect should also be reflected in its operationalization, starting with an effective early warning mechanism. It is doubtful that the design of the existing German “Focal Point” for the responsibility to protect is sufficient.
  • I am aware that a large number of government reports appear periodically, and that they often receive only minimal attention in the Bundestag, as a formality. Nevertheless, an annual foresight report following the Finnish example8 that had to be debated in by the Bundes­tag would be an important step – as a bridge from the important foresight community to the political sphere and the public.
  • However, any such reporting would have to be accompanied by a certain degree of cultural change: it has to be possible to openly mention unpleasant events. In the case of the annual report by the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces (Wehrbeauftragter des Deutschen Bundestages), this has been accepted practice for years.
  • Foresight and crisis early warning, especially by state institutions for hazard prevention, are naturally focused on risk and threat factors, and worst-case scenarios. This is as necessary as it is potentially dangerous. Especially as it looks today, the future might frighten people. The “Paradox of Progress” study by the U.S. National Intelligence Council9 illustrates this with its five global megatrends: the mountains of problems keep growing, the paths to conquering them are hardly visible. Reactions such as anxiety about the future, suppression and flight are only natural.
  • So as not to inadvertently stir up a sense of hopelessness about the future, and not only to prevent crises but also build peace and give justified encouragement, foresight and CEW also need a systematic view of opportunities and of constructive approaches, processes, and actors. “Seek the peace” applies here too.
  • Early warning and foresight should make German contributions to international crisis prevention and peace building more effective. This appeals to and is in line with the beliefs of most citizens, but that is not enough.
  • It also needs to be more politically worthwhile. The key here is that the policy area of crisis prevention and peace building, which has traditionally been largely invisible, should finally be made professionally more visible. Good news from this field should not continue to be knocked down by the bad news that supposedly has a higher news value.

1 German federal government (2016): White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr. Berlin, p. 50.

2 Ibid., p. 57.

3 German federal government (2017): Krisen verhindern, Konflikte bewältigen, Frieden fördern. Leitlinien der Bundesregierung. Berlin, p. 111.

4 Ibid., p. 150.

5 To deepen the topic, I recommend two articles from the daily press: Münkler, Herfried (2018): “Regieren wird sehr viel schwieriger werden.” In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 12, 2018; Seliger, Marco (2018): “Vorher wissen, wo es knallt.” In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 15, 2018. 

6 One particularly innovative project affiliated to this network that I learned about at a presentation is “CEW through literature” (KFE durch Literatur). Inspired by Nigerian Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wole Soyinka, the project is producing a “mapping of emotions.”

7 German federal government (2017): Krisen verhindern, Konflikte bewältigen, Frieden fördern. Leitlinien der Bundesregierung. Berlin, p. 47.

8 See­tulevaisuusselonteon-1-osa-jaettu-­­ymmarrys-tyon-murroksesta [accessed June 5, 2018].

9 National Intelligence Council: “Global Trends – Paradox of Progress.” [accessed May 25, 2018].


Winfried Nachtwei

Winfried Nachtwei was born in 1946. After completing military service and studying, he worked as a teacher in Dülmen from 1977 to 1994. From 1994 until 2009, he was a Member of the German Bundes­tag; from 2002 he was security and defense spokesman for the Green party. He is co-chair of the advisory panel for civil crisis prevention at the German Foreign Office, a member of the advisory panel for Innere Führung (leadership development and civic education) at the German Federal Ministry of Defense (BMVg), a director of the United Nations Association of Germany, a member of the “Just Peace” working group at the German Commission Justitia et Pax, and a member of the advisory board of Katholische Friedensstiftung. In 2015, he headed the “G36 im Einsatz” commission.

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All articles in this issue

Foresight and Modern Future Research: Possibilities and Practice
Edgar Göll
Crisis Prevention in a Time of Radical Change
Bernhard Koch
Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future
Adam Kahane
Available Future? Peace Ethics Reflections from the Perspective of Just Peace and Prudence
Franz-Josef Overbeck
Increasing Complexity and Uncertainty: Future Challenges to NATO and the West
Manfred Nielson
Crisis Early Warning and Foresight in Peace and Security Policy: Earlier, More Resolute, More Substantial Action!
Winfried Nachtwei
The New Unpredictability – Why Germany Needs a Security Strategy
James D. Bindenagel


Norbert Reez Joachim Rühle Rupert Dirk Fischer