The national security establishment is currently facing criticism for a perceived failure to anticipate Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the capture of a swathe of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. The American public expects its leaders to be prepared for such contingencies while also addressing familiar challenges, like terrorism or China’s increasing assertiveness.
The breadth and rising tempo of potential crises, coupled with fiscal constraints, means that national security leaders can’t hope to be fully prepared for all contingencies. But continually focusing on the problem of the day creates blind spots when it comes to low likelihood but extremely disruptive factors. It is one thing to be caught off guard by the anticipatable actions of a nation or even a non-state actor; it is far more serious to be surprised by a new method of warfare.
If there was ever a time to be on guard against disruptions that can upend America’s strategic position, it is now. Taking stock of long-shot, high-impact surprises does not mean waiting until the consensus wisdom, or the events at hand, catch up. The national security community should not shy away from constantly challenging the assumptions that it relies on to build everything from budgets covering hundreds of billions of dollars to operation plans for the armed forces.