Using Fiction to Understand Strategy and the Future


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.

It’s especially hard to write about the future. There are no hard facts about the future. Most of what we know about the future is an extrapolation of current trends. The Global Trends editions I wrote for the National Intelligence Council have stood up well in predicting some changes in the world. However, they are largely written at an abstract level, using forecast modelling or historical analogies to provide insight.

In the Global Trends editions, we did devote some space to scenarios because of the high level of uncertainty about the future. Those scenarios were rendered as fictional exchanges between leaders or media reports written in the future that talked about how developments had taken a surprising twist. The intent was to get policymakers to think beyond the incremental changes with which we are most comfortable. But the two or three pages I had to describe how vastly different worlds could come out weren’t able to do justice to the story. It could not get the story down to a level most of us can readily identify with or understand.

I sought to provide that texture in my book. I wanted to show how we easily could slide into a new reality. Everybody could easily identify with the characters. With the exception of one story devoted to an exchange between the U.S. and Chinese presidents, the other three stories are about ordinary people involved in—sometimes unintentionally or against their will—circumstances that end up being extraordinary and new.

The excerpted story in Politico, which was retitled “How the Middle East’s First Nuclear War Started,”begins with a Lebanese doctor waking up one morning to realize that he has been a pawn in an elaborate conspiracy hatched by Israeli and Saudi leaders to bomb Iran. Politico was attracted to the story because it provides a sequence of events that is perhaps counterintuitive, particularly if Iran signs on to an agreement that would presumably reduce the chance of such attacks by worried neighbors. Such an agreement, if you believe my story, leads to Iran turning a corner and becoming a respectable member of the international community that is eventually rewarded by Washington opening up an embassy in Tehran. However, Israel and Saudi Arabia have not fared as well and increasingly fear the United States favors Iran. They also suspect that Iran didn’t ditch its nuclear ambitions. ,Its point being that policymakers need to be careful about upsetting the delicate balance in the Middle East even if a successful nuclear deal with Iran is achieved.

As with life, this story can be read a few different ways. Different in the sense that life is complicated and change happens on different levels. This is how stories provide a better reflection of reality than any straight line or one-dimensional analysis. The main character in the story is a Lebanese doctor named Jamil Khoury, who doesn’t want to be constrained by his background. He comes from a Maronite Christian background. Maronites have historically deep ties with the West—chiefly France—to such an extent that Jamil wants to resettle in Paris where he has done his residency. While a resident in a leading Paris teaching hospital, he falls in love with a Moroccan Jew. They are deeply in love, but her family is opposed to them seeing each other because he isn’t Jewish. He is forced to leave France because he can’t find a permanent position. She can’t see herself living with him in Saudi Arabia, where his professional calling takes him next. He feels his hopes for a new life have been dashed even though he later marries a Lebanese-American and leads a comfortable life. Khoury hankers after his earlier dream. Indeed, frustration with his life leads him to get way over his head as a spy for the Saudis and Israelis.

In essence, Jamil’s personal story is a rendering in miniscule of the historic problems of ethnic and religious division in the Middle East. His personal story sets up a bigger dilemma, which many of us can identify with, of how to reach beyond our roots and establish our own identity. The inability to work across national, ethnic or religious lines is a broader regional tragedy. Instead of seeing a prospering Iran as a shared benefit, the Israelis and Saudis can’t stand to see Iran get ahead and indeed go to war to cut Iran back down to size. My title from the book—“The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend”—sums up for me the mindset of such a world. The story is a mix of past and present, but one in which the future is disconcertingly different. There is little doubt the zero-sum mentality is age-old. But because of the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), those old jealousies have become far more lethal, setting in motion a wholly new world transformed by the nuclear war in the Middle East.


Mathew Burrows serves as director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative. His recent book is entitled The Future Declassified: Megatrends that Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action (Palgrave/Macmillan). In August 2013 he retired from a 28-year career in the CIA and State Department, the last ten being spent at the National Intelligence Council (NIC).


Photo credit: Hamed Saber