Failure to respond to emerging threats


Policymakers are often not inclined to take early warning seriously or to act upon it in situations that pose the possibility of severe ethnic and religious conflicts, humanitarian disasters, or gross human rights violations. A number of reasons exist for this passivity. The first is the relatively low stakes perceived to be at risk. At an early stage in their development, such contingencies simply are not perceived to pose grave threats to a given state's national interests. Moreover, whether a low-level conflict or incipient crisis will escalate in ways that would eventually engage major interests of individual states or the international community often remains problematical and difficult to forecast.

Even when events that could precipitate a major humanitarian or violent crisis are perceived in a timely manner and accurately evaluated, decision makers will often still defer taking preventive action. This inaction is either because the warning is not taken seriously or because the warning is taken very seriously but decision makers are loath to confront the unpalatable choice of responses facing them. Particularly for the complex and seemingly intractable disputes that have characterized much of the violence of the post-Cold War period, it may be less the unfolding crisis that conditions how a decision maker processes warning than the implications of that crisis for action.


Despite efforts to improve early warning indicators of possible flare-ups, such events are likely to remain equivocal, subject to considerable uncertainty, and capable of diverse interpretations. It is not that potential major trouble spots cannot be identified; rather, the problem lies in understanding such situations well enough to forecast which ones are likely to explode and when. Experts and observers are likely to differ in their estimates of how serious a low-level situation will become, with what probability, and how soon. Early warning indicators typically do not speak for themselves; they require analysis and interpretation. But the kinds of knowledge and theories needed for this purpose may be in short supply. Specialists have worked more on improving possible indicators than on developing better theories and models to assess and predict the significance of the indicators.

Even in a case in which there is relatively good warning, policymakers may be reluctant to credit the warning and to take preventive action because they have been subjected too often to the "cry wolf" phenomenon. Oddly enough, intense policy concerns that actions may be seen as premature or unnecessary – revealing an embarrassing policy naivete, or worse, the possible unneeded commitment of scarce resources – generate a real wariness of "false triggers." These policymakers, typically preoccupied with a battery of other problems that require urgent attention, often give only the barest attention to new, low-level crises that may never develop into serious concerns.

Overload induces passivity. Given the large number of simmering crises, and given the ever-growing limitation of resources, policymakers find it impractical to respond with preventive actions to all of them, thinking that is reinforced by the general lack of knowledge regarding what efforts would be effective. Early warning of an equivocal, uncertain nature in such situations is insufficient for costly or risky responses.

Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
07.12.2017 – 15:15 CET