The Cassandra Syndrome

Cassandra

Fig.1. Cassandra, by Evelyn De Morgan (1898)

By Garrett Speers, MSc Geopolitics and Security student

Cassandra, the daughter of the King and Queen of Troy, held the power of prophecy; yet following her refusal of the god Apollo’s seduction, she was cursed with her prophecies never being believed. Whilst this is known in Greek Mythology, much of the same is found in modern society in regards to understanding the success and failures of warnings. This was the premise that formed the basis of the inaugural lecture of Professor Christoph Meyer of the European and International Relations Department at Kings College London on February 26th.

It is common-place for there to be a backlash following an event in which something has gone wrong – for example in the wake of a tragic accident, or terrorist attack. The public and the media ask of the government and officials ‘Was there anything that could have been done?’ Meyer in his lecture argued that, with the benefit of hindsight, everything is in fact a warning or a signal for an event. The 1994 Rwanda Genocide, as a case in point, saw many ‘situation reports’ from the American embassy describing the dynamic build up to the genocide. Only with the outbreak of the genocide did these appear to be seen as pre-emptive warnings of what was happening. Indeed, the French were seen as a Cassandra when they warned of the impending disaster, but without putting pressure on the Rwandan government or other international forces, were ignored.

Warnings are not just about the knowledge of the threat, but about the claim of the knowledge; the potential for consequences (in temporal and spatial terms); the source of the ‘warning’ (their inherent credibility, and relationship to the party it is advising); and finally, past events to which a warning may be compared. Warnings, of sorts, are present everywhere, every day, and it is often down to data analysts to judge the credibility of the threat in the absence of direct access to senior elite decision makers. It is down to such decision makers to accept or reject such warnings and prevent both the under-warning and over-warning of threats. One risks the populous becoming complacent if overwhelmed with false warnings, yet the same populous would also be left questioning the effectiveness of government if signs were there but not acted upon.

Meyer calls for there to be an active effort in closing the “warning response gap” and proffers three ways in which this might be achieved. Firstly, he suggests that ‘Source-Recipient Relationships’ must be improved by increasing the level of interaction between the actors involved, and through making whistleblowing a more acceptable practice. Whilst this does not guarantee that warnings will be acted upon, it increases accountability and transparency. Secondly, Meyers suggests that decision making time should be shortened through the devolution of powers of action downwards, or by the fast tracking of procedures. This would ensure that measures are being actioned more rapidly even if it may take place at a lower level – this can be seen in environmental areas with a transition to ‘bottom-up’ movements such as NGOs or Community Action Groups fulfilling functions of the state. Finally, there should be efforts to increase the incentives for prevention through the ring fencing of funds for preventative actions, through increasing accountability, and by publicising successes. As Anderson notes ‘a future becomes cause and justification for some form of action in the here and now’  and through undertaking such action pre-emptively, states can argue that they have averted disaster, even though such (non)disasters cannot be quantified.

As is often the case, crisis management costs more than tackling a problem at a preventative stage – fiscal value must thus be ensured through the protection of, and allocation of, set budgets to cope with crisis situations. Accountability needs to be promoted as, at present, there is little direct accountability in the face of warnings. This could be achieved through the creation of direct positions with clear lines of responsibility. Whilst publicising the successes of preemptive actions may be restricted to limited circumstances – such as where it is easier to visualise pre-emptive environmental action (see figure 2), where possible this should be done.

Thames flooding

Fig.2. How London would be effected by recent flooding without the Thames Barrier, BBC (2014)

Meyer, in his lecture,  identified several measures that may increase the number of warnings that are ‘flagged’ and which may also increase levels of accountability. This being said, one may have to prepare for failure in regards to warnings and also accept that not all may be heeded. Resilience should also increasingly be built into systems to cope with shocks and facilitate recovery – as has been the case with many banks in the wake of the Financial Crisis who have split their companies into ‘Savings’ and ‘Investment’ so that the risk of one section is mitigated against the relative safety of the other. Finally, we need to have more realistic expectations of what we can expect from warnings as we are continually being blinded by the inherent ‘hindsight bias’ and  unpublicised successes which could have shown the benefits of pre-emptive action gain little recognition.

Garrett Speers is an MSc Candidate in Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is particularly interested in ‘soft power’ geopolitics, sovereignty disputes, and the increasing power and role of ‘digital diplomacy’ in the twenty-first century. 

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