One of the most vital political risk commandments to master is knowing the overall nature of the system you are evaluating in terms of its power distribution. For instance, are you assessing the unipolar Mediterranean Pax Romana of the Augustan age, the complex multipolarity of the post-Napoleonic European order painstakingly constructed Castlereagh and Metternich, or the bipolar Cold War world of the US and USSR? Only by knowing the nature of the world you live in—and its stability–can any policy or any analysis actually hope to be successful.
The best (and most entertaining) way to look at the change of power dynamics in a world order is to chronicle the startlingly quick unravelling of the greatest pop group in history. The Beatles went in lightning fashion from a period of artistic and commercial dominance in the mid-1960s (with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to their demise in 1970 (following Let It Be and Abbey Road) in a blink of a historical eye. Why was this and what can the sad demise of the Fab Four tell us about global systems?
The Beatles’ System Falls Stunningly Apart
In the mid-1960s, the rather rigid structure lying behind the Beatles’ creative and commercial success—on most albums their lovable (and newly knighted) drummer Ringo Starr was given at most one song, George Harrison had at best two or three, with the rest being Lennon-McCartney originals—became the group’s unquestioned modus operandi. The system worked because it reflected the genuine creative power realities within the group at the time.
This pattern—the accepted rules underlying a bipolar world dominated by Lennon-McCartney—was followed with metronomic efficiency. On Rubber Soul, there are eleven Lennon-McCartney tunes, two penned by Harrison, and one by Ringo. Revolver is graced by eleven Lennon-McCartney songs, while Harrison had three and Ringo none. Sgt. Pepper’s in many ways amounts to the apogee of John and Paul’s creative dominance; fully twelve of the thirteen songs on this masterpiece were written by Lennon-McCartney, with George managing only one and Ringo none.
But by now George Harrison had had enough. In any other group he would have served as a first-rate front man, as both a performer and a writer; now he simply couldn’t get much of his increasingly prodigious output on the records. The creative balance of power within the group was decidedly shifting, even as the Beatles’ modus operandi stayed the same. Chafing at the creative bit, and frustrated that he simply wasn’t allowed to crack the Lennon-McCartney duopoly, Harrison grew increasingly resentful that his efforts to grow as an artist were being given short shrift.
In a sense, such a rigid response to Harrison’s rise is entirely understandable. John and Paul echoed back to him what established status quo powers have been saying to rising powers since time immemorial: “Why should we change anything, given how well things are going for us?” While that certainly was true in this case—the Lennon-McCartney bipolar world had taken the Beatles to undreamed-of creative heights—so was the fact that George Harrison, an immensely talented man in his own right, was not being given real opportunities to rise in the Beatles’ system.
The Beatles as a Frightening Metaphor for Today’s World
So let’s jump through the looking glass, taking our Beatles analogy a geopolitical step further. View John Lennon in the mid to late 1960s as a stand-in for the Europe of today: increasingly preoccupied with Yoko Ono, self-involved with the many demons of his past and present, more worried about his own personal problems and situation than about the Beatles as a whole, and eager to shed his responsibilities in the band.
See Paul McCartney as the United States, unhappily aware he is the last man standing, the force (after the death of their unsung manager Brian Epstein in August 1967) holding the group together. It fell to Paul, both by virtue of his ambitious personality and John’s lack of interest, to take over the running of the band. The others resented his increasing dominance, even as he resented the fact that they all benefited from his desire to keep the show on the road, the system ticking over. It is little wonder McCartney veered from unilateralism to isolationism in doing so. Paul is the harassed ordering power.
Imagine George Harrison as today’s rising powers (China, India, and the other emerging market powers), resentful and distrustful of the old system of dominance and eager to strike off on their own, either within a newly re-constituted group that makes room for their growth or in a new band.
And finally, conjure Ringo as the world’s smaller powers, desperate to work with everyone, to keep a stable system going, even as he is glumly aware that whatever happens will affect him far more than he can impact any outcome. Strikingly, the Beatles of the late 1960s and the global political world of today are eerily in line with one another.
By the time of Let It Be (1970), it is all over. For anyone who has watched the excruciating May 1970 film of the making of the album, the lowlight has to be when an exasperated Paul runs into a beyond-caring George, who mockingly tells him he will play whatever Paul wants, however Paul wants, all the while meaning exactly the opposite.
A Lennon-McCartney duopoly no longer makes sense to two of the three key protagonists. George Harrison no longer wants to wait for the other two to take notice of his creative flowering. John Lennon no longer wants to carry the significant burden of keeping the group together, given his other preoccupations and weariness at being the co-leader of a system he increasingly cares less and less about.
Neither of these systemic shifts happened out of the blue, and both had been commented on for several years. But nothing systematically changed to keep up with these altered creative and power realities. The world had changed. The creative power constellation within the Beatles had changed. But the power dynamic within the group had not. This is the classic definition of a failed system. Everyone knew exactly what he was referring to when Harrison named his fine first post-Beatles record All Things Must Pass.
Using our analogy: How the West can avoid the Beatles’ fate
The first and foremost priority for the West is to accurately see the evolving power structure of the new world we live in, as the Beatles failed to do. It must not fight to uphold a unipolar or bipolar status quo that is beyond saving. To paraphrase the great Italian writer Lampedusa, if things are to stay as they are, everything must change. For the relative decline of the West and the rise of the rest is a fact, it is the undoubted historical headline of our age. This reality does not call for the resigned fatalism so popular now in Europe, but instead to adjust the power realities of global governance to the rapidly changing multipolar world we now find ourselves in.
So the West must adopt a new strategy if it is to avoid the systemic fate of the Fab Four. It must re-engage George Harrison—particularly the emerging and established democratic powers such as India, Indonesia, South Africa, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Japan–on new terms that actually reflect today’s changed multipolar global geopolitical and macro-economic realities. It must forge a new global democratic alliance with these rising regional powers, making them partners in defending the global status quo.
Let it be.
This article first appeared in MarketWatch, March 28, 2018.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available for order on Amazon.