All posts by John C. Hulsman

Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants

In 480 BC, the citizens of Athens were in more trouble than it is possible for our modern minds to fathom. Xerxes, the seemingly omnipotent son of Darius the Great, had some unfinished business left to him by his father. A decade earlier, at the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BC, the miraculous had happened: the underrated Athenian army had seen off Darius and his mighty Persian horde, saving the threatened city-state from certain destruction. Now Xerxes had invaded Greece again, to finish the work his father had started.

Just to make sure that this time Athens did not escape the wrath of the Persian Empire, Xerxes assembled the largest invading force the world had ever seen. While the Greek historian Herodotus—typically exaggerating—put the Persian numbers at 5 million, modern-day historians still place them at an overwhelming 360,000, in addition to a gigantic armada of 750 ships in support of this vast host.

Confronted with almost certain destruction, what did the hard-pressed Athenian leadership do? What was their response to a problem that in terms of both its size and devastating impact seemed utterly insurmountable?

Simple. They requested the services of the world’s first political risk consultant.

The Pythia Invents the Political Risk Industry

 Already, by 480 BC, the Pythia of Delphi amounted to an ancient institution. Now commonly now known as the Oracle of Delphi (when in fact the oracles were the pronouncements the Pythia dispensed), the Pythia were the senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy.

For over 1,100 years (until 390 AD), the Pythia was viewed as the most authoritative and important soothsayer in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to the temple on the slope of Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. Sitting in a small, enclosed chamber at the base of the shrine, the Pythia (there were three priestesses on call at any time) delivered her oracles in a frenzied state, most probably imbibing the hallucinogenic vapours rising from the clefts in the rock of Mount Parnassus, which we now know sits atop the intersection of two tectonic plates.

The Pythia would be sitting in a perforated cauldron astride a tripod. It was reported by pilgrims (as well as the Greek historian Plutarch, who served for a time as high priest at Delphi, assisting the Pythia in her mission) that as she imbibed the vapours arising from the stone her hair would stand on end, her complexion altered, and she would often begin panting, with her voice assuming an otherworldly tone. In classical days, it was asserted that the Pythia spoke in rhyme, in pentameter or hexameter. To put it in modern terms, the Pythia was clearly as high as a kite. But let’s look at the Pythia afresh. For I think that the Temple at Delphi amounts to nothing less than the world’s first political risk consulting firm.

At least since the days when the Athenians consulted the Pythia at the height of the Persian Wars, political and business leaders have looked to outsiders blessed with seemingly magical knowledge to divine both the present and the future. While the tools of divination have changed through the centuries, the pressing need for establishing the rules of the road for managing risk in geopolitics have not. The question for political risk analysis remains the same as it was during the heyday of the Pythia: through superior knowledge (be it spiritual or intellectual in nature), can we reliably do this?

The Pythia’s prognosticating advantages curiously track with the qualities political risk firms look for in their best analysts today. First, in their isolation at Mount Parnassus, the Pythia were not in danger of elite capture (and the curse of analytical groupthink that so often follows) in terms of what they predicated. This is the very curse that doomed so many modern-day analysts to be so very wrong about the Brexit vote (they didn’t bother to look outside the hermetically-sealed elite shell of London) or the startling advent of Donald Trump (they never left the East Coast corridor). Physical, intellectual, and emotional distance, since the days of the ancients until today, has always had great analytical value.

Second, coupled with this distance, the Pythia (and today’s political risk analysts) at the same time had limited but regular contact with the elites of their day who make the arduous trek to visit them. This constant if limited (the Pythia only deigned to speak to pilgrims one day a month) contact meant that those at the Temple of Apollo came over time to understand what it is their elite clients wished to know, and how to provide them with exactly what they lacked; independent, outside, authoritative advice.

Finally, at least in the High Classical Age, the Pythia were chosen from a group of highly educated women, who already knew quite a lot about the world. It is this strange and unique mix of special knowledge, education, distance from the corruptions of power and yet proximity to it, that describes the ideal CV for political risk analysts today, just as it did of the ideal Pythia of yesterday.

The Pythia gave advice to shape future actions, practical counsel that was to be implemented by the questioner. This is exactly what political risk analysts still do today, though we’d use modern jargon and call it ‘policy’ in the public sphere and ‘corporate strategy’ in the business world. But what the Pythia was doing is recognisably the same thing my political risk firm does today.

Actually, it is quite amazing how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, and well over half of them are said to be historically correct. In our own age of heightened political risk, I can name a goodly number of modern firms that would kill for that record. There has always been a market to answer basic political risk questions: Can the Persians be stopped, and if so how? Will the UK vote for Brexit? Will Donald Trump become President? Then as now, those with a reputation for getting basic political risk questions right were venerated, just as those who failed were over time were discredited.

Conclusion: The Pythia Masters the Persians

Crucially, over the biggest political risk question Delphi was ever presented with—the invasion of Xerxes—the Pythia came through with flying colours, outlining a policy that would provide the Athenians with a way to practically escape from their impending doom. The Pythia recounted that when Athena—the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and the patron of her namesake city—implored her father Zeus, the King of the Gods, to save Athens, he replied that he would grant them ‘a wall of wood that should be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children.’

Back in Athens, Themistocles, the paramount Greek leader in the fractious democracy, successfully argued that a wall of wood specifically referred to the Athenian navy, and he persuaded the rest of the city’s leaders to adopt a maritime-first strategy against the Persians. This policy—concocted by the Pythia and put into concrete action by the decision-maker Themistocles—led directly to the decisive naval Battle of Salamis, the turning point that brought to an end the Persian risk to Athens’s very survival. To put it mildly, the Pythia had proven to be well worth her political risk fee.

Published in Aeon, May 22, 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. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was just published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is now available on Amazon. 

To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk (Book Excerpt)

Throughout history, any political risk analyst worth their salt has been able to clearly see one thing above all: the basic power structure of the world. Whether it is Roman historians looking at a unipolar Mediterranean in the Augustan age, or Castlereagh and Metternich gaming out complex European multipolarity following the defeat of Napoleon, this is the starting point for all effective political risk analysis.

In the late Nineteenth Century, one major British statesman — the brilliant, pious, gloomy Lord Salisbury — rightly sensed that while Britain’s power was waning, it still had the ability to set the scene for the coming era. He based his new strategy on the correct structural fact that London remained first amongst equals, even as other great powers such as Germany, the US, and Japan were relatively on the rise. Seeing the world dispassionately as it is in terms of power is the entry point for any successful political risk analysis.

Salisbury’s entire foreign policy rested on the uncomfortable notion that Britain was in the very curious structural position of being in relative decline, but still by a long way the greatest power in the world. However, he saw that the ascension of Japan in Asia, the United States in North America, and Germany in Europe to great power status could not be stopped. Instead, if Britain were to retain its pre-eminent place in the world, these emerging powers would have to be accommodated if possible, and opposed by a British-led alliance if necessary.

 

A few basic but vital truths underscored this shift in British strategy. Salisbury knew that most people would have little understanding of what he was attempting to do. This is a key belief of Salisbury, that for all his conservatism, it is poison in political risk terms to lazily assume that things will always be as they have been up until now. His whole foreign policy was about avoiding this devilish analytical trap.

The second basic precept followed by Salisbury was to avoid wasting time, energy and power worrying what countries were doing in their internal affairs, as outside influences were highly unlikely to change things and would fritter away British power.

In sharp contrast to today’s debilitating western foreign policy views, so dominated (despite all facts to the contrary) by a moralistic Wilsonianism, Salisbury saw the world in starkly realist terms. His job was to secure Britain’s place in the world, no more and no less. All foreign policy ventures would be judged only by this exacting if simple standard.

At this highest level, Salisbury felt that the new world structure called for Britain to function as the global off-shore balancer, staying aloof from the day to day quarrels and shifts in power in the various regions of the world, as British power would only be brought to bear if these regional balances of power fell apart and any one Great Power began to both dominate a region and threaten primary British interests.

Far from being a passive strategy, off-shore balancing calls for a constant assessment of what is going on within regional balances of power, as sudden shifts can result in dangers that must be quickly righted by the ordering power in question.

Off-shore balancing freed Britain up to more narrowly focus on its primary national interest of the time: securing and protecting the colonies and dominions the comprised the British Empire, especially seeing to it that the vital sea routes between Britain and India, via the Suez Canal, were absolutely secured.

As the world’s foremost status quo power, and as the global ordering power, at the core of Salisbury’s overall foreign policy was this fervent desire to avoid war with other rising powers if at all possible, thereby ensuring that these lines of communication throughout the Empire were unhindered, so that British dominance could proceed in a non-dramatic and secure manner.

Maintaining peace meant that as far as possible the United States, Japan, and Germany should be accommodated rather than opposed, as this approach made it far more likely they would emerge over time as status quo powers themselves — prepared to help Britain defend its present global order — rather than as revolutionary powers determined to upend the world that Britain had largely created.

This radically different British policy of accommodating — rather than thwarting — rising powers meant that Salisbury had to directly take on the mind-sets of the majority of foreign policy practitioners of his own time, complacently used to living in a world where they could largely do as they pleased without having to worry over-much about accommodating anyone.

A similar problem has bedeviled American foreign policy at the present moment. Today’s United States finds itself eerily in the same global structural position as was Salisbury’s Britain: it is still far and away the world’s dominant power (and will be so for quite some time) even as it is relatively in decline as other Great Powers, such as China and India, rise from a low base.

As was true in the late Victorian era, the American foreign policy elite of today — as is witnessed every time I attend a Council on Foreign Relations meeting — still can’t get its collective head around this complicated new era. As Anatol Lieven and I pointed out in Ethical Realism, Democratic foreign policy elites may think they can charm the world into doing as they want, and Republican elites may think the world can be bullied into doing as they wish, but the bottom line is that both the dominant Wilsonian and neoconservative strains of thought still think they can pretty much tell the world what to do and it will happen.

They are living in a time warp, still harkening back to the long period — during the Cold War and then the brief unipolar moment — when the United States had far more global power than it presently possesses and could easily afford to pursue a more aggressive, less subtle, strategy. Salisbury ran into precisely the same sort of opposition, as he lived in a hauntingly similar structural world, in terms of global power.

His nimble intellectual success contrasts sharply with the cloddish, dinosaur-like refusal of much of the present American foreign policy elite to simply recognize the world has fundamentally changed, and to act on this precious knowledge. Failure to do so, in political risk terms, poses the gravest threat for the United States today, as its elites fail to adjust to the basic power realities of the new era we presently find ourselves in.

Published in The Long March by Tom Ricks, April 26, 2018

Excerpted, with permission of Princeton University Press, from To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, by Dr. John C. Hulsman. Copyright 2018.

The Ten Commandments of Political Risk

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves

When are dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little

When we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

 

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery

Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

–Excerpts from Sir Francis Drake’s prayer, 1577 (apocryphal)

 

The great goal, the Everest of my book, has been to identify the historical elements that comprise the rules of the road for mastering political risk analysis and to holistically put our ten commandments to use in explaining the baffling world we presently live in. Having discovered these commandments—and illuminated them through the use of historical story-telling, deriving them from real-world policy situations throughout the ages—we can get to the Holy Grail of actual understanding.

Here at the end of our story, through the use of this unique heuristic method, we have delineated the long and neglected history of political risk analysis, linking this important tale to the broader efforts of both business and political leaders to master risk in general. Confident in what geopolitical risk analysis has been, is, and can be, it is clear that the Delphic dream of soothsaying—in a limited way, over limited issues, for a limited period of time—can be partially fulfilled.

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1) “We are the risk.” As the history surrounding Sejanus and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire makes clear (alongside the corroborating tale of present-day Europe’s decadent decline), geopolitical analysts have a terrible time looking in the mirror and seeing that the society they are part of can itself be the major geopolitical risk problem.

2) Gaming out “lunatics.” Far too often geopolitical risk analysts let those with very different belief systems off the hook by lazily assuming that they must be crazy, rather than looking for the method to their madness. As the story of “The Old Man of the Mountain” and the Third Crusade (with inter-chapters on both Charles Manson and ISIS) makes clear, there is almost always an internal logic to any seemingly mad geopolitical interlocutor that can be followed and assessed.

 3) Gaming out “chess players.” Amidst the daily tumult of a constant barrage of information, it is easy to lose sight of the intellectual needle in the haystack: the assessment of “chess players,” those geopolitical decision-makers who have stable, rational, coherent, long-term strategies in place to further their geopolitical goals. As reviewing the history of Niccolo Machiavelli and Pope Julius II (with an inter-chapter on George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) illuminates, finding these rare geostrategic birds is well worth the effort, as once they are identified (which is difficult), their future actions can rather easily be predicted.

 4) Recognising game changers. As the stirring story of John Adams in the sultry summer of 1776 makes clear, seeing the bigger picture—discerning how specific contemporaneous events fit into the larger historical pattern—is a mighty tool in political risk analysis. Separating the wheat from the chaff and intellectually drilling down on what really matters and its historical meaning (as we see both Adams and inter-chapter hero Winston Churchill doing in very different historical contexts) allows the political risk analyst as well as the foreign policy practitioner to see the world as it actually is.

 5) Balance is the key to foreign policy. Having discovered the secrets of one major driver of geopolitics—be it macroeconomics, geopolitics, or cultural power—far too often analysts quickly forget that there are others and that it is the mix that explains everything. The twin stories of a beleaguered Venetian Republic and a seemingly all-conquering Napoleon in 1797 allow a dual critique of both an economics-only and overly militaristic policies and the doom to which both one-sided initiatives inevitably lead.

 6) If you are digging yourself an intellectual hole in foreign policy analysis—stop. The “losing gambler in Vegas” syndrome affects both policy-makers and analysts. As the legendary Robert E. Lee found to his supreme peril at Gettysburg (and also “the best and the brightest” of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as they met their nemesis in Indochina), pushing ahead with an already failed policy in a desperate effort to recoup past losses leads to calamity.

 7) Know your country’s place in the world. The singular case of the late Victorian titan Lord Salisbury—who bravely and correctly righted Britain’s foreign policy to fit the paradox of its relatively declining but still dominant place in the world of the 1890s—highlights this vital requirement for both policy-makers and analysts alike. Only by fearlessly and correctly assessing your country’s true place in the world (as the inter-chapter on the Genro of Japan makes clear happened across the globe from Salisbury a generation earlier) can you pursue successful political risk analysis.

 8) Do not put all your eggs in one strategic basket. Distantly related to the “losing gambler in Vegas” syndrome, the “promised land fallacy” besets decision-makers and analysts who ruinously rely on one overall strategy to magically attempt to alter their country’s overall geopolitical position in the world. In the case of Wilhelmine Germany, Admiral Von Tirpitz’s disastrous plan to challenge British naval might (echoing the inter-chapter on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s equally ruinous “Wars of National Liberation” gambit) helped lead to the Great War and Germany’s destruction.

 9) Know the nature of the world you are living in. The trials and tribulations of Beatle George Harrison (with the inter-chapter focusing on the diametrically opposed case of the fall of Brian Jones and the rise of the Rolling Stones) and the stunning, lightning-quick dismemberment of his band dramatically underline that successful systems can collapse in the blink of an eye if their underlying power realities change, failing to any longer reflect the systemic power facts on the ground that created such a system in the first place. Policy-makers as well as political risk analysts must know both the nature of the global system they are living in (is it characterized by one great power, two, or many?) as well as if that system is durable, fragile, or evolving.

 10)Prepare for the “butterfly effect.” The telling present-day case of Deng Xiaoping and the colossal success he made of both Chinese foreign and economic policy must not obscure the reality that East Asia today sits on a powder keg, a single random event away from 1914; just one drunken Chinese sea captain could quite plausibly upset the strategic equilibrium in Asia. The best policy-makers and political risk analysts (as the inter-chapter example of Harold Macmillan also makes clear) see the weaknesses in even the most successful foreign policies, having resilient initiatives at the ready to stave off seemingly unexpected disasters.

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In traveling far from home, as Sir Francis Drake bid us to do in the swashbuckling, mesmerising prayer that opens this article and To Dare More Boldly, our journey through history has been bountifully rewarded. For yes, within limits, the future can be foretold through the use of political risk analysis. Truly venturing far from our intellectual shore, in daring more boldly, we have come to see the stars.

Published by Princeton University Press, April 24, 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, was published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available for order on Amazon.