Category Archives: A Piece of My Mind

The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

Legend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns of Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

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This telling historical vignette was eerily re-enacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness.

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished his nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Published by Princeton University Press, May 30, 2018.

–Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

 

 

 

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.