Category Archives: A Piece of My Mind

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.

 

 

 

 

The Promised Land Fallacy: Von Tirpitz Disastrously Builds a Navy

The Dangerous Mirage of the Promised Land Fallacy

Distantly related to the losing gambler’s syndrome is the promised land fallacy, the naïve view that one attribute of power or one strategy is sufficient to overcome the complexity of the world and—in silver bullet-like fashion—change the terms of the geopolitical game. In essence, it’s the very human effort to falsely manufacture a game-changing strategy rather than recognising that game-changing events generally happen organically.

Political risk analysts throughout the ages, frustrated by the constraints of living in the world as they have found it, are often highly susceptible to dreaming up analysis designed to liberate them from the shackles of reality. Ruinously, reality always wins.

In the years following the innovative genius of British Prime Minister Lord Robert Salisbury’s foreign policy, Anglo-German relations nevertheless spiralled out of control. No one was more responsible for this than Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, whose wrong-headed promised land strategy to supersede the British navy instead led Germany directly over the cliff into the charnel house of the Great War.

For Wilhelmine Germany, the building of a fleet from scratch to challenge the mighty Royal Navy was meant to be the country’s ticket to its place in the sun. The German political and military elite, frustrated that the world (especially haughty Great Britain) failed to recognise the ascension of Germany to Great Power status, set about rushing the forces of history, rather than merely waiting for their yearly relative gains in global power to become apparent over time. Already possessing the greatest army in the world, the Kaiser became intent on building a threatening navy.

Instead of heralding an era of German dominance, the elite in Berlin unwittingly started a process that led to its doom. The naval race awoke an alarmed London to the coming German threat to its position as the single greatest power in the world (though one in relative decline), a fact that helped directly lead to war and ruinous German defeat. Far from leading to the promised land, this approach puts political risk analysts forever at the mercy of the latest intellectual fad, often leading to simplistic analysis that doesn’t stand up to the realities of a complicated world.

Von Tirpitz Recklessly Challenges British Naval Dominance

 Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz became the living embodiment of the Kaiser’s drive to build a world-class navy, almost from scratch. Born March 19, 1849, pictures of von Tirpitz show a man looking like nothing so much as an enraged walrus, with his long, flowing beard, fierce eyes, and stern countenance.

Yet von Tirpitz was much more than this caricature of a stiff-necked Prussian. For one thing, he knew the English personally and well, spoke the language fluently, and even sent his two daughters to the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies’ College. For another, von Tirpitz rose through the German navy’s ranks largely through his own merits, something unheard of at the time. Tirpitz, for all the Prussian glowering, was essentially a creative, outward-looking, self-made man.

In 1897, von Tirpitz was made head of the powerful Imperial Navy Office, an unassailable bureaucratic perch that allowed him to relentlessly focus on making the German navy a force to be reckoned with; he was to remain central to German naval thinking until 1916. His primary strategic recommendation was that Germany must build as many battleships as possible and challenge British naval hegemony. Initially, von Tirpitz advocated the creation of two squadrons of eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserves.

Between 1898 and 1912, von Tirpitz managed to get four naval acts through the German Parliament, greatly expanding the size of the country’s High Seas Fleet. Over time, his clearly stated strategic goal became to construct a navy that two-thirds of the size of the dominant British Fleet. In the narrowest of terms, von Tirpitz was successful, in that he took the very meagre German navy he had inherited in the 1890s and transformed it into a world-class force.

The Germans miscalculate

The irony was that, for both von Tirpitz and the Kaiser, the German naval build-up was essentially defensive in nature. They did not wish to overwhelm Britain as a revolutionary power, but merely to be taken seriously by it as a valued guarantor of the status quo. The von Tirpitz strategic plan was to build the world’s second-largest navy after Britain’s, announcing Germany’s arrival on the world stage as an undisputed great power.

In this vision, the naval build-up would get the Germans to the promised land, making the British see sense and accommodate Germany’s rise to great power status. Yet, as so often has proven the case for those whose political risk analysis leads them to adopt the promised land strategy, unintended consequences overwhelmed these initial goals.

In direct reaction to von Tirpitz’s naval programme, Britain (between 1902-1910) embarked on its own massive naval build-up, with the express purpose of safeguarding its naval dominance and seeing off the perceived German strategic threat. As such, von Tirpitz’s build-up, far from cowing Britain into supporting Germany’s overall strategic rise, instead came to be seen as a mortal threat in London.

Conclusion: The promised land strategy and unintended consequences

 The unintended result of the von Tirpitz plan was to leave Germany in the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Its efforts to catch up with the dominant British navy narrowed, but did not eliminate, Britain’s maritime advantage. In an immediate, limited sense, the Germans won the naval arms race by whittling down British dominance. But the cost of this pyrrhic victory was exorbitant.

For the change in strategic circumstances was enough to alarm Britain into fundamentally changing its foreign and strategic policies, but did not alter the overriding fact that in 1914 it still possessed by a long way the most powerful naval force in the world. It was the naval arms race that persuaded Britain to wholly adopt Lord Salisbury’s evolving policy and instead look for allies to deal with what was seen—as the result of the von Tirpitz plan—as an increasingly malevolent German threat.

Unwittingly the promised land fallacy unleashed by von Tirpitz directly led to the closer Anglo-French ties that were to form the basis of the resistance to Germany in World War I. With Britain pressed to withdraw its Mediterranean fleet to its home waters to fend off the impending German naval threat, much closer ties with Paris became an absolute strategic imperative so as to safeguard (through the French navy taking London’s place in the Mediterranean) the Suez Canal, the jugular of the British Empire.

Britain, turning its back decisively on its nineteenth-century post-Napoleonic foreign policy heritage, formally allied itself with European powers France in 1904, and Russia, in 1907. Incredibly, the Germans—in pursuing their promised land strategy to secure in von Tirpitz’s words German ‘political independence’ from England—had instead forced the British into their eternal enemy France’s waiting arms, the worst possible strategic thing Berlin could have done. World War I was not far away.

Published by Princeton University Press, April 17, 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 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, has just been published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available for order on Amazon.