Category Archives: China and Asia Pivot

Everything to play for: Winston Churchill, the rise of Asia, and game changers

The ability to know when game-changing events are actually happening in real time is to see history moving. It is an invaluable commandment in the mastering of political risk analysis. To do so, an analyst must adopt an almost Olympian view, seeing beyond the immediate to make sense of what is going on now by placing it into the broader tapestry of world history itself.

The rewards for this rare but necessary ability are legion, for it allows the policy-maker or analyst to make real sense of the present, assessing the true context of what is going on presently and what is likely to happen in the future. It is jarring to compare the lacklustre abilities of today’s Western politicians—so far behind the curve in seeing the game-changing rise of Asia and the decline of the West as we enter a new multipolar age—to the phenomenal analytical abilities of earlier statesmen of vision, such as the querulous, needy, challenging, maddening, often wrongheaded but overwhelmingly talented greatest Prime Minister of England.

Churchill Rejoices over Pearl Harbor

 In the hustle and bustle of the everyday world, recognizing game-changing events can prove exceedingly difficult. Being surrounded by monumental goings on makes separating the very important from the essential almost impossible. So it was in December 1941, undoubtedly the turning point of the Second World War. During that momentous month, the Red Army turned back the Nazi invasion at the very gates of Moscow, marking the first time Hitler’s war machine had met with a real setback. But for all that the Battle of Moscow mattered enormously, it did nothing to change the overall balance of forces fighting the war, with the outcome still sitting on a knife’s edge.

But half a world away, something else did. At 7:48 AM in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Navy of the Empire of Japan, attacking without warning as it had done in the earlier Russo-Japanese War, unleashed itself against the American Pacific Fleet, serenely docked at Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning. The damage was immense. All eight American battleships docked at Pearl were struck, and four of them sunk. The Japanese attack destroyed 188 US aircraft, while 2,400 were killed and 1,200 wounded. Japanese losses were negligible.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor misfired spectacularly, changing the course of the war fundamentally, drawing America into the conflict as the decisive force which altered the correlation of power around the world. Stalin, with his back still to the wall in the snows of Russia, did not immediately grasp the game-changing significance what had just happened any more than Franklin Roosevelt did, now grimly intent on surveying the wreckage of America’s Pacific Fleet and marshalling the American public for global war.

These were pressing times and it is entirely human and understandable why both Stalin and FDR had other more immediate concerns to worry about during those early December days. But Winston Churchill, the last of the Big Three, immediately latched onto the game-changing significance of what had just occurred. For the Prime Minister understood, even in the chaos of that moment, that the misguided Japanese attack has just won Britain and its allies the war and amounted to the game changer a hard-pressed London had been praying for.

In his history of World War II, Churchill wrote of that seminal day, ‘Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.’ The great British Prime Minister slept well that night because he understood the fluidity of geopolitics, how a single event can change the overall global balance of power overnight, if one can but see.

On December 11, 1941, compounding Tokyo’s incredible blunder, Germany suicidally declared war on America. Hitler, vastly underestimating the endless productive capacity of the United States, didn’t think the declaration mattered all that much. The miscalculation was to prove his doom, as the US largely bankrolled both its Russian and British allies, supplying them with both massive loans and a limitless supply of armaments and material. Because of Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s disastrous decision, America would eventually eradicate the dark night of Nazi barbarism. Churchill was right in alone seeing the full consequences of what was going on at that pivotal time. December 1941 saved the world.

The decline of the West and the rise of Asia is the headline of our times

 In the crush of our 24-hour news cycle, it is all too easy—as it was during the stirring days of World War II—to miss the analytical forest for the trees. Confusing the interesting from the pivotal, the fascinating from the essential, remains an occupational hazard for both policy-makers and political risk analysts. But beneath the sensory overload of constant news, the headline of our own time is clear, if like Churchill we can but see.

Our age is one where the world is moving from the easy dominance of America’s unipolar moment to a multipolar world of many powers. It is characterised by the end of 500-plus years of western dominance, as Asia (especially with the rise of China and then India) is where most of the world’s future growth will come from, as well as a great deal of its future political risk. The days of International Relations being largely centred on Transatlantic Relations are well and truly at an end, as an economically sclerotic and demographically crippled Europe recedes as a power, and even the United States (still by far the most powerful country in the world) sinks into relative decline.

To understand the world of the future requires a knowledge of Asia as well as Europe, of macroeconomics as well as military strategy, of countries the West has given precious little thought to, such as China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, as well as the usual suspects such as a declining Russia and Europe. International Relations has become truly ‘international’ again. And that, coupled with the decline of the West and the Rise of Asia, is the undoubted headline of the age. Churchill, and all first rate analysts who understand the absolute value of perceiving game-changing events, would surely have agreed.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Misdiagnosing Kim Jong-un

 

If US President Donald Trump and his advisers continue to assume that traditional deterrence does not apply to North Korea, they are likely to lose the latest geopolitical chess match. History shows that those who mistake their political or military adversaries for lunatics are usually disastrously wrong.

MILAN – Throughout history, political observers have found decision-makers who are deemed “crazy” the most difficult to assess. In fact, the problem is rarely one of psychopathology. Usually, the label merely indicates behavior that is different from what conventional analysts were expecting.

This was surely true of the twelfth-century Syrian religious leader Rashid al-Din Sinan. During the Third Crusade, the supposedly mad “Old Man of the Mountain,” as he was known, succeeded in disrupting a Crusader advance on Jerusalem by directing his followers to carry out targeted assassinations. After carrying out their orders, the assassins often stayed put and awaited capture in full view of the local populace, to ensure that their leader received proper credit for the act.

At the time, such actions were incomprehensible to the Western mind. Westerners took to calling the Old Man’s followers hashashin, or users of hashish, because they regarded intoxication as the only possible explanation for such “senseless” disregard for one’s own physical wellbeing. But the hashashin were not drug users on the whole. And, more to the point, they were successful: their eventual assassination of Conrad of Montferrat led directly to the political collapse of the Crusader coalition and the defeat of Richard the Lionheart of England. As Polonius says of Hamlet, there was method to the Old Man’s madness.

Today, the problem of analyzing supposedly lunatic leaders has reappeared with the North Korean nuclear crisis. Whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad is not merely an academic question; it is the heart of the matter.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has stated unequivocally that it will not tolerate a North Korean capability to threaten the mainland United States with nuclear weapons. According to Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, the administration’s position reflects its belief that Kim is crazy, and that “classical deterrence theory” thus does not apply.

During the Cold War, US President Dwight Eisenhower reasoned that even if Stalin (and later Mao) was homicidal, he was also rational, and did not wish to perish in a US counter-strike. The logic of “mutually assured destruction” that underlay nuclear deterrence worked.

If, however, the leader of a nuclear-armed state is a lunatic who is indifferent to his physical safety and that of those around him, the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim is insane, the only option is to take him out before his suicidal regime can kill millions of people.

But is Kim truly crazy, or does he simply have a worldview that discomfits Western analysts? His dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.

Consider three strategic considerations that Kim could be weighing. First, his regime might be planning to offer concessions that it has no intention of fulfilling. After all, an earlier nuclear deal that the US brokered with his father, Kim Jong-il, was derailed by duplicity. In 2002, the US discovered that the regime was secretly enriching weapons-grade uranium in direct violation of its earlier pledge.

In fact, North Korea has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t play by the rules. It enters into negotiations to extract concessions such as food aid, and then returns to its objectionable activities, thus starting the entire Sisyphean cycle again. There is no reason to think that this time will be different. But the regime’s deviousness should not be mistaken for irrationality or madness. Simply by expressing his openness to talks, Kim has already won some of the political legitimacy he craves.

Second, rather than being a lunatic, Kim seems mindful of recent history. Whereas Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya paid the ultimate price for giving up their nuclear programs, Kim has advanced his regime’s nuclear capabilities and is now publicly treated as a near-equal by the most powerful man on the planet. The Kim regime has always sought such vindication above everything else.

A third and final consideration is that North Korea is playing for time. Though it has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests in the run-up to the summit, it could be using the intervening months to develop related technologies. For example, it still needs to perfect an atmospheric re-entry mechanism to make its intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland reliably and accurately. Moreover, as long as the summit is in play, North Korea need not fear a US military strike. That is a perfectly rational and sensible prize for Kim to pursue.

All told, North Korea’s “opening” will most likely amount to much less than meets the eye. But one can still glean valuable strategic insights from Kim’s diplomatic gambit. North Korean thinking reflects cunning, to be sure; but it also betrays the regime’s will to survive, and its desire to master the current situation. This suggests that Kim is not “crazy” after all, and that conventional deterrence will still work, as it has since 1945.

That is good news for everyone, but particularly for the Trump administration, given that it will almost certainly fail to secure any meaningful concessions from North Korea in the upcoming talks.

Gaming out lunatics–Charles Manson and Kim Jong-un: The problems of assessing ‘madness’

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”

 –Polonius in Hamlet, Act II Scene II

 In the late 1960s, Vincent Bugliosi, one of modern America’s foremost legal minds, found himself in a very difficult position. He had been assigned to prosecute the Tate-La Bianca murder cases, occurring in August 1969, when a series of ritualistic slayings in Los Angeles had terrified the whole of the United States, due to both the frenzy of the murders as well as the seeming randomness of the crimes.

Through good, old-fashioned detective work, Bugliosi had rightly fastened upon Charles Manson and his so-called ‘Family’ as the perpetrators, a hippie death-cult that believed that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But there was a major practical problem with prosecuting Manson; he had personally killed no one. Instead, he had ordered others to do his diabolical bidding.

Why had he done so and why had the Family followed him? Bugliosi knew that if he didn’t address the crucial issue of motive, there was simply no real case against Manson, who was the ringleader of the whole horrendous plot. The good news was that over time Bugliosi hit upon Manson’s reasoning; the bad news was that it seemed—on its surface—so mind-bogglingly crazy that colleagues of the prosecutor urged him to discard it, as no normal person was likely to believe him.

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Political risk analysts have always had a very hard time getting past this wholly understandable first analytical reaction toward craziness, as can be seen in the present North Korean crisis. It is far from an academic point as to whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad; rather it is the heart of the matter. The Trump administration has been rhetorically unequivocal in that it says it is not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the US with nuclear weapons. The basic reason for this—as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has made clear—is the White House believes Kim is ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, as were the murderous Mao and Stalin during the Cold War.

They were both surely monsters of the first order, but were rational in the sense that they personally did not want to die in a nuclear exchange with the US. This basic fact explains why nuclear deterrence worked in the Cold War. On the other hand, dealing with a lunatic who does not care what happens to himself personally means the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim Jong-un is such a madman he must then be taken out, as his regime could kill millions without worrying about the consequences.

But is Kim Jong-un insane, or as Shakespeare put it so well, is there method to his madness? Political risk analysts down the ages have had a terrible time in assessing what they might term ‘lunatics,’ those whose behaviour at first glance seems to be wholly irrational. However, more often than not, irrational behaviour merely amounts to an ideology that—while it may be radically different than that of the political risk analyst—still contains an internal logic, complete with discernible overarching goals, tactical gambits, and a strategic battle plan.

We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily by lazily saying that our foes are crazy and therefore don’t need to be studied, because their belief systems are different (and admittedly often wildly alien) to our own. Such a limp intellectual reaction merely deprives political risk analysts of the incentive to do what they ought to, to dig deeper in understanding what at first glance seems deceptively random.

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Indeed, when the Los Angeles police were initially made aware of Manson’s philosophy of Helter Skelter, they replied as all poor political risk analysts would, “Ah, Charlie’s a madman; we’re not interested in all that.” But they should have been. For Manson’s philosophy of Helter Skelter provides the crucial link explaining why the murders came about, making sense of what the ancient Greeks would describe as praxis, the unity of thought and action.

Because of their shared philosophy—no matter how far out—otherwise normal people had been motivated to savagely kill at Manson’s bidding. Successfully gaming out lunatics involves analysts suspending their own disbelief, intellectually following others’ philosophies wherever they lead. For only by doing this can praxis be gotten at, and sound analytical judgements arrived at.

Helter Skelter was to be the last war on the face of the earth, an end time’s racial conflict between African-Americans and Whites, wherein the African-American minority would rise up and eviscerate formerly dominant White society in America. But Manson, an avowed racist, believed such a wildly improbable outcome would redound to his own personal benefit.

The only White Americans to survive would be his Family, who by then would have moved to the inhospitable confines of Death Valley to escape the fighting. As Manson believed African-Americans were incapable of running anything, after a period of chaos, he prophesied that they instead would turn to him to manage things, with the Family ultimately coming to rule the world. You can see why Bugliosi was hesitant to put this fantastical thinking forward as the primary motive for the crimes.

Bugliosi was convinced that it was only within this barely-believable philosophical context that the murders could be assessed. The slayings were a crucial part of Manson’s plan to trigger Helter Skelter. By committing a series of brutal, seemingly senseless crimes against members of White society, the cult leader became convinced that eventually radical African-American movements, such as the Black Panthers, would be blamed for the outrage, which would lead to fighting in the streets.

Bugliosi contended that Manson ordered the murders, and that his Helter Skelter philosophy directly led to the killings, as it was designed to ignite the apocalyptic race war itself. Manson’s sick philosophy, plus his total control over the Family, made them willing participants in his homicidal rampage. Manson’s adherents were yearning to do anything he asked, however crazy it might seem to normal eyes.

Because he was unafraid to follow Manson’s twisted philosophy analytically wherever it took him, because he got beyond the obvious fact that Helter Skelter was patently ‘crazy’, Vincent Bugliosi discovered the motive that tied mass murderer Charles Manson to his crimes. Despite heavy odds, Bugliosi succeeded in convicting all the defendants, crucially including Manson. The first-rate analytical skills of Vincent Bugliosi underline a key point for political risk analysts. Just because a philosophy seems to be demented in your eyes, emphatically does not mean such a warped ideology doesn’t explain the key link between another’s thought and their actions.

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Beyond this, that Shakespearean phrase, ‘There’s method to their madness’, is the key lesson for political risk analysts to keep in mind in successfully gaming out lunatics, those whose apparently irrational behaviour makes them seem at first glance patently unable to be studied and assessed. For there is almost always an internal logic to any serious foreign policy actor, however diabolical or seemingly random.

Risk analysts must first get beyond the simple immediate–and very human–impulse of writing off such players on the international scene as being incapable of assessment, study their ideology (no matter how twisted) and then treat them as they would any other player on the chessboard: what are their interests, what do they want, how are they prepared to get it, what is their likely strategy?

But if the seemingly irrational are often the hardest actors for political risk analysts to read, there is one more intellectual step we have to take if we are to fully go through the looking glass in dealing with them. On the international scene, the irrational are almost always politically underrated, in their strangeness being subconsciously viewed as inherently incapable of actually succeeding on the foreign policy stage.

While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin nerve gas and executing his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—are his bloodthirsty actions so irrational they cannot be analysed?

Far from it. While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined sense of self-preservation; 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 pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history. A North Korea in possession of such weapons would have 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, both of whom relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and killed.

Kim Jong-un then seems to be merely what several local Asian scholars have already said of him: a rational actor operating within the context of a totalitarian system. Ruthless, yes, perhaps even wicked, but far from crazy. If this is true, then Kim is ‘rational’ in the manner Stalin and Mao were, despite their undoubted evil. And in this rational desire for self-preservation, it would seem nuclear deterrence should not be so quickly discarded as an American strategy for dealing with the North Korean regime.

The high-odds, successful prosecution of Charles Manson by Vincent Bugliosi underlines the vital need to game out lunatics, as there is almost always method to their madness. We would do well to remember this in dealing with the ‘madness’ of Kim Jong-un.

Published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, February 17, 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, will be published by Princeton University Press in April. He lives in Milan, Italy.