Category Archives: Europe

Gibbon, Decadence and Europe’s Current Decline

 Between 1776 and 1788, the peerless eighteenth century Enlightenment historian (and sometime lackluster British Whig MP) Edward Gibbon set about remaking his profession. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fastened upon an analytical conclusion that has not only proven invaluable to historians since but lays down an incredibly challenging gauntlet for political risk analysts in particular.

Gibbon managed to conjure up through his life’s work a novel, cutting-edge answer to one of the most important historical questions of all time: why did the Roman Empire, in many ways the most powerful and durable political construct ever created, finally disintegrate? He persuasively argues that, while on the surface it was the barbarian invasions that brought it to an end, this was only the final symptom of the Roman malaise, not the root cause of the disease. For Gibbon, Rome fell not primarily because of outside pressures but rather owing to an internal and gradual loss of civic virtue amongst its citizens.

In other words, Rome was destroyed from within. Gibbon creatively saw that the political risk that overwhelmed the greatest of empires came about due to a failure to recognize and combat home-grown problems. Political risk analysts have grappled with Gibbon’s incisive analysis ever since, as there is almost nothing harder than for humans to look in the mirror and honestly say, “We are the problem.”

A Heat Wave in France

 In early August 2003, the blood-red sun rose implacably over the city of Paris. It was the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. Temperatures were regularly hovering at a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat rose to wholly unaccustomed levels, many people—particularly the elderly—started dying. According to the French National Institute of Health, in France alone 14,802 people died of heat-related complications that sun-baked August.

As is the case with most catastrophes, there was plenty of blame to go around. Saying this, one basic overriding thread connects all the culprits behind this tragedy: the absolute and ridiculous sanctity of the French summer vacation. In place of religion or ethics, many Europeans have to come to worship their comfortable (if economically unsustainable) way of life as the paramount goal of being, to the exclusion of all else.

At the time of the emergency, President Jacques Chirac was on holiday in Canada. He remained there for the duration of the crisis. Likewise, Prime Minister Raffarin refused to return from his Alpine vacation until August 14, the day before the temperatures at last began to cool. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei also exhibited highly dubious priorities, failing to come back to a sweltering Paris when he was most needed. Instead, his junior aides blocked emergency measures—including the state recalling doctors from their holidays—to attend to the afflicted.

But even this is too simple. Do French doctors really need to be told by the government that it is their duty to come back and deal with an obvious medical emergency? Do French families really need the state to instruct them that they must cut short their time at the beach to minister to the endangered elderly relatives they have left behind?

This was a society-wide conspiracy, in that no ne was responsible because everyone was responsible. As Gibbon would have appreciated, thousands of individual, personal decisions—on their own merely dots in the national painting—all pointed in the same, indefensible position. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of les vacances.

Europe’s present state perfectly fits Gibbon’s classic definition of decadence; it is a society that has lost the ability to deal with its problems coupled over time with abdication of responsibility for them. Gibbon would clearly see that it amounts to the psychological, political, and moral process that is destroying the old continent.

Managing, not solving

European leaders, in thrall to decadence, have gotten used to talking of ‘managing’ problems, rather than ‘solving’ them. Yet does anyone think the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, or the political crisis of the EU has been ‘solved’?

Rising above all these unmet challenges is a simple factor of math: EU countries comprise 9 percent of the world’s population, account for 25% of global GDP, but consume a staggering 50% of the planet’s social spending. The bleak truth is that these numbers are simply unsustainable. Europe is not going through some little local difficulty. The way of life it knew and enjoyed from 1950 to the Lehman Brothers crash will never return.

Conclusion: Back to the heat wave

Everyone in France that dreadful August knew that something terribly wrong was happening back in Paris. Few had the will to give up their overly-precious vacations and do anything about it. Gibbon’s old and venerable concept of decadence emerges as the primary roadblock—and the chief source of contemporary political risk—that not only obscures the knowledge necessary to save Europe but saps the will to act itself. Whether we like it or not, we are the risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful 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 2017.

 

 

 

 

The ancient imperative that will help us predict the future

By Dr. John C. Hulsman and Lara Palay

By 480 BC, the Pythia of Delphi already amounted to an ancient institution. Commonly known now as the Oracle of Delphi (when in fact the ‘oracles’ were the pronouncements the Pythia dispensed), the Pythia were the senior priestesses at the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy.

The temple, perched precariously (and beautifully, the site is still a wonder to behold) on the slope of Mount Parnassus above the Castalian Spring, had long been the center of the Greek world, going back into the mists of time.

The site may well have had religious significance as early as 1400 BC, during the forgotten days of the Mycenaeans, with devotions to Apollo being established in the 8th century BC. Delphi remained a center of worship until 395 AD, meaning that it was in use for at least 1100 years.

During this long period, the Pythia was seen as the most authoritative and important soothsayer in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to visit the temple and have their questions about the future answered.

Sitting in a small, enclosed chamber at the base of the edifice, the Pythia delivered her oracles in a frenzied state, most probably imbibing the vapours rising from the clefts of Mount Parnassus.

Given the pharmacological basis for the Pythia’s special insights, it is amazing at how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, of which more than half are said to be historically accurate. We can name a goodly number of modern political risk firms who would kill for that record.

There is a very simple explanation for the Pythia’s extraordinary success. Carved into the entrance of the temple to Apollo at Delphi, standing watch over the Pythia’s rites since time immemorial, was a simple Greek phrase, ‘Know Thyself’.

The aphorism is often wrongly attributed to Socrates, who brought it into fashion. It amounts to one of the oldest and best pieces of advice given to humans. The aim of both modern psychology and as well as foreign policy analysis could be put as simply as: figure out who you are.

If you know yourself, you might untangle the snarls you get into in life. You might do better interacting with others; when you understand your motives clearly, you have a shot at seeing others with clarity. You might even be able to do good in the world, rather than be a slave to selfishness and rage.

Many of the pantheon of the gormless we have visited over the past three years—from a Donald Trump who cannot understand why firing the FBI Director who is investigating him might be a bad idea, to Jean-Claude Juncker and his EU minions who fail to see that the EU is the past and not the future, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who continually confuses caution and wisdom—stumble over this primary intellectual hurdle.

They have absolutely no idea who they are, and thus have little clue as to their place in the world. From this simple but devastating mistake, everything else follows.

Of course to know thyself takes great courage, to look accurately at person’s (or a country’s) strengths and especially weaknesses is a heroic, Homeric endeavour. But the analytical rewards of doing so are legion.

Abraham Lincoln saw that the American Civil War was about something far larger in the history of the world, just as Winston Churchill put into stirring words that Britain’s peril in 1940 was about more than the fate of a country, but more broadly the survival of decency in the face of utter barbarism.

Neither of these moments would have been remotely possible without a real understanding of where Lincoln and Churchill stood in the universe, why their moments mattered. This is turn required the magic elixir of self-knowledge.

This column is the last in a series of articles we wrote together. We looked at what countries do, and then looked at human behavior, and what science has gleaned about the workings of the human mind and brain. We combined psychology, history and current affairs in this series, because the first directive in these disciplines is to discover the root causes of human behaviour and events.

In each of these fields and for all of humankind, this boils down to the individual, and for that individual, understanding begins with the self. So for this column, giving modern-day advice about the present, it seems like a good place to end–at the beginning.

Published in City AM London, May 15, 2017

 

Apres Macron le deluge: This is the European elites’ last chance to avert disaster

You have to hand it to Louis XV of France. He may have been a mediocrity, but at least as a political risk analyst he knew the price for continual policy failure. A lowlight of his long, stagnant reign (1715-1774) was the Battle of Rossbach in 1757, where Frederick the Great of Prussia rang strategic rings around him.

Louis, upon observing the defeat of the joint Franco-Hapsburg forces, immortally replied, ‘Apres moi, le deluge,’ after me comes the flood. And in his political risk analysis, the hapless monarch was surely right; his grandson and heir, Louis XVI, was to lose his crown and his head in the French Revolution, just a generation on from Louis’s first-rate prediction.

And that is just where the European elite now finds itself, though critically unlike the prescient Louis they think they have seen off the menace to their political survival. Yet in reality, the populist flood waters are rising though the gormless commentariat is bound to get this wrong too.

I can already see the end of 2017 headlines; indeed, the false narrative is already building steam. ‘With the defeat of populists in the Netherlands, France and Germany, wise enlightened Europe (unlike its Anglo-Saxon Neanderthal cousins) has combatted populism head-on, proving itself more stable, wiser, and far more politically mature than the rest of the West. By virtue of its inherent resistance to extremism, Europe has yet again been underrated.’

I almost don’t know where to begin with this pathetic wish-fulfilment masquerading as analysis, except to say these are the very same people who over the past year were wrong about the Dutch referendum on Ukraine, wrong about Brexit, wrong about Trump, wrong about the Columbian referendum on a peace deal with the Farc rebels, and wrong about the Italian referendum. Surely at some point, their doleful analytical record should make the rest of us just a little bit leery of their grand pronouncements?

The French presidential vote is particularly instructive. Yes, as I have long said, Emmanuel Macron will be elected to the Elysee palace, and by a decisive margin. And in doing so, the odds are he will become Louis XV, the last member of a rotting elite to haplessly fail to grapple with the revolutionary forces that are swirling all around him.

Far from saving France and the EU (as much of the breathless left would have us believe), there is absolutely no empirical evidence that Macron can reform a reactionary country which would like it much better if globalisation had simply never happened.

For the most worrying thing about French politics is that presently it is only the far-right, xenophobic Front National (FN) and its champion, Marine Le Pen, who seem to understand political risk analysis.

Here is their calculation. Le Pen will get 35% plus of the vote in this Sunday’s second round of the presidential vote, double the support her father received in the second round of the 2002 presidential election. By this real-world metric, support for the FN has doubled in under a generation, as the flood waters rise to the chins of the highly gormless French elite. As such, Macron as Louis XV, is the last, best, chance for the current political order in France to save itself.

But Macron has no political party behind him. Indeed, a salient point of the 2016 election has been that, for the first time in the history of the French Fifth Republic, the two mainstream parties of the left and the right—the Socialists and the Republicans—do not have candidates in the final round of the presidential contest. The elite is hallowed out and discredited. June’s two-stage parliamentary elections will not give Macron’s En Marche movement (created just a year ago) a majority in parliament.

As such, Macron will have to (in the quite short span of five years) fundamentally reform heretofore unreformable French society, and do so without any sort of parliamentary majority. Add in the tragic reality that France will probably endure another major terrorist attack or so per year over the next five years, and the far more likely political risk outcome is that, by the end of his term, Macron will have not significantly lifted France’s economic growth numbers, or made the French feel more safe.

That is what Le Pen and the FN are betting on, and frankly, it seems the most likely outcome. She has always been playing for the next French election, not this one. Macron may surprise, he may be the reincarnation of FDR and shrewdly transform France politically and economically. But the far more likely outcome is that he will fail.

In either case, one thing is for certain. Rather than signalling Europe’s decisive victory over populism, Macron represents the continent’s last desperate gasp to avoid being Louis XVI.

Published in City AM London, May 2, 2017.