Category Archives: Trump and US Foreign Policy

Knowing the Nature of the World You Live In: Or the Trials and Tribulations of George Harrison

One of the most vital political risk commandments to master is knowing the overall nature of the system you are evaluating in terms of its power distribution. For instance, are you assessing the unipolar Mediterranean Pax Romana of the Augustan age, the complex multipolarity of the post-Napoleonic European order painstakingly constructed Castlereagh and Metternich, or the bipolar Cold War world of the US and USSR? Only by knowing the nature of the world you live in—and its stability–can any policy or any analysis actually hope to be successful.

The best (and most entertaining) way to look at the change of power dynamics in a world order is to chronicle the startlingly quick unravelling of the greatest pop group in history. The Beatles went in lightning fashion from a period of artistic and commercial dominance in the mid-1960s (with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to their demise in 1970 (following Let It Be and Abbey Road) in a blink of a historical eye. Why was this and what can the sad demise of the Fab Four tell us about global systems?

The Beatles’ System Falls Stunningly Apart

In the mid-1960s, the rather rigid structure lying behind the Beatles’ creative and commercial success—on most albums their lovable (and newly knighted) drummer Ringo Starr was given at most one song, George Harrison had at best two or three, with the rest being Lennon-McCartney originals—became the group’s unquestioned modus operandi. The system worked because it reflected the genuine creative power realities within the group at the time.

This pattern—the accepted rules underlying a bipolar world dominated by Lennon-McCartney—was followed with metronomic efficiency. On Rubber Soul, there are eleven Lennon-McCartney tunes, two penned by Harrison, and one by Ringo. Revolver is graced by eleven Lennon-McCartney songs, while Harrison had three and Ringo none. Sgt. Pepper’s in many ways amounts to the apogee of John and Paul’s creative dominance; fully twelve of the thirteen songs on this masterpiece were written by Lennon-McCartney, with George managing only one and Ringo none.

But by now George Harrison had had enough. In any other group he would have served as a first-rate front man, as both a performer and a writer; now he simply couldn’t get much of his increasingly prodigious output on the records. The creative balance of power within the group was decidedly shifting, even as the Beatles’ modus operandi stayed the same. Chafing at the creative bit, and frustrated that he simply wasn’t allowed to crack the Lennon-McCartney duopoly, Harrison grew increasingly resentful that his efforts to grow as an artist were being given short shrift.

In a sense, such a rigid response to Harrison’s rise is entirely understandable. John and Paul echoed back to him what established status quo powers have been saying to rising powers since time immemorial: “Why should we change anything, given how well things are going for us?” While that certainly was true in this case—the Lennon-McCartney bipolar world had taken the Beatles to undreamed-of creative heights—so was the fact that George Harrison, an immensely talented man in his own right, was not being given real opportunities to rise in the Beatles’ system.

The Beatles as a Frightening Metaphor for Today’s World

So let’s jump through the looking glass, taking our Beatles analogy a geopolitical step further. View John Lennon in the mid to late 1960s as a stand-in for the Europe of today: increasingly preoccupied with Yoko Ono, self-involved with the many demons of his past and present, more worried about his own personal problems and situation than about the Beatles as a whole, and eager to shed his responsibilities in the band.

See Paul McCartney as the United States, unhappily aware he is the last man standing, the force (after the death of their unsung manager Brian Epstein in August 1967) holding the group together. It fell to Paul, both by virtue of his ambitious personality and John’s lack of interest, to take over the running of the band. The others resented his increasing dominance, even as he resented the fact that they all benefited from his desire to keep the show on the road, the system ticking over. It is little wonder McCartney veered from unilateralism to isolationism in doing so. Paul is the harassed ordering power.

Imagine George Harrison as today’s rising powers (China, India, and the other emerging market powers), resentful and distrustful of the old system of dominance and eager to strike off on their own, either within a newly re-constituted group that makes room for their growth or in a new band.

And finally, conjure Ringo as the world’s smaller powers, desperate to work with everyone, to keep a stable system going, even as he is glumly aware that whatever happens will affect him far more than he can impact any outcome. Strikingly, the Beatles of the late 1960s and the global political world of today are eerily in line with one another.

By the time of Let It Be (1970), it is all over. For anyone who has watched the excruciating May 1970 film of the making of the album, the lowlight has to be when an exasperated Paul runs into a beyond-caring George, who mockingly tells him he will play whatever Paul wants, however Paul wants, all the while meaning exactly the opposite.

A Lennon-McCartney duopoly no longer makes sense to two of the three key protagonists. George Harrison no longer wants to wait for the other two to take notice of his creative flowering. John Lennon no longer wants to carry the significant burden of keeping the group together, given his other preoccupations and weariness at being the co-leader of a system he increasingly cares less and less about.

Neither of these systemic shifts happened out of the blue, and both had been commented on for several years. But nothing systematically changed to keep up with these altered creative and power realities. The world had changed. The creative power constellation within the Beatles had changed. But the power dynamic within the group had not. This is the classic definition of a failed system. Everyone knew exactly what he was referring to when Harrison named his fine first post-Beatles record All Things Must Pass.

 Using our analogy: How the West can avoid the Beatles’ fate

The first and foremost priority for the West is to accurately see the evolving power structure of the new world we live in, as the Beatles failed to do. It must not fight to uphold a unipolar or bipolar status quo that is beyond saving. To paraphrase the great Italian writer Lampedusa, if things are to stay as they are, everything must change. For the relative decline of the West and the rise of the rest is a fact, it is the undoubted historical headline of our age. This reality does not call for the resigned fatalism so popular now in Europe, but instead to adjust the power realities of global governance to the rapidly changing multipolar world we now find ourselves in.

So the West must adopt a new strategy if it is to avoid the systemic fate of the Fab Four. It must re-engage George Harrison—particularly the emerging and established democratic powers such as India, Indonesia, South Africa, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Japan–on new terms that actually reflect today’s changed multipolar global geopolitical and macro-economic realities. It must forge a new global democratic alliance with these rising regional powers, making them partners in defending the global status quo.

Let it be.

This article first appeared in  MarketWatch, March 28, 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, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is available for order on Amazon.

 

Will the US ever escape the Losing Gambler Syndrome in Afghanistan?

The Losing Gambler Syndrome is a fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand. When someone loses big at the tables, almost always they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing . . . and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.

Policymakers are not immune to this folly, often doubling down on a bad assessment emotionally in order to wipe the slate clean of their intellectual mistakes. I saw this doleful analytical process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq War slid toward the abyss; very often those policymakers urging ever-greater efforts in Iraq from the American people did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses.

History’s graveyard is replete with losing gamblers

Anyone who has ever walked the mile and a half in that beautiful, tragic open field between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges at Gettysburg knows that the Confederate assault on the third day of the battle should never have been made. The simple reason for Pickett’s disastrous charge is that Robert E. Lee had emotionally invested too much at Gettysburg to easily turn back. The famed Confederate general was both desperate and overconfident, a fatal combination. Lee was held intellectual hostage by his tantalizing near success (and actual failure) on the second day of the battle, becoming an unwitting prisoner of the Losing Gambler Syndrome.

Likewise, as the years rolled by without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign to get out, not to redouble his efforts.

When will they ever learn?

Tragically, the losing gambler’s curse continues today, with America’s seemingly endless war in Afghanistan being a textbook example. Within of few months of 9/11, American-led forces had routed the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda from its bases. However, then the war goals fatefully shifted. To prevent al-Qaeda’s resurgence, the US ended up endlessly propping up weak, corrupt, unrepresentative governments in Kabul.

As these governments did not have sufficient organic political legitimacy, the US found itself mired in an unwinnable situation, as without Taliban involvement in the central government (the Taliban represent almost exclusively the interests of the Pashtun, the largest single tribe in the country) any local rule was bound to be seen as inherently unrepresentative. This political reality is at the base of the 16-year unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Doubling down yet again

Yet President Trump’s ‘new plan’ (there have been an endless number of these over the past decade and a half) does nothing do to deal with this central political conundrum. Despite in his campaign saying the war in Afghanistan had been ‘a total disaster,’ the President was persuaded by his respected Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, to increase American troop levels in-country to 16,000, ignoring the fact that during the Obama administration 100,000 American soldiers had been fighting there, all to no avail.

I suspect a key reason for this strange decision is that both Generals Mattis and McMaster served with distinction in Afghanistan. Like Lee, President Johnson, and the neo-conservatives huddled around George W. Bush, both have invested too much emotionally and practically to turn back, whatever the fearful odds.

So an unwinnable war is set to continue, as the unsolvable political reality at its base goes unremarked upon. The losing gambler’s syndrome tells us that once resources and intellectual credibility have been expended, it is all too tempting, whether met with crisis or entranced by near-success, to keep doing what has been failing up until that point. It is entirely understandable to do this, but as Gettysburg, Vietnam, and Iraq point out, practically disastrous. Policymakers must instead have the courage to look at failure straight in the eye and make adjustments to mitigate its effects, rather than doubling down and inviting more.

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, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2018. It is available now 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.