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.