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

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

HulsmanThe 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 of 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 that 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 had 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 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 characterized 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 centered 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, 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 is To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Gaming out chess players: The Italian Renaissance and Vladimir Putin

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

HulsmanIf learning the precious truth that we can be the danger (see my Gibbon column of last week) is the first commandment of political risk analysis, gaming out chess players is surely another. Chess players—foreign policy actors playing the long game, possessing fixed, long-term strategic goals even as they use whatever tactical means come to hand to achieve them—are rare birds indeed. Patient, low-key, but implacable, chess players do that rarest of things: they actually think ahead and are not prisoners of short-term day-to-day events, instead conditioning all that they do in furtherance of their long-term strategy.

Chess players manage to cloak their dogged, disciplined strategies, hiding them in plan sight of our frenetic 24-hour news cycle, from a world that does not generally follow such fixed principles and cannot really conceive of how others might be able to hold to a clear strategic line. In a world of tacticians, it is easy for a strategist to conceal themselves.

Pope Julius II as the true hero of The Prince

Following on from the Crusades, the western world entered a period of cultural and political regeneration we now call the Renaissance. As is true for most eras, it was more politically chaotic, brutal, and bloody than it seems in retrospect. In the confusing, uncertain milieu of early-sixteenth century Italy, a man arose who fit the tenor of his times.

Pope Julius II has been shamefully underrated by history, as his contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli—the author of The Prince, the bible of modern realpolitik—instead lionized failed Bond villain Cesare Borgia rather than the more successful pope. However, we have five centuries of distance from the swirling events of the Renaissance, allowing us to take up the more dispassionate, chess-playing view that Machiavelli urges on us. So let us here re-write the ending of The Prince, this time using Julius II as the proper analytical hero of the piece.

Julius was born Giuliano Della Rovere around 1443. Like Cesare Borgia, his path to power was speeded along by close familial contacts to the papacy. Della Rovere was the much-loved nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, becoming his uncle’s de facto prime minister. Following on from the death of Sixtus, Della Rovere assumed that he would succeed him. However, he was beaten out by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Cesare’s father, who assumed the title of Pope Alexander VI. So Della Rovere, in good chess player fashion, tried to undercut Alexander, knowing his time was coming.

When Alexander VI died in 1503 (and with the lightning quick demise of his successor, Pope Pius III, in just 26 days) Della Rovere at last made his long-considered move. He deceived the supposedly worldly Cesare and ran rings around him diplomatically, securing the papal throne by means of bribery, both in terms of money and future promises. With Cesare throwing the powerful Borgia family’s crucial support behind him, the new papal conclave was one of the shortest in history, with Della Rovere winning on only the second ballot, taking all but two cardinals’ votes. He ascended to the papal throne at the end of 1503.

Now that Cesare had outlived his usefulness, Julius withdrew his promised political support from him in true Machiavellian fashion, seeing to it that the Borgias found it impossible to retain their political control over the papal states of central Italy. Julius rightly reasoned that to fail to eradicate the Borgia principality would have left the Vatican surrounded by Borgia possessions and at Cesare’s very limited mercy.

Without papal support Cesare’s rule on his own—without the critical backing his father Alexander VI had provided—lasted merely a matter of months, with his lands reverting to Julius and the papacy itself. Julius had run rings around Machiavelli’s hero, fulfilling the chess-playing maxim that securing one’s political position leads to political stability and long-term rule. That, Niccolo, is what a real chess player looks like.

Making sense of Putin

However, chess players are not just relic of the byzantine Renaissance age. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a perfect modern-day example of a chess player, as all the many devious tactics he pursues ultimately amount to a very single-minded effort to restore Russian greatness, often by blunting the West’s drives into what he sees as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in the countries surrounding it. In other words, the Russian strong man resembles another chess player, former French President Charles De Gaulle, in his single-minded efforts to restore pride and great power status to his humiliated country.

As such, Putin’s many gambits: theatrically opposing the US despite having a puny, corrupt economy the size of Texas; pursuing an aggressive adventurist policy against the pro-Western government in Ukraine; intervening to decisive effect in the horrendous Syrian war; all serve one overarching strategic goal. They are designed to make the world (and even more the Russian people) change their perceptions about Russia as a declining, corrupt, demographically challenged former superpower (which it is), and instead see it as a rejuvenated global great power, one that is back at the geo-strategic top table.

Despite all facts to the contrary (and in the end, as was true for De Gaulle’s France, the facts just don’t bear out the incorrect perception that Russia will again be a superpower), Putin has been very successful in (wrongly) changing global perceptions of Russia’s place in the world. It is also the reason the current tsar has an 80% approval rating in his own country, as he has restored pride to his formerly humiliated countrymen. By knowing what ultimately motivates the chess-playing Putin, we in the West can do a far better job in assessing the entirely explicable tactical gambits emanating from the Kremlin.

The rewards for spotting the rare chess player

Despite the difficulty in spotting them, it is well worth the time trying to game out chess players, perhaps the rarest of creatures in global politics. For once they are analytically brought to ground, the fixed, rational, patterns that chess players live by means a true analytical understanding of them is possible, as well as a far better understanding of the world in which they live.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, 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 organization. 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 is To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Gibbon, Decadence, and Europe’s Current Decline

HulsmanBetween 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 one 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 cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, 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 preeminent foreign policy organization. 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 is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.