How the big pieces fit together: Europe’s place in the multipolar world

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Lesson of the G7 train wreck

It’s official. After the calamitous G7 summit meeting in Canada, it is clear that an unbound Donald Trump is Europe’s worst nightmare. Although with typical unnecessary narcissism, he came late and left early, what Donald Trump did in his few short hours on Canadian soil will be commented on for years, as he emerged as a virtual caricature of everything Europeans hate about Americans.

Preternaturally over-confident and under-prepared, arrogant, and self-regarding, the president urged Russia be readmitted to the G7 club (despite its iron-clad control of Crimea and ruination of eastern Ukraine), doubled down on enraging European and Canadian allies alike over the brewing trade war (‘America is not a piggy bank’), and generally confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the White House actually prefers dealing with America’s authoritarian foes, such as China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, rather than the vexing, well-meaning, but weak democratic pygmies who populate the standard multilateral meeting. Surely, after such an odious display the rest of the democratic world must rise up in righteous indignation and…

Well, the best I can come up with is snub Trump administration appointments at formal cocktail parties. For the bleak truth lying behind Donald Trump’s appalling, wrong-headed policies and behaviour in Canada is that the rest of the democratic world is pathetically weak and bereft of agency. As such, while they seethe with disgust at having to put up with the odious president, there is nothing practically they are prepared to do to stop him. This most transactional of presidents has inadvertently but graphically illustrated how practically irrelevant America’s western allies, particularly in Europe, truly are.

Be careful what you wish for

This is all so different from the dreams of a new multipolar world that so animated European thinkers during the long days of the bipolar Cold War. Then, European policy intellectuals—particularly in France—dreamed of living in a multipolar age that would follow victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a time when Europe would finally achieve the strategic flexibility to have its own independent foreign and security policy, no longer shackled to (but still vaguely allied with) the US. But this long-term strategic goal amounted to little more than emotional wish-fulfilment, predicated as it was on two unremarked upon suppositions.

The first was that the relative diminution in American global power would be meekly accepted by a US long used to running things. In other words, a series of President Obamas would shepherd the US to accept its new central, but relatively more limited, structural position in the multipolar world. To put it mildly, a President Trump—whose very campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an overly emotional refutation of America’s relative decline—was not reckoned on.

Second, it was blithely assumed by European thinkers that their continent would undoubtedly and effortlessly emerge as the principal new force in this new world of many powers. As China rose during the latter days of the Cold War, following Deng Xiaoping’s historic opening in December 1978, European thinkers did foresee a world where a rising Asia would join America, Europe, Japan, and a diminished Russia as the main players on the global strategic scene (India was little thought of). But the notion that Europe would be by a long way the weakest of these great powers—politically divided, economically sclerotic, and militarily puny—never entered their thoughts.

As a result, while European thinkers seemed to pine for a multipolar world, in reality it was a new era where their continent was rising—as America was falling and the Soviets were non-existent—that was their real dream. Donald Trump’s petulant performance (and Europe’s anaemic non-response) at the just concluded G7 meeting glaringly illustrates that today’s world is simply not the sort of multipolarity European thinkers ever had in mind.

What Europe Should Do

Most foreign policy articles (and I have written over 500 of them) are cries in the wilderness, futile exercises where the analyst proposes outcomes that they know will never come to pass. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of every political risk analyst to try, to posit what can be practically done to retrieve strategic situations, for irretrievable decline is a choice and not a preordained destiny.

In this spirit, what can Europe do to make itself relevant as a Great Power in the real multipolar era we actually now live in? First, psychologically accept that while Trump is an extreme case, American leaders in general are transactional in nature; they will only take European concerns on board if it is viewed as a serious power capable of going its own way in terms of genuine practical policy consequences. Global politics is not a debating society; what matters are the views of the great strategic players, and the power they bring to bear—political, economic, strategic, diplomatic, and social—to further their interests. Europe must stop passively watching the world, and either master history, or history will surely master it.

Second, the Europeans have to act in a far more unitary manner in terms of foreign and security policy. Russia, an economic basket case in comparison (its economy is smaller than that of Italy), is the relevant comparison. For all that it is a corrupt, demographically decaying one-trick economic pony, a decrepit gas station utterly dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, Moscow punches far above its actual weight on the global scene.

The reason? President Putin can make decisive, unitary, foreign policy decisions for his country that are quickly acted on. Russia—as the Crimea episode illustrated—is still prepared to spend blood and treasure, to make real sacrifices to further the country’s foreign policy goals and interests. At present, I am not sure many in Brussels would be prepared to sacrifice a week’s holiday to do much of anything. For once and for all, Europe and its leaders have to decide if their foreign policy amounts to merely virtue signalling, or whether they are prepared to make the sacrifices to actually matter in the world.  

 To do so, an inner core of the key western European states—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands—must move ahead, and actually begin to craft such a common foreign policy. Failure to do so will inevitably lead the other great powers to cherry pick Europe, to keep dividing the place precisely because it is inherently divided. It is not the fault of the outside powers, as states since time immemorial have taken advantage of their rival’s weaknesses. Rather it is the fault of a Europe that simply can’t get its act together.

Finally, as the mediocre age of Merkel subsides, endemic problems must be solved, rather than merely managed. Across the continent, Europe must free up its animal spirits and find a way to increase average growth rates to around two percent, if horrendous rates of youth unemployment and endemic economic torpor are to be righted. President Macron’s courageous and largely successful labour market reforms are a start, by more needs to be done.

With France as a nucleus, and after decades of torturous (and maddening) inaction, the major European countries must commit themselves to some level of serious defence spending, as without an army their moralistic lectures are just that, and nothing more. Finally, and again Macron is onto something here, ‘A Certain Idea of Europe,’ the idea of a strong, distinct, unique and blessed Europe, a sacred place whose interests and values are worth fighting for on the global stage, must be advanced as a unifying clarion call to action.

It is not too late for Europe to emerge as its thinkers once dreamed it would, and Trump’s odious behaviour in Canada surely serves as a call to arms. But it is one minute to the midnight of Europe’s strategic irrelevance.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. He is the author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

In 480 BCE, the citizens of Athens were in more trouble than it is possible for our modern minds to fathom. Xerxes, the seemingly omnipotent son of Darius the Great, had some unfinished business left to him by his father. A decade earlier, at the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BCE, the miraculous had happened: the underrated Athenian army had seen off Darius and his mighty Persian horde, saving the threatened city-state from certain destruction. Now Xerxes had invaded Greece again, to finish the work his father had started, and he’d assembled a vast army that the Greek historian Herodotus (typically exaggerating) put at 5 million, but – though modern scholars disagree on precise numbers – was likely to have been a still-overwhelming force of 360,000, on top of a gigantic armada of 750 ships. Confronted with an insurmountable foe and almost certain destruction, the hard-pressed Athenian leadership requested the services of the world’s first political risk consultant.

Already, by 480 BCE, the Pythia of Delphi was an ancient institution. Now commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi – when, in ancient Greek, the oracles were the pronouncements that the Pythia dispensed – the Pythia were the senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy. For more than 1,100 years (until 390 CE, when radical Christians chased the last Pythia out of Parnassus), they were viewed as the most authoritative soothsayers in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to the temple on the slope of Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. From the small, enclosed chamber at the base of the shrine, the Pythia (there were three priestesses on call at any time) delivered her oracles in a frenzied state – the likely result of imbibing the hallucinogenic vapours rising from the clefts in the rock of Mount Parnassus, which we now know sits atop the intersection of two tectonic plates.

The Pythia would be sitting in a perforated cauldron astride a tripod. Pilgrims reported (and Plutarch, who for a time served as high priest at Delphi, assisting the Pythia in her mission, confirmed) that as she inhaled the strange vapours her hair would stand on end, her complexion altered, and she would often begin panting, her voice assuming an otherworldly tone. In classical days it was said that the Pythia spoke in rhyme, in pentameter or hexameter. To put it in modern terms, the Pythia was clearly as high as a kite. But let’s look at the Pythia afresh, for I would argue that the Temple at Delphi was effectively the world’s first political risk-consulting firm.

Since the height of the Persian Wars, political and business leaders have looked to outsiders blessed with seemingly magical knowledge to divine both the present and the future. While the tools of divination have obviously changed, the pressing need for establishing the rules of the road for managing risk in geopolitics have not. The question for political risk analysis remains the same as it was during the heyday of the Pythia: with superior knowledge (spiritual or intellectual), can we reliably do this?

The Pythia’s prognosticating advantages, not least her outsider status, curiously track the qualities that political risk firms look for in their best analysts today. In their isolation at Mount Parnassus, the Pythia were not in danger of elite capture, and the curse of analytical groupthink that so often follows, in terms of what they predicated. This is the curse that doomed so many modern-day analysts to be so very wrong about the Brexit vote because they didn’t bother to look outside the hermetically sealed elite shell of London; or the startling advent of Donald Trump (they never left the East Coast corridor). Physical, intellectual and emotional distance have great analytical value.

Yet despite being isolated, the Pythia had limited but regular contact with the elites of the day who made the arduous trek to visit them. Over time, the priestesses at the Temple of Apollo came to understand what it was their clients wished to know, and how to provide exactly what they lacked; independent, outside, authoritative advice. It should be noted that the Pythia were chosen from a group of highly educated women, well-acquainted with the world. It is this strange and unique mix of special knowledge, education, distance from (and yet connection to) the centres of corruption and power, that describes the ideal CV for political risk analysts today.

The Pythia offered practical counsel that could shape future actions, just as political risk analysts do today – though we’d use modern jargon and call it ‘policy’ in the public sphere, and ‘corporate strategy’ in the business world. It is amazing how good a political risk record the priestesses actually had. Between 535 and 615 of the oracles have survived to the present day, and well over half of these are said to be historically correct. (I can name a goodly number of modern firms that would kill for that record.)

There has always been a market to answer basic political risk questions: can the Persians be stopped, and if so how? Will the UK vote for Brexit? Will Trump become president? Then as now, those with a reputation for getting basic political risk questions right were venerated, just as those who failed were over time discredited. Crucially, on the biggest political risk question Delphi was ever presented with – Xerxes’ invasion – the Pythia came through with flying colours. In her peculiar poetic and riddling fashion she suggested a ploy to get the Athenians off the hook. She recounted that when Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and the patron of her namesake city, implored her father Zeus to save Athens, he told her that he would grant them ‘a wall of wood that alone should be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children’.

Naturally, the Pythia’s mysterious oracular pronouncements required interpretation by the city leaders of Athens. One of them, Themistocles, argued that a wall of wood specifically referred to the Athenian navy, and persuaded the city’s leaders to adopt a maritime-first strategy against the Persians. This policy – concocted by the Pythia – led directly to the decisive naval Battle of Salamis, the turning point that brought to an end the Persian risk to Athens’s very survival. To put it mildly, the Pythia had proven to be well worth her political-risk fee – both the direct monetary payment customarily made to her by pilgrims, and the larger donations to the gods, which secured petitioners an advanced place in the line.

To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk by John C Hulsman is out now via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Getting to Goldilocks: Napoleon, the Venetian Republic and Balance in Political Risk Analysis

by Dr. John C. Hulsman
Hulsman

Introduction: The Self-Inflicted Haplessness of Venice

The Most Serene Republic of Venice, one of the most consequential states of the European Renaissance, ended the 1,100 years of its existence not with a bang but with a pathetic whimper. At its height and for hundreds of years, the Venetian maritime empire dominated the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, as well as possessing a central land base in the Veneto on the northern Italian mainland. However, by the time the great Napoleon had fixed his sights on what he rightly called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ and determined that the Venetian pearl would be his, the city-state was but a shadow of its former self, largely because of a simple failure of political risk analysis.

Why was this former great power so utterly defenceless before Napoleon’s hordes? The simple, overriding answer to this question is that the Venetians had learned an important lesson down the centuries—war is often folly and always expensive—while entirely forgetting that they might need to keep other important—and countervailing—truisms about international relations in mind as well.

First amongst these is that having merely carrots (economic power) as an instrument on the global stage only works in a world populated entirely by rabbits; military power is sometimes required too. And whatever else you might say of him, the young Napoleon was hardly a rabbit.

Because of this fundamental misreading of human nature, the Venetian Republic responded with a reckless strategy of disarmament over the centuries that erased its mighty position in the world. By the latter days of the eighteenth century, the city-state was so divorced from the reality of power politics that when threatened by the French, it had absolutely no choice but to surrender.

Political risk analysts often exhibit a similar lack of balance, dooming their assessments. The holy grail of analysis is getting to Goldilocks—making policy assessments that are neither too hard nor too soft, by eschewing extremes and mono-causal answers and actually balancing the numerous important factors determining outcomes.

Venice’s Slow Castration

From the early sixteenth century on, the oligarchs who ran the Republic preferred to avoid the hard economic choices and belt-tightening that could have corrected their dangerous military decline (much like today’s modern European states). But as Venice was still a very rich city, and as its elite’s cosseted life of masked balls and opulence were hard to part with, it was far easier to do nothing about what seemed at the time to be merely a theoretical problem. It was only when Napoleon showed up at Venice’s doorstep that theory became all too real.

And to a point, of course, the Venetians were absolutely right. Often wars explode in the faces of those who engage in them, and almost always they are ruinously expensive. Peace in general is a better alternative for both the health of any state and the welfare of its people. No one is arguing that in general the Venetians were onto something with their peace-first strategy.

The problem was that over the centuries it became a peace-only strategy. For having grasped one essential reality of the world, the Venetian Republic wholly ignored other, darker, but no less important lessons about the nature of human beings and international relations. By 1796, on the eve of Napoleon’s brilliant Italian campaign, the Republic could no longer defend itself. Of its pathetic fleet of thirteen ships of the line, only a handful of even these proved to be seaworthy. The army was in even worse shape, consisting of only a few brigades of Croatian mercenaries.

The fundamental problem was that in policy terms the oligarchs had forgotten about balance in both foreign policy and political risk analysis, not being prepared to pay the steep price that would have been necessary to upgrade the Venetian fleet with the latest technology of eighteenth-century warfare. Through this intellectual failure of balance, Venice had castrated itself long before Napoleon came thundering out of the mountains, sealing its own doom.

Napoleon’s France as a Country on Military Steroids 

In his bedazzled, gilded youth, Napoleon Bonaparte shown like the sun. Beyond Alexander the Great, it is difficult to think of any leader in the history of the world to whom fame and glory came so early, and so overwhelmingly. Supremely competent, decisive, preternaturally driven, eloquent, quick-witted, and far-seeing, Bonaparte was capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in both his marshals and his men.

In 1797, Napoleon could uncannily see the inherent defencelessness of the Venetian Republic, a government that had chosen to simply ignore the basic imperative any state has to defend itself. However, Napoleon was to make a diametrically opposed analytical misjudgement himself.

The Venetians were undoubtedly lotus-eaters, basking in their tranquil apathy, as the forces of the real world slowly and ominously gathered around them. But in worshipping the god Mars, Napoleon was to make an equally disastrous political risk mistake. For behind all his highly impressive domestic reforms was an effort to increasingly militarise French society, to make it fit for purpose to take on the rest of Continental Europe for almost a generation. This imbalanced over-reliance on war was to doom the glorious Bonaparte. In always seeing the need for war, he was as out of kilter as were the Venetians, who never saw the need for it.

For in reality, it was the overly militaristic, self-perpetuating expansionism of Napoleon’s France that led to his greatest strategic setbacks in both Spain and Russia. Both the Spanish and Russian disasters arose out of Napoleon fighting wars of choice, conflicts that a less martial status quo power would have entirely avoided.

Of course, Napoleon paid the ultimate price for his utopian, overly militaristic, unbalanced folly, ironically much as the Venetian oligarchs had done. On May 5, 1821, the great man died in exile on the obscure island of St. Helena, far from the trappings of his once-supreme power, an unwitting victim of having legendarily used the military lever of politics without ever learning that there are other motive forces of history as well.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Balance

Two great powers, the Venetian Republic and its vanquisher, the great Napoleon, were laid waste to when they could not overcome a fundamental political risk analytical error. Commercial Venice forgot along the way that a state’s paramount need is always to defend itself, that there will always be creatures in the foreign policy jungle to be fought off. Evil and aggression in the world cannot be wished away just because it is far more pleasant to attend glittering seaside parties and to produce breath-taking works of art.

Some sort of balance is called for. Over the centuries, Venice’s abdication of responsibility for seeing the world as it is left it entirely at the mercy of the young, covetous Napoleon when he made his way over the Alps. But given the Venetians’ fundamental misreading of the world, it hardly mattered that it was Napoleon who brought the Venetian Republic down. Someone would have.

But Napoleon, in his diametrically opposed way, made the same fundamental error as the Italian oligarchs he so effortlessly conquered. The sword had made Napoleon the most famous man in the world and given him, a minor Corsican aristocrat, first a throne and then the dominant position in Europe.

It is human and understandable that even a man of Bonaparte’s first-rate intellect, having personally experienced how far the military component of power could take both a genius and a country, failed to see that his over-reliance on the military instrument of power was highly skewed, to the exclusion of a more balanced strategy, such as that pursued by Pitt’s England throughout the period. It is understandable, but Napoleon’s sad end makes it clear that his failure of balance was absolutely toxic.

Modern political risk analysts would do well to take note of both the historical examples of Venice and Napoleon. There are many motive forces of history and analysis, and all the major ones must be taken into account altogether if political risk analysis is to get anywhere. To forget the absolute need for getting to Goldilocks—the essential political risk commandment of the imperative of finding analytical balance—is to get every big thing wrong, no matter how right analysts are about the detail. For both analysis and policy require more than one basic insight into how our complicated world works.

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.