Nations are eccentric. But they also have threads of repeated history through which we can discern what comes next. For five centuries, since Ivan the Terrible, for instance, Russia has been characterized by one-man rule, an exaggerated sense of identity, and an acceptance of often deadly cruelty toward individual citizens. Therefore, it is not surprising that those traits are the bricks and mortar of Vladimir Putin’s rule today.
Many political scientists dismiss the detection of such trends as “deterministic.” Some insist that, unlike in economics and statistics, there is as yet in fact no useful algorithm for foreseeing events—the only tool available to political forecasters is their own intuition. But it is vapid to observe the world, its nations and peoples as an unfathomable mob. History is not a science—but neither is it pure chaos. In an interview with Quartz last fall, statistician Nate Silver rejected the possibility of predicting geopolitics in the way that he forecasts US elections, and he has a point. Yet, to borrow his own phrase, you can pick out the signal from the noise, and from that derive the likely direction if not the outcome of events.
One of the instruments for doing so is history, as discussed. But there also is a perceptible universal trend to events that cuts across borders. Last fall, we told you about the 11 indicators of energy and geopolitics (here are the original 10; here is the 11th, added in November). Now, we present 14 rules governing geopolitical events. These rules do not divine the future. Rather they allow you, generally speaking, to separate yourself from the unruly, conjectural maw of global opinion-makers and decipher for yourself what is going on, and the probable scenario or scenarios to unfold next. Neither are they complete—please send along your own rules (email@example.com) and we will publish the best.
This is the first of two posts. The second, derived from the rules here, can be found here and includes our forecasts of global events for 2013.
The rules of global events
On and off for several decades, knowing analysts have forecast state collapse for Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and other nations. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been said to be destined for economic ruin, and North Korea for the ash heap of history. Yet they have gone on—often with the help of the global community, but gone on they have. The lesson is that countries tend to muddle along regardless of the trouble, and not collapse.
A corollary to Rule No. 1. Even the most violence-riven nations tend not to plunge over the precipice, as it seems they might, but to pull back if only at the last moment and not devolve into utter chaos and ruin. Often they need help—last year, Kenya sent troops to Somalia to break up the radical militia al-Shabab, for example. But absent the Precipice Rule, Kenya’s intervention would not have worked: Somalians in fact did not wish to dive into the abyss. So al-Shabab could be uprooted.
When you find a simple explanation for an event, the safest bet is to embrace it. To be sure, conspiracies exist—what would war be without them, for instance? But they are much rarer than many suppose. Generally speaking, groups of people do not successfully conceive and execute dastardly schemes; even if they want to, they are typically confounded by the compound physics of too many moving parts and human fallibility. (You can think of this as the Occam’s Razor of geopolitics.)
A desire for these three things—economic success, good health and justice—is the big driver in political revolt and revolution. The inflection point is when a critical mass of individuals despairs for the future of its children, and youths feel they can succeed only under a different circumstance. Governments generally do not fall over questions of liberty and political expression, which are not nearly as potent as a collective sense of injustice, helplessness or outrage over the security or health of their children. To battle this rule, a regime will try to change the subject (using the potent factors of Rule No. 14—nationalism, xenophobia, jingoism and fear of instability) and, if that fails, to scare the wits out of its population.
The most over-rated of the drivers of change. Political ideas and theories, even when they are brilliant, only very rarely gain the critical mass to move events. But occasionally they do. A case in point is the Arab Spring. Originally triggered by Rule No. 4, the Spring has spread and been sustained by the idea of the right to rise up.
When states are muddling along, staying away from the precipice and not at the stage of revolt, as described in Rules No. 4 and 5, the only other way that dictators are typically ousted is defection or assassination. Generally speaking, a key ally or a few will either pull away from a ruler, causing an apparently strong edifice of power to crumble, or kill him outright.
The ultimate objective of almost every leader in the world. Governments including dictatorships may seem sclerotic, but can become among the most nimble of things when under existential threat. Keep this in mind when you are tempted to say, “He will never change. He has always been that way.”
Among the most powerfully visceral forces in politics. A threat to even the slenderest sliver of land can arouse the primal and uncontrolled indignation of a people. When territory is involved, common sense can vanish even among otherwise worldly and balanced leaders and their people, leading to brittle diplomacy and, if Rule No. 2 is not invoked, a drift toward war.
As with most matters in life, events tend toward the average, the local version of the moderate middle. There can be periods of wild, insane extremism. But then people are prone to calm down, do business and seek strong, stable and bright futures for their children.
What would Venezuela have been during the 2000s without Hugo Chavez? Libya during the last quarter of the 20th century without Moamar Gadhafi? Russia for the last dozen years without Vladimir Putin? For that matter, Great Britain in 1939 without Winston Churchill, and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s without Ho Chi Minh? In politics, personality matters, and big, idiosyncratic personalities move and dominate events.
No. 10 has symbiosis with the following two rules.
While people and countries tend toward the middle, events can turn on exceptions operating on the extremes. Hitler’s Germany is an example. Today, Khamenei’s Iran, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Kim’s North Korea and Chávez’s Venezuela punch above their weight in influencing the geopolitical landscape.
Like Rule No. 10, this is a direct carryover from the energy indicators. That is, certain countries are so large and their behavior so singular that their actions can create and disrupt economic and geopolitical trends. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States are among the Mountains. When one or more of them step into the picture, they can and do create news.
There are three corollaries to the Mountain Rule:
The future superpower corollary: China is not yet a military or economic power of the stature of the US, but since most assume it will be, it is more or less already treated and behaves as one. As a Mountain, it can and does shape and shift economic and political trends.
The former colonial/great power corollary: When you formerly were a great power, it is hard to give up the mantle. Such is the lot of countries like France and Great Britain. Though well past their great-power prime—and not Mountains in either case—both from time to time play outsized roles in big events, such as France’s 2011 intervention in Libya. A problem comes, however, when inflated former great-power thinking conflicts with current powers, in which case it is regarded as a nuisance. Such is the case of Russia, a Mountain whose often countervailing policies seem to be Moscow’s strategy for staying in the great-power game (see next corollary).
The perceived great power corollary: India, Iran and Turkey all perceive themselves as great powers (and in the latter two cases actually were a long time ago, and as such also fall under the previous corollary). So they can and do behave in ways that impact events far beyond their shores. India projects its weight around the Indian Ocean and the Subcontinent, Turkey around the Mediterranean and into Central Asia, and Iran around the Persian Gulf and into the Levant. Russia, having lost its great-power status in 1991, interjects its leverage wherever it sees a useful opening.
Why do leaders act as they do? Often, look no further than personal enrichment.
Most geopolitics begin at home. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, domestic politics are a crucial contextual determinant of future events. Among key local influences are xenophobia, nationalism and jingoism.
You can read our six geopolitical predictions for 2013 based on these rules.