The West should avoid the Beatles’ predicament and become more like the Rolling Stones – interview with Dr. John C. Hulsman

In your latest book – To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk – you talk about the ‘butterfly effect’ (where random events have outsized consequences), and quote the British prime minister Macmillan – “Events, dear boy, events.” Do you see COVID-19 in such a disruptive manner for the international order? What trends, new or old, would you expect to accelerate? 

Going into COVID-19, there was a 20-year pattern, a generational pattern of a poker game between the Europeans, the Chinese and the Americans. The Americans were the richest people at the poker table, the Europeans were the oldest player, while the Chinese were the up-and-comer. And every year in the game the Chinese tended to win, the Americans broke even and the Europeans lost for a variety of reasons. Now with COVID-19 you see all the cards thrown up in the air. The question is who plays them fastest and best. COVID-19 was a disruptive event to a very routinised and predictable pattern.

Crises don’t tend to make things new; they tend to clarify things that are already going on.China has already been rising, but now that it’s getting through COVID-19 quicker, it has a first-mover advantage. It got hammered in the first quarter but it’s coming out now, whereas the Americans and the Europeans are going to be hammered in the second quarter. So in the short run, the Chinese have the freedom to act while all their enemies are preoccupied. So what do the Chinese do? They are going to settle their unfinished business, because no one is going to stop them. China is on the march. They crack down on Hong Kong, they bully the Indian army along its shared Himalayan border, they cause trouble in Vietnam and the South China Sea. All these moves suggest that they know that in the short run they have an advantage. Everyone is going to be preoccupied so they are going to be aggressive. The problem with being aggressive is that doesn’t change the longer-term problem that they have. The Chinese economy is 14 trillion dollars, while the American one is 22 trillion dollars. The US is still by far the dominant economy in the world, while China is clearly second. By bullying all the neighbours, the Chinese are giving the United States a tremendous opportunity to gather allies both in Europe and in Asia, NATO plus the Quad basically, and a League of Democracies in the long run. If the United States can husband together the resources of NATO and the Quad-plus (Australia, India above all, Japan plus the ASEAN countries) in a global League of Democracies, the US will be in a perfectly good position. The Chinese have an immediate, fantastical advantage, but they are overplaying that, because they don’t see the strategy behind things. 


“Events, dear boy, events.”

Harold Macmillan and John Kennedy had totally different histories, and that explains their different points of view. I have a historical approach to political risk, as opposed to most of my competitors that have a more political science approach. History is the experience of lived life, the way we’ve lived in society since time began, meaning it’s empirically based on how humans actually behave. So here is a man whose entire cast of life was shaped by Balliol College, Oxford and WWI (of the 28 students who were in his year at Balliol, only one other classmate survived the Great War), and he has this gloomy view of human affairs; Kennedy, on the other hand, has this WWII rationalist can-do kind of mind-set. They got along really well: they were both intellectuals, both had a sense of humour, had fairly decent lives, but when Macmillan says to Kennedy, what do you worry about, Kennedy the rationalist said he worried about the deficit and nuclear weapons – things with numbers, political science stuff. Kennedy was scared of the known. Macmillan, on the other side, is a historian and says, “I worry about the events, I worry about the things I don’t know are coming, I worry about the unknown.” COVID-19 is the greatest example of that. 


Is Donald Trump the right steward and the ideal builder of a League of Democracy? The concept is an old one – it was used by John McCain in his 2008 campaign, now it’s being embraced by Joe Biden as a core concept of his foreign policy.

The easy answer is that he is not the right guy. I am unique among the people you are going to interview. I neither love or hate Trump. Most analysts love or hate Trump. It gets in the way of their analysis. I don’t love or hate the people I analyse. I analyse. As a disruptive force, Trump has done some good things. It has forced the Europeans to pay more money for NATO. I was polite to Europeans for 20 years. How much progress did I make? Thank you for laughing. Zero. Trump made good inroads in Central and Eastern Europe. That’s a good thing. Trump got most of the Americans to see China as the next Cold War enemy. That’s an incredibly important historical thing. When I left Washington everybody was pro-Chinese. When I go back everyone is a hawk. Trump is the catalyst in that change. All that is to the good. 

Saying that, given that world I just described, smart realists have always said that institutions can be a force multiplier for power. Hard realists don’t think that. Of course, institutions should be used as power maximisers. NATO and the Quad are two great examples. This nuanced argument is what separates realist internationalism from isolationism and unilateralism. So no. It disturbs me that he spends all his time insulting our friends. It disturbs me that he doesn’t see that it is in America’s interest – if you really are ‘America first’ – to work with as many natural democratic allies as humanly possible. He is very useful on pointing the finger at China, but to best China you need a different kind of leader. 

On the other hand let’s not assume that that is a Wilsonian democrat who doesn’t understand the power realities of the world at all. Talking shops are no good if they are talking shops. If they maximise power and reach common decisions that suit people’s interests, then they are good. Joe Biden has his own problems to deal with. More importantly for him, he has a real record of weakness on China. He has been part of the old pro-Chinese consensus, and this is going to come to bite him, and I imagine Trump will spend a lot of energy on that. Frankly neither of them is ideal for the world we are living in. But it is up to those of us across the party lines that see that the League of Democracy is the future to band together for this argument, and take someone who is not a natural ally and convert him to this idea. 

How can the West be re-invented as a geopolitical & geo-economical unit for a world shaped by great-power competition? Should we start planning in terms of the resilience of the West? What initiatives should be contemplated for strengthening the West?

That is the question. We have to remember what unites us, and not necessarily the obvious things that divide us. We need to go back to first principles. We are democratic. When we see what the Chinese are doing in Xijiang province with a million people in concentration camps; when we see the door closing on freedom in Hong Kong, where they totally neutralised the agreements made in 1997 to the British and where the ‘two systems, one country’ mantra falls apart; when we see the way they threaten the Taiwanese for nearly having democratic elections; when we see them throwing their weight around in the South China Sea; when they ignore international ruling and treaties that don’t suit them, or trying to bully the democratic Indian state – this is all part of a larger pattern. Yes, I am a realist; there are times when you have to engage authoritarian countries, when you have common interests you have to do things with them. However, values do matter. In the West we share a certain way of looking at the world: individuals matter, the state doesn’t dominate everything, we have free internal elections where people make the decision, when I mention Thomas Jefferson is a common point of reference, when we say democratic, we broadly mean the same thing. This is a tremendous amount in common, and it puts us on the side of the Hong Kong protesters, on the side of the Uighurs, on the side of the Indians, on the side of the Hague Court ruling on the law of the sea. It puts us all on the same side on all these policy issues. Let’s take a deep breath and remember: for as annoying as a NATO meeting can be – and God, they can be annoying – it is better to have friends with disagreements than be surrounded by people who don’t see the world as we do, and normatively are against it.

Second point, the US needs to be agnostic about Europe. Through COVID, Europe has yet another navel-gazing exercise about what it is: is it a Hamiltonian state? (which I think it will never be, given its history) is it a Jeffersonian confederation? (that might be possible) or a free formation of nation states? That isn’t our concern. That’s up for Europeans to decide.

The more the US meddles in that, the worse we will do. Obama overdid it with Brexit by saying we will never support Brexit; that didn’t help the cause. And Donald Trump overdoes it by saying ‘I hate everything the EU does’.

That doesn’t help either. We need to say that because we share democratic norms, that’s up to you. What is up to us is that – whether Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, or free nation states – we will work with you. We want to work with you: we share interests, we share values. 

In Asia it is much easier because the Chinese are throwing their weight around. I would argue that we are in a better strategic position in Asia than Europe because, with the Chinese doing all these things, the outcome is that our new best friends are the old best friends. We are closer to Japan, Australia and India (that is the key to the region) than we have ever been. This happens not because we are nice guys, but because the Chinese are behaving like a neighbourhood bully and an offshore balancing friend is always better than the bully next door. Even the ASEAN countries that are not democratic, like Vietnam, are doing things with us because they are aware they’re next door to a very angry and a very brutal neighbour.

To unite the West we need to find ways to get the Europeans interested in a common position that says, yes, you can commercially do things with China given certain limitations, but let’s be very careful not to sell the strategic silver and pay the butcher. For this reason we need common standards against Huawei. We didn’t let the bloody KGB run the telephone network in the 1980s, why should we let Huawei in the British network now?

Given the Chinese situation, we need Europeans to play a role there. Europe is great with trade. This Cold War will be much more about trade, about standards, things that are European strengths. At the same time, Europe has a tradition of being involved in Asia. We need Europeans to do more in a global way. If we do all these things, and at the same time work on a free trade deal (here Biden would be much better than Trump) – a version of TTIP with Europe uniting Europe and the US at last – this will put the West in a much better position. The worst thing Trump has done was getting rid of TPP. We had a brilliant trade deal with all of Asia who was united in an anti-Chinese, pro-free trade, pro-American position, and we threw it away. Easily the worst thing we’ve done. We need to go back to first principles, and resurrect those alliances and link that world together. We need to remember that we have each other. If we do all those things, that is an agenda for a Harry Truman-style presidency and that is what we need back – a transformative presidency policy that will resurrect the West. 

You are always the best in crafting gifted metaphors to explain visually key geopolitical predicaments. So let’s discuss a bit the implications of the Beatles vs. Rolling Stones as alternative futures for the West.

The problem with foreign policy is that you have to know in what system you are – is the system stable, and how is the power working in the system? Rather than talking about what in IR we are calling Waltzian systemic analysis (I am bored even saying that), instead it seemed to me more interesting to talk about the breakup of the Beatles, as a cautionary tale for today’s Western world as a whole, and the rise of the Rolling Stones. We all understand the story and you can visualise it. The basic point is that the Beatles in a very short period of time went from being a very stable, very happy band, and everything was great from about 1965 to 1967, when they did their best work – they do Rubber SoulRevolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The reason everything worked so well was that the system was stable. George Harrison got two to three songs, Ringo got one, with everything else being Lennon/McCartney originals. Everybody was happy with that system. That system began to break down because George Harrison got better and better, John Lennon lost interest and Paul McCartney was resentful for being the force holding the band together when it frankly would do other things.

In a very short period of time, between 1967 to 1970, the whole thing breaks up. What makes it a great metaphor is to put geostrategic realities in that. What does the world look like today? If the global ordering system is the Beatles, then John Lennon is Europe utterly preoccupied with himself, with Yoko Ono, with his past, wanting to get out from the tours around the world – neo-isolationist, self-involved, and not very helpful. When I go to Germany I talk to them about China; they are polite, but they are more interested in the future of the EU, how do we get off our knees economically, what we are going to do with the French – that’s what drives them. They are not driven by China, it’s a longer term issue.

Europe is doing a pretty good impersonation of John Lennon.

On the other hand, the US is a harassed Paul McCartney. We keep calling NATO meetings demanding more from people, we keep calling meetings with the Quad in Asia and demanding people work together.

But we are angrier as we do it, hence the Trump phenomenon. We keep grinding everyone up, we are resentful, they are resentful. Eventually this is what happens with Paul McCartney. Increasingly, Paul finally says in 1970 – I’ve had enough, I am going my own way – Make Paul Great Again. 

George Harrison is China in this scenario. He can’t understand why, despite his increasingly dominant position, he still was not being given real opportunities to rise in the Beatles’ system. He soon becomes resentful and distrustful, and after a while he says I don’t like the system anymore, it doesn’t give me room to grow so I want out. So by the time we hit the ’70s, they all want out for different reasons, and the system breaks down. 

We are at this key moment at about 1968 in this analogy, the system hasn’t broken down yet, but nothing new has taken its place. One of the outcomes is that things break down, and we have naked jungle-living great-power competition. But there is another model, the Rolling Stones – a system that evolves over time to change to the power reality. Originally, under Brian Jones, the founder and original leader of the Rolling Stones, the system was unipolar. He was the manager of the band, he picked the other band members and the profit places. But that didn’t work because he didn’t write the music, and was increasingly incapable of sustaining performances because of alcohol and drug problems. Over time the band evolves into a multipolar power triumvirate of Jones-Jagger-Richards, not much liking each other, but working together. That doesn’t work either, so Jagger and Richards ruthlessly get rid of Jones. A month later, he dies mysteriously in his swimming pool, but now the system has lasted for 50 years as the band was able to adopt a power relationship that mirrors its basic creative forces. Richards and Jagger are the creative powers of the band, and they have been since 1969. The power and the reality of who does what is the same, and when that is the case, the system works. So I would argue that a League of Democracies linking Europe (while in relative decline, still important and viable) to up-and-coming powers like India and the Asian world, to the greatest single power still in the world – the US. That is a strategic threesome that has the dominant power to sustain itself in terms of global governance – if it wants to. It is a duty thing. But if it does that instead of the Beatles’ outcome, we are going to end up like the Rolling Stones.

You’ve lived in Europe for the past 15 years. You’ve seen the weaknesses and the strengths, the debates without end, the cleavages between North and South, East and West. Can Europe become structurally ready for a more great power-centric world, and become ready to go beyond a Steven Pinker belief in the ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ strategic mindset?

The good news is that Europe is kind of the key power, along with a rising Asia. If the US and China are by far the two dominant powers, certainly who scrambles for allies matters immensely. Does the Quad emerge as a Chinese or a pro-American group, or is it neutralist? More importantly, does Europe maintain its pro-Western, pro-American and trans-Atlantic outlook, meaning that it is broadly anti-China and broadly pro-America? If it does that, that’s enough power in the group to dominate. But if it is neutral, which Europe could well be given what’s going on, then we are living in a very different world. Given the structural position, Europe has a real say in what kind of world we are living in.


For the past fourteen years, Dr. John C. Hulsman has been the President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk-consulting firm. Presently, John is also the widely-read senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper for the city of London. Dr. Hulsman is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent US foreign policy institution. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1540 interviews, written over 790 articles, prepared over 1330 briefings, and delivered more than 540 speeches on global political risk and foreign policy for blue-chip corporations and governments around the world, making a name for himself as an uncannily accurate predictor of global geopolitical risk (and reward) in our new multipolar era. In recognition of this, Hulsman presently sits on the Editorial Board of the prestigious Italian Foreign Affairs Journal, Aspenia. His most recent work, the best-selling To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April 2018, and is available for order on Amazon.


An agenda for reviving the West

“First, it must re-engage the emerging market powers – on new terms that actually reflect today’s changed multipolar global geopolitical and macroeconomic realities. It must forge a new global democratic alliance with rising regional powers, connecting itself more substantially to South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and India. The single greatest strategic challenge for the next generation is determining whether the emerging regional democratic powers can be successfully integrated into today’s global order.”

Second, the West itself must be bound together anew; Lennon-McCartney must recommit to the band, in this case the project of serving as the ordering powers in an increasingly factious world. The common grand strategic project of enticing the emerging democratic powers into becoming stakeholders of the present international order can serve as a large portion of the glue that relinks Britain, Europe and America.”

Excerpt from To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk  published by Princeton University Press, 2018.

 

“Governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside” – interview with Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? 

The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?

I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.

For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.  

Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold WarThere is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.

How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal? 

This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where  European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.  

It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?

We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.

Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.

These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?

I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? 

During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.

Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?

High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.

I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them. 

In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.     

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.