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6. Geoeconomic maxims

A collection of anecdotes and maxims is the greatest treasure for a man of the world, if he is able to bring the former into conversation at well-chosen points, and to recall the latter on appropriate occasions - Goethe

In this chapter we present a particular literary tradition associated with the study of geopolitics, which we shall call the art of essentialism. The art of essentialism can be described as a realistic and succinct form of reporting a complex social fact by observing individual and/or national characteristics and actions, with particular emphasis on history and geography, and subjecting them to a process of synthesis. It is an approach to knowledge which has few of the ambitions of the social sciences; it aims not to build theories after the model of the natural sciences for various types of behaviour (economic, political, psychological, and so forth), but to educate through wisdom defined and understood as a process of gathering and transmitting crucial individual experiences to future generations so as to allow them to compete in a global marketplace.

This approach differs from the methodology applied in most industry and country reports such as we see published by consultancy companies and their journals (like the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Accenture, or Fuld & Company). Even the best country report will typically rely on a series of ceteris paribus clauses, assuming that there will be no major changes in world GPD, exchange rates, financial indicators, and commodity prices. Even if we are justified in making those assumptions, we will then often only know what everyone else knows. Major changes do occur, and we need larger syntheses to capture world events. To achieve a better understanding of world events we need to use variables which are relatively stable, including the history, culture, character, and values of various countries.

The art of essentialism was perfected by European city-states during the late Renaissance, in the early sixteenth century. Its origin can be traced back much further, through centuries of international trade relations with a corresponding culture of brief report-making, often made orally and from memory. Unlike nation states today, the city-states were much more directly oriented towards commerce, with little time for, interest in, or patience with bureaucratic verbiage. There was no public to be accountable for, or to manipulate. Their ambition was to make money, their perspective was international, and their need for reliable intelligence was very similar to that of modern multinationals.

The social sciences do not deal in wisdom, partly because the fruits of wisdom are conclusions which typically cannot or do not be linked to specific observations. That does not mean that they are less true. Wisdom is transmitted by oral tradition and builds on individuals' experience on the world over long periods of time, sometimes even centuries. It is embodied in discourse transmitted from one generation to another. In order to be memorable, geopolitical observations are often dressed up in almost poetic language. Many of these anecdotes and maxims are the pride of witty intellectuals and leaders. We collect them like jewellery, and offer them with great care to people we would like to be intellectually intimate with or impress, to show what we have learned about the world and its various ways. Among today's dominant cultures, Americans rejoice in such formulations, the French take pride in them, the British, with their prevailing tradition of oratorical excellence, have raised this form of conversation to an art, and the Germans have integrated them into daily conversation in the form of recognized sayings.

From a geopolitical perspective, especially from a decision-maker's point of view, we typically hope to find the particular pieces of intelligence which display or embody the essence of a national spirit or a person's character. This will help us understand many other things happening in the country in question. We do not want to waste time on statistics that fail to add to our understanding of a phenomenon. Facts for the sake of facts are no use to us, even though they may be correct. They also need to be relevant. The sources we read often ignore or misrepresent the issue of power. For instance, in country reports one often gets the impression that Singapore is more or less like a Western democracy. Only by closer reading do we discover that most power is in the hands of one party, the People's Action Party. As another example, Tunisia used to look at first sight like a country controlled by one man, Ben Ali. In reality, it was and still is still run by about a dozen leading families with partly conflicting interests, supported by a small upper middle class of a few thousand individuals. It will not say this anywhere, not in any report, but you will learn that it is so if you are able to cultivate influential Tunisians and gain their trust. There is in general a discrepancy between what we say to one another about various experiences and what we write and print (not to be confused with the difference between what we think and what we say, which seems to be a necessary condition for the survival and continuation of our species). This is a case of the difference between the written word and the oral tradition in politics. It is what makes much of the discipline of political science a series of meaningless exercises.

The disciplines of geopolitics and geoeconomics share with that of intelligence an emphasis on need-to-know information, on finding the vital information, what is really important to know as opposed to what is merely nice to know. It wastes no time on peripheral issues. Its focus is what the French call les grandes lignes, and the important global transformations, to the point where we may speak of a distinct geopolitical literary form.

There are pitfalls in this literary style. What is important for us to know will depend on our position and our economy. Geopolitical statements are often characterized by rapid conclusions, by lack of arguments, in the sense that these statements hardly ever state their premisses and the general lack of distance the study has to itself as a discipline or an art form, meaning it has not had the habit of making itself the subject of study, which is always a healthy sign of any critical discipline. Some find the style pretentious, other find it masterly. It can be wonderfully correct or appallingly wrong.

How often are we given thick reports that tell us next to nothing? How refreshing is it to discover someone who really has something to say, an insight to share and not just something to report? Why has report writing become so complicated and vague? Does it have to be that way? And if so, are the reasons really a matter of scientific method? In this book I have argued that the reasons are primarily political. They also have to do with writers' misguided belief in objectivity. Absolute objectivity about social facts is an impossibility, since we do not live in a vacuum, but come into this world equipped from the beginning with a particular background, characterized by specific values. We are formed by our family, our friends, and the influence of our education. The struggle for objectivity in the social sciences is an important goal, but it often leads social scientists to write too vaguely and too lengthily. Masses of text often become an excuse, a substitute for not knowing, with everything nicely ordered into chapters, correctly labeled using the academic terms currently in vogue. Slim books are often best, because an author who knows a topic well will also know how to express his ideas concisely and just once. He stops when all ideas have been clearly expressed, not when he has reached page 250. If you have nothing to say, all the objectivity in the world will not help you. How did we come to this? Some answers have been suggested in this book, but one thing is certain: it has not always been this way.

Nowhere produced better geopoliticians than Venice.118The Venetian Mariano Cavalli's description of the Spain of Charles V is a study in economic and political essentialism (see Alberi 1840). In a brief, factual report of no more than a dozen pages - where the form is "there is....", "there are..." - the Venetian ambassador sets out the people close to and working for the king, including his army officers, their functions, salaries, and possible career paths, all in detail. He also describes decision-makers, with deep insight into their socio-psychological mechanisms. The focus is on the individuals:

In affairs of the state and in every other detail the emperor makes use solely of the advice of the Lord of Granvelle. ... and in the absence of the Lord Granvelle and for the execution of business, my Lord of Arras enters into every consultation.

Another masterpiece was written by Michel Suriano, also an ambassador of the Venetian Republic in the latter half of the sixteenth century, about France (published in Tommaseo 1938) -his title was "The strength and weakness of France", it was what we would call a SWOT analysis today. It focuses on the competitive advantage of France relative to other nations. Suriano is a master at asking the right questions. Why is their administration so good? Is it because they have a system of sending their second and third sons to university to make clerics of them? Why has their cavalry so great a reputation? Is it because it is composed entirely of noblemen, unlike that of other countries? Why is the kingdom so strong? Is it because people accept the succession as a law of nature? Suriano's conclusion is a masterpiece in concision and essentialism:

The great size of the state, the number of its cities and provinces, the strength of its location and frontiers, the number, unity, and obedience of the people and military forces, the supreme authority of the king and the unrestricted government - these are the chief reasons... (op. cit.: 318)

These letters and reports are not exceptional for the time, produced by extraordinarily bright individuals; they were normal, the usual approach. There existed an entire intelligence culture in the Venetian Republic. High-quality reports were written in Venice more than three hundred years before Cavalli and Suriano, the best-known being the Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo's book is not a history book, nor an autobiography in the usual sense. Rather, he reports diligently on each successive place he visited, how long it took to get there, what the people and their rulers are like, what they believe in, what they live on, what kind of trade they carry on, and, especially, what novel kinds of product they have that could be of interest to merchants like himself back home.

The art of essentialism was not exclusive to the Venetian Republic, but it may well have been developed and perfected in the Aegean or Adriatic area. In another great trading city, Ragusa (now Dubrovnik in Croatia), we read that city is: the door to the orient for Christians, to the West for the Turks, faithful daughter of the Roman Church, and friend of the Catholic Spain, vassal of the Sultan, impartial distributor of news to friends and enemies, "double spy" of Turks and Christians.

Today Croatia is in limbo: not yet civilized enough to join the EU, not strong enough to amount to anything standing on its own, too distant from any potential allies to be much use to them.

Potentially inflammatory statements have traditionally been communicated only orally, in briefings, seminars, and dinner-party conversations, as guarded secrets. Insofar as geopolitical statements are written down they often appear in compendiums. Bits and pieces crop up in literary sources also, such as the less-flattering descriptions of the Arab in T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence 1938), but then they count as art.

Although they are often considered to be politically incorrect, geopolitical statements flourish in all circles of power. Social and political life is unthinkable without them. Whether we approve or not, whether or not we regard them as grave oversimplifications and expressions of prejudice, they are used in making decisions by leaders of both public and private-sector organizations - not in isolation, of course: there will always be an official report in due course, and that will be phrased in immaculate terms. On one hand there will be a media plan, but on the other there will be an informal understanding among statesmen and leaders about what their real sentiments are. There will also be a deal, a trade-off, which will seldom be revealed to the media, and which the world will therefore only learn about much later, at the earliest in memoirs written by someone towards the end of their life. For instance, the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Sjostedt needed to explain to the Swedish people how Sweden did business with Nazi Germany right up until the weeks before D-Day; how he had been ordered to England, sent back to Stockholm with an ultimatum, and how the Swedes then made excuses to end the trade. (They told the Germans that it was no longer possible to insure the ships returning from Germany.) If Sjostedt had not made this story public, posterity would have condemned him. We need to explain this political logic to students and to future generations.

Geopolitics as a field might be said to lie somewhere between historical analysis and strategic thinking. It is related to psychology, in the sense that we try to guess what others are thinking, and what others think we are thinking: which makes it a very frustrating field for anyone wanting clear answers straight away, but only because we have been taught to suppress speculation and to believe that knowledge of the future can be achieved without it. Without speculation there can be no correct answers about the future, since we can never be certain about many of men's future actions. Sometimes the predictions of geopolitics and geoeconomics are accurate and truly insightful; sometimes their implications will be misleading. To make things worse, these fields are also the preferred playground of charismatic futurologists. At their best this professional corps performs exquisite historical syntheses. At their worst their role within the social sciences is on a level with alternative medicine or scientology.

The historical-normative method of intelligence gathering relies for much of its material not on social-science experiments but on the work of the "savant". A savant acquires knowledge more from a broad reading of books (understanding of human nature) than from reports and empirical tests (understanding of single events). That means he will be thoroughly right or thoroughly wrong about something, very much depending on which books he has chosen to read.

Geopolitical writing can be seen as the opposite of sociological writing. In geopolitics, conclusions often follow one another in a chain, with no apparent discussion or explanation which would allow the reader to follow the author's reasoning. In sociology, a great deal of time is commonly spent on discussing the importance of a term or a phenomenon, without any real concern for its implications or practical use. In the former you will find clear answers, which risk being false; in the latter you will be left with the feeling that conclusions are simply immature, and you should have known better than to expect them.

Geopolitical writing is by nature provocative, made to attract attention and sometimes even to stir up disagreement. Sociological writing sometimes makes you feel that the author's objective was simply to write 250 pages while avoiding criticism. Scientific books about social life can be unduly vague or dry; one frequently gets the impression that the author is trying to find a balance between not saying anything that could offend anyone and not having the right understanding of the problem at hand. We often get the feeling that the author, intentionally or otherwise, is creating confusion for the reader about his actual thoughts. To conceal these, he scatters names of other writers (name dropping) and shows excessive scrupulousness about matters of academic form (year, place of publication, etc.).The logic is that if the form is clear and the grammar good, then so is the content - which tends to work for students, who pay little attention to form, but not for professional academics, who have learned to stick to specific forms and see the direct value of indulging in the perfection of that language. From this perspective geopolitical writing is refreshing, even revitalizing. It is a style which the intelligence professional and the decision-maker in both public and private-sector organizations can understand and appreciate.

Very few other than professional academics read social-science journals, and those insiders tend to flock around their favorite journal or journals and favourite conference series in closed professional subgroups, like little tribes. Once such an intellectual cluster is formed, its members tend to become protective, and skeptical towards outsiders' opinions. The peer-review system, which is an excellent system in itself and invaluable in diverse forms of intellectual life, does not primarily foster new contributions and free thinking but the opposite, group-think, where the goal is often to achieve "promotions, tenure, prestige, and more grants to write more stuff that won't be read" (Bracey quoted in Sykes1988: 116). To make things worse, most journals are owned by just a few companies in the English-speaking world, whose interest is to ensure that the spread of knowledge is limited to those who can afford it. The major player is now Thomson Reuters, headed by one man, David Thomson. The publication game, which is being created and administered by the state, encourages production more than reading. Most participants in this competition feel little responsibility for expanding the boundaries of human knowledge or making contributions that might actually help others do things better. Most social-science academics are too busy developing their own careers. But, put the same people in a room with an industrial consultant or an experienced businessman for fifteen minutes, and the true value of their scientific papers will become apparent. Thus social-science academics and economic practitioners tend to continue living in separate worlds.

In scientific papers, observation is often reduced to empirical experiment. The experimental data are typically collected over a short period of time, and the sample size is too small to be of much real value. In order to justify the use of small sample sizes, population definitions are deliberately narrowed. Data are often difficult to verify. Conclusions are often general, trivial, or just plain common sense. The system is more concerned with where and how you say something than with what you say. There are no requirements for synthesis or broad reading, so that many of these papers could be written by students, and indeed some of them are. Of course there are many exceptions; but these are the norms of the current academic agenda. Thus, how can it be that, if you publish your observations in a book, that cannot count as research, but is classified as a popular or pedagogical contribution? If you take precisely the same information and publish it in a journal, it suddenly becomes research, especially if you throw in some tables and use some statistics. This used not to be the case, and still is not the case in many humanities subjects. The only explanation is that it must be related to a dramatic decrease in critical thinking.

Academic journals may not be the ideal place to publish truths. The space is too limited to develop lengthy arguments. Having to write briefly is making our minds fragmented, to the point that we are no longer able to write at greater length. At best we assemble a set of articles and publish them as editors, selling the idea of a title to the highest-prestige publisher. In consequence, edited books are seldom of real value. They are mostly a marketing stunt, done to impress and to climb the greasy pole.

The essentialist genre of writing gives writer and reader the possibility of reflecting. Rather than filling entire pages with text, geopolitical writers set their thoughts out on paper surrounded by plenty of white space, as we see with poetry or other creative work. This gives readers a better opportunity for pausing and reflection. We read one statement at the time, as we read poetry, pausing and reflecting on its content before going on. The art of essentialism gives the reader the necessary distance, allows him or her time to reflect, for the reader to penetrate to the heart of the issue. Accordingly, it very much invites critical thinking.

 
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