Aug. 18, 2017
Allison Fedirka and Xander Snyder detail how we incorporate history, maps and forecasting to create our geopolitical model. Learn more about our methodology with our free report.
Allison Fedirka: Hi there, this is Allison Fedirka with Geopolitical Futures and I am here with another senior analyst, Xander Snyder, and we’re here today to talk to you a little bit more about the model and framework that we have at Geopolitical Futures. This has been inspired by some projects that Xander has recently undertaken that we feel are pretty interesting in terms of how they’ve contributed to building out our model.
And this seems like a great opportunity to talk to him further about how that project has developed and how that fits in with our broader aspect of building out the geopolitical model and addressing areas of the world that you know we don’t necessarily see as up and coming or pertinent to the geopolitical system but are present nevertheless and do have a role in geopolitics. So Xander, could you let us know a little more about what you’ve been working on?
Xander Snyder: Sure now we talk a lot about our model and you know that can obviously apply to a lot of different things but we need something a little bit more specific when we’re talking about it. Our geopolitical model refers specifically to how we place a nation state or non-state actor in this broader system in how we analyze what interests they have, what constraints they have.
So when we talk about geopolitics at Geopolitical Futures specifically, we are looking at the intersection of politics, economics and military strength and capabilities. What these nation states have access to, what resources they can marshal and what constraints they face either domestically or within the international system or geographically is also very important.
So it’s a little bit more of a specific definition when we talk about geopolitics and our model tries to balance all these against one other to try to come up with some sort of sense of the limited options that states and leaders of states have to select from. And when you begin to eliminate a lot of the options that might initially seem are there, then you are left with a better sense of what a state can actually do.
So, this also means that we tend to focus on states that when they make big moves can really shift the balance of things within the international system or things that we think are important enough that we focus on a good deal on the past. But our model applies to everywhere in the world, we just don’t always focus on you know all of the interesting areas that we can because every state isn’t Russia, right? Every state isn’t the U.S. so there’s limited influence they can have on the international system.
Now Allison, you’ve done a lot of work on South America and I definitely want to come back to that. The project that I’ve been working on over the last couple weeks is an analysis on South Africa. And this will take the form of a Deep Dive coming up next week. And there’s been a lot of prep work that’s gone into it for me because when I first started doing some research on South Africa, it was just a country that I’m less familiar with.
So I mean the process for me to begin to develop some sort of geopolitical perspective based on our model on South Africa is really just involved a lot of research. I’ve been doing this reading project that if you follow our book review list that if you’re a subscriber you get access to, it comes out once a week. I’m about nine books in right now, reading about the history and the political situation in South Africa.
And I think before you can begin to identify these imperatives and constraints and capabilities that we always talk about, if you’re approaching a place that’s relatively new, which South Africa was for me, you really just need to do a deep dive into history because until you begin to understand how a state, how a nation is developed to its current state, you have to know so much of what has come before. So before I even got to the point where I could ask some of the right questions, I felt like I had to read a good amount of South Africa’s history over the last three hundred and fifty or four hundred years or so.
AF: That’s definitely no shortage of history there. I think one of the interesting things too that is part of the value added of our methodology and our model is this idea of not only having the in-depth history study that you’ve just described but also incorporating an in-depth study of maps if you will. As we always say one of the underlying features of some of the things that you’ve spoken about before, constraints or imperatives can often be reflected in maps and it’s not until you marry what you see in a map with some of the history that you see that you can begin to see the interplay between geography and the behavior of different people.
And how that has resulted in the reflection of an imperative or the attempt to overcome a constraint. I know that one of my favorite examples of this is looking at the U.S. and the Mississippi River. If you look at our model, we always talk about how important the Mississippi River is. And it’s not until you overlay a map of the river system in the United States on top of a map of for example arable land in agriculture areas, that you see that there’s a very close overlap between where the river systems flow and where crops are grown meaning that it’s very easy to get all of those products out into the Gulf of Mexico.
And once you have that understanding, this idea of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War where the U.S. wanted to gain control of Texas, the need to maintain the Port of New Orleans, the need to have access from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Coast. All of these things that are important to the United States go back to this geographic feature and this interplay between what that can do to help strengthen a country and what a country needs to do to protect that source of strength or that characteristic that is very enabling for them.
And I think we see that a lot too with other places like landlock countries or countries with mountains and things like that. So it’s an interesting project to do the history and the maps studies for these nations. And I am wondering did you come across anything that was very telling for you about the geography of South Africa that struck you as a critical part or role? Either the geography or minerals or precipitation or population that struck you as an important study of maps interplaying with history?
XS: Yeah and it’s a great point, right? Because in so many ways geography defines not only what a state has access to in terms of resources but what they can do, where they can go. What sorts of transportation they have access to. In the case of South Africa, there’s certainly some obvious things and some less obvious things.
I mean just being down really at the tip of Africa bridging two oceans means that for a while it was one really not the central focus of imperial powers in Europe because it’s just so far away from everything that was going on that it didn’t influence the big European politics of the late 17th and 18th century. However, the first European settlers at least the Dutch and the Dutch East Indies company that first settled the cape colony in the 17th century. They basically set up a stop-over point for ships that were transiting from Europe to Asia because it’s a long trip.
So just from where it was terms the type of settlers from Europe that went originally, the type of commerce that was set up initially again and how other major powers focused on it for a certain period of time. And Britain cared more when it got more into the Napoleonic wars and seized South Africa as a way to prevent France from limiting its own sea born transportation to Asia. And that set up a whole lot of tensions within the pre-existing Dutch born colonial population and the British population that then took a greater interest in South Africa. So that’s one example.
But different rivers that traverse the country along which a lot of gold resources have been found like the Witwatersrand has played a big role because one that’s where the resources were but it also provide an access to water along which towns and then cities could be erected both because we need to drink water and also because it’s required in the process of certain mining activities. So these are just some things that you begin to recognize the more that you dig into it.
And I don’t know if you encounter a similar process Allison, but for me I almost have to you know put all of that out of my mind when I first settle down on a new area and just kind of keep an open mind and after I build a little bit of historical perspective, I can start figuring out what even the right questions to ask. Has that been your experience?
AF: Yes, I like to follow we have our CEO and founder George Friedman always gives us the advice of start stupid. And it may not best the most encouraging thing to here as a subscriber but basically it means don’t go into a project or the analysis or building project for a country with any assumptions in mind.
So, following that path of just getting a basic familiarization with the place, seeing how different sides have portrayed the history of a location, then trying to look at things a little more objective like maps because you can’t make up a river, you can’t make up a mountain range. And blending those together is helpful but most definitely the discipline to start with a blank slate and see what information you find and then base your conclusions off of that information is extremely helpful. And I would say probably fundamental for going into the new study of a new area.
One of the challenges that I have encountered and you made a quick reference to it, is this idea of what do you do, how you think about places that are more on the periphery or not overtly tied into the global systems? So you mentioned how European powers didn’t really care about South Africa for a while, it was basically just a stop-over point. And that is definitely one concept that has been on my mind very much for the past few months and will continue to be for the months ahead, which is this idea that we talk about the world being all connected, we talk about ripple effects, we talk about the need to have a global perspective because what happens in one place may actually have ramifications in others or different meaning when you place it into a broader context.
And with a place for example like South Africa with which I am most familiar, it really makes you stop and think because you don’t want to say well there’s Brazil, it’s a ginormous country, it has a GDP over a trillion dollars, close to one point eight trillion or something like that around there. How can you say that, where does it go? How is it connected to the world? You can’t dismiss a country of that size as unimportant and at the same time, it’s not changing the geopolitical system in the same way China is or the same way Russia is.
So the ability to connect some of these places to what matters either for them or to the bigger picture of the rest of the world is definitely a challenge and also a great exercise in thinking about how the world works in general. So I know that was, South America, one of the things that we’ve identified is this idea of being a commodity producer and how that helps connect them to the rest of the world.
I remember a great anecdote where there was a drought in Brazil. And because of the drought, corn crops suffered. The price of corn went up, the price of their chickens went up because the feed from the chickens was more expensive. They exported those to Saudi Arabia and then Saudi Arabia saw domestic unrest and protest because food prices were going so high with chicken being one of the leading candidates that they had an issue with.
So Saudi Arabia is one of our key countries for the Middle East. We see it as one of the foremost influential powers there and it was very enlightening to remember that example of trying to figure out how these all countries can be connected. I am not sure if you’ve come across anything in terms of what you’ve been looking at or ways of trying to tie in new areas to the model in a way that makes everything cohesive.
XS: That’s a big question. Yeah, a handful of questions came up when I was reading about South Africa that I believe I address some in the “Deep Dive”. Although realistically to address them in full requires a lot more even than a three or four-thousand-word piece. One of which is why is South Africa so wealthy relative to other countries?
And again, it seems like a simple question and the answer that was most obvious that I got when I started looking around was oh well it has mineral resources, it had this big booming diamond industry that began in the 1860’s and then about twenty years later, they found gold which also became a very lucrative industry. And then you think ok but plenty of other African countries have commodities and mineral resources.
So again, what is it about South Africa that lead to it being able to capitalize on this generated degree of wealth that places it in a different category relative to other countries. And I won’t get into the details of that now but I addressed this some in the “Deep Dive”. And that’s an example of certain questions that begin to crop up when you think about a new place in the geopolitical sense. Because ultimately, those sorts of things begin to speak to this idea of constraints and capabilities that we talk to because obviously wealth and the ability to buy things is a capability that a state has and that’s an economic capability.
But as we always talk about at GPF, economics, military capabilities and politics are all kind one in the same because if you have more money, you can buy more arms. If you can build a greater military, you can project power in a way that you couldn’t if you don’t have a bigger military. And if you have a cohesive political system, you can control that military in a way that is somewhat sensical and it isn’t constantly getting blocked by intragovernmental jockeying or politicking or stuff like that. So that’s one thing.
I always like when I think about South America Allison, I think some of the analysis that you’ve done has really highlighted the importance of geography. And I want to come back to this because you talked about Brazil and I think it’s easy when you look at a map, to look at a political map and you see oh state A next to state B. Of course, you know Brazil’s big, Argentina’s big so they’re gonna have some competition and they’re right next to each other.
But a lot of this information, the geographical insight only becomes revealed when you step away from a political map and look at a geographical map showing the actual details of the landscape. So what are some of like the key features of South America that have influenced the development of countries there in a way that might not be obvious if you are looking strictly at a political map.
AF: So again this is this idea of marrying a political map or history with how borders have emerged with something geographic is definitely key for understanding a place like South America. And the extent to which, the national borders follow geographic barriers that are in place on the continent is striking. If you look at for example the most obvious would be the border between Chile and Argentina where you have the Andean Mountains and that essentially helps create a large east west separation on the continent in general. You also have features like the Amazon rainforest which essentially helps segment off eastern Brazil or the Brazil that exists east of the Amazon and then cordons off the rest of western South American so places likes Peru and Ecuador are on the side even Bolivia to an extent.
So you have a lot of natural barriers creating the spaces that exist today. Then exception to this would be some of the more contrived buffer states which we consider Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. And the interesting there is to an extent they follow some geographic features. There’s rivers that create natural boundaries, there is a swamp that create a natural boundary between Bolivia and Brazil.
But the interesting thing is the southern cone on that eastern part where you have what we call Los Pampas if you look at Rio de la Plata, that entire basin area is very flat, very permeable, very conducive to ranching and agriculture. Very hospitable to human life. And that was obviously was a very popular place for populations to grow and emerge and have settlements. And so over time as these different colonies began to take shape and have borders.
If you study the history of wars and clashes, there is a concentration in this river basin area compared to other places on the continent. And one of the reasons for this is because it’s easier to do. It’s a lot harder to wage war against the Andean Mountains across them. It’s a lot harder to wage war in a jungle. It’s a lot harder to wage war across the Atacama Desert than it is to go onto a plain. And we’ve seen that even in other places like Europe where there’s the Northern Plain and that has been a historic place for battles between Russia and Europe for centuries now.
And so you see some of these geographic features that emerge and as a result you see okay here’s a point of conflict and here’s the results of creating border states in these areas to help create a buffer zone because geographically there is no buffer zone. But if you create these other political entities, you can at least create some type of nation state or space to help mitigate these stronger countries from clashing immediately against one another.
XS: Yeah and again I think the simplicity of this idea can often explain a lot of how a state asks. I mean you look at this big flat European plain and you look at how Russia has interacted with Europe for hundreds of years. So much of their strategy is guided around build buffer space because it’s so easy to invade a country along a flat plain that has thousands of miles of border. And it’s happened. It’s happened plenty of times before. It’s happened from the east and the Mongols. It’s happened from Sweden in the 18th century. It’s happened from Napoleon in the 19th century. And it happened from Germany in the 20th century, arguably twice.
So, so much of what informed how the Soviet Union acted after World War II was built around this idea of building space that could be protected along this flat plain. And then if you want a more recent example, you can look at what’s going on right now between India and China which we’ve written about. And our forecast right now for the relations between the two states says that some tensions may arise, some jockeying may exists between Nepal and Tibet and India and China.
But ultimately at least right where Chinese and Indian troops are facing off right now in this Doklam plateau in the Sikkim region in India, it’s going to be difficult for any large-scale military confrontation to occur in part because it’s happening several thousand meters above the ground in the Himalayas and it’s very hard to supply a military that’s up that far in a mountainous region. And that acts as a geographical constraint.
AF: The example you just gave with India and China, Nepal and Bhutan is also an excellent example of how and when we decide to start building out our model. Our forecast tells us where to look or where we should be looking in terms of what’s going to be important in the future and where we can foresee potential points of conflict and by having that foresight by understanding these underlying competing interests of countries such as India and China that will indicate to us we need to start looking at Nepal, start looking at Bhutan and trying to understand where these countries fit in with our geopolitical model.
To a large extent, how they tie in will be in relation to their terms with China, to the terms with India but when we come to a situation like this, it’s helpful in that it gives us an opportunity to build things out, explain the presence of smaller countries that perhaps normally get overlooked or whose geopolitical importance or role in the world are not necessarily integrated fully or making the front pages of international magazines and newspapers.
So it’s always from the perspective of building out the model and for looking at new places and trying to gain a closer understanding of the different dynamics that affect a region, that affect a country, that affect national interests. Something like the tensions we’re seeing now between China and India are excellent opportunity to build out that model even further.
XS: No, that’s good. That’s the right way to look at it. When we talk about our model then, I think one way to think about it is, it is our understanding of how the world is interacting with itself, why states are doing what they’re. Why we’re seeing what we’re seeing in the international system. But in a way that model, that explanation is being constantly updated when we use our methodology to put in new data, to come back and analyze a situation anew.
And that methodology again is this framework of geopolitics that we laid out at the beginning of the episode which is attempting to identify interests, capabilities and constraints and all of the information that we process every day and analyze and work together collectively to try to build cohesive interpretation of then gets fed into this model. So in a way, the model isn’t really static but it changes very slowly because interests and imperatives are not things that either they never change or they change extremely slowly over I think one hundred year plus periods. So hopefully, a bit of detail on that terminology has been helpful and will frame a lot of the written work that we do in a more helpful way.
AF: Most definitely and I think everyone can look forward to some upcoming Deep Dives that will be published on the website in the next couple of weeks or so that will reflect some of the ideas and concepts that we’ve had today for how to build out our understanding of the model and apply some of these ideas to real life countries and present-day situations.
XS: So thanks everyone for joining us on the Geopolitical Futures podcast, I am Xander Snyder and I was joined today by Allison Fedirka and I hope you’ll tune in next week.
By Jacob Shapiro
Understanding Geopolitics Starts Here.