|April 23, 2018
Cole Altom: Hello friends, welcome back to another belated Geopolitical Futures podcast. With me is Jacob. Jacob, we haven’t seen each other for two weeks. How are you?
Jacob Shapiro: We haven’t seen each other for two weeks but everything we do is intentional. Nothing is belated. Everything happens exactly as it should.
Cole Altom: Exactly. Well that is technically true. That makes it sounds like an oversight. It was not an oversight, we elected not to put out a podcast last week for a variety of reasons. We were pretty slammed. There was a lot of things going on. It was Easter Sunday. A lot of us we’re doing things with friends and family.
But I think the most important, this has the added benefit of being true, is that Jacob and I have been in conversations about how to make this podcast better. How to make it better for us, how to make it better more importantly for you guys out there. We’re getting some more subscribers and some more views on You Tube and we appreciate it very, very much.
But we’d like to professionalize things a little bit more. So we’re putting our brains together. We’re thinking about everything from title to format to everything else. So if you have any suggestions or any thoughts in that regard, critiques, criticisms, cries of outrage, we’ve heard them all, do let us know.
Jacob Shapiro: And don’t worry professionalized doesn’t mean that Cole’s gonna stop making fun of me on the podcast so we’re good.
Cole Altom: No, no, no. Yeah so don’t suggest that. That’s still gonna happen. And make fun of myself which maybe I’m even a little bit better at doing. Anyway, so you ready? Want to get into it?
Jacob Shapiro: I’m ready.
Cole Altom: OK. Without further ado, week ahead. I think week ahead is useful. I think I want to keep that for future podcasts going forward, do you like it?
Jacob Shapiro: I do like it.
Cole Altom: I think it’s kind of instructive.
Jacob Shapiro: Well and I think it’s nice when we kind of get together Monday and Tuesday and set out what GPF is looking at in the week because sometimes what we’re looking at is similar to what a lot of mainstream media is looking at and sometimes it’s very different. I think this week is kind of a nice mix of both.
You know the first thing obviously is you know the week started early for us because Israel apparently decided that they needed to hit an airbase in Syria. This is the second time that Israel has decided to hit Iranian targets in Syria in the last couple months. So there’s just, there are a number of things going on in the Middle East.
The most important thing probably in all of this is Turkey, which may be kind of shoved underneath the rug while people are focusing on this Israeli attack. Another development lurking behind all of this is that the working group between Turkey and the United States has been suspended at least until Mike Pompeo takes over his post. So that’s not to say that it’s permanently suspended.
Cole Altom: When does that become official? I don’t have a date off the top of my head. I know Bolton officially started as NSA recently and this is his trial by fire. I mean that’s a hell of a way to start your job responding to a Syrian chemical weapon attack. Yeah but what about Pompeo? I’m not sure.
Jacob Shapiro: I don’t exactly remember when Pompeo does and I should know that and our listeners can lambast me for it later.
Cole Altom: I ask tough questions.
Jacob Shapiro: You do ask tough questions.
Cole Altom: That I don’t necessarily know the answer to either so.
Jacob Shapiro: But and yeah you also mentioned the chemical weapons attack which is also garnering great deal of attention. I will say, I don’t want to be one of those people who dismisses the chemical weapons attack because if it is did, it’s horrible. I will say that the Russians say it didn’t happen, that you know the United States and the West say it does happen. The videos that we have as evidence are not exactly inconvertible proof.
And I will say that it doesn’t exactly make sense right now for the Assad regime to do this. It doesn’t seem to mean that on the battlefield they were facing such horrible odds that they needed to go to this. It doesn’t seem to me that this was a good time for either the Assad regime or Russia to incur any more international condemnation. So I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. But I’m also not saying that I know that it did happen. I think there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of facts that we kind of need to get through before we can actually get down to what’s actually going to happen there.
At the broadest level though, it certainly means more animosity, I think we can call it that now, between Russia and the United States. More differences on the ground between Turkey, Israel and Iran. Whether it was used or not, if Israel even has you know, if there was a 2% chance that this did happen, Israel would have to be well if they’re gonna use it there, what’s gonna stop them from using it in Israel?
Cole Altom: Well and it’s not the first time this has actually happened. And last time there were purported chemical attacks in Syria, there were some responses were there not?
Jacob Shapiro: There was. U.S President Donald Trump apparently used the occasion to make himself look very powerful in front of China. This was Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago and they were eating a beautiful piece of chocolate cake and he excused himself to go prove the attack. I can’t remember if the cake was before or after he made the approval of the attack. But it was somewhere around the cake.
Cole Altom: It’s really important to nail down the chronology of events in that regard. But it’s also worth mentioning too that what ended up being bombed was largely abandoned airstrips somewhere that nobody really ever used. And they moved out and they moved right back in, which was later shows of force in Afghanistan when Trump finally like dropped the MOAB and it was all very theatrical but that’s what’s being promised in another 24-48 hours, I believe is when we can expect something like that. This podcast will almost certainly post before that. So I guess say tuned to see what happens?
Jacob Shapiro: Stay tuned and I mean stay tuned also because you can see this with what Israel’s doing, with what Turkey is doing, with what Iran is doing, this is very, very quickly becoming a nation on nation conflict. This is not longer proxy groups, this is no longer Islamic State caliphate nonsense. This is very real countries with very real weapons with very powerful Army’s and Air Force’s and Navy’s who are coming into competition with each other. And Israel would only hit that air base if it felt like it absolutely had to. And Turkey would only go into northern Syria, if Turkey felt like it absolutely needed to. And Iran would only be pushing the envelope like this, if it felt like it absolutely needed to.
So if you’ve been listening to us, one of the things that I have been saying over and over is when actors begin running out of options, that’s when you start to worry about could one event set off a war. Could even an accidental chemical weapons cache explosion or an intentional use of chemical weapons, could either one of those things set off a wider conflict? So that is why I emphasize that we have to keep a close eye on this.
Cole Altom: When we last we visited Turkey, they had taken over northwestern Syria. They had moved into what is northwestern Iraq, which would be northeastern part of Syria and Manbij right there in the middle. Any developments since then to report on?
Jacob Shapiro: Not yet, Turkey is still consolidating gains and we’ve also seen Turkey and Iran and Russia have gotten a little more at least on the surface, buddy-buddy in the last week or two. There seems to be an emerging public consensus there, although we’ve seen this before too. Look when it comes down to Turkey, it comes down to this, the U.S. is still supporting the Syrian Kurds. And as long as the U.S. is supporting Syrian Kurds, Turkey is going to be reaching out to Russia, it’s going to be reaching out to Iran, it’s going to be very pragmatic.
The price of Turkish cooperation for the United States is the Syrian Kurds. It’s nothing more, it’s nothing less. It’s very cut and dry actually in a region that is often not cut and dry. So that’s really the place to go and as we talked about earlier, a lot of that now depends on what happens with that working group after Pompeo. I would think that it would continue forward but this is a great test for if personalities really do matter.
Cole Altom: OK, let’s move on from the Middle East, hard as that may be for ya. I know you love it so much. Trade wars, that’s still, that’s going on, retaliatory moves on both sides.
Jacob Shapiro: Well it’s not a trade war yet. I refuse to call it a trade war because the absolute totals that we’re dealing with here are still so small when you look at the total amount of trade between China and the United States that we’re really talking about slaps on the wrist right now. China is more dependent on exports and specifically exports to the United States and the United States is dependent on exports to China.
You know so in the broadest possible level, the U.S. should have a lot of leverage here. That is not to say though that China cannot do certain things that will make this very painful for the United States and I think you saw this dynamic play out really interesting in the first salvos, right? Like the Trump administration’s Department of Commerce sent out this long list of everything from you know this gadget to that gadget to blood plasma to god knows what else and these are all possible things that are gonna be tariffs. The Chinese were like no it’s going to be soybeans and you know X and Y and that’s going to be it.
So you can already sort of see the back and forth developing between the two of them. The thing we are doing internally and this is hard, we want to publish this as soon as we can. But we are looking at every sector here and we’re trying to figure out well who is exposed in that particular sector, which types of companies. Where are they in the United States? Where are they in China? You know when you start to get into the nitty gritty of these trade details, those things are important. So and once if we do get to trade war land, that’s going to be…
Cole Altom: Fair enough and also I would point out which states in the United States would be affected a little bit more than others because that is going to have some electoral ramifications, maybe in the mid-terms, certainly in the 2020 election.
Jacob Shapiro: Yeah so, one of the things we are doing internally this week is doublechecking ourselves because we have a position that the U.S. is better positioned in this trade war and that probably China will find a way to compromise and save face. But we really need to go look at those particular industries and that’s some of the hard, painstaking research that the entire team is doing.
Cole Altom: Another thing I wanted to talk to you about and this kind of goes into what we were mentioning earlier with some of our tinkering with our format and things like that. I think it’s, if we want the podcast to be sort of analysis adjacent, right? What we don’t want the podcast to be is just us reading analyses. Analyses work best read and written and that’s fine and dandy. What we’d like to do is talk a little bit more about some of these things before and/or after they are analyses and to sort of shed some light into what we do kind of in our day to day.
And I think one of the ways we might be able to do that is sort of give listeners a sense of what some of the things the analysts are working on, that might be kind of interesting. So if there’s anything like worth noting right now, like maybe this is the time and maybe this is the experimental ave we can do that in and if people hate it, they can say please god, never do that again or they can say hey that was actually pretty interesting, let’s hear more. So indulge me if you will, what are you thinking?
Jacob Shapiro: Well look there are two major, besides the research I mentioned just before about U.S/China trade wars, I will say that we have two important pieces coming out. One of them is about Uzbekistan. That’s maybe a country that a lot of our listeners are not focusing on as much but for us Central Asia is really one of the global tripwires right now.
There is so much pressure on Central Asia between what’s going on in Russia, what’s going on in China, what’s going on in Afghanistan, what’s going on in the Caucasus. Central Asia is the meeting ground of a lot of these different places and then on top of that you have Uzbekistan which is the most populous country, kind of by a lot in Central Asia.
Cole Altom: By a lot. And among the more prosperous as well, they have some oil and natural gas that they other ones lack.
Jacob Shapiro: And they have a new leader because the old dictator went away and there have some indications of liberalization both economically and politically and I think one of the things that our piece will lay out for you is why that’s mostly smoke and mirrors. That’s why Uzbekistan hasn’t changed even if they are putting on a different face, don’t be fooled by it. So that’s one thing to look out for.
Another thing to look out for and you know there’s a pattern here if you’ve been reading us and listening to us for a long time, you’ll notice that the same topics come up but we’re always going deeper or we’re tracking their evolution, their development. Mexico is one of those countries. Mexico is a country that we have always treated differently. We don’t just focus on the cartel wars, we focus on Mexico because it’s a major country. It’s something like I think it’s the eleventh largest economy or something like that in the world. It’s a major country and it’s coming on Presidential elections.
And we have a model of Mexico which says that northern borderland between Mexico and the United States is always going to be unstable. It has been unstable forever and it will always be hard for the government in Mexico City to control what’s going on there. One of the things that has been pushing back against that model is that southern Mexico is blowing up a little bit. You have had a fracturing of cartels and increased cartel activity in states like Guerrero, Michoacán and Veracruz. Other areas that are much closer to Mexico City than we would have normally thought.
So one of the things we are doing internally is looking at the map of Mexico with fresh eyes. We are looking at which states are most susceptible, who these new cartels are, where they are coming from. Are they abiding by the old sort of rules of how these cartels work or are they beginning to get even more aggressive? And trying to understand geographically what’s going on here. Because the incidents that we’re seeing in Mexico that we’re worried about are not in the places that we usually expect to see them. So…
Cole Altom: Alright well thanks very much. Let us know if that works. Moving on to our main story. I want to talk a little bit about Brexit. About a week or so ago, like sort of the one year out point of Brexit. I don’t know that’s not an anniversary obviously, I don’t know if there’s a word for it or I’m not smart enough to know what that word is. But 365 days before this Brexit thing ostensibly happens.
So I want to use Brexit as a starting off point to talk a little bit about a special report that we have just came out with as well. It’s called the geopolitics of London. It’s a very, very long historical accounting of the city of London and how important it is to the country itself and the Brexit talks. So I want to leave the details to you. Where would you like to begin talking about this?
Jacob Shapiro: Well it was actually your idea Cole because one of the things we do is that we have a pretty defined methodology that we apply to mostly nation-states or countries. And one of the things that you suggested for a special report was, well why don’t we try and apply this to a city? And not just any city, you know you could apply geopolitics to the Italian city-states of the 15th and 16th century but…
Cole Altom: And stateless nations as well. We just live in a world that is organized by the nation-state for better or worse, right? But…
Jacob Shapiro: But you had the idea of well why don’t we try to look at a city and see if our understanding of geopolitics can tell us something interesting about that city.
Cole Altom: Did it tell us anything interesting about that city?
Jacob Shapiro: It did!
Cole Altom: Hey! How about that?
Jacob Shapiro: I think it did. I mean we can rely on the readers and listeners to tell us if it did. But I think one of the things that, there are a couple different things and maybe the thing that I can start with and the overall conclusion that has stuck with me since then was and I’m paraphrasing Halford Mackinder who was one of the great 20th century British students of geopolitics who said the reason for London is London Bridge.
Because before there was a bridge over the Thames River, London was really kind of, excuse me, yeah London was kind of a border. There wasn’t really a city there. It was really a borderland between different Celtic tribes with their little tiny empires who would fight back and forth. And the Thames River kind of marked the place where you didn’t go beyond because you wouldn’t be able to project your power there. These tribes also weren’t thinking in terms of dominating all of Great Britain, right? They were just thinking about dominating their little independent area.
And then what happens is the Romans come. And the Romans are not interested in dominating particular areas, the Romans want to control all of Great Britain. And it becomes not immediately but within a 100 years, it becomes clear to the Romans that even though they have garrisons and various important cities, London is the place that connects them all.
So they build a bridge over the Thames River and basically within 15 or 20 years, London becomes an incredibly important trading post. It also becomes the point at which all of the roads go to. If you look at a map of Roman roads versus roads today, you’ll see, in Great Britain, all of the roads basically lead to London. And then a process begins over many centuries where London basically joins the islands of Great Britain to the world.
Cole Altom: Do you want to explain a little bit about how London became London? I know that’s a pretty cryptic question but it was as you say it was more of a strategic military outpost for a while. How did it become a global financial epicenter that it is today?
Jacob Shapiro: Well there’s obviously a very long process here. But really London becomes the global financial center that it is today in the Industrial Revolution. Because Britain and the Netherlands were basically the two countries that started the Industrial Revolution and Britain is the one that surges into the future. London was always an important city. It was always up there with Paris and some of the other major European capitals. But the Industrial Revolution transforms not just London but also all of England and Scotland around it.
And I mean that in two ways. First of all, when the Industrial Revolution kicks off, just there’s massive migration into London. It goes from something like a million residents to something like seven million residents I think in a hundred years. I have…
Cole Altom: That is about right, a little over a hundred yeah.
Jacob Shapiro: The exact figures are in the report. We think of London today as a global financial center. It used to be an industrial powerhouse as well as a global financial center as well as the center of a global empire. That was what gave London a lot of its purpose. But when the Industrial Revolution takes off, not only does London become this world historical city of global importance, but you also start to get other cities in England and Scotland which hadn’t happened before. London had always been the huge population center, the only city that had over a million residents in 1900 I believe. That might be 1800. It’s one of those.
Once you get the Industrial Revolution, you start getting a bunch of other industrial cities popping up all over England, all over Scotland. The point there being is that as London went, so went Great Britain. And one of the reasons I think it’s important to look at London right now and one of the reasons we chose London, it wasn’t just because it was fun, although it was also fun.
Cole Altom: Well it’s also a cool city, it’s beside the point.
Jacob Shapiro: But as London goes, if I’m right about how if London goes, so goes Great Britain, then London is a very interesting litmus test for Brexit. Because London is more exposed to Brexit than a lot of the rest of Great Britain because London is dependent on that status as a global financial center.
Cole Altom: Can you explain very briefly the sort of, the election, or excuse me the referendum results of the Brexit vote, the entire U.K. versus London versus the rest of everything else?
Jacob Shapiro: Well look the Brexit referendum results created this awkward position where London agreed with Northern Ireland and Scotland against the rest of England, which makes a lot of sense in some ways. You know if we’re using United States terminology, I can guarantee you that you know New York City might feel like a foreign planet to somebody who’s in Des Moines, Iowa or even in a small town in America. So there has always been a divergence.
But I think the thing to note here is that in the same way that countries have interests and they pursue their interests, London has interests. The city has interests. And those interests are to be close to the E.U. because that was easy money for them and they were able to bring in that money and get very rich and very profitable. Now a rising tide lifts all boats, right? And that was true for all of Great Britain, but London got the lion’s share of it.
Now that London is having to think about well what is its place in Europe, we have to think about whether London can continue to be a global financial center. My answer to that question is yes it can continue to be a global financial center. But no, it’s gonna probably to have to take a little bit of a step back from Europe even if it’s not the massive step that a lot of the doomsdayers are predicting.
Cole Altom: So I want to ask you another question, let’s go back a little bit a few years. What in your mind precipitated the Brexit vote in the first place? So you have kind of a interesting view on this and I want you to share it with our listeners.
Jacob Shapiro: Well the Brexit vote, you can’t reduce it down to one cause. And we sort of also have to think about you know Great Britain after World War II in general because Great Britain in the 1950s and 60s wasn’t really for European integration. When it joins the European community, it does so without a referendum. It does so because integration was already happening in Europe and that was an outward manifestation of that integration happening. And also there was a strategic purpose, the goal was to try and keep at that point Western Germany within the fold, without having you know Germany dominate the European continent ever again.
You start to fast forward and you know the things that were good for London weren’t necessarily good for the rest of Great Britain and for the United Kingdom. Manufacturing was dying in England and a lot of those manufacturing jobs either went away or just weren’t profitable anymore.
You also had issues of the 2008 financial crisis and then that was followed by a migration crisis and both of those were big failure points for the European Union. You know Britain looked at the 2008 financial crisis and they were sure happy they kept the pound at that point because they weren’t exposed to some of the same problems that the E.U. countries were and didn’t have to take orders from the ECB and from Brussels in the same way.
And then I think the thing that really, the straw that broke the camel’s back was you had the migration crisis. And you had a vocal minority in Great Britain already saying you know that they had doubts about, there was Euro skepticism. But it was still a pretty solid minority. I think the thing that tipped it over was you had refugees streaming into Europe and you had Germany at the lead saying we must all take you know a certain number of refugees and if you don’t you are not living up to the liberal principles of the European Union. This is what we must do.
And I think that not just for Great Britain, but for a lot of countries, it wasn’t so nice to be told by Germany what was morally acceptable and what was the right view of what was liberal and good and just. And I think at that point, a lot of things flipped in the United Kingdom and Great Britain and there was a move to say, no we want control of this ourselves. You know in the United States you know the Trump administration you know calls for control over the borders. In Great Britain, it was also yeah we want control over the borders. We don’t want to be told by Berlin or by Brussels who we let into our country. We’d like to have some control over them.
Cole Altom: You’ve alluded a little bit to my next question already so I don’t want to be too repetitive but I think it’s important not to ask you outright. Can you talk a little bit more about the U.K.’s relationship with Germany and I guess more broadly Europe’s relationship with Germany and how German unification sort of dictates the way some of these countries interact with it?
Jacob Shapiro: Since 1871, the status of Germany on continental Europe has defined Europe’s history. It has been the sole, I don’t want to say sole, it has the been the major cause for what, the Franco-Russian War, World War I, World War II, the formation of the European Union. These were all things that happened to try and figure out what a united Germany’s role in Europe would be.
Now Great Britain has always had a somewhat complicated relationship with continental Europe. Because Great Britain is obviously separated from continental Europe by the English Channel. So while Great Britain is very interested in what’s going on in the European continent, it is interested in the same way that the United States is interested in making sure that a really dominant power can’t build a Navy and cross the English Channel and once again lay siege to London and conquer it as the Romans did or as William the Conqueror and the Normans did. This is a very real threat for Great Britain.
As for Europe itself, you know we’ve seen time and time again that you know when Germany is united and when Germany is powerful, it has an industrial base and an economy and a military that is really unmatched. The only country that can even try to contend with it at that point is France and France has at different points in time. But you know ever since Germany has united, France has never really been able to be a successful rival. France’s heyday throughout Europe were always in the times when Germany was not unified, when it was divided.
So it’s very hard today for a lot of Europeans especially those who are wrapped in the ideology of the European Union to think in those terms because they think the peace and prosperity since 1945 is as a result of the European Union. I’m not so sure it is. I think the European Union was probably a manifestation of greater integration that was happening anyway. And now it’s being pulled apart a little bit.
Brexit was one sign of it. We had Italian elections, we had Viktor Orbán just re-elected on Sunday. So I don’t want to make it too big of a thing. I don’t think the European Union is collapsing. But in that sense, Great Britain is part of a broader European story and it makes sense that Great Britain would be one of the first to pull back because integration is not necessarily great for all countries.
Cole Altom: I think the last question I’d like to ask and you don’t need to get too specific because there’s so many things to hammer out between London and Brussels as the U.K. leaves the European Union. I guess my question would be what happens next. What happens to London? You mentioned earlier that it’s still probably going to retain its place and that’s all good and well. But where does it go from here? Does this fundamentally change some of its relationships? Can you clue us in a little bit on that?
Jacob Shapiro: There has been a lot of sturm und drang about what’s going to happen here and I think there’s going to be still more drama and melodrama and soap operas in the newspapers about this negotiation and that negotiation.
Look Great Britain is part of Europe and Europe also needs Great Britain. Germany in particular needs Great Britain as a market for its exports. Germany also is not served by drawing a hard line here. Yes like the European Union does need to present a strong face but I think what you will see here is you will see a deal that reflects the interests of both sides. You know that deal is going to be worse for London probably than for the rest of Great Britain. Because London has always been so plugged into European financial system. That’s basically the way that it grew so much in the last twenty or thirty years.
At the same time, you will see London try and retain its position and it will retain its position because the reason that businesses go to London and the reason that London became a financial center was because the rule of law in London is respected. It is thought of as objective and reliable more so than any other country in the world including the United States. If you look at the English legal system, you will see a lot of foreign litigants who go there because they trust the objectivity of it.
Also, London was very business friendly. It was always very friendly and there was a certain reliability based on the policies that the government was going to have towards foreign businesses operating there. That’s not true for example in the United States where policies can change based on the Presidential administration. There was a more unified sense in Great Britain about what needed to happen.
So both of those things are still true. English law is still there. People still respect English law and think it’s reliable. I don’t expect that the British government is going to stop being friendly towards businesses. If anything, I expect them to be even more friendly to try and maintain their position. You’ve already begun to see surveys that show that some of these banks that talked about pulling out of London, eh not as much as they thought or at least gonna stick it out a little while before they do it.
At the same time, you know Great Britain used to be the British Empire. And one of the things that happened when Great Britain went into the European Union was it gave up a lot of those other commonwealth relationships because it had to do that because it was joining a European Union. Great Britain has historical, cultural economic ties throughout the world that it can try and fall back on and try and build new relationships.
One of Theresa May’s most important political moments I think in the last couple months was her visit to China. And you can see Britain becoming more active and looking for allies both in Europe and outside of Europe as it becomes a more independent entity. So I think that’s what it looks like. I think ultimately both the E.U. and Great Britain will come to some sort of arrangement that involves compromises for both sides.
For me, the real wild card is Northern Ireland and it’s not Northern Ireland from the sense of the border. For me, it’s you know does what’s going on here set off a chain reaction of sentiment in Northern Ireland or in Scotland for that matter, which is to say that oh they don’t want to be part of this anymore. You know Great Britain’s saying we don’t want to be part of the E.U. anymore. That same argument can be used by Northern Ireland and Scotland to say well we don’t want to be a part of this anymore. That hasn’t happened. But that’s sort of for me the wild card and it’s the thing that I’m always really alert about.
But no, I think that there will be a deal. I think the deal will involve compromises for both sides and I think London will remain a global financial center. There will be some fear and there will be some panic and certainly some banks will pull out. But I think more than most expect will stay and I think Great Britain will have to go back out into the world and find a more global position, which is the ironic thing in all of this, right? When you think about Great Britain leaving the European Union, you think oh this is provincial and parochial and xenophobic and nationalistic. It’s not going to be. This actually means Great Britain has to interact with the world, even more. It’s just to say that Great Britain doesn’t want to be solidly European because it doesn’t know what that means.
So I think that’s some of what it looks like. And I think as we watch Great Britain go through this process, a lot of countries are watching. Countries are watching because they want to see what would happen if they left the European Union and then you know Great Britain is not the only country in Europe that has separatist tendencies within it, so Catalonia’s going to be watching. Eastern Europe certainly has some of these issues, border issues, the Balkans. All these places are going to be watching Britain as the test case. So that’s I think a little sneak peek of the future.
Cole Altom: Well great, thanks very much. The geopolitics of London is on our website right now. If you can’t find it, please send us an e-mail and we’ll get one right to you as quickly as we can.
But it’s worth noting, it’s not our only special report out there. People may remember last year, we did sort of a geopolitical dissertation of Game of Thrones as a fun thing to do on April Fool’s Day. We sort of applied our methodology, not unlike how we did with London to a sort of fictional world, fictional universe, fictional environment.
Jacob did it again this year. Do you want to sort introduce what you did this year and how it differs from last year?
Jacob Shapiro: I would love to and I would also just say to the readers, I know that some of you care nothing about this. So this would be the time to probably turn off. But I also know that some of the readers out there really appreciated the Game of Thrones piece. In some ways, it was their favorite thing that I wrote last year, which is both gratifying and a little strange for me because I am supposed to be focused on the real world.
Cole Altom: It was humiliating too probably.
Jacob Shapiro: But this stuff is fun. We wrote a special report about Dune, which is well how would you describe Dune, Cole?
Cole Altom: Jeez. It sort of defies genres. Well it’s certainly a science fiction classic, right? If you know three books on science fiction, you know Dune. It’s set in a faraway planet that is within the same universe as earth. But it’s not remembered because it’s like cool science fiction, it’s remembered because it does deal with so many things that are much like our own with you know politics and geopolitics and the commodities trade and scientific development and all these different things.
One of the coolest things about it, for example, the way it’s written if you haven’t read it, is that there is a lot of internal monologuing with some of the characters and they’re trying to figure out ways to outmaneuver the other one and they’re sizing people up and they’re cluing you the reader in to how they think about these things. It’s really, really interesting. It’s why it’s always so hard to adapt.
But what isn’t hard for us to adapt is the chronology of events and the forward trajectory of how these things fundamentally changed human geopolitics so I kick it back to you right now, if you want to talk about how that changed things for humans in this world.
Jacob Shapiro: Well the thing is that a lot of people talk about what Frank Herbert, who is the author of Dune, meant when he was, a lot of people are looking for the allegory. And they want to say that the Harkonnens are the Soviet Union and House Atreides is the United States or is it Ancient Greece?
Cole Altom: These very clear-cut protagonists and antagonists, right?
Jacob Shapiro: And I think the cool thing that we did is we kind of put all that aside. I didn’t want to make it about an allegory. I forgot about the fact that it was written in the late 1960s.
Cole Altom: And there are some very you know overt allusions to the Middle East and to Arabs and to Islam and to all that but we didn’t want to focus so much on that.
Jacob Shapiro: Well no what I wanted to do was and Frank Herbert’s son has allowed this to happen because he has continued publishing sort of sequels and prequels. And one of the things that exists are maps of the home planet of the Harkonnen and maps of the home of Caladan, the home planet of Atreides.
So I put aside sort of what I thought the political allegories were from my own life and I tried to say ok let’s do two things. Number one, let’s try and understand like what geopolitics looks like if there’s more than one planet involved.
Cole Altom: Or in a place like space where this is no geopolitics. If geopolitics is people and place, space has neither of those things, how does that apply, right? So it’s an interesting concept to kind of have fun with.
Jacob Shapiro: Exactly. And then second you know to think about each one of these houses almost as nations in themselves and to try and say look the geography of Caladan is what makes how House Atreides. And the geography of Arrakis is what makes Paul this crazy emperor who’s gonna ya know rule the empire with his alliance with the Fremen, right?
Cole Altom: That’s a really like interesting point too I think because not only, it comports a lot with what we like to talk about when we talk about countries, right? And so not only does it sort of determine their actions but it also determines what you might call their managerial style and Harkonnens have a way of doing things and governing which is kind of brutal and awful and that’s a reflection of their more gross upbringing on a grosser planet, right?
And the Atreides didn’t have to worry about that because they had more resources. They didn’t depend so much on pollutive manufacturing and things like that so again more allegories and more allegories, trying to stay away from that. But still…
Jacob Shapiro: Yeah you know it was much harder than the Game of Thrones piece because it was harder and also easier I should say, because the Game of Thrones piece is basically Medieval Europe. I mean like…
Cole Altom: George R.R. Martin, its author, pulled so heavily from preexisting history from the War of the Roses to the you know invading Mongols and Vikings and all these things. It’s very, very clear cut if you know the history of Europe.
Jacob Shapiro: And one of the things I read when I was preparing for the Game of Thrones piece was the first and second volumes of Winston Churchill’s “The History of the English-Speaking Peoples”. Because when you start to read all of the intrigue between this King and that King and this House and that House, it actually all kind of lines up a little bit with the world that George R.R. Martin was writing about.
Parts of what Frank Herbert is doing do kind of line up. Like obviously the spice is somehow related to oil. Obviously the religious ideology of the Fremen is some weird mix mostly of Islam but there’s also some Judaism in there.
Cole Altom: And Christianity, it has a messiah narrative in there but yeah…
Jacob Shapiro: You know you also have these other outside organizations that you know if you’re a conspiracy theorist that are you know pulling all the levers because the Spacing Guild controls all the travel and the Bene Gesserit control the breeding and the genetics. And there’s also an interesting bit about artificial intelligence where artificial intelligence became so dangerous that it’s outlawed, it can’t be there. That’s when you start organically
Cole Altom: That may be the most interesting allegory once the machines rise up against us as they probably eventually will do. That’s a piece for a later date. But I guess, I don’t want to belabor this too much but I do want to speak just specifically about what Jacob just mentioned, it’s called “the spice”, it’s what they call it, the melange.
The comparison is made to oil but it could be compared to any other very transformative commodity and they’re aren’t really a lot of them, right, throughout human history. We like to use the word disruptive all the time especially now. But not all technology or natural resources are. You know past examples, the sail, the internal combustion engine, the steam engine, the cotton gin. All these different things. I mean these radically transformed the human landscape and in this fictitious world, this thing called the spice did. Jacob, talk about the spice.
Jacob Shapiro: Well in this world, the spice is what allows humans to do space travel to far beyond their neighboring planets, right? Arrakis where Dune is the nickname of the planet is located some 300,000 or yeah 300,000 I figure what the exact is. It’s a long way away.
Cole Altom: Very far away, we’ll call it very far.
Jacob Shapiro: And you can’t get there unless you do this thing called space folding and in order to do space folding you have to ingest the spice because the spice creates this mindset where you can, you basically get prescience. You can see a little bit of the future and that allows you to fold space in a way that your ship gets from one point to the other.
Cole Altom: It’s the ultimate performance enhancing drug.
Jacob Shapiro: In some ways. But it’s also you know the allegory I guess would be the airplane in the world. You know suddenly you can go from North America to Asia. You know before the airplane, you couldn’t really do that in a way that was time or cost effective. The ironic thing in all of this is that you know the spice is what allows you to do this.
And the reason that I posit that House Atreides is willing to destroy the spice is because House Atreides comes from Caladan. They come from a planet where they don’t need this. They have beautiful water and beautiful trees and food and all the other things that you would need. When you read the book, Caladan is an island paradise. For a house like House Harkonnen, even for the emperor, for the Spacing Guild, their livelihoods become so dependent on this one thing that they can’t imagine anybody destroying it.
And that’s really the, if you want sort of in one sentence like what is Dune about. It’s about somebody who has the ability to destroy something, is the one who controls the something. Paul inevitably needs the spice less than House Harkonnen or then the emperor and he is therefore able to use it to supplant them. The flipside of that being as soon as Paul does that, he too is dependent, he too is addicted. He too can now never leave Dune. And he must begin this holy war against his enemies because if he doesn’t, they’re gonna come for him anyway.
So as in Game of Thrones where Daenerys is probably gonna live long enough to see herself become the villain. The way that Dune sets things up is that you know Paul had all these ideas. He wanted to prevent this holy war that he saw coming out of him at all times. He couldn’t do it. The structure of that universe was just in such a way that he was playing the role that so many other charismatic leaders have played. He was the right person in the right time. But he was not acting of his own volition. He was part of a much broader force.
Cole Altom: Well and I think that’s why we were so uniquely suited to talk about that because of what we do. Our whole methodology sort of lends itself to that. If all this sounds relatively deterministic, it’s because that’s kind of how we see things. And you know we’re talking about this fictitious character, but we’re still basically talking about constraints and we’re talking about compulsions that are on world leaders and nation-states in real life earth right now that they have to deal with every single day. And some of them don’t do things because they want to, they do them because they have to do them and that’s the only option available to them. It’s just fascinating comparisons, really.
Jacob Shapiro: It is and for the most part it holds up but I will say that my favorite part of Dune is at the end where Paul has just challenged Feyd-Rautha is I think is name but there’s another character there who’s name is escaping me I think he’s the uncle or something. Somehow he’s a Harkonnen, he’s related somehow.
And he’s the only figure in that whole area that Paul hadn’t seen before in his prescience, he hadn’t seen him in all the futures that he has imagined. And he begins to wonder, is this guy going to kill me like is there some variable here that I didn’t understand? And the guy ends up not killing him, he ends up going along with Paul’s takeover.
But sort of the thing that Frank Herbert sort of shoehorns in there at the end is even for Paul who is you know I think he’s supposed to be sort of super natural. He sees the future and this that and the other way, and I’ve just made the point that all these outside forces shape him and create him. There was one contingency moment there where it might have all fallen down. And that’s introduced by just some human who was there but not even Paul could see.
And I think that there is something to that in geopolitics because while we are I would say more deterministic in the spectrum, I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that everything is determined. I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that you know anybody knew how the Battle of the Midway was gonna turn out before it turned out. We don’t know how the Battle of Gettysburg was gonna turn out before it turned out. Like sometimes you just have to roll the dice and see what happens.
And I think Dune, Game of Thrones, some of these other areas and I’m gonna make a tradition of this.
Cole Altom: We’re not lacking for options or for suggestions because readers and listeners have already thrown their lot in. Some are very good ideas we hadn’t thought of but some are very good ideas we had thought of and we’re still kind of kicking these things around. We’ll get back to you in a year on that. But there’s some really good ideas out there and we don’t want to spoil it too badly right now, right?
Jacob Shapiro: Yeah but that’s probably enough of.
Cole Altom: That is certainly enough, arguably it’s too much.
Jacob Shapiro: Arguably too much.
Cole Altom: Arguably too much.
Jacob Shapiro: Well in any case, both Dune and London were fun for us.
Cole Altom: They were and Dune’s free I believe so if you don’t ever want to listen to us again or read us again, you can still read that and just see for yourself how, how accurately nerdly we are, if that makes any sense.
Jacob Shapiro: I’ll also just say though that the stories that we tell ourselves do matter. Like one of the things when I was looking for the different maps that we created for the Dune special report, I saw that for some reason there were a lot of Polish renderings of the maps in Dune. So apparently you know shout out to all the Polish listeners out there, apparently Poland they really do love reading Dune.
Game of Thrones has become a worldwide phenomenon. When I travel and I go to like I know Israelis who learn to speak English just so they could watch Game of Thrones.
Cole Altom: That’s funny.
Jacob Shapiro: When I go to, was in Russia back in December and I was having conversations about the new Star Wars, with you know a colleague of mine who is in a think tank over there. So it’s just to say that I don’t think that these things are actually unimportant, I think that the stories and narratives that we tell ourselves and to use to try and make sense of the world, actually do reflect some underlying feeling about what’s going on in the world.
Cole Altom: I strongly agree with that, I could not agree more. In fact, maybe we can probably end on this note. But you know I’m on the editorial side, I’m not on the analytic side so I look at things a little bit differently from you.
But when we do these things, I am always trying to like look at the stories this thing tells and as you say the other thing is that I would say you can learn just as much if not more about the world by reading really good fiction than by reading really good non-fiction. It all depends on the author, it all depends on the topic. But if you’re telling me like Tolstoy doesn’t tell you, you know anything about politics or geopolitics or war then you’re not reading the same thing that the rest of us are.
Well I guess that’s it. Thanks a lot of for joining us. Jacob, thank you for taking the time. We’ll see you next time.
Jacob Shapiro: Alright.