By Jacob L. Shapiro
Today we are told that we live in a digital age of information. The problem is no longer getting information, but rather figuring out what to do with the deluge of articles, stories, reports and data that bombards us everyday. Although there are a number of talented journalists doing extraordinary work, many of the front-page articles in newspapers are not defined by new information but by long-held narratives that offer no framework for how to evaluate the importance of the information provided. Our central mission at Geopolitical Futures is to cut through this noise, but that means sorting through an awful lot of the mundane in search of the detail or perspective that either challenges or confirms our model.
The model tells us that as a result of the coming decline and fragmentation of Russia and China over the course of the next few decades, new powers will rise in the world: Poland, Japan, Turkey and Mexico. (Dr. George Friedman outlines the circumstances that will lead to the rise of these powers in great detail in his best-selling book “The Next 100 Years.”) These are therefore countries that we watch very closely. But if you restrict yourself only to what the mainstream news outlets tell you, you find a limited perspective.
Take Poland as an example. There is an entrenched historical narrative for any story that comes out about Poland, and it goes something like this: for over a century, Poland was taken advantage of by neighboring Germany or Russia and dominated after World War II by the Soviet Union. Then Poland emerged into the light of liberal democracy with the support of the Solidarity trade union, but now seems to be turning toward a Euroskeptic, nationalist position under the Law and Justice party.
As a result, there are essentially two types of stories about Poland that make it to the Western media these days: Poland clashing with the EU (and therefore Germany) and Poland clashing with Russia. So the media picks up a statement about a Polish official’s stance against German immigration policies or the Polish foreign minister saying the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission investigating changes to the way Poland appoints judges undermines the Commission’s credibility. Or the media picks up the Polish president saying for the umpteenth time that NATO should put more forces in Eastern Europe. The common thread linking these events: they are all simple and unsurprising public statements that make sense within a very defined way of understanding Poland. The hard work of understanding how and why Poland is changing as a result of the threats and advantages that surround it is often absent.
This tendency to rely on a general narrative is also easily observed in the other countries on our list of rising powers. Japan’s government is far more democratic than China’s, and Japan is an easier place for an American to visit, yet there is much less information about Japan available in the English-language press than about China. Most of what exists has a distinct financial bent, and nearly all of it views Japan from a particular perspective: one of Japan having just lived through two “lost decades” after incredible financial success in the 1980s and weakening in the face of China’s stratospheric rise. From an economic perspective, such a perspective fails to take into account the fact that Japan has the second highest national net worth in the world, the third largest GDP and a highly differentiated debt structure. From a general perspective, thinking about Japanese intentions only in terms of a potential threat from China is simplistic at best.
This phenomenon is arguably even more pronounced in Mexico, which only makes the news in the U.S. if there has been a massive prison break, if a drug cartel has perpetrated some new horrible killings or if former Mexican presidents compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, as both Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox did last weekend. When we look at Mexico, none of these types of stories set off our radars. We are much more interested in studying the dynamism of the Mexican economy, which is the 15th largest in the world by GDP and geographically positioned to handle the current Eurasian crisis better than almost any other country. We also study how the Mexican nation, after centuries of infighting and civil war, finally seems to be emerging – and what that means for Mexico, North America and the global economy.
Of the four countries I began with, Turkey is perhaps the best understood – but that is not saying much considering how misunderstood the other three are. For Turkey there are also essentially two narratives. The first chronicles the play-by-play developments of the various conflicts surrounding and involving Turkey. The second narrative is about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his crackdown on issues like freedom of the press inside Turkey. But because Erdoğan is bordered by the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and because Turkey has become so important for Europe in stemming the flow of Syrian refugees to the European continent, the overall tone is one of ambivalence. These are both important dynamics to learn about when studying Turkey, but to reduce Turkey to either one of these narratives is to see through a very narrow lens.
We don’t call what we write at Geopolitical Futures “articles.” Internally, we call them “updates.” Each new briefing, Reality Check or Geopolitical Pulse is a new episode in the unfolding of a process that we define in our forecasts and our net assessments. This is because we believe the very structure of how something is written contains a content of its own that can mold and even completely change how facts are understood. We do not expect each piece we write to stand completely on its own, so we do not feel pressured to reinvent the wheel every time we write. Our entire publication is a larger narrative – one that is defined not by conventional wisdom but by a rigorous application of a geopolitical method developed by Friedman. That is what moves us to write and to identify various bits of information as important that most others would dismiss.
In order to do this, we must not only resist being seduced by the predicable article tailored for popular consumption, we must also learn a lesson from Leopold von Ranke, a famous German historian who lived in the 19th century. One of his most famous works is titled “History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514.” It is famous not for the title or the subject matter, both of which I admit are rather inaccessible (to put it kindly), but rather for this line: “To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: It wants only to show what actually happened.” Geopolitical Futures has set for itself a similar, yet slightly more ambitious project: not just to show what actually happened, but what actually is happening and, most important, what actually will.