Saturday, May 16, 2009

Geopolitics and Structuralism

The US Navy is the key driving force that will determine the destiny of the world over the course of the 21st century. That is the assertion of George Friedman in his current best seller, The Next 100 Years.

A talented structural thinker, Friedman explores the way in which the elements of a situation affect, shape and sometimes even determine the choices we make. His firm, Stratfor, operates within the world of geopolitics, which he describes as: "a method for thinking about the world and forecasting what will happen down the road.

Friedman's point of view ought to be very refreshing to those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about organization and leadership theory. Organizational studies concentrate extensively on the actions of individuals, teams, particular organizations, and, occasionally, industries. Economists talk about an invisible hand, in which the self-interested, short-term activities of people lead to ‘the wealth of nations’ (ala Adam Smith). Here are a few quotes from Friedman explicating his views on Geopolitics:
  • "Geopolitics applies the concept of the invisible hand to the behavior of nations and other international actors. The pursuit of short-term self-interest by nations and by their leaders work result, if not to the wealth of nations, then at least to predictable behavior and, therefore, to the ability to forecast the shape of the future international system."
  • "Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short-term self-interest. As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices. It is assumed that, on the whole, people and nations will pursue their self-interest, if not flawlessly, then at least not randomly…in chess you do not have limitless moves. The better you are at chess, the more clearly you see your options, and the fewer moves there actually are.
  • "For the most part, the act of governance in foreign policy is simply executing the necessary and logical next step. Political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged as such. Geopolitics does not take the individual leader very seriously, and more than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously.
  • "The core of the method I have used in this book has been to look at the constraints placed on individuals and nations, to see how they are generally forced to behave because of these constraints, and then to try to understand the unintended consequences those actions will have
  • "Geopolitics assumes two things...
  1. First, it assumes that humans organize themselves into units larger than families, and that by doing this, they must engage in politics. It also assumes that humans have natural loyalty to the things they were born into, the people and the places. Loyalty to a tribe, a city, or a nation is natural to people. In our time, national identity matters a great deal. Geopolitics teaches that the relationship between these nations is a vital dimension of human life, and that means that war is ubiquitous.
  2. Second, geopolitics assumes that the character of a nation is determined to a great extent by geography, as is the relationship between nations. That includes the physical characteristics of a location and the effect of a place on individuals and communities. Sparta was a landlocked city and Athens was a maritime empire. Athens was wealthy and cosmopolitan, while Sparta was poor, provincial and very tough. A Spartan was very different from an Athenian in both culture and politics."

Organizational interventionists put great stock in micro theories: change individuals or small units and you’ll alter the dynamics of the situation in some overarching fashion. Concentrate on the workings of the organization as an entity. Sometimes this is true. Apple runs a hell of a lot better under Steve Jobs than it does under anyone else. He mobilizes the company's design masters and the customer analysts in a way that no one else has. However, is it not also the case that someone like Jobs do a much better job of bringing the forces shaping the future more generally, including Friedman’s geopolitics, inside the firm than most others do? Most executives and managers treat the big picture as exogenous, something that “greater minds” should pay attention to, at least in their official personae. But great organizational leaders--we call them Anticipatory Leaders--are not afraid of the big picture; in fact, they recognize how important it is to embrace the full range of forces confronting their organizations.

Friedman's analysis begins with “the permanent: the persistence of the human condition, suspended between heaven and hell….[Therefore,] the 21st century will be like all other centuries. There will be wars, there will be poverty, there will be triumphs and defeats. There will be tragedy and good luck. People will go to work, make money, have children, fall in love, and come to hate. The permanent human condition is not cyclical."

In fact, Friedman's analysis assumes that war will be ubiquitous and inevitable. This is where we part company. We believe that humanity not only has the possibility of resolving powerful conflict through some other method besides war, but we feel that it must. We are of the view that human evolution is seeking to transcend warfare. Optimists and people who hold that there is some sort of progress in humanity away from violence have long held this view. In fact, the people who invented the Tarot have a card that is meant to convey this forward motion, The Wheel of Fortune which shows the ears of the red Hermanubis protruding into a new realm of human consciousness. (Unfortunately, the data indicate that the decline in conflicts around the world, which had characterized the 80's and 90's seems to have plateaued at about 30; so, hold the champagne.)

What Friedman's thoughtful, rational analysis does demonstrate is that those of us who long for a world without war must realize that such a condition is not going to inevitably occur. There is no New Age that will bring this about. In fact, the geopolitical deck is stacked against peace and for war. Can we strategically position our organizations, our societies, ourselves in a way that make peace more rather than less possible? The answer is "Yes!" and achieving it entails a lot of clear analysis and good decision making at every level of human life. The nature of the weapons that humanity has developed makes it unacceptable for the anwer to this question to be "No."

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