An interview with John C. Hulsman, author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk
What’s audacious about political risk?
It’s a great and arresting word, isn’t it? It’s also entirely accurate. After the Cold War (though you can actually date it back to the Pythia of Ancient Greece as I do), the political risk industry seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere, with leading businesses, multinational corporations, and even governments hanging on the words of erudite soothsayers, who in the tradition of the Pythia or Merlin seemed to promise the magic of uniquely understanding the present and the future. As a member of this select fraternity, I wanted to tell the true story of what is actually going on here, in all of our audacity.
Why did the notion of audacity inspire you to write To Dare More Boldly?
The curse of our present age is that despite the omnipresence of communication, no one seems to have very much to say. Certainly I have found this true in my field of global geopolitical analysis, of political risk. Instead, people with precious little to say describe rather than analyze, ape other ‘right-thinking people’ clustering around one safe opinion, so that even if they are wrong, everyone is incorrect together, and there is no accountability, no price to be paid for analytical mediocrity.
I was inspired to do exactly the opposite, due to my impatience with the present very poor state of imagination in the political risk analysis field, and empathy for creative figures like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who in Pet Sounds bravely and audaciously swung for the fences, and in doing so re-made popular music. I want to do nothing less than the same for the global analysis of political risk.
What’s audacious about the book?
As was true of Brian Wilson’s work, it is baroque in structure, with inter-chapters pointing out the principles—our ten commandments of political risk—that apply across time and space and are truly universal, rather than artificially cherry-picked to suit my argument. For example, there is a chapter on the need to know the nature of the world you actually live in, where the power resides, and if such a system is politically stable. I look at the rapid, shocking decline of the Beatles (epitomized by the increasing creative frustrations of George Harrison) as my main example of what I mean. But there is also a fascinating inter-chapter on the rise and surprising durability of the Rolling Stones, a band who in the mid-1960s seemed on their last legs—as another example of how systems can determine outcomes. Emulating Brian Wilson’s baroque structure allows for a creativity, a timelessness, and a richness that a straightforward analysis would not have made possible.
Examples of pop groups are not the usual fare for books focused on political risk analysis or about practical analytical insights for businesses. Is this another example of the book’s audacity?
Absolutely. Along the way, and it is part of the cult of mediocrity which so pervades modern thinking, we have falsely equated being boring with being profound. I have the opposite approach, that Shakespeare is for everyone, that murky writing and thinking are indicative of bad writing and thinking, that the novelist E.M Forster was right and that the key to life as he said at the beginning of Howard’s End is only to connect.
I use examples across all of history, but ones that fascinated me and I hope my audience. The Greco-Persian Wars, the fall of Rome, the Assassins and the Third Crusade, Machiavelli and the Borgias, John Adams and July 4, Napoleon and Venice, Robert E. Lee and Gettysburg, Lord Salisbury and the British Empire, the fall of the Kaiser’s Germany, the Beatles and the Stones, and Harold Macmillan’s friendship with Jack Kennedy are all covered. But so are more immediate topics like Charles Manson, ISIS, Europe’s present crisis, the rise and rise of China, and power ebbing away from the west as the world becomes truly one of many poles of power. We have forgotten the powerful intellectual pull of Homeric storytelling, which this book is entirely based on. I hope my analysis is profound. But I also hope it is fun.
What does To Dare More Boldly put forward to creatively improve this intellectual wasteland you describe?
That’s exactly the right question. For if you are going to tear down the present, you must put something in its place, or otherwise what you are doing is just nihilism. To Dare More Boldly puts forward ten analytical precepts derived from the real world of history—our ten commandments—a ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ list across all of recorded history that makes an analytical understanding of how to master political risk in the world possible. Rather than saying nothing or being laughably wrong (how many of my colleagues called Brexit correctly?) the book underlines that the present and the future in terms of political risk can be mastered for businesses by the following of such principles that have stood the test of time throughout and across history, the real world laboratory we all live in. I hope the book is creative and valuable both for businesses that need to master the confusing new era we find ourselves in, and for the general reader who rightly also wants to understand the times they live in.