Governments, businesses and the rich have always sought advice about the risks they take in an uncertain world. Once, they consulted priests, soothsayers or prophets, while today political risk consultants are available. Are these new professionals different and more accurate than their predecessors? Tellingly, John Hulsman, the president of a prominent global risk consultancy, begins this study with a discussion of what he calls “the world’s first political risk analysts”, the Pythia of Delphi, whose oracles inspired considerable trust. These senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo were seated above the vapours that arose from the clefts in the stones of Mount Parnassus and were, Hulsman suggests, “clearly high as a kite” from the hallucinogenic effects. Very different from our modern risk consultants with their computer programs and algorithms, although such experts would, we are told, be content with the Pythia’s reputed accuracy rates of well over 50 per cent.
To Dare More Boldly is an odd book in which the author ranges across the centuries in search of historical analogies to present problems that will form the basis of a set of rules, indeed “Ten Commandments”, to enable the statesman, the general, the captain of industry or the investment banker to avoid mistakes and make the right strategic decisions. The examples and analogies are eclectic: Gibbon and the Roman Empire, the Crusades, Napoleon and the origins of the First World War jostle alongside The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the contemporary struggle of the US and China for supremacy in Asia.
Yet this is a compelling read, rich in insights and alternately courageous and outrageous. Its strengths and weaknesses derive from the author’s faith that the study of repeated historical structural crises can provide guides to prediction and policy.
Hulsman’s academic background in history and international relations makes his discussions of the rise and fall of civilisations and the parallels between the outbreak of wars centuries apart well informed. His criticisms of contemporary Europe for not realising that the unstoppable decline of its “sunny way of life” is due to its inability to perceive that (as with imperial Rome) its problems are internal, like his comments on US policy in Iraq and its failure to learn from the history of the Middle East, are persuasive. Some will find his enquiry into the break-up of the Beatles and its relevance to the problems of great power alliances refreshing, but surely all sense of proportion is lost with a sub-section titled “How the West can avoid the Beatles’ fate”.
The fundamental error of the author’s approach to risk analysis is the notion that there can be fixed rules determined by the discovery of patterns in history. A fascination with structural similarities leads inevitably to the downgrading of the contingent and the unpredictable. Hulsman is aware that the unpredictable factor presents a major obstacle to prediction. A fellow risk analyst, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has called this the “Black Swan”, while Hulsman’s term is the “butterfly factor”. He argues that “preparing for the unplanned is a last and vital elemental weapon in a first-rate geopolitical risk analyst’s armoury” and that “adapting to the unknowable is absolutely essential”, although even the Pythia might have found this to be the ultimate challenge.
A.W. Purdue is visiting professor in history at Northumbria University.
To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk
By John C. Hulsman
Princeton University Press
344pp, £24.95 ISBN 9780691172194
Published 27 February 2018