Getting geopolitics right

March 29, 2023 08:59
Photo: Reuters

I’m no expert in geopolitics.

Yet there are a few thoughts that I’d like to explore - in a conversational manner - with folks who are interested in geopolitics, and from whom I most certainly hope to learn. Consider this an invitation, but also a proposition for a dialogue. How are we to make sense of geopolitics?

The first lesson I learnt in studying geopolitics, is that it is imperative to keep the right separate from the is. The right maps onto questions of what we’d like the world to look like. It should be the case that countries don’t get away scot-free after invading other, independent states. It should also be the case that colonialism and slavery, human trafficking and mass human rights abuses are no longer ubiquitous in the world we live in.

But that is not reality. The ‘is’ forces us to grapple with what is in fact going on around us, and to take seriously the testimonial and qualitative data from sources - especially those who are conventionally neglected by mainstream discussions or media. We should be attuned to the ‘is’ for as many people as possible, not just those with whom we happen to share an echo chamber.

The ‘is’ and ‘right’ often do come into conflict. And it’s vital that we keep the two separate in our analyses - condemn behaviours of state actors all you’d like, but don’t forget to consider how they actually think and behave.

The second lesson, is that the truth is always more complicated. Occam’s Razor teaches us that the simpler something is, the better - but it’s not clear why the razor says so. Is it because the simpler something is, the more truthful and accurate it is? Or is it because we naturally enjoy parsimony, and see ‘simple things’ as pleasing to hear and easier to conceptualise? Who knows.

Whilst the way humans behave are not erratically predictable, but predictably erratic, imagine what happens when we put 1,000 strangers in a village, and ask that they all get along with one another. Now let’s ratchet up the numbers to 7 billion - few folks know more than 10,000 individuals and interact with the same number on a regular basis (those who do, are what Gladwell terms ‘outliers’!). We are, essentially, learning to live with strangers on a regular basis; in a world where our fortunes and wellbeing are due to be affected by the whims and decisions of individuals that we have never and will never see, and whose actions may - in conjunction with ours - yield the least expected of results.

Learn to embrace complexity. Learn to recognise nuance. It is OK to simplify complexities and nuances in order to extract lower-resolution answers… to help us make up our minds when there is limited time to think. It is not OK, however, to over-simplify and -essentialise, even where such an approach is neither justified nor effective. We spend too much time worrying about complexity, and not enough time pondering why things are so complex.

The third, and arguably most important lesson, is to embrace failure and being wrong. I love being challenged and told that I’m wrong. Indeed, what I enjoy even more, is being proven to be demonstrably wrong. For that is the only means by which we learn and grow as individuals. Geopolitics is a field where we could ill afford to sit on our laurels. What was gospel ten years ago could turn out to be little more than incidental bunk. We must learn to adapt and resist the temptation of adhering to dogma and doctrines.

In engaging with geopolitics today, it behooves us to be familiar with core concepts of digital technology, computer science, blockchain and its applications, but also the histories, domestic politics, social and cultural commitments and beliefs of different societies. Only by embracing multi-disciplinarity, can we sidestep the dangerous pitfalls of monistic orthodoxy.

Getting geopolitics ain’t easy - but everyone should and can take a stab at it. When’s your turn?

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Assistant Professor, HKU