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Political Risk 101: Leaders


(This post is part of a series of political risk analysis tips I will be putting together under the umbrella name Political Risk 101. You can read all of the tips as well as an introduction to the concept and rationale behind this effort here.)

There's a longstanding debate over who makes History: individual leaders or deep forces beyond any one person's control? There are merits to both positions, but my point today is that even if you believe decision-makers hold little power in the grand scheme of things, you will probably acknowledge that their actions do matter in the short term at least.

It follows that if leaders matter at least a bit, who they are will matter a great deal. Doesn't who you are determine how you think and, as a consequence, act? If so, then why not accept that the same goes for political players? As David Rothkopf put it in the introduction to his seminal history of the U.S. National Security Council: "even those who have made a lasting impression on history are full of quirks and idiosyncrasies and a panoply of flaws and even endearing traits." Let us then learn how to decipher our leaders.

From now-on here are a few things you'll need to pay attention to in order to better understand what your leader just did, and anticipate what he (or she) might just do next:

Generation: It is difficult to say whether a country is better-off having a younger leader than an older one. At first glance, one might expect younger leaders to be more dynamic and in closer touch with the realities of a world in which velocity has become one of four dominant forces changing the way we do politics.

On the other hand, effectively navigating the fundamental shifts taking place in today's world requires a sense of History, of having been there during the planet's last shakeup. I have myself observed as a scenario planner that older participants in foresight workshops tend to illustrate a greater ability to question and reinvent the present than do younger ones. As a colleague of mine once postulated, it may be that it helps to remember the changes of the past 20 years when you're thinking about those of the next 20. In addition, perhaps precisely because reality is changing so quickly do leaders today more than ever need to have the wisdom to think slow; a skill more often demonstrated by older leaders.

Regardless of our normative preferences, a leader's age will matter in more ways than one. Take, for example, the accompanying graph comparing nations' median age with that of their leaders. As The Economist and Thomas Barnett have noted, not only do democracies tend to be bestowed with younger leaders than autocracies, but their leaders also tend to be more representative of their peoples from a generational standpoint. Not to extrapolate too much, but recent events in the Middle East would seem to indicate that this is a factor of relative stability (it certainly matters how young the protesters are, or aren't.).

So it seems that too large an age divide between rulers and rulees can lead to political instability. But what about age divides within a regime's leadership? Here, the recent appointment of the mysteriously young Kim Jong Un to North Korea's highest office may hold lessons as well.

As the analysts at NightWatch have noted:
Anecdotal reports in the past two years consistently indicated that the Army - the corps commanders - resisted accepting him as their future Supreme Commander, despite episodes of intense indoctrination and national propaganda campaigns. For example, the sinking of the South Korean corvette and the shelling of the South Korean island last year were, for a time, lauded as the brilliant work of the young general, Jung-un. 
That internal propaganda line has been muted since the youth was promoted to four-star general officer rank last September. Most North Korean four-star generals actually fought in wars and are in their 70's or older. That affront to their service appears to have been over the top.
A leader's belonging to a specific generation is also important not merely for her/his age today but for the experiences (s)he has enjoyed or endured and the way in which they have shaped her/his thinking and decision-making throughout her/his life. Major experiences, such as living through China's Cultural Revolution (as did China's new leader Xi Jinping), suffering a foreign occupation, or being sent to the front-lines of war at a young age will all inevitably color one's judgment.

As James Mann brilliantly writes, for instance, about George W. Bush's Iraq War advisors:
There was no question that the Vulcans' venture into Iraq grew out of their previous thirty-five years of thinking about America's role in the world. It represented a final step in the transfer of ideas that the Vulcans had formed during the cold war into a post-cold war world--the ideas that the United States should emphasize military strength, should spread its ideals and should not accomodate other centers of power.
A few years later, Mann compares this experience to that of a new generation of Democrats:
By contrast, if one asked the younger Obamians a similar question about the Democrats' political problems on national security issues, their first association was to the "2002 syndrome." That was the shorthand phrase for the run-up to the Iraq War, when leading Democrats such as Senators Biden, Kerry, Clinton and Edwards had voted in favor of President Bush's request for authorization for the use of force in Iraq. For the Obamians, modern history started with the events of 2001-2002 and the Democrats' seeming compulsion to prove they were not a bunch of antiwar doves.
You get the point: biographies matter. They matter a great deal. Even then, however, we should stay clear from reaching deterministic conclusions, for, as Richard Neustadt and Ernst May have shown, history can be interpreted -- willingly or not -- in any number of ways by policymakers eager to make a point. The uses and abuses of "Munich" and "Vietnam" -- both terms now elevated to the rank of standalone concepts -- also show, as Robert Kaplan points outs, that historical lessons should be approached with subtlety. In this case for example, it could be argued that while "Vietnam is about limits; Munich about overcoming them."

If you're now feeling comfortable about analyzing generational effects on today's leaders, how about looking ahead to the decision-makers of tomorrow? Like most people, policymakers will eventually retire; and just like the great majority among us, they aren't prepared for it. Think of what Nikolas Gvosdev says the future might hold for Russia's current political class:
managing the process of how the old guard will be retired will be a tricky process. Presumably, Putin will need to be able to offer "golden parachutes" -- for instance, lucrative appointments to corporate boards -- but, paradoxically, he will also need to strengthen the rule of law and the protection of private property. After all, the lesson of the rise and fall of a number of post-Soviet oligarchs is that in Putin's Russia, the loss of political power and influence inevitably leads to a loss of one's property and standard of living.
When leaders go, new ones must replace them, and it would be tempting to believe that they will think like their predecessors. Yet there is reason to admit that might not always be the case. From time to time, a generational shift can bring along radical change in a country's mindset. Think, for example, of countries in which overwhelmingly young tranches of the population share little common history with their elders. As a shocked Matt Eckel has observed about Iraq:
as I was skimming this Brett McGurk column on the American exit from Iraq I ran across this frankly surprising statistic: “An entire generation of Iraqis knows little of the United States beyond what they call the American war. Twenty-five percent of the country’s population — nearly 8 million Iraqis — were born after the 2003 invasion. Nearly half the population is younger than 19.” 
Granted, it’s not exactly news that there’s been a baby-boom-esque demographic bulge across much of the Middle East in recent years; still, those numbers are pretty stark.
Understanding the leaders of today is a good start, but as you can tell, surprise will always be around the corner.

Identity: One way to narrow this spectrum of surprise may be to look at your leader's core identity. While not inescapable, it is likely that the nature and culture than define her/him will go a long way to explain some of her/his actions.

Take, for example, ethnicity. Surely it matters very little in a country like the United States that President Obama's skin color is black (now that he has been elected that is). Only a far-fetching extremist would ever argue that the President's pigmentation or even his distant African origins are what defines his policymaking. But now, consider the case of Bashar al-Assad and his refusal to step down from Syria's mantle of power. Is it not likely that part of his fear of putting down arms may be due to his Alawite identity; to the possibility of returning to his kins' modest roots, or even to the more likely prospect of sectarian reprisal?

Examples of this nature abound, and many will pertain to a leader's religious faith. In fact, the influence of a leader's religion on her/his political decisions may not always be limited to her/his intimate beliefs but may at times simply be about having to wear a religious hat. When a political leader must also bear the position of spiritual leader, (s)he is likely to have her/his work cut out for her/him. Just think of Iran's Ayatollah Khameini who must, regardless of his intimate beliefs, carry on the Islamic Republic's mission of spreading the Shiite revolution.

Finally, you may want to ask what personal beliefs your leader actually does hold dear. Genuineness is a powerful driver. Is (s)he for instance particularly nationalistic, like India's Narendra Modi? If so, this may say a lot about her/his inclination to work with historical enemies. Contemporary East Asia jumps to mind; where, while Japan and China have had tensions to settle for decades, it remains noteworthy that electing a progressive or a hardliner can still make a difference as large as backtracking on earlier signs of rapprochement.

Academic and professional background: It is always advised to take a close look at where a leader's been to get a better sense of where (s)he's might be headed.

Specifically, what is her/his academic background? We know such backgrounds vary widely across the board, as illustrated by the accompanying chart. But more interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that the type of training a leader has received may influence how (s)he sees the world and hence what (s)he decides to focus her/his efforts on. One off-the-bat study by David Yin has found for example that Western leaders' humanities-heavy education may be the source of their concern for human rights whereas their Asian counterparts' scientific training could explain their greater concern for economics and other earthlier matters. (Note, in passing, that China's historically engineer-dominated leadership is increasingly giving way to a more diversified set of resumes.)

Next, you may care to look at your leader's professional background. Does (s)he have any experience of business? If not, (s)he might have to put a bit of extra effort into overcoming the suspicions of the corporate sector, as President Obama has had to. Depending on your leader's training, you may also care to question her/his motives for entering politics. Was it dedication to the public interest? Or a way to build evermore extensive networks?

Similarly, does your leader have any experience of the military? In some of the world's roughest corners, having military support can make or break a political player. In others, such as the United States, lacking in uniformed service may not be fatal but could give a sour turn to civil-military relations (just recall Bill Clinton's difficult first years in Office).

Of course, professional and academic backgrounds don't always matter. It isn't necessarily significant that Bashar al-Assad is an ophthalmologist by training. But doesn't it say something about Russia's contemporary political style that Vladimir Putin spent the early part of his life as a KGB agent in East Germany and Africa?

Declarations: If your leader was a spy, there's a good chance (s)he may not be too forthcoming about her/his past (or even present). But most political leaders can be surprisingly open about their views, particularly before reaching positions of power, in those years during which the prospect of a political career may not have been there to censor their thoughts and expressions. You should take this as an opportunity to soak in their frankest words and read between their more cryptic lines.

Sometimes it isn't even necessary to read between the lines. A classic case of loud and clear political frankness is Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. In this part-autobiography, part-essay Hitler gave readers a nearly decade-early warning of many of the infamous policies he would end up pursuing years later. Clearly he was not one to, like Michel Foucault, "write to change myself and no longer hold the same views" (own translation from French).

Monsters aren't the only ones to write about their ideas. One contemporary example of a seminal work known to have announced many carefully-crafted policies is Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's Strategic Depth. The book, published in 2000, was essentially at the heart of nearly all major orientations in Turkish foreign policy for over a decade. Yet, getting your hands on this and other written works you will need to understand leaders better may not always be a cakewalk. Seeking, for instance, an English translation of Davutoglu's opus got me the following email response from an Ankara-based think tanker: "Dear Mr. Bishop, What you are looking for is like the holy grail."

Relationships: Once you've reached a firm grasp on your leader's profile, you've guessed it, the next step will be to look beyond her/his individual persona. In order to fully understand your leader, you will need to map out his closest connections as well as his deepest sources of influence (the two at times overlapping).

For instance, does your leader have any particularly close friends? It is a well-known adage that states don't have friends, merely interests. Yet because states are run by people, and people do have friends, looking at who those friends are will, on occasion, allow you to better understand the strength of longstanding alliances and the existence of some otherwise-inexplicable connections. For example, Moscow and Berlin will always have reason to deal with one-another, but the strength of the Putin-Schroeder axis will be hard to beat. More strikingly, Russia may not have been so close to Italy in recent years had it not been for Silvio Berlusconi's amity with the Russian leader.

In fact, it isn't just friendships that matter. Enmities do as well. Think, for instance, of Georgia's relationship with its Northern Russian neighbor. An independent-minded Tbilisi will always have a difficult time getting along with a domineering Moscow. Yet more than one observer has argued Mikhail Saakashvili's and Vladimir Putin's relations of distrust and disdain may have contributed to sparking a conflict in the summer of 2008 that simply didn't need to be.

Then there is the question of leaders' sources of inspiration and feedback. Who do they listen to? Who do they rely on? The analytic difficulty here comes from the fact that formal and informal networks of influence often don't align. This is particularly true in less transparent countries, where the boundary between private and public sectors may be blurred, for example. Just think of Russia's Igor Sechin, who presides over the country's leading oil company Rosneft while simultaneously being known to pull the strings of Russia's energy policies.

In fact, the power of informal connections in policy-making isn't limited to autocracies and is also on display in the United States among other democracies. As has been noted, "virtually everyone in the Obama campaign discovered that Obama's closest advisers were not the ones who were, ostensibly, the most senior." And later, "Obama had only distant relationships with those who held formal responsibilities for foreign policy, such as the secretary of state and the national security adviser, but he was extremely close to the former campaign aides on the National Security Council staff."

It is precisely because those who matter most aren't always who you'd think they would be that I've created a blog series called Corridor Players, which focuses on individuals who share the following traits: they're powerful, they're (often bipartisan) survivors who can adapt to ever-changing incumbencies, and they're discrete (they avoid a limelight that could reveal the true extent of their networks). The list of profiles is still young, but growing.

Health: Working in politics can be exhausting. Yet as statesmen have been prompt to discover, staying fit and healthy can definitely be worth the investment in their line of business. You see, it's unpleasant for anyone to be sick. But for political leaders, admitting to sickness may mean committing political suicide. As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has explained here and here, dictators in particular have a stark interest in keeping their illnesses as secret as possible, for the smell of blood often leads to anticipated oustings. Mesquita's logic is simple: autocrats stay in power because they can keep at least their key backers rich enough. But "supporters know that their leader, no matter how generous and beloved, simply cannot deliver from beyond the grave."

Investors, too, are known to be particularly wary of fatherly leaders falling out of shape, as can be seen in the accompanying graph showing the dramatic effects of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud's illness on the country's Tadawul index back in November 2012.

Health issues can also prove problematic to leaders for a range of other, less materialistic reasons. Repeatedly being out of the country for medical treatment often means more opportunities for coups d'Etat (recall that West Wing episode in which a fictional African leader hears of his own deposition while on a trip to the White House to -- ironically -- negotiate an HIV/AIDS pharmaceutical deal for his continent). Further, like any major leadership distraction, a grave illness will likely mean less attention being devoted to running the country.

In the end, a sick leader has to try to hit that sweet spot between announcing a successor too soon (which could mean competition) and failing to announce one soon enough (which could mean letting a legacy go to waste).

The case of Saudi Arabia illustrates the difficulty of ensuring the lasting coherence of a ruling tradition:
Pretty soon all of the direct family members of those who formed Saudi Arabia will be gone. Instead of brothers and sisters making decisions and influencing oil, it will be cousins and second cousins—family members with fewer ties. The greatest risk is that the elite order of family alliances within Saudi Arabia will fracture
In a word, a leader's health is a big deal and says a lot about how (s)he will run her/his country. Again, just think back to your last case of flu. Now imagine that were cancer and you were running a G20 state apparatus. Understanding these dynamics is partly why every major political risk firm has its own health department.

Gender: Last but not least, because it is the most visible of attributes, you might expect a leader's gender to be the first thing I'd advise you to look at. Yet as it turns out, the (too) small pool sample of women in policy leadership positions, as well as the interminable state of the debate over whether women think differently than men, may mean that it's too early to take a strong position on the impact of a leader's gender on political risk.

Surely, being a woman will influence your chances of running foreign policy, for example. But who knows what it means about how you'll act? My point today is that you should try to understand as much as you can about who your leaders are and, hence, how they will likely think and act. In the end, however, I fear we must also admit that there simply remain a few things we'll never be able to know about them.