How to think about geopolitics.
Navigating the map and the territory through Structured Analytic Techniques.
In this week’s Not in Dispatches, we discuss six rules – there are dozens – that hopefully help us think more clearly about geopolitics.
Geopolitics is confusing. It is complex. It is counterintuitive. The rules we employ aim to remove the relevant from the distracting, prioritise the remainder, put this into a meaningful order, and set out a clear, compelling analysis.
This is the study of ‘Structured Analytic Techniques’ or SATs. For intelligence services, this is what they use to keep governments abreast of developments across the threat landscape. Though complicated and challenging, grasping the basics is necessary to any effort to translate big data into pithy intelligence.
For us, SATs inform how we go about trying to mine a vast territory of content – announcements, news articles, interviews, op-eds, blog posts, charts, tweets – for nuggets that may be helpful for businesses, whether small and domestic or behemoth and global.
Rule 1: Draw a map. Without knowing its premises, whether stated or implied, you can’t properly understand any argument – be it for a claim, policy, analysis, or justification. To identify these premises, ideally, we sketch a map, tree, or ‘analytic line’ for each argument we want to test. Inevitably, however, we usually just jot down the key ideas. Either way, this helps us to see how an argument works and where it doesn’t.
For example, in the wake of last week’s Wagner developments, many thought Prigozhin’s exit would be a boon for Kyiv’s counter-offensive. This made intuitive sense, and you’d have been forgiven for not questioning the logic. But mapping this argument meant identifying the premise that fewer Russian boots would open the field to advancing Ukrainian troops. This too sounded sensible, but see Rule 2.
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Rule 2: Drill down. Once each premise is identified, it needs to be individually assessed. Without this scrutiny – to which professional intelligence analysts dedicate elaborate ‘quality of information’ systems – we might never know why an argument ended up being right or was doomed to be wrong.
Returning to Prigozhin’s failed putsch, it ended up having no significant impact on Kyiv’s ongoing campaign to regain territory. The apparently sensible assumption that fewer Wagner troops would equal more Ukrainian advances turned out to be misguided. This suggests commentators should have more closely studied Russia’s prepared defences.
Rule 3: Beware fool’s gold. Even if you identify and then weigh all the relevant premises, you may be using the wrong scales. There are many routes to believing a false premise and thus validating an invalid argument. One of the most common is to fall for an argument from authority – to believe something true because an important person says it is.
We often discount arguments based on credentials. Most commentators will question any statement issued by a government figure, especially on contentious topics – no one will take Putin at his word. But sometimes we make unwise concessions. That a contact is on business in Moscow, has a good degree, and likes a blini, doesn’t mean he or she knows a coup from a mutiny.
Rule 4: Be contrary. Best efforts to map an argument and test its parts may miss the point. You could be in the wrong territory, or the wrong state of mind. Playing devil’s advocate is the quickest way to reorient.
Imagine being back in January 2022 and analysing whether Russia would invade Ukraine. Notwithstanding Putin’s other adventures – Crimea, Chechnya – the consensus was that he wouldn’t. If we had run an impolitic thought experiment – if we had a ‘red team’ simulate Putin’s thinking – we could have more readily imagined the events of February 2022 and have more intelligently analysed his tactics since.
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Rule 5: Be kind. No matter how poorly presented a set of ideas or facts is, it may yield intelligence. It is easy but perilous to dismiss messy or ugly information and hard but vital to reshape it into its clearest, most palatable form. The same rule pops up in literary criticism as the principle of charitable interpretation: Take the best from the text and leave the worst. But it isn’t just about being kind – it’s about extracting maximum value from what is on offer, even when there isn’t much.
In Prigozhin’s angry (perhaps drunken) Telegram videos, some commentators found the evidence they needed to distinguish between genuine mutiny and feigned insurrection – his venom was targeted at the Kremlin’s generals.
Rule 6: Beware bias. Even if you can think another’s thoughts and regard them with charity, it doesn’t mean your thoughts have been stripped of bias. Your bias may be more fundamental than a preference for your information over others’ perspectives. It may involve certain predispositions in how you process such information.
One of the most pernicious of these cognitive settings is how we misperceive causality. Where there is chaos, we tend to imprint and even forecast order. Instead of seeing Prigozhin’s march on Moscow as a damp squib, many commentators were more inclined to view it as act one of an eventual coup. The longer but better explanation required a dynamic engagement with the facts as they changed and with the actors as they swapped roles.
Bonus Rule: Ponder the imponderables. Our predisposition for order also means we abhor true disaster. The worst possible events – nuclear war, meteor strike – are too awful to comprehend. Cognition of their full effects is blocked by something like the will to live.
We often joke on team calls about our editorial position, that of a Martian: To analyse the worst events on Earth, it is best to try to observe them from afar. An impossible task, of course, and why after some editions it takes a little while to get to sleep, but a necessary one if you want to analyse geopolitics in all its good and all its bad.
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Michael Feller, Cameron Grant and Damien Bruckard, co-authors
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