Jacob L. Shapiro: geopolitical pasts, present and futures

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Today on Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Jacob L. Shapiro, Director of Geopolitical Analysis at Cognitive Investments. He overviews the geopolitical perspective in understanding international relations, one predicated on looking at nation-states as fundamental units of analysis, in order to achieve a descriptive understanding of the world. Shapiro points out that the more familiar “schools” of foreign policy, from realism to liberal internationalism, use geopolitics as a tool to understand the world but apply their own value-sets to establish particular policies that further certain values and interests. Fundamentally, geopolitics differs in that it is an empirical rather than normative discipline. Shapiro then highlights geopolitics’ 19th-century origins in Europe, its decline by association with Germany in the 1940’s, and its recent renaissance in the US as well persistence in Latin America. The conversation then shifts from theory and abstraction to current events in Russia. Shapiro admits that his own research group put the odds Russia would invade at 30%, in large part because they believed that Vladimir Putin could have gotten what he wanted mostly through intimidation rather than invasion. That being said, he points out that there is a very long history of the Russian state wanting to push to the Carpathian mountains that bound Ukraine’s west due to concerns about defensible frontiers. Shapiro argues that the invasion’s fundamental raison d’etre is the quest for “strategic depth.” He also relays accounts of Putin ruminating on maps and imperial history while in COVID-19 isolation, although he cautions against psychoanalyzing him too much.

Razib next asks Shapiro for his take on globalization in the context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Shapiro argues that we are truly moving into a multipolar world that is more similar to what occurred in the 1890’s when there was a balance of power in Europe. Shapiro points out that that too was a time of economic and cultural tumult and creativity, Europe’s “Belle Epoque.” For him, this earlier period of globalization illustrates both the promise and peril of a geopolitically balanced world where fates were interlaced by complex networks of free trade. Shapiro’s main worry is a “Black Swan” event with the power to trigger a global conflict, a freak event analogous to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian radical that ignited World War I. He cautions that a world with more balance of power between nations and leaders, unpredictable decisions grow more likely.

Shapiro also argues strongly that the US is under a misimpression in terms of its power and influence in a world where other powers are rising. He also greets the idea that demographics is destiny with skepticism, pointing out that in the 1930’s Germany’s demographic profile did not indicate youthful bellicosity. Though Shapiro acknowledges the headwinds that demographics will present to both China and Europe, he argues we shouldn’t underestimate their future possibilities.

The conversation closes with the possibility that instability and reorganization will result in a ferment of cultural creativity that might match the decades around 1900. Though we are in for a great geopolitical shift, Shapiro sees opportunities and promise in the US, which still remains a dynamic society and a magnet for talent. Finally, he tells us to keep an eye on Central Asia as a locus for instability and change due to both location and authoritarian governments.

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