Understanding the geopolitical landscape: the terrain of human influence

Picture of Simon Hulland-Lucas
Simon Hulland-Lucas

Senior Partner, Practice Leader - Geostrategy

Geopolitics is about micro-relationships producing macro-outcomes. This is the human influence terrain and understanding it is the key to becoming wiser actors in the geopolitical landscape.

While geopolitics was originally coined to describe the analysis of geographic influences on power relationships in international relations, recently it has come to be seen as an umbrella term for international politics. In a globally connected world, where domestic political developments can rapidly affect international markets, it is no surprise that there is a burgeoning geopolitics industry which seeks to provide an understanding of events, an explanation of decisions and a prediction of outcomes for its various clients.

This is all valuable advice and it provides the backdrop to many investments and strategic political decisions. However, there is a deeper insight which is often overlooked and sometimes avoided. It relies on acknowledging and understanding the ultimate frailty inherent in all geopolitical activity.Humans.

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Understanding how the apple falls and why it matters

A naturally occurring seismic event becomes a natural disaster only because of its impact on humans; precious metal discoveries become the objects of conflict because it is only to humans that they are considered precious; natural resources are only considered so because of their value and utility to humans. The list of examples is infinite.

What makes understanding geopolitics really valuable, therefore, is not just knowing about events, discoveries and resources, or understanding how they may affect commercial activity and predicting probable outcomes. It is understanding the full spectrum of human dynamics around them.

The higher the stakes, the more fragile the human dynamics. The difference is Newtonian. Are we content to simply know that apple trees grow apples, understand that the apples will fall, and reasonably predict they will fall in autumn? Or do we also want to understand the natural forces acting on the tree and be able to explain why apples fall downwards?

The human factor

We are all familiar with geopolitical news such as a violent suppression of a revolt, ground breaking peace treaties, environmental protests, or border disputes. We have also read about security forces, alliances, environment groups and governments. Humans don’t exist in isolation, however, and humans exist at every point in the chain of any event. Interaction, hierarchies, decision-making, priorities and so many other kinds of human social dynamics are encapsulated in one simple but highly complex word. Influence.

The root of power

Influence covers all human relationships, from explaining an autocrat’s continued grip on power in defiance of reason to advocating wider recognition of the Zulu language as a means of unity in South Africa. It can be malign and benign, implied and inferred, passive and active. It is the root of power and the exercise of purpose. It can be fleeting, where a word said or an article read will determine a decision by a single individual that can impact millions. It can be steady and measured, changing perceptions over time which change the future of the planet and our stewardship of it. It is all around us and yet remains invisible to us. We feel it but can never see it. It can be a force acting upon our subconscious and a means by which we can force others to our will. It can increase our value, decrease our worth and we ignore it at our peril. Geopolitically, it is the matrix of complex micro-relationships which determine macro-outcomes and impact.

The art of exercising influence

So, understanding human influence is the geopolitical equivalent of understanding the forces of nature on an apple tree and the forces of gravity which makes apples fall downwards. In his 5th Century work ‘The City of God’, St Augustine of Hippo wrote ‘Let those who lust for power grasp it; politics is a sordid wicked affair’. This is a sentiment that will resonate for many people 1500 years later as it is a simple comment on human motives and their relationship to power. But the key levers of power, whether money, might or merit, are an illusion without human influence.

dynamics. Whilst politics is the science of understanding power, influence is the art of exercising it. If you understand influence, you understand geopolitics. Human influence exists in three basic forms, with active and passive characteristics. Coercion, Compulsion and Consensus each act in different ways and will be covered in more detail in my next piece.

Achieving wisdom

Perceiving their application, studying their execution and gauging their success can be the key to a better understanding of the world around us, our place within it and our responsibilities for it. For those with access to or control of the key levers of power, understanding the human influence terrain will make us wiser and more astute in how we act in the contested and complex geopolitical landscape.

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