How can we depart from academic theory and perception, that geopolitics is nothing but a discursive practice, promoted and advocated by an elite vis-à-vis popular culture? My answer revolves within two concepts: risk and conflict. In my view—and the fundamental argument of this brief article—is that when it comes to geopolitical research, it must be both investigated and contextualized, in a more in-depth qualitative view instead of your good ol’ country risks reports and probability-type of analysis—on which to be fairly honest, they are nothing but a cluster of quantified opinions based on superficial ‘risk’ scores, which they don’t say much to an investor concerning the specific risks his industry or commercial operations can succumb in a country of interest. (And I do not mean this in an obnoxious know-it-all way, but rather, in the most simple, common-sense way, since any business group/investor would likely ask you: What do these credit scores tell me about my specific industry-related risks? Hence, the purpose of my argument.)
So, why should we think of geopolitical research, in terms of more qualitative-oriented methods, if we were to thoroughly research a geopolitical ‘risk’ or ‘conflict’? For starters, geopolitics deals with systems as a whole—be they political, economic, ecological, industrial, and so on. For instance, say we were to analyze the geopolitical situation of the Central American North Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras). We would have to first select the most vulnerable and particular system that characterizes this geographic space. To what international system does the Central American North Triangle affect the most? And in terms of what? Who ‘affects’ and what are the ‘effects’? For starters, and replying to the first question, the Central American North Triangle’s criminal organization system would be the most critical system that would be inextricably linked to the American security system. It would be in terms of drug smuggling, money laundering, cartels, gangs and hitmen (e.g. hitmen jumping back and forth from the U.S.-Mexico border), corrupt government and business elites, criminal parallel government structures (e.g. ministries, military, police task forces), to name some notable examples, that participate within this system, while operating and creating their own sub-systems.
Generally speaking, in Central America, it is the organized crime system that influences the behavior and decision-making of the American embassies in Guatemala City, San Salvador and Tegucigalpa. And to reply to my self-imposed questions, the most particular ‘effect’ on the American security system would be thousands of illegal immigrants that flee this particular system, consequently, affecting the American security and borders system as a whole. As a result, what are the independent and dependent variables of this particular geopolitical system? The causal-chain? See where I’m heading? In order to analyze a complete geopolitical system not only you require time and patience, but a thorough contextualization and understanding of geographical, historical and sociocultural dynamics of the ‘place’. The probabilistic nature of political risk (e.g. country risk) can only be reduced to that of macroeconomic analysis. But, what if, imagine, you know an X investor that wants to invest in the textile industry, in the Escuintla Department (province) of Guatemala? How would you be able to determine the geopolitical—and particular—risks affecting that investment?
Applied geopolitics, overall, boils down into two concepts: ‘affect’ and ‘effect’. As I have mentioned on my personal blog, an X variable has to be ‘ affected ‘ by a ‘Y’ event in order to cause a massive systematic or local ‘effect’ (e.g. the creation of ISIS via the Syrian war and its massive effect on the Middle East regional geopolitics, or the 2008 economic meltdown, which, unfortunately, Europe is still suffering the consequences). Thereby by understanding the concepts of both ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, we can jump into the next concept: macro versus micro risks.
Continuing with our example of an X investor looking forward to invest in a newly constructed textile factory, in the Escuintla Department, Guatemala (and yet wanting to know the possible geopolitical risks of his investment), we must start with the most important first step: see the map. By looking at the map, I know that Escuintla Department is a hot, humid flatland located between two ecoregions: the highlands and the pacific lowlands; I know that it doesn’t have any substantial navigable river system, therefore, most of the communities are tied to the main highway system between Guatemala city and the Port of San Jose; I know that because of the ocean currents, it rains heavily in the south, however, in the north, (adjoining the Pacaya and Agua volcanoes, between the Palin canyon, and because of the prevailing winds from the north), the weather evolves into a more moderate, less humid, highland weather; I know that because of this mixture between tropical and humid and temperate and highland, Escuintla has a suitable climate for raising cattle and harvesting cash crops, such as sugar cane, bananas, coffee, cardamom, lemon tea, in the southern part of Escuintla, and to its north, nearing and entering the Guatemalan highlands, it is suitable for maize, beans and vegetables; I know that because of the main transportation corridor, it is a heavily industrialized zone; I know that because of the majority of mestizo population, there isn’t a lack of cultural and language homogeneity with that of the Guatemalan economic core; but I also know that it is an imperative transit zone between the sea and the highlands and farther into the hinterland, which makes it prone to drug trafficking; and I also know that it is an imperative transportation corridor between El Salvador and Mexico, where many of the human contraband structures operate. Escuintla is a geopoliticized space. But also is part of an important geographical sub-field of the major organized crime geopolitical system of the North Triangle.
This is by simply looking at the map. Now, what are the possible risk triggers, exposures, events and conflicts that could occur within this specific space, and the actors that could affect the potential investment? Well, this is where you are going to have to leave the office and go into the field—where then you will have to combine a set of both qualitative and quantitative tools in order to determine the micro-risks.
When it comes to the science of researching geopolitical micro-risk, by simply sitting in an office desk and by trying to ascribe numbers and values and probabilities, to determine the ‘probability’ of the risk of investing, is to a certain degree, groundless and—no offense—a waste of time; put simply, the investor will not know what are the potential micro-risks affecting his operating environment and, most importantly, how to manage them—and this is where conflict management comes. If an X conflict with a Y community over Z resource were to occur, how resilient and prepared would the textile factory staff be? At what scale and level are the risks and uncertainties and effects of investing in that space? This is when, in turn, your sociocultural and historical understanding comes to place.
Lastly, don’t get me wrong: there are certain types of quantitative elements that are a must when it comes to geopolitical risk; however, these tools should only serve you as part of a preliminary research and for generalization purposes—i.e. country risks and economic indicators of the country and region, and your own probability model. Yet, it is a profound qualitative-driven research (focus groups, HUMINT, interviews, short-term ethnography, participant observation, and much more) that will help your geopolitical analysis stand out before any other.