We sat down for an exclusive interview with award-winning academic and internationally renowned consultant, commentator and keynote speaker, Hagai M. Segal.
A leading authority on geopolitical issues, strategic risk, the Middle East and counter-terrorism, Hagai explains the basics of geopolitics, why it's important in business, how it may be impacting on your industry, and what organisations can do to address the issues.
In conversation with Hagai Segal
What is geopolitics?
What is interesting about the notion of geopolitics is a recognition that the geographic realities of the world today, in which we are incredibly globalised, and of course that is a word that everybody hears in a commercial context, but it is really fascinating in terms of politics today.
Events used to be pretty local, and if they were any wider they were international, but today we are truly globalised, by which I mean that we don’t just have international relationships, we have true symbiotic dynamics across the globe. Something that happens today in Africa can immediately have an impact a few hours later in Russia, and vice versa.
So part of what geopolitics is about is a recognition that we are truly in this interactive, dynamic, something affecting something global reality. Of course, that is what people find so confusing about it! They go, how am I supposed to understand what is going on in Crimea, and also what is going on in Syria, and what is going on in North Korea?
Part of what I do is try and show that actually within the chaos there’s patterns and that with not much work you can begin to get your head around the areas that may affect you and begin to look at them with a level of literacy, rather than shock and confusion.
Do many businesses still believe geopolitics doesn’t apply to them?
Many people think geopolitics has nothing to do with them, their firm, their industry, but actually it’s remarkable how much it often is.
There are so many sectors; hospitality, insurance, travel, where I’ve been brought in to do the presentations where there simply wasn’t a feeling that these were issues that were going to affect them. But these are organisations and industries that by their nature are global. The relationships they have are going across the borderlines, the national borders, and the communication barriers that are at the heart of these tensions.
It’s amazing how you simply take the geography of their business, and you then start talking about the geopolitics, that suddenly people start to recognise maybe that’s why we had this difficulty a couple of years ago. Maybe we didn’t recognise that we were affected by a political tension, or a bias towards the country that we come from, we didn’t realise we were operating in something that was sensitive.
It is remarkable how many industries who would traditionally say this is the last speaker in the world I would ever hire, where I have opened their conference, I have been the first speaker at their event, as they recognise this is a topic they have to deal with.
By the way, if you recognise it and your staff don’t then there is no better time to bring in someone to address the issues, like myself. Because the power of being a professional presenter on these topics is that you can, in a short time, in 30 minutes, really get into peoples minds, really change their perceptions, and really make them understand why looking a bit at geopolitics is a natural part of their business, even though they think the exact opposite.
How do technological advances impact geopolitics?
You are absolutely right to highlight the importance of technology within this dynamic of globalisation. We have always been international, that has been around for many centuries, but today we are truly globalised and the difference is we are not just having one or two international relationships. Everything about how our economies function, the way in which we communicate, the way in which we talk, the way in which we conduct business every single day, is being defined by the essentially global nature of those realities.
The problem of this is that geopolitics is increasingly becoming a potential impediment, but certainly an effector, of those economic and global communication realities. Cyber crime, for example, increasingly is being conducted by states against other states. The targets, more often than not, are companies.
There is a recognition by many states that the best way to hit a country is not to steal the blueprints to their submarines, but to attack one of its key corporations and cause economic harm. So what we are increasingly having is the more technological the world is becoming the more interrelated we are, the more interdependent we are, the more geopolitics is becoming a potential spanner in the works.
Do businesses need to spend vast sums to address geopolitics?
All too often it is perceived that addressing these issues requires spending millions, if not billions; that the only way you can be able to deal with this is to create a new division, to bring in a new head of risk, to dramatically reorganise everything.
Part of what I explain in my work is that the simple recognition that your firm, your enterprise, needs to be a bit more literate, that you simply need to create a culture in which you begin to look at these issues, which is not only inexpensive, it sometimes can be at no cost at all, can make a dramatic difference.
Now, of course, some huge global enterprises will have to spend millions on this, but others will have to spend tiny amounts, if any. What’s important is that you look at your business, you have a proper assessment of how it will be affected by these geopolitical issues, and take leadership and adapt accordingly.
What type of events would you typically speak at?
A lot of the events that I speak at are from organisations who have recently recognised that geopolitics is affecting them, and they struggle to understand what they are supposed to do about that. They are not sure if this means that they have to bring someone in to the firm, and so what they often do is they bring someone in to address the issue, to raise these issues of awareness. So, this can be within a single organisation, and recognising that this reality has changed, but often it is industry wide as well in trying to recognise that you can no longer behave and operate as you did in the past. Things are changing.
What I get a lot of pleasure doing is I’m regularly brought in by those who have recognised that geopolitics must be looked at, but many people in their organisation, or in their industry, haven’t. They want someone to come in who is going to explain, not in a patronising way, but in a way that is understandable yet is also undeniable, that this is going to affect the way in which they do business.
Again, what I do is not to come in and at the end say here’s the services you can buy from me, what I try and do is give these organisations, and these companies, and these firms, the ability to say okay, we have some tangible ways here in which we look at risk ourselves. How can we adjust the way in which we do business? Not necessarily spending large amounts of money, if any at all, but rather recognising that we are living in a riskier world and therefore business is riskier as a consequence.
The better you recognise that, the more a corporation as a whole, in it’s entirety, recognises that, the more adept they are at mitigating this harm, but also the more adept they are at recognising where there is opportunity, because if you understand the risk you are better able to profit from it. Those who don’t understand it shy away from it. So, you both mitigate harm but also even potentially increase profitability.
Are your talks only relevant to select industries?
When I first did this, 15, 20 years ago, very few industries had fully recognised they need to address geopolitics. The crowds I would speak to would be the obvious ones, those who directly dealt with security, or with terrorism, and those who operated in clearly risky environments.
But as, quite rightly, the recognition has developed in the last few years of how geopolitics is an un-ignorable factor, is going to influence you whether you like it or not, it has been very gratifying to see how industries that never thought they would look at geopolitics have come to me.
Indeed, the last few years I have spoken at events where I have been the opening keynote speaker to an industry event that has never looked at the topic before. Each one said to me that they are opening the conference with me because they can’t ignore this any more; they want to set the tone. What is fascinating about that is often my job there is to convince the audience that this is going to affect them because they themselves have not come to that recognition.
So, this is about information, this is about education, but it is also about fundamentally making sure that the people you are about, your employees, the people within your industry, your clients, are given the information they need to better do business in the world today.
How do you identify trends amongst the seeming chaos?
Even in the chaos of North Korea happening, whilst Syria is happening, while Crimea is happening, while all other things are going on, whatever happens to be happening at that particular moment, there are in fact key drivers that help you understand how these things are developing.
Let’s take, for example, oil and gas. In the 1970’s political risk drove oil and gas price. We had global political turmoil, we had turmoil in the Middle East, and we had higher gas and oil price. What’s fascinating today is that nexus is reversed. What actually is going on is the oil price, relatively high and relatively low, has been driving geopolitics. The minute you understand that simple factor, and you can now go back and look at events over the last decade, you realise that when it went in to those extremes, very high or very low relatively, we suddenly have a change in the political environment.
These events suddenly weren’t random; there was an element of crystal balling, and element of pre-emption about them. If those trends continue, and it is very easy to track them and assess they give us the ability to better understand what might develop in the future. So, it is amazing how in the chaos you can find clear issues, which I can mention simply in ten minutes in a presentation, and immediately and already people go away with tools to better assess how geopolitics is developing and how it might affect their business and it’s key fundamental issues.
Are audiences often surprised at how relevant geopolitics is to them?
You are absolutely right, and I think it is one of the most fulfilling parts of my job, is how many people come up to me saying I came to this very cynically, or I probably wouldn’t have come to this at all if it wasn’t at the conference, but you have really opened my eyes to these realities.
I’d very often then get follow up from people saying where I can get more reading, you mentioned this, can I get a statistic about that. It is a wonderful thing to be able to, in just a short presentation, give people the tools and open the doors for them. They believe they can go off and begin to explore these things themselves.
My work is most gratifying when I don’t have an organisation in the end saying okay, you have scared us, we have no idea what we are going to do about it, but they can feel from just one presentation I have given them enough that they can go off and directly address how this will affect them and to make simple, easy, inexpensive changes that make a dramatic difference to how they respond to these issues, and they are better businesses as a consequence.
Do you provide business solutions to geopolitical issues?
I always say to my clients that if anyone like myself comes along and tells them answers they should run away screaming! No one in geopolitics has got answers, but what we can do is give detailed analysis based on what has happened, show the trends that are in play. In effect we are not just giving the answer at the end of the maths problem, we are showing you the workings out and the equations.
We are helping decision-makers make better decisions. That’s what is key about what I do. There is no point bringing in someone with a crystal ball and they wave their magic and go away. What I can hopefully do is help decision-makers make better decisions.
But also, a speaker like myself can go in and explain to people why their cynicism about geopolitics, “it doesn’t affect me, or if it does what am I going to do about it?” just to put in their minds about where it will have an influence, but also give them the confidence to know they can engage in it without going off and doing a PhD.
A limited investment, a limited change in corporate structure, can make a dramatic improvement to how a business understands what is going to affect them and prepares to mitigate any effects that may come. In fact, even benefit from those events when they happen.
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