2019 and the Rise of Technology-Enabled Nationalism

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Its worth noting, 2018 could’ve been much worse. We careened into the year smarting from a horrendous hurricane season – one of the most expensive in US history – with the US President and Kim Jong Un hurling literal nuclear twitter threats at each other. So before we get too pessimistic, let’s be thankful for small miracles (and military restraint). Nonetheless, beneath those big big-ticket stories, a lot happened that’s worth considering as we look ahead to 2019.

Over the last several weeks, as we built our 2019 outlook and considered 2018 in retrospect, the two words that most resonated were nationalism and technology. These two concepts are sending us into 2019 with a thorny set of problems to solve. And they are changing the world – literally – faster than we can account for it. And so, it is through consideration of these concepts that we should also think about what they mean for the future. And before we lament over the major downsides of what is happening (because we are risk managers after all), it’s imperative that we recognize that no matter which side of these debates we sit on – the world is changing, mostly, because the old systems, as most seem to agree, were broken. And thus, new ideas and new solutions are needed.

Growing Nationalism

Over the past several years, a tide of nationalism has risen across much of the globe. Elections in Europe have ushered in new, far right, populist administrations in countries such as Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland. These wins at the polls reflect electorates that have grown increasingly skeptical of the benefits to European Union membership and weary of the migrant populations that have entered their borders – migrants fleeing war, starvation and economic inequality. Perceived as stealing jobs, draining welfare systems, altering culture and demographics, and posing threats to every day security. Similar emotions have emerged in the United States, where the administration has campaigned upon, whether founded or unfounded, concerns over insecure borders and perceived risk of violent crime and terrorism by illegal immigrants. In China, a general populace whose information consumption is closely controlled and curated, has experienced spikes in patriotic, nationalist sentiment, driven by government-influenced messaging suggesting the Western world, and especially the United States, has violated its sovereign rights and taken aim at crippling its economy to prevent it inevitable ascension and historic return to leading global superpower. In Brazil, the country’s newly seated president has rejected United Nations initiatives such as the Migration Pact, threatened rights of its indigenous peoples, talked of nationalizing key industries and stirred international concern over his admitted nostalgia for past periods of military rule.

While fully acknowledging that there is a fine balance between being a borderless country and being completely closed to the outside world (ala North Korea) and that there are those who view nationalism as a means of giving citizens more power to affect the trajectory of their own country’s future; the level of nationalism currently facing the world has necessarily also lowered the world’s ability to avoid international conflict and complicated international commerce. This perspective is encouraging countries to retreat into their own borders; attempting to protect “a way of life” by protecting against outside influences – whether through tariffs, physical and monetary barriers, immigration, rhetoric and/or psychological warfare against “the other.” The unintended consequence for business is that this stymies growth, making it increasingly difficult to steer a prosperous global enterprise that holds increasing (and at times, contradictory) regulatory requirements, financial burdens and shareholder expectations. The movement has also created suspicion of brands associated with one country or another, driving away potential customers and creating new regulatory hurdles.

While there is no question that trade imbalances and considerations of economic espionage needed addressing, in 2018, new trade barriers resulted in a major re-order of global trade. The abrupt – and at times non-sensical – changes increased costs to business around the globe, threatened corporate brand and reputation and by the end of the year pushed the global economy into a downward spin that economists increasingly worry could worsen in China and the US – dragging much of the rest of the world down with them. 

But it’s the trust factor that is perhaps most concerning. Suspicions over spying, arrests of company executives and an increasingly pervasive sense of distrust between countries has, and will continue to, filter down to the corporate and even working level between international employees. This is not only true of US and Chinese colleagues, but also US and Russian colleagues and, as more nationalism and as protectionism grows, this may soon extend even to countries that we’ve traditionally treated as allies like Canada and Germany.

Rising nationalism hasn’t just slowed commerce, it’s led to an almost across the board increase in hate crime in the West; from the United States and Canada to Europe. In the US, hate crime targeting ethnic and racial minorities has risen steadily in the last four years with other categories of hate crime remaining relatively flat. The same is true of the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland – and if we looked deeply enough – likely nearly every other country in Western Europe.

Technology enabled bias and nationalism

Technology has changed our lives, in most ways for the better, yet has lost some of its luster to weary populations who increasingly see it as a tool to manipulate unsuspecting users – rather than as one that improves lives and livelihoods. The truth of technology innovation perhaps lies in how you look at it; but in the past several years especially, technology has been blamed for increasing polarization around the world; or more specifically for how it has come to change the lens through which we view the world, and perhaps dominate our lives. The way we work, play, consume information and educate (or mis-educate) ourselves have all changed. Social media echo chambers; the idea that people are attracted to the posts of social media contacts, pundits and content that validate and confirm narrow perspectives on unknown groups, cultures or points of view, have been blamed for forging stark societal divisions, lowering tolerance of competing ideas and consideration or pursuit of facts – driving – though certainly not causing the nationalist/populist trend overtaking much of the world. Extensive government-sponsored disinformation campaigns, launched by Russia against targets across the globe and designed to breed discontent and confusion – and skepticism over alleged, wrongful acts by the Russian government; launched by China in the West to promote Chinese economic initiatives and downplay its risks to competitors; and launched by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stifle and threaten opposition voices have all put today’s media – especially social media – in the crosshairs of blame for rising intolerance, societal retreatism and growing toxicity in our relations and discourse.
That is the focus right now. But we need to be cautious not to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. From Facebook to Twitter to encrypted messaging platforms to the news media, the worst of the worst stories rise to the top and become the grievance clause for everything we see that is distressing in the world – particularly as it pertains to technology. At the same time, the sheer amount of economic benefit that these platforms have created for small business, entrepreneurs, and minority owned businesses, not to mention larger businesses, is grossly under-appreciated.
So, what do these two trends over 2018 mean for the year to come?

First, we don’t expect to see nationalist governments going away or changing their views any time soon. Retreatism, both at the government and the societal level, is going to be a continued theme in 2019, and it’s going to continue to alter trade patterns, impact diplomacy and, unfortunately, continue to drive increases in xenophobic if not hateful discourse for the near term. Companies will need to continue to consider longer term strategies for protecting revenue, planning for international supply chain flexibility and continuity while considering ways to (legally) overcome regulatory schemes designed to advantage domestic interests over foreign providers. Technology companies, and especially social media platforms, will need not only to plan for tighter regulations on data housing, sources of investment capital and import/export controls, but will also suffer increased pressure to moderate user content and serve as a policing mechanism, for purposes that may both serve the public good and leave companies exposed to accusations of supporting maligned efforts to control populaces and suppress opposition.

Those choosing to take their ideals to the extreme such as has been the case in the US and Europe in 2018; in the worst of cases committing acts of violence in belief they promote their cause, will continue to challenge law enforcement and security organizations, forcing them to shift resources, intelligence collection strategies and delicately consider political and reputational ramifications of the cases they may be forced to pursue and arrests they may make. And in this age where corporate leaders have increasingly been looked to by the consuming public as potential sources of moral leadership – a trend in business unlike any we can recall over the course of history – executives will be challenged to balance expectations of growth with the ideological demands of customers, not to mention their own employees.

What might alter these trends? In our view, it will most likely be pain in the pocketbook or in a worse scenario, heightened conflict between states or within states that causes us to rethink our perspectives on our common humanity. Continued stalls in trade that ultimately lead to a rise in unemployment, persistent losses in stock value and signs (or onslaught) of recession will most likely prove the pressures that force a political re-think – particularly as countries that remain more open attract more foreign direct investment, more entrepreneurs and more innovation. And while the trade war will have ups and downs in the first half of 2019, a real shift back towards a more open and less protectionist world order will likely require the experience of a compounding series of negative consequences that pile up and weigh down institutions before the current trajectory re-orients.

But while polarization may be here to stay for a while, we’ll all be charged with finding ways break down barriers, build bridges and seek a common, less unequal prosperity, despite circumstances. And those that do stand much to gain. No, it’s definitely not all doom and gloom out there, but we do believe that 2019 is going to prove an interesting, if not challenging year. But challenge always comes with opportunity, forcing us to bring our A game. This year, we’ll all need to bring our best selves to our work each day, force ourselves to think in new ways, tackle new challenges and pursue creative and innovative solutions to what are, in many ways’ old problems, but with a very new twist.

Candid Thoughts on US Leadership in the World

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There’s an elephant in the room. And its past time to let it out.

Those of you who’ve met ERI’s leadership and analyst cadre probably recognized right away that we, like most intelligence professionals, are rather opinionated individuals, and as individuals, we’re rather comfortable speaking our minds in private settings. Divergent in opinion as we often are (which we see as a strength of our business and analysis), we take exceptional pride in training our analysts – and other companies’ analysts – to work diligently to ensure that analysis is anything but opinion. There is, after all, a sharp division between editorial and analysis – something that is not always immediately understood by those new to the field. Our product is intelligence analysis. By definition, analysis is as objective as humanly possible. It should consider only facts, trends and potential outcomes. It does not serve a specific agenda, other than to support business and executive decision-making with the best and most relevant information possible. In hope that its consideration leads to decisions that produce the most effective outcomes possible. That is the role of proper analysis. These premises underpin our tradecraft.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that we find it challenging to suggest that we, as intelligence analysts, need to explore head-on whether the ship that is the world’s superpower has lost its leadership heading. And if so, what have been the impacts and how might we predict future outcomes. (Elephant exits the room.) Its past time to look at this situation objectively, accounting for bias (yes, we are ALL biased) and approaching our tradecraft as the expert analysts we are. As for what follows, agree or disagree. Or ask more questions. This is not intended as political commentary, but it is also not analysis. Rather, its thought. Or better yet, a challenge to all of us to think beyond our politics – whatever they are. To explore whether bias is creeping into our own work when we set to with our cup of coffee and keyboard each morning. How would we treat this situation as a US company? Would we/ or do we treat it differently as an organization outside the US?

Leadership Shifts

Since taking office, the administration has engineered a marked shift in US leadership. A move away from accepted norms and redlines of political power, changes in perceptions and dealings with US allied and non-allied countries has brought us to a new and very different foreign policy than the US has followed under previous leaders. And not all of it has been a negative change, in fact there is an argument to be made that some of these changes were badly needed to break stalemates over old issues. But, the president of the world’s current superpower has also been accused of opening himself up to the prospect of blackmail by adversarial foreign powers, spoken derisively of perceived political challengers on both sides of the aisle, engaged in name-calling with foreign leaders and alternatively praised authoritarian rulers while speaking, at times wistfully, of the authoritarian controls they enjoy. Where diplomacy and backroom discussions between the US and world leaders previously led to restraint from human rights abuses – or at least significantly lower profile abuses – these discussions, or perhaps lack of those discussions and diplomacy, now seems to have led us to a place of emboldened dictatorial behavior. Does this lie in the more transactional approach of current US leadership? Where previously US foreign policy and aid money was attached to more conditionals and more diplomacy, today it appears less interventionist and attached to only a few, inconsistent ideologies.

Over the course of its post- World War II reign as one of the world’s two superpowers – and as the only superpower in the post-Soviet world order since the 1990’s, embracingly or reluctantly or both, the US was often been viewed as the world’s police force and center of gravity for good governance. Successfully and unsuccessfully, the nation has been a key provider of aid, it has (yes, selectively) contained dictators, spoken out against human rights abuses and borne an overly proportional role in defense alliances such as NATO. Its domestic market has buoyed the global economy and its role in advent of the internet has connected industries, academia and people from major population centers to far flung rural corners of developing nations, bringing to bear today’s new, data-driven industrial revolution. As a result, foreign leaders have often been forced to consider consequences of their actions, whether against their own population or their neighbors. The US could not be everywhere at once, nor did every malicious action interfere directly with US interests. But consequences it could impose were at least a consideration, thanks to US interventionist policy that projected hard and soft power far beyond US borders.

Today, how serious are these considerations by foreign leaders? Are they still a serious concern that impose a deterrent effect? And perhaps, even if we disregard a direct effect, how do these events – seemingly ordered by governments that are often our business and government partners in various endeavors – impact our investments? Our ability to continue to work in these countries, with these government partners? Will this new world order endanger our personnel by giving them less protection from corrupt governments and security forces?

Let’s simply take a look at some of the facts.

  • In March, Russia resumed targeted assassinations of opponents in the UK, when alleged Russian GRU officers poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. The last time Russia committed such an attack was in 2006, while the US government and populace was consumed by a global war on terror and deeply committed to ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • In the last year, China has approximately doubled the size of internment camps where it incarcerates its ethnic Uighur population in effort to conduct “re-education,” attempting to convert Chinese Muslims from Islam to atheism and Chinese Communist Party-endorsed values.
  • Earlier this month, Meng Hongwei, president of Interpol and Chinese citizen, returned to China and has since disappeared. Meng’s disappearance, though suspected to be the result of ongoing corruption investigations against Chinese officials, draws a bright spotlight on China’s secret detention program, as used in the case of China’s most internationally visible law enforcement official. Meng’s detention follows a four-month detention of high-profile Chinese actress Fan Bingbing on tax evasion allegations.
  • In early October, Saudi journalist and prominent critic of the ruling family Jamal Kashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey and was killed by Saudi officials. The killing, responsibility for which has been not-so-deftly deflected by Saudi rulers, comes during a period when US-Saudi relations have been at least as close as ever.
  • In the Middle East, Asia and Africa, dictatorial leaders have increased their war on journalists and press outlets, decrying news that portrays them in a negative light as “fake,” and in many cases jailing them or worse.
  • Last week in Nigeria, the Nigerian military posted a video of the US President discussing shooting people on the border who would throw rocks at US border patrol agencies. The video was in answer to criticism over the military’s decision on Monday of that week to fire on Shiite protesters in the capital, killing six.
  • Meanwhile, countries across Europe – the UK, Germany, Poland, Sweden and others – are experiencing a rise in influence of far right-wing political groups, activists and extremists that are gaining political ground through parliamentary seats won through elections. Much of the recent rise of nationalism across Europe has correlated to the rise of similar sentiment in the US, suggesting at minimum a tangential relationship.

Are these actions the result of foreign leaders’ perception of changed US leadership? Or would they have happened anyway? If they are, how does this change our assessment or prediction of future foreign leadership decisions and resulting risks to our organizations? While there was a time organizations may have said “that has nothing to do with us,” most companies can say that no more. Importantly, most don’t want to. If the Khashoggi case illuminated anything for the business world – it was the tangible political and financial risk associated with gross human rights violations – even when those organizations have no direct involvement and would never sanction such actions.

So, is the world today really experiencing more of an “each to their own” climate than it has in recent history? And how much of that is down to changes in US leadership? Historian Robert Kagan calls this the international “jungle.” The world before the “liberal world order” – pre-World War II. A world where leadership based on good governance is absent and strongmen prevail. If the US no longer wants to take on that leadership role, who takes it up? Or do we return to the era of every nation for themselves? And if so, how does that change the boundaries of countries behavior and its impact on our people and organizations?

As we have previously posited, when writing on domestic politics, it is sometimes useful to distance oneself from the most polarizing aspects of the issue – in this case, that often means speaking less directly about polarizing personalities – whose mention can distract us from the information and analysis we need to provide to decision makers. But in this new international order – with US decision-making less predictable and in some cases more immediately impactful on other global leaders decisions its important to ask what we may be leaving out of our analysis – and to chance – if we are tiptoeing around the topic or ignoring it altogether. If it wasn’t our country, would we leave it out of our analysis as a major data point? How do we approach it with as little bias as possible? How do we look objectively at an administration that virtually no one on the planet is ambivalent about?

It’s a tough nut to crack, and we suggest doing it with structured thinking, analytic tools that can help you understand your own bias and with counterparts with perspectives that differ markedly from your own. But to leave these questions unanswered is to create a serious blind spot for the future of our organization and the world.

Meredith Wilson and Brady Roberts are the CEO and COO of Emergent Risk International, respectively.

Emergent Risk Summer Seminar Series – Chicago and Detroit

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Join us for a free concise writing seminar for corporate intelligence professionals.

This seminar will focus on assisting intelligence professionals of all levels of expertise in honing and sharpening their business writing skills. We will work through several interactive exercises, discuss editing tips, tone, word choice and ways to write on politically polarizing and sensitive topics.

ERI Seminar at Tufts University Political Risk Conference, April 2016

Date: August 2, 2018

Where: Chicago, IL

Time: 1:30 – 4:00


Date: August 7, 2018

Where: Detroit

Time: 1:30 – 4:00


Both trainings will be followed by an informal Happy Hour at a location TBD from 4:30 – 6:30.

To register, please send the name, title and email of the desired participant via the Contact Us link on this website. We have a limited number of seats, so please send your registration right away. Participation is limited to corporate, government and NGO intelligence professionals.

Calling all interns!!!

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Intelligence Analysis Intern

Emergent Risk International is hiring interns! ERI is a Dallas based risk and intelligence advisory firm. Our business is assisting companies in utilizing intelligence and analysis to better drive their business. We focus on three primary activities:

  • Assessment and Analysis: We provide bespoke geopolitical and threat intelligence products to address issues of concern to our clients. These products range from those developed for regular distribution to in-depth new market entry assessments.
  • Training: We train intelligence analysts to provide intelligence analysis in a business environment focusing on tradecraft and tools that drive more efficient and effective analysis. We offer a range of in-house and open trainings to address specific levels of experience and need.
  • Consulting: We help companies develop and improve their intelligence programs, providing end-to-end support; from assessing needs and providing analysis to recruiting and hiring highly qualified candidates.

Intelligence Analysis Interns will be responsible for helping ERI with a range of research, technology, analytic and administrative tasks to better serve its clients. Interns will contribute to research projects, products and services and will have a role in developing new products for the company.

Primary responsibilities:

  • Assist analysts by providing structured country research on issues of importance to ERI clients
  • Assist in building data visualizations and social media posts
  • Assist in developing business leads
  • Develop and maintain an awareness of relevant global issues impacting ERI’s primary client base
  • Administrative tasks as necessary

Remuneration: This role will be unpaid and run from the beginning of October through December (candidates interested in continuing through the spring semester will also be considered). Interns will receive intelligence analysis training, start-up experience and exposure to other critical professional skill sets. This internship can also be taken on for course credit with the permission of a candidates’ institution. Successful candidates will work out of our offices in downtown Dallas 15-20 hours per week. Some exceptional candidates may be considered for remote work.

Experience: The right candidate will possess most or all of the following qualifications:

  • Excellent writing skills
  • In final year of undergrad or has finished BA/BS degree
  • Foreign language capability
  • International relations, political economy, economics, development, political science or other related fields of study are preferred
  • Working knowledge of information technology, social media and tech related trends
  • Experience living or studying abroad
  • Strong academic record
  • Self-motivated and able to manage time effectively
  • Strong work ethic and commitment

Application Deadline is September 30. Please send your resume, cover letter, and a recent writing sample to: eriteam@emergentriskinternational.com

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