The Strangeness of an Analytic Life

Thoughts in and around geopolitics.

By: George Friedman

I have spent a good part of my life as an analyst, and for the past quarter-century as an analyst of geopolitics – the impersonal forces that shape nations and their relations to each other. I have also spent my life as an American, grateful for the refuge it gave me, and in love with its greatness and pettiness. 

Like people, nations have character, and none is without flaws, however obvious or hidden they may be.

The virtue of an analyst is indifference. The world is filled with people who have strong views of what should be, of what makes a good leader, of the strength or weakness of policies. Having opinions is one of the great pleasures of human life. 

We are filled with opinions on all manner of things, judging the world as well as the moral standing of those with different opinions. 

I once had an argument with someone who actually believed that the Boston Red Sox were intrinsically better than the New York Yankees. We raged and drank and made up statistics and took enormous pleasure from the argument. 

Even when we rage against someone we truly loath, there’s pleasure derived from expressing our opinion. Rage is a sort of aphrodisiac.

Most of us have little power. Our own lives are shaped by massive and impersonal forces over which we have little control. Our jobs become obsolete, viruses plot against our lives, our bodies rebel against us. 

But opinions are the realm in which we are free and in control. 

We can believe what we want, and in many countries we can even say our opinions out loud. They give us a semblance of control our lives deny us. Opinion even is not answerable to truth or falsehood. 

It even has power over the past, as we debate who did what to whom and when, with lies and false memory in command.

Every profession demands that you surrender something of profound interest and pleasure. My profession demands that I give up the pleasure of having opinions. The self-evident virtue of the Yankees is granted me. Judging nations and politicians is not. 

The foundation of my work is that history is not made by individuals who may appear all-powerful but by impersonal and complex forces that shape, elevate and destroy leaders and nations according to its logic and laws. 

Seven billion people do not create history, nor does one leader with strongly held opinions. 

History is made by the forces generated by 7 billion people pursuing their own ends in a world they did not make.

My job, the one I chose for myself, is to understand those forces and to create a roadmap for humanity. Some choices are ours and I chose this one. 

Or more precisely, born in Europe just after World War II and the holocaust, becoming conscious in the Cold War and anticipating my death at the hands of nuclear war, and watching the permanent and awesome Soviet Union crumble, I quickly learned that my control of history is non-existent, and that what seems obvious frequently isn’t. 

So my choice was less a choice than the recognition of reality. 

As Karl Marx put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”

So my childhood taught me that I did not have the power to shape my world, but if I could understand it, I could predict its course. And if I could predict its course, I could stay out of its way. 

Living in America stole my fear of history. Here it was possible to believe that all things are possible, that you are the master of your fate, and that others would not dare disrupt your nation. 

These are dubious assumptions, but I absorbed them to the point of trying to map coming events as an intellectual enterprise rather than as an existential necessity.

This was essential to my work. It freed me from evaluating events based on the potential effect they might have on my life and allowed me to see things in a way the partisan and opinionated could not. People with opinions know what should happen and also what shouldn’t have happened. 

They understand good and evil. The job I chose was to understand why the past was what it was, and to understand why what is happening happened, and to understand from the forces I have seen what the future holds. 

I no longer believe in the permanent invulnerability of my country, but I continue to force myself to avoid opinions on what the world should be like. I cannot change the world, but perhaps I can understand it. I will leave it to others to judge my success.

For me, the cost is the pleasure of opinion. If I don’t forfeit my opinions, I will confuse what I wish will happen for what I think will happen. There is a tragedy here. I love the United States with the passion only a refugee can feel. 

It has given me a life where the world I was born into was filled with death. The hardest thing I can do, but absolutely must, is to view the United States as something other than a nation-state. The work I do demands that every event be viewed clinically, against a history of such events, and before the history of future events. 

If I don’t take that view, then what little I have been able to achieve in my life is washed away. I cannot celebrate my love, and cannot condemn it.

An analyst cannot take sides, not even in something as fraught as last week’s presidential election. An analyst must understand why the election was fought as it was, and what will come next. 

It is like a fantastic party is being held next door, and you are invited but have to turn it down. I love the responses I get from readers, some accusing me of supporting President Donald Trump, as if it were obvious that no reasonable people can, some accusing me of opposing Trump, as if no reasonable people might. 

I feel like a monk, barred from the pleasures of human life. Or at least the pleasure of arguing opinions beyond the obvious and eternal excellence of the Yankees.

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