By John Hulsman
“How do you feel at the end of the day/(Are you sad because you’re on your own)/No, I get by with a little help from my friends.”
--The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967
The awesome and entirely underrated power of storytelling is almost absent from modern foreign policy analysis, which might well explain why so few normal humans actually follow the discipline. This is entirely unfortunate, for since the Homeric days of The Iliad and The Odyssey, it happens to be the way people actually think about the world.
Startlingly, the new world we are entering can best (and most entertainingly) be assessed by looking at the sudden demise of the greatest pop group in history—The Beatles—as the brilliant system they had created for working together failed to evolve as the relative creative power of its members changed over the course of the 1960s. By failing to proactively reform a system that had so recently before seemed etched in stone, The Beatles abrupt end is a cautionary tale for today’s western world as a whole.
The Trials and Tribulations of George Harrison
It is hard to think of a more successful system for working together than that conjured by the Beatles in the mid-1960s. With the release of Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the Fab Four were at the apex of their creative and commercial power. The rather rigid structure lying behind this--on most albums their loveable drummer Ringo Starr was given at most one song, underrated lead guitarist George Harrison two or at best three, with the rest being Lennon-McCartney originals—became the group’s unquestioned modus operandi. The system was working, in that it reflected the creative power realities within the group.
This pattern—the accepted rules underlying a bipolar world dominated by Lennon-McCartney—was followed with metronomic efficiency. On Rubber Soul, there were 11 Lennon-McCartney tunes, two by Harrison, and one penned by Ringo (with the help of John and Paul). Revolver was graced by eleven Lennon-McCartney songs, while Harrison had three and Ringo none. Sgt. Pepper’s in many was amounts to the apogee of John and Paul’s creative dominance; fully twelve of the thirteen songs on this masterpiece were written by Lennon-McCartney, with George managing only one and Ringo none.
But by now George Harrison had had enough. In any other group he would have served as a first-rate front man, both in terms of performing and writing; now he simply couldn’t get much of his increasingly prodigious output on the records. The creative balance of power within the group was decidedly shifting, even as The Beatles’ modus operandi stayed the same. Chafing at the creative bit, frustrated that he simply wasn’t allowed to crack the Lennon-McCartney creative duopoly, Harrison grew increasingly resentful and frustrated that his efforts to grow as an artist were being given short shrift.
In a sense, such a rigid outcome is entirely understandable. John and Paul echoed back to him what great, established, status quo powers have been saying since time immemorial, ‘Why should we change anything, given how well things are going for us?’ While that certainly was true in this case—the Lennon-McCartney duo had taken The Beatles to undreamed of creative heights—so was the fact that George Harrison, an immensely talented man in his own right, was not being given real opportunities to rise in the Beatles’ system.
Now lets jump through the looking glass, and take our analogy a political step further. View John Lennon in the mid to late-1960s as a stand in for Europe: Increasingly preoccupied with Yoko Ono, self-involved with the many demons of his past and present, worried more about his own problems and situation than about the Beatles as a whole, and eager to shed his responsibilities in the band.
See Paul McCartney as the United States, unhappily aware he is the last man standing, the force (after the death of their unsung manager Brian Epstein) holding the group together, and that the others resent his increasing dominance within the band, even as he resents that they all benefit from his drive to keep the show on the road.
Imagine George Harrison as today’s rising powers, resentful and distrustful of the old system of western dominance (epitomised by Lennon-McCartney) eager to strike off on his own, to take charge of his own destiny either within the established group or in a new band.
And finally, conjure Ringo up as the world’s smaller powers, desperate to work with everyone, to keep a stable system ticking over, even as he is glumly aware that whatever happens will affect him far more than he can impact any outcome. Strikingly, The Beatles of the late 1960s and the global political world of today are eerily in line with one another.
But The Beatles were either oblivious to, or did not want to, accommodate the rising creative force that was their quiet and underrated lead guitar player. By the time of Let It Be (1969) it is all over. For anyone who has watched the excruciating film of the making of the album, the lowlight has to be when an exasperated Paul runs into a beyond-caring George, who mockingly tells him he will play whatever Paul wants, however Paul wants, all the while meaning the exact opposite.
Harrison has had enough because the world around him hasn’t changed, even as his song-writing career has. A Lennon-McCartney duopoly no longer makes sense to two of the three key protagonists. George Harrison no longer wants to wait for the other two to take notice of his creative flowering. John Lennon no longer wants to carry the significant burden of keeping the group together, given his other preoccupations and weariness at being the co-leader of a system he increasingly cares less and less about.
Neither of these changes happened out of the blue, and both had been commented on for several years. But nothing systemically changed to keep up with these altered creative realities. As such, a system—The Beatles—that had flourished so magnificently for so long, came to an abrupt end with Abbey Road in 1970 (ironically when George wrote the masterpieces ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and ‘Something’). The world had changed. The creative power constellation within the Beatles had changed. But the power dynamic within the group had not. That is the classic definition of a failed system. Everyone knew exactly what he was referring to, when Harrison named his fine first post-Beatles record All Things Must Pass.
Conclusion: How the West can avoid the Beatles’ Fate
So what should the West do to avoid the fate of the Fab Four? Above all else, it must re-engage George Harrison on new terms that actually reflect today’s global power realities. It must forge a new global democratic alliance of rising regional powers, connecting itself more substantially to South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and India. The single greatest strategic challenge for the next generation is determining whether the emerging regional democratic powers can be successfully integrated into today’s global order. To save the world we live in will be a tall order, but not an impossible one. However, the only chance of success is to first take a long look at the Beatles story, at how systems fall apart--realising how perilously close to the edge of the cliff we truly are.
Register now to attend SuperReturn CFO/COO Forum 2015 and be a part of Dr John Hulsman's Washington Briefing-Style Scenario Analysis Game to better inform understandings of likely scenarios for a geopolitical event. Play the role of a world leader and decide how you would run the show!