By George Friedman
As our readers know, Geopolitical Futures operates from a model of how the world works. It is built around forecasts, net assessments, geopolitical assessments and so forth. Ours is a model in which a year is a very short period of time and a century is not too long to think about. Therefore, it is noteworthy when one event occurs that manages to move our model forward. That means it is extraordinary when multiple events occur in a single day that confirmed our model or move us towards a revised version of it. To cut to the chase, yesterday was that kind of extraordinary day. Here, we will look at how yesterday’s key geopolitical developments in Europe, Russia and Latin America impact our forecast.
A critical part of our forecast says that Europe’s anti-European Union parties will over time challenge and supplant the mainstream parties, both because of the mainstream parties’ support for the EU and their support of open borders and immigration. Over the past several years, as Europe fell further into economic malaise and was socially unable to manage the existing influx of immigrants, who were primarily of Muslim origin, the mainstream parties were unwilling to react to these realities.
The impact of this can be seen in the results of Sunday’s regional elections in France. This was simply the first round and no candidates were officially elected. However, the vote revealed a stunning shift in French public opinion. The populist and anti-EU National Front had more votes than the conservative or socialist parties that had together dominated French politics for years. The National Front did not win a majority and must run in a second round, meaning it is still possible that French voters will rally around the mainstream parties and the National Front will win few seats. Nevertheless, for the first time, neither of the mainstream parties took the lead in these elections. The National Front did. This led the party’s leader Marine Le Pen to declare the National Front “without contest the first party of France.”
The National Front is both anti-immigrant and anti-European Union. It opposes the EU for usurping national sovereignty, imposing regulations passed down by a bureaucracy that is not accountable for its actions. In addition, the party has criticized the austerity measures that have been imposed under German pressure, believing they were meant to protect German interests while undermining the position of the French public. This has been a core argument of the National Front and has elevated the party, not to the top of the political ladder but close to it.
The party’s second major position has been its opposition to immigration. This opposition has pivoted around the idea that is inherent to most European countries, which is that national identity depends on cultural identity and, with the diffusion of cultural identity, national identity will collapse. The National Front was treated by the mainstream as a racist and even fascist party for its stance on immigration, which was primarily directed toward Muslims. The blood bath in Paris has obviously been one of the primary forces in this evolution, with the National Front, long arguing against the open borders imposed by the Schengen Agreement, appearing vindicated.
France is the first major European nation in which we have seen an anti-EU and anti-immigration party take a leading position, even if it turns out to be temporary. It is, therefore, time to turn our model to considering how anti-EU rule in a large part of Europe might play out.
Another critical aspect of our forecast is Russia’s role in shaping power dynamics in Europe and the Middle East. We have argued that the Russians will experience a resurgence during this decade. We have also argued that the Turks will emerge from a position of inwardness to become a major player in the region. We also predicted that, in the end, the Intermarium as we call it (a term used by a Polish General to describe a once-proposed alliance between Eastern and Central European states) would become an alliance structure stretching from the Baltics to Turkey. Until recently, that forecast seemed unlikely to happened.
What we have seen since the Russian intervention in Syria has been the emergence of the Turks as a major block to the Russians, who were protecting the Bashar al-Assad regime that Turkey opposed. The emergence of Russia has long confirmed our model. However, the decision of the Turks to directly oppose the Russians by shooting down their aircraft surprised us, although we did predict long-term conflict between Russia and Turkey. But in the short term, it has been Russia that has drawn Turkey out of its defensive crouch. Seeing Russia take a position in Syria diametrically opposed to Turkey’s view led Turkey to confront Russia and then not back off from the confrontation. After various sanctions by Russia, reports in the last two weeks have seen Turkey allegedly delaying the free passage of Russian ships through the Bosporus Strait. According to the Montreux Convention, Turkey has the right to block ships in the Bosporus in a time of war or near war. It can also delay ships from passing in order to conduct sanitary inspections, with the time needed for such inspections not specified in the treaty.
Either step would be seen by the Russians as hostile, but using near war as the excuse would either stun Russia into silence or move it to an even more hostile stance. But what is increasingly clear is that tensions between Russia and Turkey are now at least as intense as they were during the Cold War and show no signs of subsiding. The Russians would settle for a gesture. The Turks have clearly decided that Russia, not the Islamic State, is the primary enemy. They have also decided Russia is their prime adversary not simply due to its military buildup, but its support of Assad. The other side of this equation is that IS is not Turkey’s primary opponent.
The Americans have two interests: containing IS and containing Russia. Turkey has, through careful calculation, decided it must be involved in the fight against one of these adversaries, and the one has to be Russia. Part of our model says that, given the decline of Europe, the states confronting Russia will draw together under American guarantee and support. These states are the ones stretching from the Baltics to Romania. In our model, we had argued that Turkey would join in this informal alliance and the line against Russia would pivot on Turkey and stretch to Azerbaijan. For a while, it seemed to us that this was increasingly unlikely. Yesterday, this suddenly resurrected itself as a real possibility. Turkey cannot stand against the Russians alone.
In Ukraine, it seemed for a week that reality was wandering away from our model, which said that, since neither the Russians nor Americans were prepared to fight seriously in Ukraine, it was a frozen conflict that would in time be settled and then flair up again. But two weeks ago, Ukraine began to carry out aggressive actions towards Russia, cutting electricity to Crimea, among other things. It seemed that the Ukrainian government thought it was time to create a diversion, concerned that an anti-terrorist Western alliance that included Russia would diminish the West’s interest in Ukraine. This raised the possibility of a Russian response, which we didn’t expect, and conflict. Then yesterday, electricity was in the process of restoration, no further actions were planned and it is likely that Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently visiting Ukraine, urged caution, with some intensity. Therefore, our forecast went back to where it belonged. And above all, Russia did not significantly intensify the conflict, beyond a cutoff of natural gas and coal exports.
Finally, in Latin America, our model says that we will see a decrease in populist governments and by definition an increase in more conservative governments. The Dec. 6 National Assembly election in Venezuela, the results of which were announced yesterday, saw the anti-Chavista opposition taking control of the legislature, boxing in the government of Nicolas Maduro. This comes a week after the governing Workers’ Party in Brazil was challenged with a motion to initiate impeachment charges against President Dilma Rousseff and three days before conservative President-elect Mauricio Macri assumes office in Argentina. The movement away from leftist parties and towards center-right parties exhibited in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela confirm that our forecast for Latin America in 2016 is pointed in the right direction.
Obviously, the world is not about our model. But our assertion is that geopolitics is predictable and that it is made predictable by our model. When our model affirms itself, it is noteworthy simply because it increases the probability that the world will work out as we are forecasting.