By George Friedman
I am leaving shortly for a trip to three cities in Europe: Bratislava, Bucharest and Prague. In the past, when I’ve taken these trips, I’ve written a sort of diary of the trip, involving geopolitical matters and personal reflections. Geopolitics is an impersonal study of the world. Those of you who have read my writing for a while know that I try to discipline myself to be indifferent to outcomes. I want to know what will happen and not dwell on what I think should happen. There is something both necessary and unnatural in that stance. It is important that some of us avoid opinions. Anyone can have them, everyone is entitled to them, and nothing is more tedious than hearing opinions pronounced as if they matter. At the same time, disciplining yourself to see what there is, not what you think should be there, leaves something out. That something is the personal. I may not be able to shape history, but I must live through it. And I may not matter to the universe, but I do matter to myself and perhaps some others.
For me, these three cities have been personal. I was born in Budapest, sandwiched between these other cities. I’m not going to Budapest because there is no time this trip. It is the oddity of my work that my travel agenda has always been defined by what my work demands. I have always wanted to see Tierra del Fuego. I suspect I won’t because there is no one to meet and no conference to attend there. I have been to all these cities many times, dating back to the 1970s. My mother was born on the outskirts of Bratislava, at a time when it was ruled by Hungary and called Pozsony. It was a place of refuge when we fled Hungary after the communists took power. And I returned there in 1994 in search of the Slovak census that was supposed to be classified, but could be obtained by asking for it. In all three of these cities, the streets bring back memories, some delightful and some unpleasant.
These cities were the borderland between the Habsburg, Romanov and Hohenzollern empires. I deliberately use the family names of the imperial houses rather than Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany to drive home that Bratislava was once called Pressburg, and that this area has been under brutal pressure since dynasties ruled Europe. After World War I, the dynasties collapsed and this region regained its sovereignty for the first time in centuries.
Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia all emerged wholly or partially from the collapse of the dynasties. They were genuinely free for around 20 years, until German power swept the region, ruling directly, as it did in Poland, or through enormous pressure, as it did in Hungary. Of course, the pressure didn’t end there. It didn’t end until 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. Between 1945 and 1989, a shadow war raged on both sides, as Soviet and Western intelligence services and their inventions battled to undermine governments on the other side. It was a battle of illusions – the greatest illusion of all being that great and powerful empires would allow their client regimes to fall because of the machinations of a few clever people.
This was a region in which intelligence services had been weaving their webs for centuries. The region is imprinted with a belief in intentionality. If intelligence services matter, then it is essential to know what they intend. And if something happens, then it must have been intended. Conspiracy theorists live everywhere, but in this region it is the common sense of the best people. This is what their history has taught many of them.
What it has taught me is that intentions matter little, and history is not so fragile that a handful of spies can change its direction. People still speculate on what brought down the Berlin Wall. Retired Western intelligence operatives will assure you that it came down because of plans that were put in place a decade before, that they were there and they knew it. I once believed them.
But the truth of why the wall came down is far more simple and far more profound. The wall came down because the Soviet Union spent far too much money on weapons and the price of oil declined. It had used money to hold itself together, but as the money dried up and the war it was preparing for didn’t materialize, the underlying hatred of the nations of the Soviet Union emerged, and it all came apart. The Soviet Union collapsed for the same reason the Romanov dynasty collapsed. The state was increasingly feeble and inept, it lacked the energy to emulate Josef Stalin’s tyranny, and it all gave way like dynasties of old. It fell because history is ruthless with the incompetent, not because of human rights movements or spies.
Since this is a region that looks for meaning in the intentions of powerful people, on my upcoming trip, I anticipate that I will be asked what Donald Trump intends. I could make a joke and ask, “In the morning or afternoon?” But jokes don’t translate well. So I will give my standard answer. First, he hasn’t won the nomination yet. Second, he likely won’t win the election. And third, if he does, he will be exhausted from the struggle the founders made for him. He can’t do anything without money, and Congress controls the money. And the Supreme Court has enormous power as well, as Barack Obama found out. The distance between what Trump intends and Trump actually being able to do the things he has spoken of is a vast chasm created by the founders. So Trump, if he becomes president, will do what most presidents have done: he will do little and that little poorly. And both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton will smile.
This will not be understood by the Europeans I speak to. My hosts will want to know who is really behind Trump, since the idea that he cooked this up himself is inconceivable. They will want to know what he wants to do and will not believe that it doesn’t really matter what he wants. They will want to know his plans for them, and I will have to tell them that he probably hasn’t given it a thought. They are obsessed with leaders, as they were obsessed with emperors.
The thing they simply can’t understand is that the United States is not a European country. Bratislava is where all decisions about Slovakia are made. I will try to explain to them that Washington is not in control of America. It is a city built in a swamp for the use of politicians, to gnaw on each other. I will tell them that if they want to deal with America, they should visit Seattle or Minneapolis or Houston. But these are people who believe that capitals and Washington think tanks matter and that spies make history. They don’t understand that the American government was designed to make action as difficult as possible, because the founders distrusted government. Paralysis in Washington was the founders’ dream, and they got what they wanted. Asking what Washington will do usually can be answered with “nothing much.”
The gulf between the United States and these European countries is profound. I try to convince them that I am of no importance, and that really important people in America invent things like electric cars or time travel. But we will be at conferences and meetings that will be filled with people who think that humans make history by deciding what they want to see happen. If that’s true, then the wall came down because of a handful of brave and cunning people, and if that’s true, then what Trump wants is what will happen.
But I am odd indeed. I think history is out of our reach. We do not make history, history makes us. So why write about things that must be? It is not to change history, but for the pleasure of trying to know what will happen. If that appears absurd, please remember the recent completion of March Madness, and the pride of those who predicted Villanova’s win – many of whom never thought to mention it at the beginning of the tournament. There is a pleasure in knowing things and a value in knowing how things work. But modesty demands that we know our opinions don’t matter and history happens regardless of what people believe should have happened.
And these are the thoughts with which I begin this journey.