By George Friedman
This was a week in which you could hear the political foundations of much of the global system creaking. I have been writing about how the financial crisis of 2008 has created cracks in the political system in multiple regions. In the long run, those cracks have prolonged the financial crisis and pose a far greater threat to social stability than the financial crisis posed. This week, all of the major regions of the world experienced events indicating that the political foundations of many global powers are unstable. Some were more significant than others, but the important point is that the cracks have spread throughout multiple regions and they all point in the same direction — political instability.
In the United States, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primaries. Each are political oddities. Trump has a political style that has little precedent, and policy positions that do not cohere to ideological patterns. Bernie Sanders is a socialist and a Jew running for president in a country that has never selected either as the nominee of a major party.
The issue is not Trump or Sanders, as interesting as they are. Trump after all won New Hampshire with a little over one-third of the vote, while the rest of the electorate was split between much more conventional candidates, including Ted Cruz, who is still more conventional than Trump. Sanders had a strong victory in New Hampshire, but then again, he is a senator from a neighboring state. However, the popularity of these two candidates does reveal that no establishment, conventional candidate is the clear favorite this election cycle.
What does a conventional candidate look like in the United States? Ever since Ronald Reagan, candidates have been shaped by their marketing experts. Reagan had core beliefs, but his presentation was crafted by a team of professionals, and in that process, they reshaped his views in at least subtle ways. This process intensified until the views of candidates were processed by marketing experts to create maximum support among voters. For many candidates, their only ambition was to become president. Therefore, they would say whatever they were told they had to say by the marketers to win.
The problem was not the candidates’ cynicism. The problem was the fact that the best candidates were the most malleable. They were able to bend themselves into whatever shape was needed. There is a long debate on the relations between policies and character in electing a president. Presidents are not very powerful. They do not rule, they bargain, and therefore their policies are rarely implemented in the way they intend. Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, during his 1992 presidential run, famously coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The economy may be the most important issue for voters, but the president is pretty much a bystander in terms of how the economy performs. Where the president can have a substantial impact is in foreign policy because that is where the president’s constitutional power rests. And someone willing to bend himself or herself into a pretzel to get elected, is someone with a certain character. Since Reagan and George H.W. Bush, we have had presidents without the character — strength and subtlety — to execute their core responsibilities.
It has finally become apparent that the marketed candidate cannot run the global hegemon. Presidents need to have three qualities. The first is the ability to speak cautiously but honestly to the public as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower did. The second is to act ruthlessly when needed. The third is to have a moral core, something they believe in so deeply that it shapes their presidency. To be effective on the first level, you can’t be seen as shaping yourself as your marketing team tells you. And you must have a moral core beyond wanting to win. Hillary Clinton is the only conventional candidate with widespread support but her popularity is waning because she is seen as being the ultimate marketed candidate, ruthless but lacking any moral compass beyond saying what is necessary to win. But the only difference between her and the rest of the pack, Democrat and Republican, is that she still has double-digit support.
Trump is leading because there is a sense that his beliefs are actually his own and there is a sense that he actually cares about something. Sanders is the same. What they believe is for the moment less important than the fact that they genuinely believe what they are saying. Voters understand that Trump and Sanders do not develop their beliefs based on marketing teams, who provide them with a persona and a moral core. They are human beings with unpleasant traits and it is the sheer unpleasantness of Trump’s personality and Sanders’ mumbling that conveys a sense of hope — they are what they are.
The revolt against marketed candidates has deeper roots. In 1991, the United States became the world’s only global power. In 2001, the United States went to war and has remained at war ever since. This is the longest the United States has ever been at war, and given the nature of this war, it is also being fought in the United States. To deal with this reality, the moral core of the president must be real, the ruthless willingness to confront the enemy must be skilled and cunning, and the kind of honesty and confidence that Roosevelt displayed during World War II must be there. No president knows what he will face in his presidency. Barack Obama thought he would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. George W. Bush didn’t anticipate engaging in these two wars. Clinton didn’t think he would be bombing Kosovo. The truth of the American presidency is that presidents have almost no control over the economy. If they are lucky, there will be good economic times and they can claim responsibility. They do control foreign policy and war, and in most cases they will be making decisions in the night without any guidance except providence.
The political establishment assumes that the public will see a conventional candidate as being far more capable than Trump or Sanders. The public doesn’t because it has lived through Obama, Bush and Clinton and none of them had the force and subtlety to cope with the world, and voters don’t seem to want another establishment president. When we come down to it, the the establishment was broken not only by marketing, but by history. The United States is the dominant power in the world. Not exercising that power is actually a way of exercising it. The conventional candidates may have remembered the name of the president of Kazakhstan, but they have failed to manage American power. There is no establishment candidate available who can deal with Trump, and perhaps even Sanders. That should tell us enough about the failure of the political establishment to fill a book. You cannot run a global power without leaders who possess all three qualities needed to lead. If you try, you get a candidate like Trump.
Consider an alternative in the one region of the world that does not have a political crisis in spite of an economic disaster: Russia. President Vladimir Putin has understood that the management of an economic crisis requires public confidence in the president. He must acquire confidence and if he can’t get it by actually solving the crisis, then he must get it elsewhere. The elsewhere in Russia, as in the United States, is foreign policy. And Putin has handled Russia’s involvement in Syria extremely well. He has acted aggressively but with minimal force to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime, and has imposed a new reality on the region. Russia’s actions in the Syrian civil war will define the future of Syria, Turkey and perhaps the rest of the Middle East. The Russians are playing an extraordinarily weak hand brilliantly. It can last only until other powers block them. But until that happens, they can appear to be what they have been for centuries: economically backward but with a powerful international presence.
In the end, this approach will not work, but it has bought Putin time, and as important, popularity and credibility at home. He is a leader who is able to speak bluntly to his people. He is ruthless on the next level and underneath it there is a moral core. His moral core is nothing like what the U.S. would want from its president. He is a Russian patriot, who has no moral qualms about crushing dissent. But he is what he is, and he uses power and subtlety inside and outside of Russia to get what he thinks is best for Mother Russia. No matter what he compromises on to hold power, it is not nationalism. On Feb. 11, we saw the result of this with the ceasefire that was agreed to by the U.S., Russia and other countries that left Assad in power.
Also this week, we saw the European Union’s Schengen zone continue to dissolve. In spite of the fact that some of the borders are still open, the core principle of open borders within the zone has been abandoned. As the European Union weakens, nation-states will have to assume responsibility for protecting their people. Some countries already moved in that direction. This is merely Europe acknowledging the truth. Being willing to acknowledge reality is already noteworthy in the EU. The Schengen agreement was, from a moral standpoint, the foundation of the European Union. The ability of Europeans to travel anywhere without passports, as is the case in the U.S., represented the moral core of integration. Its suspension represents the end of the dream.
I have spoken of the presidents of the U.S. and Russia. Now consider the presidents of the EU’s various institutions. With whom does power rest – Jean-Claude Juncker or Donald Tusk? How were they selected, and who do they speak for? The underlying problem of the EU is that it is hard to understand what it is. Who makes the rules, who can be held accountable and who can be voted out of office? The European economic crisis has devolved into a political crisis. Core decisions are made by an institution that is opaque. I indicated earlier that leaders must possess three qualities. For the heads of the European Union, it is impossible to possess these qualities. Only leaders of individual nation-states have them. Essentially, the EU has no leaders. It is an apparatus, and that is not something people can trust. Can people trust leaders who can’t speak their language? That is an issue. But for now, it is not clear whether Europe has leaders. The cracking we heard in Europe this week was the hollowness of leadership in the EU.
This is not the case in China, where President Xi Jinping is clearly the leader. But this week, we saw riots in Hong Kong. The legitimacy of the Chinese regime is no longer dependent on the ideology of Mao Zedong – it is dependent on the country’s prosperity. And in China, prosperity is disappearing. Xi must devise another mode to legitimize a country whose foreign currency reserves are dwindling rapidly and where capital is fleeing the country. Repression is one option, but who is to guarantee that the repressors will do their work? There has to be a moral core, and Xi has to have it. He may or may not speak to the people; he is certainly ruthless. But does he believe in anything beyond power? I suspect he does — and I suspect what he believes in is a united China. But how can he have that if his other priority is prosperity? Putin unified Russia by dazzling the Russians with his will and guile. Gaining control of a few islands in the South China Sea does not do the same.
We at Geopolitical Futures have spent much time these months talking about the EU and China. That will continue. But this week was about the United States, through its election of non-establishment candidates, joining the group of countries who have seen a crisis of leadership. In contrast, Russia has broken out of the group, for the moment. In the end, the American leadership crisis is a passing one. The underlying power of the United States will sustain it, even as its political model shifts. The Russians are weak, and momentary triumphs in peripheral areas will not hide that. Europe and China are past the point of resurrecting themselves, although how China will evolve is open to question.
But it was a week in which it became apparent that the conventional leadership of countries in each region was under terrific pressure. The reasons for this development, and its implications, vary. And since the United States is the global power, its crisis was in many ways the most interesting. But whenever such a crisis exists in different locations simultaneously, it is the adventurer that wins, at least temporarily. In that sense, the week went to Putin.