Given recent events in the United States, we thought it might be useful to summarize some of the forecasts we made last December and try to show how Donald Trump’s election fits in. We, of course, didn’t forecast Trump’s election. Politics and elections are too unstable to forecast. The failure of most polls to anticipate the outcome is an example. However, our contention is that broader geopolitical trends are forecastable, and this will place Trump’s election in a geopolitical context drawn from our forecasts. Overall, this report concludes that Trump’s election does not disrupt our forecasts about the U.S.’ place in the world in the next 15 years, and even in some cases confirms that they are on track.
- We have forecast that the U.S. is moving towards a balance of power strategy in the world where it eschews direct intervention in favor of reliance on allies and regional power structures.
- This forecast has particular relevance for U.S. relations with the Middle East, Russia and China.
- Trump, like all incoming U.S. presidents, has grand plans, but what he can achieve is limited by constraints outside of his control.
Donald Trump will be an unprecedented president in many respects. He has never served in public office, nor has he served in the U.S. military. He will arrive at the White House in January with less experience than any previous U.S. president in history. He also has developed a reputation as a mercurial man who says what he thinks and takes controversial stands on issues, even through social media. Despite all this, we believe Trump’s policies will not be defined by his previous statements or his stated policies, but rather by circumstances and events outside of his control, just like all of his predecessors.
We have numerous forecasts pertaining to U.S. foreign policy up to 2040, but many fall under the rubric of one key development that already is playing out. The era of the United States intervening in large, land-based conflicts in Eurasia is over. The U.S. will utilize a balance of power strategy to manage a Eurasian landmass that will become increasingly chaotic over the coming decades. This especially will be true in three key strategic areas: the Middle East, Russia and China.
The Middle East
Our forecast states: “In the Middle East, there are four major powers: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. … They can cooperate in defeating an enemy like Islamic State, or create a system of competition and conflict with each other. … The U.S.-jihadist wars caused the United States to understand the price of [a policy of intervention] in an environment that was not critical to its own security. The turn to a regional balance of power approach [among these four countries] represents what American foreign policy will look like in the next 25 years.”
After 15 years of war in the Middle East, the U.S. has learned that defeating an enemy in battle is not the same as eliminating a problem. The U.S. showed it could beat the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, but it also showed it couldn’t prevent the Taliban’s return or the rise of something worse than Saddam. Sustained occupation would require the reinstitution of conscription in the United States, which the public will not support.
Trump has made a point of appearing tough on foreign policy, particularly regarding the Islamic State. But Trump hasn’t suggested he would send hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers into the Syrian desert to take Raqqa back from IS. On the contrary, Trump is looking to destroy IS with minimal investment and then to pull the U.S. back so he can focus on domestic issues. Even if Trump wanted to launch a full-scale U.S. military intervention against IS, the U.S. military doesn’t have the troops and operational depth necessary to become involved in a new conflict. If the U.S. isn’t able to provide troops, defeating IS would require the participation of local fighters.
The U.S. military is not in a position to sustain a massive deployment to the Syrian desert to defeat IS, and the U.S. government is not in a position to justify such a deployment to its people. Instead, the U.S. has attempted to forge relationships with various factions on the ground to cobble together a coalition that can fight IS with limited U.S. support. That means forming relationships with all of the region’s major powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which Trump has been highly critical of during his campaign. Trump may not like the Iran nuclear deal, but Iran has become an important partner in the fight against IS in the region. Turkey is also a pivotal actor from this point of view, while Israel and Saudi Arabia are less important because they are less capable of shaping the battlefield.
The heartland of the Middle East is in chaos and cannot be stabilized any time soon. But the U.S. cannot afford to continue throwing all of its resources at the region. Trump will have three options to deal with IS: cooperate with regional powers and various factions to attack IS; leave IS alone and let regional powers deal with it; or commit more significant military forces to lead the fight. The first is Trump’s only viable option.
Our forecast states: “In short, the optimal strategy of the United States is to confront Russia with a line of resistance without itself becoming overly exposed. [The Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria] have an interest in preventing the Russians from overrunning them, an interest greater than the American interest in them not being overrun. … Therefore, the U.S. believes support in terms of supplies, training and some presence, such as air power and some limited ground forces, is sufficient. This will be the American strategy from now until 2040, not only in the case of Russia, but in all its diplomatic relations. It will look to some like isolationism, but it is actually prudent engagement.”
Much has been made of the supposed relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is not the place to speculate on whether the pair are going to take long walks together discussing policy on the banks of the Volga. U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously have a contentious relationship, but that didn’t change the overall trajectory of U.S.-Israeli relations. Even if Trump and Putin have some kind of relationship, from a geopolitical perspective the positions of the United States and Russia are locked in.
Russia is in the midst of a serious crisis caused by the collapse of oil prices in 2015. The Russians simply were not prepared for prices to drop to around $40 a barrel – even $60 a barrel would have been a disastrous figure to the Russians based on how they drafted their budgets before the price dropped. As a result, the Russian economy has tanked. The World Bank issued a “positive” report this week that said the Russian economy would contract by 0.6 percent this year, an improvement from the previous projection of 1.2 percent. The government’s draft budget for 2017 indicates the Russians expect to spend all of the National Reserve Fund by the end of next year and are cutting spending on various social programs by 10 percent across the board. These cuts already have led to limited demonstrations in isolated regions throughout the country.
In addition to being hamstrung by its economy, Russia’s strategic position is weak. Russia underestimated a popular uprising in Ukraine, and the result was a Western-friendly government in Kiev. This is a crucial buffer zone for the Russian Federation, which views Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, and the West encroaching on that sphere represents a fundamental threat.
The problem is that Russia cannot really do anything about it. Russia has the strongest military in the region, and the quality of its forces has improved markedly since their disappointing performance in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Even so, it does not have the kind of force that can both defeat and conquer territory in Ukraine, nor does it want to suffer the international backlash that would come from such a move. Russia currently is interested in a frozen conflict in which the West respects Russian boundaries. The Russian intervention in Syria was about firstly distracting its local population from the economic difficulties and secondly trying to lay the groundwork for cooperation between Russia and the United States.
Trump’s campaign criticisms of U.S. allies in Europe and, especially, the NATO alliance got a lot of attention. Trump repeatedly said the U.S. shouldn’t subsidize the defense of these European countries, most of whom don’t meet NATO’s required defense-spending minimum of 2 percent of GDP. On this point, Trump’s stated policies line up exactly with Obama’s, who in recent months has pushed for the same thing. The U.S. won’t let Russia expand; it sees that Russia is weak and aims to keep it this way. But the U.S. also doesn’t want to be the sole country responsible for checking Russian ambitions. That means making sure Eastern European countries are capable of defending themselves and resisting Russian advances.
Trump’s election doesn’t change Russia’s economic weakness or the U.S.’ strategic need to ensure Russia is kept in its place. Perhaps the relationship will become slightly more cordial on the surface, and perhaps the two sides will cooperate more in Syria, but Trump cannot abandon U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, just like Putin cannot invade Eastern Europe with his limited military forces. This is at present a standoff.
Our forecast states: “[China will be] characterized by a declining economy and a struggle to unify the country, [which] will lead to China weakening and a vacuum emerging in East Asia. That vacuum will be filled by Japan. … Japan remains an enormous economy and a substantial military force, with the world’s seventh largest defense budget totaling only 1 percent of GDP, which could be readily expanded. The country has maintained a substantial military capability for years. … We do forecast that Japan [will be] the leading East Asian power, albeit an extraordinarily reluctant one.”
Like Russia, China faces serious internal issues. Its economy began to sputter in the last few years, and the world has now come to terms with the fact that China’s role as the engine of the global economy has come to an end. In response, President Xi Jinping has emerged as a dictator, and most of his energy this year was spent solidifying his role ahead of next year’s 19th Party Congress. Our long-term forecast is that China’s economic problems are a harbinger of a future in which China either becomes a much more insular state ruled by an authoritarian government in Beijing, or fractures into different regions. In the meantime, China will appear to look tough in the South and East China seas to keep its domestic population distracted from the economic pain that is coming.
Trump not only has been tough on the U.S.’ European allies. He also singled out Japan as a U.S. ally that needs to play a bigger role in defending its own interests rather than relying on the U.S. Trump made headlines for suggesting that Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, but this obscured the more important point: the underlying consistency between Obama’s and Trump’s insistence that countries provide for their own security needs.
In the long term, we do not believe China will achieve regional dominance, but in the short term, China is becoming increasingly aggressive, and North Korea is testing nuclear devices and rockets at an accelerated rated. Japan doesn’t want to militarize, but these developments already are pushing the country to spend more money on its military regardless of Trump’s comments. Constitutional reforms were passed this year that removed some legal constraints imposed on the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and allow Japan to defend not just itself, but its allies and interests. Although these reforms were passed over the objections of significant parts of the Japanese population, Japan appears to be preparing to take on a greater leadership role in the region.
Therefore, our forecast appears to be on track. China’s economy is struggling, and Xi is becoming a dictator. The U.S. is pushing Japan to take a more active role in managing the security of the region. Now a new U.S. president comes along who has been publicly insistent that Japan play an even bigger role. The basic building blocks of our forecast – of a reluctant Japan slowly assuming the mantle of regional power in part because the U.S. wants a strong Japan to help balance forces in the region – are beginning to manifest, and Trump happens to be one indicator.
As for the potential for a trade war with China, the U.S. and China already have accused each other of various violations in the World Trade Organization, and both have raised penalty tariffs on goods from the other in recent months. Trump has talked a big game on trade with China, but the U.S. Congress ultimately holds the constitutional power to erect taxes and tariffs – although it has passed laws that give the president the power to levy tariffs in some situations. Limiting these powers for Trump may require new legislation, but plenty of Republicans in Congress will not support raising punitive trade barriers. Here, domestic politics will shape heavily Trump’s ability to act.
Obama said he would end America’s wars, shut down Guantanamo Bay, rebuild the U.S. alliance structure and reach out to the Muslim world. Reflecting back on his success rate should be sobering for those thinking about what Trump will be able to achieve. When reflecting on what a Trump presidency will look like and comparing it to our 2040 forecast, we are beginning to see our forecast take shape. We could have never predicted that Trump would be the one to rise, but the forces that led to his election and the constraints that will shape his administration’s behavior are all in our 2040 forecast and remain on track.