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Eurasia Group Update – What Might Go Wrong

Posted by hkarner - 25. Juli 2017

Thanks to P.B.

Ian Bremmer, Eurasia Group, 24/7

back in january, our top risk for the year was „independent america,“ the idea that trump’s “america first” would cause significant geopolitical knock-on effects. it was the first time we had the world’s only superpower as a top risk, never mind leading the list. six months in, growing uncertainties around the trump administration are driving this point home. so to start this week, let’s look at how things might truly derail. then the latest developments in the us-russia relationship. and turkey’s troubles, a year after the failed coup.

what might go wrong

watching the drama in the united states unfold has made for extraordinary political theater. it’s scorched earth strategy for both sides: the trump administration, congressional republicans, and fox news & alt-right media versus democrats, „mainstream media,“ and an ever-expanding robert mueller investigation.

it’s plausible that the sturm und drang continues while the system mostly minds its own business. the united states heads into midterm and then presidential elections, very little gets done while the circus plays out in the media, and—eventually—a level of normalcy and (at least somewhat) more civil discourse returns to washington. but the trajectory from the past six months is starting to suggest otherwise: that the pressure around president trump and family is tightening; trump’s willingness to act in extraordinary and unprecedented ways is increasing. both of these trends interact in an escalatory and combustible cycle. and precisely because so much of what’s unprecedented and incendiary from and around the trump administration has to do with informal norms of conduct that trump doesn’t accept (on civil discourse, conflicts of interest, national security, etc..) rather than explicit laws being broken that require formal recourse, there’s reason to expect this will continue.

for a moment, let’s think about the ways this might play out badly. i see three fat tail negative risks emerging.

1) constitutional crisis. president trump and special counsel robert mueller are on a path of direct confrontation; essentially a game of chicken. mueller, like former independent prosecutor ken starr during the clinton investigation, believes he’s charged with following the investigation of russian meddling into the us election wherever it leads. that means not just investigating the specific charges of whether trump personally engaged with kremlin officials to help undermine hillary clinton during the presidential election (or charged his family or campaign to do the same), but also to look into any financial or other connections that trump, family or associates had with russian government and oligarchs/key conduits that support a relationship that would facilitate broader collusion. which explains why dozens of top flight attorneys with finance and corruption expertise have been hired full time to support the investigation.

trump’s made clear that he considers the present direction of the mueller investigation out of bounds. remember, former fbi director james comey said three times he wasn’t investigating trump; mueller looking into whether or not trump „personally engaged with kremlin officials“ is already mission creep from trump’s perspective. there’s unlikely to be evidence of direct collusion between trump and the kremlin around the election, and if such evidence exists for trump’s family members (arising from the donald trump jr. and jared kushner meeting with kremlin-connected russians offering information on hillary, for example), trump believes he’s suitably distanced from it himself, and can pardon his family members. but an investigation that looks into trump’s taxes and uncovers his historic financial dealings with russians—including close kremlin associates—is a „witch hunt“ that would need to be prevented.

all of which puts trump on a path to removing deputy attorney general rod rosenstein and associate attorney general rachel brand (since attorney general jeff sessions recused himself from involvement in the investigation) and replacing them with someone to fire mueller and end/limit the investigation. trump could possibly be on a path to impeachment at that point—quietly, many republican congressmen and senators have said mueller’s removal would be unacceptable to them. but if trump remains overwhelmingly popular as the flag bearer for republicans (as he has, consistently, since he was elected—to date, none of the scandals have put a dent in his base), it’s as easy to imagine they get in line with trump and the „witch hunt“ mantra.

alternatively, mueller could continue with his investigation and trump could pardon himself against it; with the whole thing ultimately tested by a ruling of the supreme court. could the court vote on partisan lines on such an unprecedented case? you’d like to think jurisprudence wins and you get a 9-0 vote whatever the decision… but of course that’s exactly what didn’t happen after the bush-gore election, when the supreme court voted on partisan lines. on a self-pardoning case, such a supreme court vote would have much further-reaching implications.

the unprecedented nature of the conflict would be accompanied by massive leaks to the media from those with information around the investigations. the legitimacy of a presidency which proved itself above the law would erode the checks and balances of the american political system, undermining the united states as a country where an independent judiciary is the ultimate arbiter. it’s implausible to see the united states turning into a russia-style authoritarian government, but such a scenario could lead into a more illiberal democracy where an unimpeachable president deemed above the law undermines the social contract. think poland, but on a much larger scale.

2) shock/response. perhaps the most important feature of the trump administration in its first six months is that there’s yet to be a crisis of any significance on their watch. indeed, virtually all of the major fights—both domestic (health care, immigration ban, the russia investigation) and international (north korea, saudi/uae/egypt vs. qatar)—have been of or at least partially of their own doing. but what happens in response to a sudden bolt-from-the-blue crisis? say a major terrorist attack against american territory or assets abroad; a cyberattack with significant economic or human consequences; or a market crash?

the american system has limited political risk because it’s exceptionally hard to move legislation or even push executive authority without significant pushback from the judiciary. but the exceptions are in times of crisis. after 9/11, president bush put a series of policies in place that expanded a surveillance state and other measures in the name of counterterrorism that were against the law and, in some cases, unconstitutional. after the 2008 financial crisis, presidents bush and obama moved a do-very-little congress to approve bailouts of over a trillion dollars with virtually no details around execution; an extraordinary action in american context.

those are interesting precedents to think about in the context of how a vastly more uninhibited and besieged trump administration might choose to react to a crisis, where constraints on governance were suddenly weakened. following initial months of no major legislation and at best limited regulatory rollback, „patriotic measures“ to advance a “make america great again” agenda would suddenly be on the table and politically extremely attractive. a market crash could facilitate interventions into the us market unseen since the great depression—some positive (major infrastructure spending, corporate tax reduction), some negative (protectionism, price fixing/anti-competition measures), with winners and losers determined much more clearly by who is aligned to the government (for example, the „amazon washington post“ would be particularly vulnerable in that environment).

a major terrorist attack could have similarly outsized implications. after 9/11, the united states rallied together around president bush (whose approval hit some 92% in the months after the attacks). while it led to ill-fated wars in iraq and afghanistan, bush also called on all americans to support their muslim fellow citizens, and a spike in hate crimes and violence was short lived. for a trump administration that’s focused on radical islamic terror and pushed judeo-christian nationalism, family, and civilization as a major theme both at home and abroad, the response to a major terrorist attack would be the opposite of the bush administration, dramatically expanding divisions within the country, leading to major social dissent, and permanent changes in national security and immigration policy.

a major cyberattack would have elements of both of these issues: tightening on voter registration to ensure sanctity of data and information would be one politically expedient way to respond. so too efforts to rein in anonymity on social media and the internet more broadly, creating a more fragmented internet more akin to what china (and increasingly india) are doing. making the central government more indispensable to an expanded military industrial technological complex. and allowing for the creation of government-driven incentives and inducements for citizens to act in a manner aligned with national security, broadly defined. in each of these cases, it’s unlikely that a divided congress would suddenly cede great powers to the president; rather, an unprecedentedly transactional and self-focused executive, unbounded as a consequence of sudden crisis, is likely to attempt to seize those powers in order to shape a government agenda in dangerous and legally challenging ways.

3) major military conflict. and then there’s the unthinkable. tensions are growing in a number of arenas where direct military confrontation with the united states looms as a possibility. north korea being the most plausible in terms of an intentional, calculated policy; but also significant escalation leading to unintended conflict is conceivable with iran and even russia.

on north korea, president trump has drawn a red line at the ability of kim jong-un to strike the continental united states with a nuclear tipped missile. given present research and testing capabilities, they’d reach that goal over the course of the trump administration. here, much depends on who’s advising the president. secretary of defense jim mattis has made clear that the military option would be a disaster and is to be avoided at all costs. while in private conversation, national security advisor h.r. mcmaster said he thinks direct us military strikes to prevent the north koreans from posing an unacceptable threat to the united states is likely. is that a bluff? possibly. but it’s important to note that the constraints on trump’s national security decision making largely come from mattis and the generals advising the president, certainly not from trump himself, nor many of his inner circle of white house advisers. which means if foreign policy/national security establishment go or are sidelined—plausible in the present environment and over the course of the coming years—the prospects of direct and very risky unilateral military action go up.

that’s the case in the middle east, where president trump’s firm alignment against iran (moderated by the approach of mattis and secretary of state rex tillerson) has led trump to another ultimatum in the past days: release all americans presently being held by iran (one of whom, robert levinson, has been in iranian custody for 10 years now) or face the consequences. the potential for the “or else” to include military bluster that could create a us vs. iran showdown like that between russian president vladimir putin and turkish president recep tayyip erdogan after turkey shot down a russian plane becomes thinkable in that scenario. and, again, much more likely to escalate if the present constellation of trump advisors are no longer present or have been marginalized.

the russia scenario is the most concerning, if the least likely. where the investigation proceeds and, either through due process or leaks, shows trump and/or family as supporting russia against us national security interests because of financial or other kompromat. cover effectively blown, trump takes a hard-line policy against the kremlin. putin, unrestrained by political opponents, norms, or rule of law, responds in kind to a trump that had been considered benign. what starts as disinformation and cyberattacks escalates, most likely through cyber, into the most dangerous confrontation since the cuban missile crisis.

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it’s hard to put percentages on any of these possibilities. but while they were unthinkable under previous administrations, we’re now at a point where “independent america” is driving the potential for significant macro geopolitical risk. accordingly, it’s important to think through the how’s, why’s, and when’s. suspect i’ll be writing more about this in coming months.

us – russia

setting aside prospects of the worst, there’s plenty happening around the us-russia relationship right now. it’s an ever greater dissonance between highest level friendliness; but tensions grow under the surface.

the kremlin gave the trump administration an ultimatum on its two us compounds confiscated by the obama administration (after being found to engage in illegal surveillance in the united states—a fair point, though the sort of thing long known about and tolerated by both sides in both countries..)—or else russia would take us properties and kick out diplomats. in return, white house national security senior aide seb gorka said trump was considering taking the russians up on the offer, to improve prospects for joint relations. white house advisors tell me president trump sees it as a mistake by obama and an easy give.

then an announcement by the trump administration that the united states would no longer provide weapons to syrian rebels; a demand of the russian government as they’ve been fighting against an assad regime that the russian (and iranian) government supports. this was apparently agreed together with the two presidents and secretary of state tillerson and russian foreign minister sergey lavrov; it’s the final key admission from the us that assad will control rump syria and hold the key cards in any eventual political settlement. the united states and russia are more likely to maintain the reestablished deconfliction between the two sides over syria as a consequence. though given the continued existence and fighting capabilities, however diminished, of the syrian rebels, as well as us support for the syrian kurds (in this case, strongly against the demands of turkey), it’s hard to see cooperation holding for long.

but meanwhile, as we’ve written, the us sanctions bill against the russians, held up by the house of representatives on ostensibly procedural grounds (but actually because of pushback from the white house and industry players), is now moving forward this week and will pass easily. trump will sign it, as there’s a veto proof majority in place to ensure it goes forward in any case. tying trump’s hands on working with the kremlin and further irritating the russian president, who brought up the issue in that second „private“ discussion at the g-20 dinner.

and then there’s the cyber conflict, which continues to grow. in the past weeks there have been a number of attempts on us and european critical infrastructure, including against nuclear facilities, that appear to have been orchestrated at the behest of the russian government. essentially searching out weaknesses that would allow russia a greater range of offensive measures to be taken against the united states and allies should conflict between the countries intensify. to be clear, the united states has also taken a range of such measures against critical russian systems following the russian interference in the 2016 election. the time lag in being able to link an attack to an identified antagonist as well as the limited capabilities for defense or effective countermeasures makes this a particularly challenging area for the americans to develop policy. if there’s a sudden sea change in the us-russia relationship, this is where you should expect it.

turkey

a year after the failed coup in turkey, president erdogan has maintained a state of emergency in his country. some 50,000 turks have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism or coordination with the coup plotters (including 170 generals, 7,000 colonels, and 2,500 judges); nearly 200,000 have been removed from state institutions—from military and police to the judiciary and school systems. the media, once reasonably robust and with a wide variety of independent channels, is now mostly subservient to the state. the turkish military, long split between pro-nato and pro-eurasian (read: russia) wings, is now solidly controlled by the latter camp. while erdogan has set up his own secret police, intelligence and security arm, a private company called sadat (that was initially set up to support erdogan’s interests in the region, but following the coup has taken up a primarily domestic mandate).

the turkey-nato relationship has been badly, and perhaps irreparably, damaged as a consequence. some two dozen turkish generals have been provided asylum by the united states government in virginia, with recognition that they’d face jail without prospects of a fair trial back in turkey. the european union, with strong support of germany, has given asylum to an even larger number in brussels. that’s incensed erdogan, who sees the response as a direct national security threat. that together with the utility of a strong anti-western nationalism for his own political purposes has led to growing tensions within the alliance, most recently with the turkish government disclosing the location of 10 us military posts of operation in syria, following their staunch opposition to the united states arming syrian kurds—considered a terrorist operation by erdogan and the turkish army. there’s potential for an existential crisis here—richard haass, president of the council on foreign relations, told me last week he no longer viewed turkey as a partner of nato, and that it was hard to imagine nato allies coming to turkey’s defense if they were to call for collective security under article 5 of the treaty.

going forward, that means a closer relationship for turkey with russia, qatar and potentially iran, even if the nato relationship remains formalized and accordingly more important. but it’s interesting to note that during the coup, some 150 qatari forces came to ankara to protect erdogan and his family (while the nato base at incirlik had its electricity cut off and was nominally secured/blockaded). the turks reciprocated after saudi arabia led a blockade of qatar last month; turkey immediately sent about an additional 100 troops to the gulf. apparently there’s a significant amount of erdogan and family wealth being held in qatar (malaysia is the other major off shore capital destination).

the turkish „deep state“ has certainly been critically weakened by erdogan, and there’s no near-term threat of more military action against the democratically elected government. but other civil institutions have been strongly diminished, perhaps most worryingly the educational system, which has been set back generations through the present purges and the new environment for teaching young turks.

of all the setbacks experienced by the liberal democratic model since francis fukuyama’s „the end of history?“ turkey is the most dramatic case. we’ll see more political stability in turkey in the run up to next fall’s presidential elections. but it’s now essentially a soft authoritarian state.

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