Trump’s Dillemna

 

Now that Donald Trump has won the election for President, we would assume he has made it into that power base which many of us intuitively see as the ruling class in the United States. This “Elite” or “Establishment” is an informal group consisting of three constituent components: mass media (printing companies, Hollywood, television conglomerates, emerging social media companies etc.), academia (universities, the scientific community, etc.), and entrenched government employees. They are the ones who were certain that Hillary Clinton would be our President in 2017, and they were all thoroughly shocked when Trump won (in some cases to tears and visible denial on the air). This large group still, I believe, does not want to cooperate with the President-elect. It remains in a forced détente, rather than in firm alliance, with him. Trump, therefore, risks entering the Presidency with the entire deck stacked against him.

 

The solution is threefold: firstly recognizing his weak position, secondly finding ways to work with the Establishment, and thirdly finding ways to erode their entrenched position quickly and decisively. This last piece is the hardest, and is the one I’d like to focus on here. The entrenched government employees have every means of defending themselves, and Trump can deal with them by cutting deals. His administration needs to get creative when dealing with the mass media and academia, however.

 

Luckily, a couple of emerging trends will facilitate this strategy. Online media’s growth will serve him well against the mass media, groups for example any nascent YouTube alternatives aiding in this endeavor. He needs to hedge against the big social media companies like Google, Facebook, or Twitter. These companies consistently express a West Coast anti-Republican bias in their filtering of search results, and it is only in spite of this they can serve as valuable allies against the traditional media outlets like CNN and even Fox. He still needs to defend himself even against these groups.

 

In dealing with academia, Trump needs to be a vocal proponent of shifting our country to online college, promoting it as a means to lower student debt and enable a more mobile lifestyle. He needs to propose government funding for online education, as well as promotion of trade schools and other institutions with specialized education programs.

 

The combination of such tactics skillfully done would give Trump the room to get through more change than he might be otherwise able to. And Trump can handle the art of the deal with no problem, something on which I have no doubts. The issue is securing the leverage in his negotiations, pulling on those few strings which he can to influence the Establishment surrounding and constraining him.

On Turkey’s Failed Coup

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has repeatedly and with different rationales been prodding the Turkish government to send its highly capable military into Iraq, and now Syria. The ISIS threat is one the United States and its western allies want decisively dealt with. But the US also wants to avoid at all costs a repeat of the Iraqi quagmire. The only state with a military locally able to do the groundwork is Turkey, which itself it trying to avoid this invasion at all costs .

In between now and then, the Turkish government, led by long time Prime Minister Erdogan, has gone to extreme measures to avoid US pressure. This includes the implicitly known yet publicly denied fact that Turkey has been turning a blind eye to ISIS smuggling oil and foreign fighters through their territory; it’s not a direct alliance, as rather a desire for neutrality. The Turkish government will even put up with repeated ISIS massacres of its citizens to avoid this. The reason they put up with ISIS is due to the fact that the predominantly Sunni Arab group is holding Kurdish separatists in both Iraq and Syria in check, preventing separatist sentiment from spilling north into Turkey and reigniting the old Kurdish insurrection from the Cold War. Basically, ISIS is a source of constant fear and loss of life, while Kurdish separatism threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity. One may be chronic and barbarous, but the other is perceived as potentially existential for the state of Turkey.

Erdogan has publicly apologized to Russia over shooting down their fighter jet in November; as well, the mending of relations with Israel in the aftermath of the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident has begun. While the US likely facilitated the Israel negotiations, the timing of the Russia apology was to show that Turkey won’t be pushed into someone else’s foreign policy designs. The Prime Minister was, however, showing signs of capitulating to a change in his foreign policy. As a result, the military, or at least a key faction of it, was now willing to try to overthrow the government to avoid getting thrown into, and subsequently bogged down in, a war they didn’t want to fight. Many people have been forecasting a Turkish invasion of northern Syria for over a year. This coup might have been the final attempt at avoiding the pressure, and we may now very well see Turkey pushed into the ISIS war. Or this is just another false harbinger of this speculated invasion.

This says a lot about the nature of coups, and more broadly any other government ousters. And I’m going to include the Brazilian ouster of President Rousseff, as well as the popular uprising in Ukraine against President Yakunovich, to make the following point: whether the military engaged in the ouster or not, a country’s geopolitical orientation is an important factor to watch closely when something like this happens.

Turkey is, relative to its region, a power on par with Brazil in terms of influence; this relationship to the region is the measurement I use in a lot of these types of analyses because power is relative, and only as such can it be analyzed effectively. Both Turkey and Brazil are countries in positions of dominance which have chosen to keep their interference with their neighbors to a minimum. Both countries faced situations where a significantly strong part of the domestic power structures (the masses in Brazil, the military in Turkey) were unhappy with the direction the country’s relationship with the rest of the world was heading, so they took it upon themselves to pursue an ousting of the current government outside of the normal term-limits or other schedule. In Turkey, as stated, the military does not want to be forced into an invasion of Syria and Iraq. Brazil, meanwhile, didn’t want the loss of business confidence and investment into the country, particularly during economic slowdown, resultant from the Petrobras scandal. As regional centers of gravity, no outside states are exerting decisive influence on where the pieces fall when the ouster is concluded.

This is very different in the case of a state like Ukraine, located between two centers of gravity: the EU and Russia. The ouster of Yakunovich was sparked by the rejection of a EU Association Agreement, a symbolic gesture which symbolized to the masses a rejection of the EU in favor of Russia. Eventually, a movement germinated which forced Yakunovich to move to Russia, shortly followed by a new EU-leaning government cracking down on Russian culture and language; this gave Russia an excuse for its invasion of Crimea and Donbass.

In two more examples (Egypt and Thailand), both countries sat in the US sphere of influence, so the progression of events had this key element. The first coup in recent memory in Egypt was the 2011 one against Mubarak; the military used the media spectacle of a popular uprising to conceal their ouster of the president. What we remember seeing on the news was in fact facilitated by security forces moving out of the way and not cracking down like they normally would. All of this was followed by a transitional military regime which facilitated elections which resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi. The US and Egyptian military elite both agreed tacitly that he was no good for their interests, so in 2013 he was forcibly removed.

The Thai case from 2014 featured the latest in the long purging of the political machine of Thai populist and businessman, Thaksin Shinawatra. His challenge to the decades-old established elite of the military and monarchy worried the US about its position in the region; this meant that the US acquiesced to whatever maneuvers the military saw fit to maintain stability, other than some light scolding (something the US does in every case to save face as the harbinger of democracy).

And while Turkey is often a prominent US ally, it is not at risk of being pulled in an anti-American direction; however, Turkey has, since the Cold War ended, been more of a neutral state balancing between the US-led order and others so as to ensure its freedom of movement (a strategy elaborated on above). Egypt was opening up to a group whose members and supporters openly reject the US-oriented status-quo. And a Thai businessman of Chinese-Thai ancestry whose main support came from the northern China-facing part of the country was a risk when China was growing in assertiveness and economic stature in Southeast Asia.

The fundamental point of all this is that the domestic considerations of a country are kept fluid by the powerful external forces pulling like the tide of the moon from outside. When a country is pulled in two directions rapidly, like in Ukraine, civil war erupts and enables invasion by one of the two sides. Regional preeminence changes the calculations, as the country itself dictates its own national policies, and any ouster is based on domestic calculations above all else. And if a country, like Egypt or Thailand, is firmly in the global power’s sphere of influence, any crisis pulling them away from this order will be put down, with tacit approval from the US.

A Reflection on The Accidental Superpower and the Balance of Transport

The “balance of transport” is the name for a phenomenon utilized heavily in the analysis of geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor, but given this name by author Peter Zeihan in his book, The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and The Coming Global Disorder. While it is not the key argument of his book, it is one of the most interesting. Basically, it is the idea that ease of movement of people and goods within a country’s borders is a prerequisite to success, as it promotes internal development, trade, and consequential cohesion of society; this commonality of interests between individuals drives the emergence of a unified political and cultural identity, often facilitating the success of the culture.

Later on in the book, he often references, albeit not necessarily by name, this concept. He focuses on how navigable rivers provide a natural transportation corridor, complete with currents for propulsion and a cost-effectiveness far exceeding any land or air-based transport. This is one of the key reasons for the emergence of the European powers as the dominant players in the world, along with the introduction of deep-water navigation in Portugal. The arable land on the riverbanks also provided ample farmland to establish population centers along these transport corridors.

This all feeds into the central concept of the previous reflection, Dr. Khanna’s Connectography. He focuses on the man-made connections developing around the world, while Zeihan focuses more on the natural corridors. For the construction of artificial connections, a combination of four factors is required: know-how, financing, labor, and resources. Overlaying arable land with a navigable river gives a society potential access to three out of the four, while trade allows the buying of the resources. There is a reason Europe still excels in development of infrastructure; this is also the reason such societies had an inclination to expand elsewhere looking for a secure supply of resources.

The modern connection story is focused often on areas nowhere near as capital-intensive as Europe. The countries of developing world can educate their populations, put their people to work, and mine their interiors for resources. But the lack of financing inhibits development. This leaves the opening often filled by the Chinese, Russians, the IMF, or other states and institutions. Currently, the big deficiency in certain countries is financing, despite an overall abundance.

Another very relevant point Zeihan makes in his book is about the relationship between demographics and finance, namely that as societies like Japan or Italy reach the point where their populations retire en masse, all of their investments are liquidated and the system is awash in capital. Germany’s imperative to serve as the EU’s key source of funds for Europe’s indebted southern states was softened by this factor. Japan in the 1980s and 1990s hit this point, as development aid was seemingly limitless from the then second largest economy.

The result is that a country with an aging population probably will be strapped for the necessary funds to construct any new megaprojects of infrastructure, domestically and certainly abroad. The next decade or two will have less infrastructure built by China and Germany and more built by the new rising powers like Turkey, Sweden, Brazil, Indonesia, and others whose demographics are favorable for capital generation.

A Reflection on Clash of Civilizations and Infrastructural Links To Kin

Samuel Huntington, in his famous Clash of Civilizations, postulates an early 21st century where civilizational kin states coalesce around great power “core states” and behave as semi-cohesive units, often engaged in conflictual relationships with other such units  (this map shows his basic framework). Today I juxtapose this with the future postulated by Parag Khanna, again in Connectography, the future seems to hold a North American Union, a modified European Union, a South American Union, Arabian Peninsular Union, African Union, South Asian Union, and East Asian Union, as infrastructure links up all of humanity into such clusters anchored by numerous 25 megacities. Both paradigms end up missing key components. Huntington, as with many analysts, saw some of Khanna’s connectivity but disregarded others, as he sought to explain and delineate the boundaries of the new civilizational blocs. Khanna sees all these connections as universally beneficial, but he doesn’t explore in depth how age-old identity politics and personal biases might arise to take into account and make sense of the new world being constructed; this wasn’t his intended focus, but it is indeed interesting to compare and contrast the two paradigms for some insight into this.

Khanna doesn’t muse much about the political ramifications of such infrastructural expansion, basically how societies might respond to their reduced isolation. Balochs in southern Pakistan view a Chinese-built port as an imperialist threat. Jihadists might view Western trading with the Islamic world as a cultural assault. American workers see opening of trade with China, Southeast Asia, or Mexico as economically crippling them, despite it bridging overall societies. As with any economic phenomenon, infrastructural linking will translate into political actions, some of which translate further into the military or security realm. And pre-existing ideologies, or new ones where a vacuum exists, will receive new life as concerns over economic disruption emerge and legitimacy for action is required. This allows a convergence with Huntington’s paradigm. His civilizations, or a modification on them, could arise around the 25 megacity clusters he envisions as competing in this new world. The Tokyo-Osaka megacity doesn’t bring together separate regional identities, but rather further coheres an already highly coherent culture and state; Japan even corresponds to one of Huntington’s civilizations.

Elsewhere, megacities spring up within countries, and inevitably compete within the national government. The increasing centralization of the CCP in China means that Beijing, and by extension the collective Bohai Rim megacity, is making decisions for Chongqing-Chengdu, the Pearl River Delta, and Shanghai-Nanjing. As Hong Kong’s autonomy decreases and Chongqing-Chengdu has its elites purged (one of the first, Bo Xilai, was quite powerful in this region), Shanghai is given preferential treatment as a connecting point to the outside world. Beijing and the rest of the Bohai Rim megacity risk a tense struggle with the others as they undergo this consolidation process, all while the Belt-Road Initiative will actually end up empowering the Pearl River and Chongqing-Chengdu, as they become rising hubs of globalization. Beijing’s solution has been to invoke Chinese civilizational unity, a political measure to quell the rivalries between megacities. This is a dangerous game, as the rise of megacities runs directly counter to Beijing’s centralization efforts, despite their imperative nature for the Chinese state’s maintenance. The interplay between the civilizational narrative and the megacity competition pulling China in multiple directions will define the state’s agenda in the coming years.

In Khanna’s earlier work, he lists the US, China, and EU as the superpowers whose own internal shifts will drive the global competition for the “Second World” countries, essentially the middle powers in today’s world. The Rhine-Ruhr megacity drives the economic dynamo of the EU; this is happening as London seeks to pull away, Greater Istanbul begins its inevitable rise, and Moscow bottoms out. Political response in the Rhine-Ruhr to the EU’s failing and incoherence have generated the Euroskeptic impulse to pull away from the very institution of which it is the core of. This contradiction has yet to manifest in its complete mature form. It creates within the core megacity of the EU a status-quo vs revisionism dynamic. The status-quo faction has the emergent realities of connectivity on its side, politics therefore stemming from emergent economic reality. But the Rhine-Ruhr megacity will indeed face a threat from the Euroskeptic revisionists, a threat to which it must politically respond. One potential response might be modifying the EU, shredding certain disadvantageous parts of the organization while letting the corresponding political fervor serve as a distraction from other integrative policies designed to benefit the German state enveloping this megacity. It doesn’t make sense for Europe to simply tear itself apart, but rather it will have to acknowledge and balance the interests of the current Euroskeptic populism.

This congeals with the civilizational paradigm as similar paradigm shifts play out between the US government in the “Bos-Wash” megacity, against and in cooperation with LA/San Francisco and rising Dallas-Ft. Worth. Western supremacism is downplayed and out of style nowadays in both regions, but it will continue erupting forward as the megacities seek to assert themselves in the connective paradigm. The civilizational context will serve as the ideology of masses angry at a changing world. Ironically, we see a situation where the national governments, inversely of China and Japan, seek to downplay Huntington’s paradigm; the natural political impulse stemming from the economic reality is fought against in the US. As the three megacities rise, however, much of the US remains left behind, only to fester in an anti-globalization ideology. The US government will likely continue moving forward with globalization, while much of the country wants to move in the opposite direction. An appeal to the tenets of the anti-globalism movement would indeed make sense, especially as a North American Union was emerging. The feeling of a rise mixing with the frustration with globalization could create an ideology suggesting a focus on North America and a deliberate hostility toward globalization elsewhere. Mexico would complete its transition from being “torn” between Latin America and the West, and Anglo-America would break away from Europe at the civilizational level, all as the NAU coalesces. At the same time, the US would embrace the call of anti-globalization elsewhere, supporting ethno-nationalism moving counter to globalization. Euroskepticism and anti-”Sino-imperialist” rhetoric would suit the US’ ideological pressures while remaining consistent with the US’ typical historic imperative of denying Eurasian regional powers the freedom to cohere into potential rival superpowers, as seen in Germany or China.

This means a spike in zeal to certain regionalist tendencies. The result will be that some political borders will shift as the US supports certain separatist movements with the blessing of international recognition. At the same time, some parts of the world, like the peripheral islands of Indonesia, will be home to anti-globalist sentiment yet have no fuel driving them forward; other areas, namely those home to megacities seeing their fates tied more to the global system rather than to the national government, will see a push toward separatism, lobbying for the localization of governance and in some cases pushing for full divorce with the capital. All of this is the natural emergence of politics from the new economic realities being constructed. New boundaries, however, will give way at the end of this tumultuous period to a coalescing around whatever the dominant nodes in the system are. That is, the 25 megacities will essentially begin pulling surrounding territory toward them, after having generated shifts which pulverized the old order. While this is all happening, trade continues flowing over the newly constructed corridors. And the North American Union will keep its eyes on the cohering of Eurasia. The continuing of geopolitics does not halt the economic realities. Rather, the new global infrastructure will not stop creating new political realities. In some places, clear trade routes will emerge, as parallel infrastructure pulls disparate yet adjacent populations together. People will be fairly content with the rising prosperity due to trade, which will be fairly secure compared to previous eras. By this point, the civilizational paradigm might truly be irrelevant. Ideas will move around along with people. Ideological fluidity will be great in this era. Politics, of course, will still flow from economics, but in this era, peace and diversity of ideas means a likely need for inclusivity along these routes. Secularism will proliferate, but small variations in conditions along the trade routes will mean a subtle divergence in realities. One could expect secular offshoots of earlier belief systems. Hierarchy will still push to the surface as people’s lives diverge, some better than others.

Huntington’s initial work was often dismissed as pessimist, racist, and too determinist. It hasn’t served as a guide to conflict because he painted in broad strokes, much like Khanna and any other intellectual working on a global worldview. They often focus on one key aspect in framing their work, leaving others to handle other pieces. What Huntington did get right is how kinship would bind people together into groups. The relationships between those groups can manifest as the infrastructure of Connectography or the forecasted tensions of Clash of Civilizations. The lesson for analysis is to always look between paradigms and pull the best from all of them.

 

A Reflection on Connectography and Thoughts on Chinese Strategy

I feel like my first blog post here should be a reflection on someone else’s work. I’m going to do these for the first few posts so that you the reader can get a sense of my writing style and where I stand relative to other thinkers. These aren’t so much reviews as posts based on my thoughts inspired by these works.

The author of Connectography, today’s subject, is Parag Khanna, who uses traditional geopolitics a la Robert Kaplan and George Friedman (both of who I plan to cover shortly), albeit with a twist. He acknowledges that the Strait of Malacca or Gibraltar or Hormuz can funnel trade down certain corridors. Mountains, deserts, tundra, and thick jungles incentivize states to go around or through passes. And navigable rivers facilitate inland economic development. But attached to all of this is a global push by China and others to further enable trade through the construction of new economic corridors through the mountain passes and across the deserts.

Khanna also has a series of absolutely wonderful maps on inserts around the center of the book, a neat tactic to have colored intricate detailed maps while still reserving space throughout and not breaking the flow of his narrative with graphs and pictures.

The most interesting assertion to me in this book was the one of China’s new grand strategy: building infrastructure to ensure access to resources for its economy. This is something examined elsewhere too, and the piece I always see missing is simple: Why is this essential to China’s national survival? And the answer I realized while reading this is that the CCP’s legitimacy, and therefore Chinese internal stability, rests not only on the security forces but also on the continuation of the “jobs-first” prioritization of the economy of post-Deng China. When Maoism was discredited in the transition out of the Cold War order, Chinese economic growth and increasing prosperity legitimized the regime. In order to grow fast, it offered its cheap labor to the world and became the world’s factory. For this, it needed resources. It still needs resources as it tries to transition up the value-chain, as well as its own “factory countries” to provide the same service China once did to the West. Investment in infrastructure in these “mini-Chinas” gives Kenya, Myanmar, and others the base infrastructure to build up their manufacturing economies. Other investments and construction projects facilitate the inputs into China it needs for growth in the technological sectors.

The part Khanna seems to understand, through acknowledgements later in the book, is that countries like Zambia and Myanmar could kick the Chinese out if they so chose for political reasons. China doesn’t have an empire. It has no staying power (other than maybe in North Korea).Because of how this economic linkage buttresses China’s own domestic stability, even Khanna must ask: where’s the true leverage in this relationship? As China builds bridges and railroads, it links up with Kazakhstan, Russia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Kenya, and a host of other countries on which its domestic stability now depends. Instead of pulling these countries into a nascent Chinese sphere of influence, the People’s Republic is actually sending out leashes on which these other countries can pull on China if they so chose.

China is trying to now project very limited force along these new corridors, while simultaneously engaging in a brutal purge legitimized as an “anti-corruption campaign” so as to hold the country together; if someone sees a relationship with Pakistan or Russia as more beneficial than that with Beijing, theoretically the Communist Party has very limited options. Those few options include the rapidly modernizing security forces and the increasing expeditionary capability the PRC is developing – not for war with the US but for a much deeper imperative.