Geopolitical recession, humanitarian intervention, North Korea, Trump’s tweets
This week, we find ourselves in the teeth of the geopolitical recession, an intervention is threatened in Gambia and North Korea finally makes it into our Top Risks (congrats!).
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Here we go.
The Noise This Week
One of the most important traditions here at Eurasia Group is the annual release of our Top Risks report, an assessment of the biggest political risks facing the world in the year ahead. This year, the timing of the report coincides with a period of global anxiety as the world awaits the consequences of some of 2016’s big moves, Trump’s transition to the American presidency chief among them. Our assessment: This year is different, and not just because of Trump. The sense of unease felt by most politics wonks can be explained by a structural shift in the global environment, what we’re calling a geopolitical recession. We’re seeing a period of massive political uncertainty, characterized by the breakdown of global norms and institutions, that will produce negative consequences for most actors.
This isn’t simply the result of an unpredictable U.S. president. Donald Trump can damage NATO, for instance, because years of neglect have already undermined the trans-Atlantic relationship. The Brexit vote seized upon a democracy gap in the EU that was yawning well before David Cameron stumbled into it. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies in Turkey are set against the backdrop of a region where other states are disintegrating. China’s economic engine drives the global economy, but its political power-projection is yet to catch up, in part because Beijing is focused inward. It’s too early to say how long the geopolitical recession will last, or if it will deepen into the kind of institutional destruction that characterized the onset of World War II, which by analogy was a true geopolitical depression. But one way we’ll know the geopolitical bust cycle has turned is when new sources of global leadership arise that can provide public goods like nonproliferation, poverty-lifting globalization and interconnectedness. Not only is the United States unlikely to lead the charge, but it may not be states at all that help organize the world.
Speaking of non-U.S. leadership, while it’s hard to imagine Trump’s America leading a humanitarian intervention anywhere in 2017, regional leaders in West Africa are threatening just that in Gambia. The regional bloc ECOWAS has signaled that Senegal will send troops if defeated Gambian President Yahya Jammeh doesn’t step down when his term ends in two weeks. France supports the move, but, if it comes to that, the military force will be local. Senegal has intervened in Gambia before, and ECOWAS has led interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the meantime, the malicious specters of our era are hard at work: a fake news report circulated this week that Adama Barrow, Jammeh’s rightful successor, had been assassinated (nope, he’s fine.) That’s a further public good under threat: trust in traditional sources of information.
Another one? Sure, how about nuclear nonproliferation? Entering our list of top risks this year is North Korea, which, for many years, was simply too opaque and static to jump into the top 10. It’s been clear for years that the Korean crisis would eventually come to a head, presumably either by a provocation restarting the fight or by the North simply imploding. But there wasn’t much reason to say when that would happen. Now, the combination of an increasingly credible nuclear threat to the U.S., a political collapse in South Korea and a tense U.S.-China relationship combine to make North Korea a potent risk. Oh, and Donald Trump. His tweets demanding Northern submission are probably not helping. (For the record, we at Signal see one of our main roles as reading Twitter so you don’t have to.) Nor is the fact that, five years into Kim’s rule, the leader in Pyongyang is now far more experienced at international affairs than the new U.S. president — and he probably trusts his intelligence services more. Some analysts see an opening from Kim in his New Year’s speech, but producing any kind of new understanding with North Korea will require navigating through South Korea and China’s sensitivities. 2017 is going to be a nail-biter.
Self-Promotion Interlude: Watch Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan assess the year’s Top Risks.
Ranked: Twitter Wars That Came a Little Too Close to Real Wars
A fun new feature of 2017 is that Twitter is getting a lot more dangerous. With Donald Trump leading the charge, individuals who control actual armies have started shooting from the hip on social media. We are yet to see a Twitter war devolve into a real war, but at the rate we’re going, it won’t be long. Here are five instances where politicians ratcheted up global tensions in 140 characters or less.
5. Iran menaces Obama. In 2015, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatalloh Ali Khamenei, tweeted an image of a man resembling Barack Obama holding a gun to his head: “We welcome no war, nor do we initiate any war, but…” World leaders should never be allowed to trail off menacingly. This tweet was clearly highly calculated — someone took the time to make a graphic for it — which in the charged context lessens the danger of overreaction. But a more thin-skinned opponent than Obama might react poorly to a similar message in 2017.
4. Greece snaps at Turkey. Amid the diplomatic uproar after Turkey shot down a Russian plane flying missions in Syria, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras — or someone with access to his Twitter account — decided to escalate matters further. In a series of soon-to-be-deleted tweets, Tspiras alluded to shooting down Turkish planes that violated Greek airspace: “Fortunately our pilots are not as mercurial as yours.” The Turkish leader, apparently having enough on his hands with the Russians, all but rolled his eyes and urged a focus on the positive agenda. The path from tweet to war is a long one in this case, but when your neighbor is actively shooting down airplanes, it might be wise not to stick up your hand and say, “Me, too!”
3. Turkey-Iraq erupts. Tensions spiked last fall when Baghdad started to vigorously protest the presence of uninvited Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in characteristically undiplomatic style, chose to respond by insulting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, insisting that the Iraqi is “not on my level.” Abadi responded on Twitter: “we sure are not your equal, because we liberate our land with men not via Skype.” That low blow referred to the video call Erdogan made at the height of the coup attempt to rally his supporters to his side. Though Abadi’s reaction was conflictual — and the dispute remains unresolved — the two have opted to take their arguments offline and have since spoken by phone.
2. Pakistan threats Israel. Late last month, Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, apparently read a fake news story alleging that Israel would nuke Pakistan if Islamabad sent troops into Syria. Ignoring the absurdity of the premise, Asif took to Twitter to warn his Israeli counterpart: “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.” The Israelis wrote back attempting to de-escalate, and Asif ultimately thought better of it and deleted his tweet. In this case, unlike Khamenei’s calculated aggression, someone in power reacted online without thinking. That’s how accidental escalation happens.
1. Trump goes nuclear. 2017 is shaping up to be a year of resurgent nuclear politics. Exhibit A is this recent Trump tweet: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Though Trump’s precise meaning is in dispute — arguably, he could be referring to modernizing the nuclear arsenal — it might not matter exactly what he intended. If states with nuclear weapons, and those that aspire to join the club, perceive that an arms race is likely, they have incentives to join the race so to avoid being left behind. Is it too late to suggest that we #nevertweet?
Your Weekly Bremmer
11 months have passed since allowances were paid to Burundi’s 5,500 peacekeeper in Somalia, amid a human rights dispute with the EU. Burundi has threatened to withdraw the troops. The EU cut funding last year due to the refugee crisis.
36.2 percent fewer Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in the seven months following Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s election.
Seven African elections out of sixteen in 2016 saw effective transitions of power. There is a growing divide between the continent’s reformers and hard-liners.
€6 million was borrowed by the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, from her estranged father, former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, to fund the cash-strapped party. Trust fund populism goes global.
2 extensions have been granted by Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro to his own plan to withdraw the 100-bolivar note from circulation. Many Venezuelans would prefer to withdraw him, instead.
You Wanted More Vlad?
You got it. From 2010, here’s Vladimir Putin’s classic performance of “Blueberry Hill.” The only question now is: when will we see a Trump-Putin duet?
Words of Wisdom
“What Obama did is throw a pebble. I’m ready to throw a rock.”
– U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, explaining how he’d prefer to respond to Russian hacking during the U.S. election.