Category Archives: Stratfor

Pondering Hitler’s Legacy

By George Friedman

Happenstance has brought me today to a house on the Austria-Germany border, just south of Salzburg. That puts me about 3 miles from the German town of Berchtesgaden, on the German side of the border. Adolf Hitler’s home, the Berghof, was just outside the town, on a mountain in the Bavarian Alps. To the extent that Hitler had a home, this was it, and it was the place where Hitler met with many notables, particularly before the war began.

Quantum Geopolitics

July 28, 2015

By Reva Bhalla

Forecasting the shape the world will take in several years or decades is an audacious undertaking. There are no images to observe or precise data points to anchor us. We can only create a picture, and a fuzzy one at best. This is, after all, our basic human empirical instinct: to draw effortlessly from the vivid imagery of our present world and past experiences while we squint and hesitate before faint, blobby images of the future.

In the world of intelligence and military planning, it is far less taxing to base speculations on the familiar — to simulate a war game that pivots on an Iranian nuclear threat, a seemingly unstoppable jihadist force like the Islamic State and the military adventurism of Russia in Eastern Europe — than it is to imagine a world in which Russia is weak and internally fragmented, the jihadist menace is contained by its own fractiousness and Iran is allied with the United States against a rising Sunni threat. In the business world, it is much simpler to base trades and strategies on a familiar environment of low oil prices and high interest rates. Strategists in many domains are guilty of taking excessive comfort in the present and extrapolating present-day assumptions to describe the future, only to find themselves unequipped when the next big crisis hits. As a U.S. four-star general once told me in frustration, “We always have the wrong maps and the wrong languages when we go to war.”

The Turkish Enigma

By George Friedman

In my “Net Assessment of the World,” I argued that four major segments of the European and Asian landmass were in crisis: Europe, Russia, the Middle East (from the Levant to Iran) and China. Each crisis was different; each was at a different stage of development. Collectively the crises threatened to destabilize the Eurasian landmass, the Eastern Hemisphere, and potentially generate a global crisis. They do not have to merge into a single crisis to be dangerous. Four simultaneous crises in the center of humanity’s geopolitical gravity would be destabilizing by itself. However, if they began to merge and interact, the risks would multiply. Containing each crisis by itself would be a daunting task. Managing crises that were interlocked would press the limits of manageability and even push beyond.

These four crises are already interacting to some extent. The crisis of the European Union intersects with the parallel issue of Ukraine and Europe’s relation to Russia. The crisis in the Middle East intersects with the European concern over managing immigration as well as balancing relations with Europe’s Muslim community. The Russians have been involved in Syria, and appear to have played a significant role in the recent negotiations with Iran. In addition there is a potential intersection in Chechnya and Dagestan. The Russians and Chinese have been advancing discussions about military and economic cooperation. None of these interactions threaten to break down regional boundaries. Indeed, none are particularly serious. Nor is some sort of inter-regional crisis unimaginable.

Sitting at the center of these crisis zones is a country that until a few years ago maintained a policy of having no problems with its neighbors. Today, however, Turkey’s entire periphery is on fire. There is fighting in Syria and Iraq to the south, fighting to the north in Ukraine and an increasingly tense situation in the Black Sea. To the west, Greece is in deep crisis (along with the EU) and is a historic antagonist of Turkey. The Mediterranean has quieted down, but the Cyprus situation has not been fully resolved and tension with Israel has subsided but not disappeared. Anywhere Turkey looks there are problems. As important, there are three regions of Eurasia that Turkey touches: Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

I have argued two things in the past. The first was that Turkey was an emerging regional power that would ultimately be the major power in its locale. The second was that this is a region that, ever since the decline and fall of the Ottomans in the first quarter of the 20th century, has been kept stable by outside powers. The decision of the United States to take a secondary role after the destabilization that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq has left a vacuum Turkey will eventually be forced to fill. But Turkey is not ready to fill that vacuum. That has created a situation in which there is a balancing of power underway, particularly between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A Proximate Danger

The most violent and the most immediate crisis for Ankara is the area stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran, and from Turkey to Yemen. The main problem for Turkey is that Syria and Iraq have become contiguous battlegrounds featuring a range of forces, including Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish elements. These battles take place in a cauldron formed by four regional powers: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. This quadrangle emerged logically from the mayhem caught between them.

Each major power has differing strategic interests. Iran’s primary interest is the survival of the establishment and in assuring that an aggressive Sunni polity does not arise in Iraq to replicate the situation Tehran faced with Saddam Hussein. Iran’s strategy is to support anti-Sunni forces in the region. This support ranges from bolstering Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up the minority Alawite establishment in Syria led — for the moment — by Bashar al Assad, and assisting the Iraqi army, itself controlled by Shiites and Iraq’s Shiite militias. The United States sees Iran as aligned with American interests for the moment, since both countries oppose the Islamic State and Tehran is important when it comes to containing the militant group. The reality on the ground has made this the most important issue between Iran and the United States, which frames the recent accord on nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its primary enemy. Riyadh also views the Islamic State as a threat but at the same time fears that an Iraq and Syria dominated by Iran could present an existential threat to the House of Saud. The Saudis consider events in Yemen from a similar perspective. Also in this context, Riyadh perceives a common interest with Israel in containing Iranian militant proxies as well as the Islamic State. Who exactly the Saudis are supporting in Syria and Iraq is somewhat murky, but the kingdom has no choice but to play a tactical and opportunistic game.

The Israelis are in a similar position to the Saudis. They oppose the Iranians, but their main concern must be to make certain that the Hashemites in Jordan don’t lose control of the country, opening the door to an Islamic State move on the Jordan River. Jordan appears stable for the moment and Israel and the Saudis see this as a main point of their collaboration. In the meantime, Israel is playing a wait-and-see game with Syria. Assad is no friend to the Israelis, but a weak Assad is better than a strong Islamic State rule. The current situation in Syria suits Israel because a civil war limits immediate threats. But the conflict is itself out of control and the risk is that someone will win. Israel must favor Assad and that aligns them on some level with Iran, even as Israel works with Sunni players like Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian militant proxies. Ironies abound.

It is in this context that the Turks have refused to make a clear commitment, either to traditional allies in the West or to the new potential allies that are yet emerging. Partly this is because no one’s commitments — except the Iranians’ — are clear and irrevocable, and partly because the Turks don’t have to commit unless they want to. They are deeply opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, and logic would have it that they are supporting the Islamic State, which also opposes the Syrian regime. As I have said before, there are endless rumors in the region that the Turks are favoring and aiding the Islamic State. These are rumors that Turkey has responded to by visibly and seriously cracking down on the Islamic State in recent weeks with significant border activity and widespread raids. The Turks know that the militants, no matter what the currently confrontational relationship might be, could transition from being a primarily Arab platform to being a threat to Turkey. There are some who say that the Turks see the Islamic State as creating the justification for a Turkish intervention in Syria. The weakness of this argument is that there has been ample justification that Ankara has declined, even as its posture toward the Islamic State becomes more aggressive.

This shows in Turkey’s complex relations with the United States, still formally its major ally. In 2003 the Turks refused to allow U.S. forces to invade Iraq from Turkey. Since then the relationship with the United States has been complex and troubled. The Turks have made U.S. assistance in defeating Assad a condition for extensive cooperation in Syria. Washington, concerned about an Islamic State government in Syria, and with little confidence in the non-Islamic State militancy as a long-term alternative, has refused to accept this. Therefore, while the Turks are now allowing some use of the NATO air base at Incirlik for operations against the Islamic State, they have not made a general commitment. Nor have they cooperated comprehensively with Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The Turkish problem is this: There are no low-risk moves. While Ankara has a large army on paper, it is untried in battle outside of Turkey’s 30-year insurgency in its southeast. Turkey has also observed the outcome of U.S. conventional forces intervening in the region and doesn’t want to run the same risk. There are domestic considerations as well. Turkey is divided between secular and Islamist factions. The secularists suspect the Islamists of being secretly aligned with radical Islam — and are the source of many of the rumors floating about. The ruling Sunni-dominated Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish acronym, AKP, was seriously weakened in the last election. Its ability to launch the only attack it wants — an attack to topple Assad, would appear to be a religious war to the secularists and would not be welcomed by the party’s base, setting in motion rifts that could bring down the AKP. An attack on the Sunnis, however radical, complicates relations with the rebel factions in northern Syria that Turkey is already sponsoring. It also would risk the backlash of reviving anti-Turkish feelings in an adjacent Arab country that remembers Turkish rule only a century ago.

Therefore Turkey, while incrementally changing — as evidenced by the recent accord to allow U.S. Predator drones to fly from Incirlik — is constrained if not paralyzed. From a strategic point of view, there appears to be more risk than reward. Its position resembles Israel’s: watch, wait and hopefully avoid needing to do anything. From the political point of view, there is no firm base of support for either intervening directly or providing support for American airstrikes.

The problem is that the worst-case scenario for Turkey is the creation of an independent Kurdish republic in Syria or Iraq. That would risk lighting a touchpaper among Kurds in southeastern Turkey, and regardless of current agreements, could destabilize everything. This is the one thing that would force Turkey’s hand. However, the United States has historically had some measure of influence among the Kurds in Iraq and also in Syria. While this influence can be overstated, and while Washington is dependent on the Kurdish peshmerga militias for ground support as it battles the Islamic State from the air, it is an important factor. If the situation grew out of control, Ankara would expect the United States to control the situation. If Washington could and would, the price would be Turkish support for U.S. operations in the region. The Turks would have to pay that price or risk intervention. That is the lever that would get Ankara involved.

Added Complications

The Turks are far less entangled in the Russian crisis than in the Middle East, but they are still involved, and potentially in a way that can pyramid. There are three dimensions to this. The first is the Black Sea and Turkey’s role in it. The second is the Bosporus and the third is allowing the United States to operate from its air base in Incirlik in the event of increased Russian military involvement in Ukraine.

The crisis in Ukraine necessarily involves the Black Sea. Crimea’s Sevastopol is a Russian Base on the Black Sea. In this potential conflict, the Black Sea becomes a vital theater of operations. First, in any movement westward by the Russians, the Black Sea is their right flank. Second, the Black Sea is a vital corridor for trade by the Russians, and an attempt by its enemies to shut down that corridor would have to be addressed by Russian naval forces. Finally, the U.S./NATO strategy in addressing the Ukrainian crisis has been to increase cooperation with Romania. Romania is on the Black Sea and the United States has indicated that it intends to work with Bucharest in strengthening its Black Sea capabilities. Therefore, events in the Black Sea can rapidly escalate under certain circumstances, posing threats to Turkish interests that Ankara cannot ignore.

The Black Sea issue is compounded by the question of the Bosporus, which is a narrow strait that, along with the Dardanelles, connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. The Bosporus is the only passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. For the Russians, this is a critical trade route and the only means for Russian ships passing into the Mediterranean. In the event of a conflict, the United States and NATO would likely want to send naval forces into the Black Sea to support operations around its perimeter.

Under the Montreaux Convention, an agreement signed in 1936, the Bosporus is under Turkish control. However the convention also places certain restrictions on traffic in the Bosporus. Access is guaranteed to all commercial traffic, however, Ankara is authorized to refuse transit to countries at war with Turkey. All countries with coasts on the Black Sea are free to operate militarily in the Black Sea. Non-Black Sea nations, however, suffer restrictions. Only warships under 15,000 tones may be sent, and no more than nine at any one time, with a total tonnage of 30,000 tons. And then they are only permitted to stay for 21 days or less.

This limits the ability of the United States to project forces into the Black Sea — American carrier battle groups, key components of U.S. naval power, are unable to pass through. Turkey is, under international law, the guarantor of the convention and it has over time expressed a desire to be freed from it so Ankara can exercise complete sovereignty over the Bosporus Straits. But it has also been comforted by knowing that refusal to allow warships to pass can be referred to international law, instead of being Turkish responsibility.

However, in the event of a conflict with Russia, that can no longer be discounted: Turkey is a member of NATO. If NATO were to formally participate in such a conflict, Ankara would have to choose whether the Montreaux Convention or its alliance obligations take precedence. The same can be said of air operations out of Incirlik. Does Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the United States take precedence or will Ankara use the convention to control conflict in the Black Sea? Even prior to its own involvement in any conflict with Russia, there would be a potentially dangerous diplomatic crisis.

To complicate matters, Turkey receives a great deal of oil and natural gas from Russia through the Black Sea. Energy relations shift. There are economic circumstances on which the seller is primarily dependent on the sale, and circumstances on which the buyer is dependent. It depends on the room for maneuver. While oil prices were over $100, Russia had the financial option to stop shipping energy. Under current pricing, Russia’s ability to do this has decreased dramatically. During the Ukrainian crisis, using energy cut-offs in Europe would have been a rational response to sanctions. The Russians did not do it because they could not afford the cost. The prior obsession with the fragility of the flow of energy from Russia is no longer there, and Turkey, a major consumer, has reduced its vulnerability, at least during the diplomatic phase.

The United States is constructing an alliance system that includes the Baltics, Poland and Romania that is designed to contain any potential Russian advance westward. Turkey is the logical southern anchor for this alliance structure. The Turks have been more involved than is already visible — conducting exercises with the Romanians and Americans in the Black Sea. But as in the Middle East, Ankara has carefully avoided any commitment to the alliance and has remained unclear on its Black Sea Strategy. While the Middle East is more enigmatic, the Russian situation is potentially more dangerous, though Turkish ambiguity remains identical.

Similarly, Turkey has long demanded membership in the European Union. Yet Ankara’s economic performance over the last 10 years indicates that Turkey has benefitted from not being a member. Nevertheless, the secularists in particular have been adamant about membership because they felt that joining the union would guarantee the secular nature of Turkish society. The AKP has been more ambiguous. The party continues to ask for membership, but it has been quite content to remain outside. It did not want the EU strictures secularists wanted, nor did it want to share in the European economic crisis.

Turkey is nevertheless drawn in two directions. First, Ankara has inevitable economic ties in Europe that are effected by crises, ironically focused on its erstwhile enemy Greece. More important at the moment is the immigration and Islamic terrorism crisis in Europe. Many of the Muslims living in Germany, for example, are Turks and the treatment of overseas Turks is a significant political issue in Turkey. While Ankara has wanted to be part of Europe, neither economic reality nor the treatment of Turks and other Muslims in Europe argue for that relationship.

There is a growing breach with Europe in an attempt to avoid absorption of economic problems. However in southeastern Europe discussions of Turkish investments and trade are commonplace. Put into perspective, as Europe fragments, Turkey — a long-term economic power, understanding of what the short-term problems are — draws southeastern Europe into its economic center of gravity. In a way it becomes another force of fragmentation, simply by being an alternate economic benefactor for the poorer countries in the southeast.

The potential interaction of Turkey in the Middle East is an immediate question. The mid-term involvement with Russia is a longer question. Its relation to Europe is the longest question. And its relationship with the United States is the single question that intersects all of these. For all these concerns, Turkey has no clear answer. It is following a strategy designed to avoid involvement and maintain maximum options. Ankara relies on a multi-level strategy in which it is formally allied with some powers and quietly open to relations with powers hostile to its allies. This multi-hued doctrine is designed to avoid premature involvement; premature meaning before having achieved a level of strategic maturity and capability that allows it to define itself, with attendant risks.

In one sense, Turkish policy parallels American policy. U.S. policies in all three regions are designed to allow the regional balance of power to maintain itself, with Washington involving itself selectively and with limited force. The Turks are paralleling the United States in principle, and with even less exposure. The problem the Turks have is that geography binds them to the role of pivot for three regions. For the United States this role is optional. The Turks cannot make coherent decisions, but they must. So Ankara’s strategy is to be consistently ambiguous, an enigma. This will work until outside powers make it impossible to work.

The Turkish Enigma is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

A Net Assessment of the Middle East

By George Friedman

The term “Middle East” has become enormously elastic. The name originated with the British Foreign Office in the 19th century. The British divided the region into the Near East, the area closest to the United Kingdom and most of North Africa; the Far East, which was east of British India; and the Middle East, which was between British India and the Near East. It was a useful model for organizing the British Foreign Office and important for the region as well, since the British — and to a lesser extent the French — defined not only the names of the region but also the states that emerged in the Near and Far East.

Today, the term Middle East, to the extent that it means anything, refers to the Muslim-dominated countries west of Afghanistan and along the North African shore. With the exception of Turkey and Iran, the region is predominantly Arab and predominantly Muslim. Within this region, the British created political entities that were modeled on European nation-states. The British shaped the Arabian Peninsula, which had been inhabited by tribes forming complex coalitions, into Saudi Arabia, a state based on one of these tribes, the Sauds. The British also created Iraq and crafted Egypt into a united monarchy. Quite independent of the British, Turkey and Iran shaped themselves into secular nation-states.

A Net Assessment of Europe

Last week I began this series with a Net Assessment of the World, in which I focused on the growing destabilization of the Eurasian land mass. This week I continue the series, which will ultimately analyze each region in detail, with an analysis of Europe. I start here, rather than in the Middle East, because while the increasing successes of the Islamic State are significant, the region itself is secondary to Europe in the broader perspective. The Middle East matters, but Europe is as economically productive as the United States and, for the past 500 years, has been the force that has reshaped the world. The Middle East matters a great deal; European crises can destabilize the world. What happens between Greece and Germany, for example, can have consequences in multiple directions. Therefore, since we have to start somewhere, let me start with Europe.

The ‘Grexit’ Issue and the Problem of Free Trade

By George Friedman

The Greek crisis is moving toward a climax. The issue is actually quite simple. The Greek government owes a great deal of money to European institutions and the International Monetary Fund. It has accumulated this debt over time, but it has become increasingly difficult for Greece to meet its payments. If Greece doesn’t meet these payments, the IMF and European institutions have said they will not extend any more loans to Greece. Greece must make a calculation. If it pays the loans on time and receives additional funding, will it be better off than not paying the loans and being cut off from more?

Coming to Terms With the American Empire

By George Friedman

“Empire” is a dirty word. Considering the behavior of many empires, that is not unreasonable. But empire is also simply a description of a condition, many times unplanned and rarely intended. It is a condition that arises from a massive imbalance of power. Indeed, the empires created on purpose, such as Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany, have rarely lasted. Most empires do not plan to become one. They become one and then realize what they are. Sometimes they do not realize what they are for a long time, and that failure to see reality can have massive consequences.

China’s Fragile Evolution

By Rodger Baker and John Minnich

Last week, China’s anti-corruption campaign took a significant turn, though a largely overlooked one. The Supreme People’s Court released a statement accusing former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranked official thus far implicated in China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, of having “trampled the law, damaged unity within the Communist Party, and conducted non-organizational political activities.” In Chinese bureaucratic speak, this was only a few steps shy of confirming earlier rumors that Zhou and his former political ally and one-time rising political star from Chongqing, Bo Xilai, had plotted a coup to pre-empt or repeal the political ascension of Chinese President and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Thus, the court’s statement marks a radical departure from the hitherto depoliticized official language of the anti-corruption campaign.

Can Putin Survive?

By George Friedman

Editor’s Note: This week, we revisit a Geopolitical Weekly first published in July 2014 that explored whether Russian President Vladimir Putin could hold on to power despite his miscalculations in Ukraine, a topic that returned to prominence with his recent temporary absence from public view. While Putin has since reappeared, the issues highlighted by his disappearing act persist.

The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform

By George Friedman

We are now in the early phases of selecting the president of the United States. Vast amounts of money are being raised, plans are being laid, opposition research is underway and the first significant scandal has broken with the discovery that Hillary Clinton used a non-government email account for government business. Ahead of us is an extended series of primaries, followed by an election and perhaps a dispute over some aspect of the election. In the United States, the presidential election process takes about two years, particularly when the sitting president cannot run for re-election.

This election process matters to the world for two reasons. First, the world’s only global power will be increasingly self-absorbed, and the sitting president — already weakened by the opposition party controlling both houses of Congress — is increasingly limited in what he can do. This is disturbing in some ways, since all presidential elections contain visions of the apocalypse that will follow the election of an opponent. During the U.S. election season, the world hears a litany of self-denigration and self-loathing that can be frightening emanating from a country that produces nearly a quarter of the world’s wealth each year and commands the world’s oceans. If Honduras were to engage in this behavior, the world would hardly notice. When the United States does it, the public discourse can convince others that the United States is on the verge of collapse, and that perspective has the potential to shape at least some actions on the global stage.

Tempering the Passions of Politics

The United States sees itself as the City on the Hill, an example to the world. But along with any redemptive sensibility comes its counterpart: the apocalyptic. The other candidate is betraying the promise of America, and therefore destroying it. Extreme messages are hardwired into the vision that created the republic.

The founders understood the inherent immoderation of politics and sought to solve problems by limiting democracy and emphasizing representative democracy. Americans select representatives through various complex courses. They do not directly elect presidents, but members of the Electoral College.

Likely an archaic institution, the Electoral College still represents the founders’ fear of the passions of the people — both the intensity of some, and the indifference of others. The founders also distrusted the state while fully understanding its necessity. They had two visions: that representatives would make the law, and that these representatives would not have politics as a profession. Since re-election was not their primary goal, they were freed from democratic pressures to use their own wisdom in crafting laws.

The founders saw civil society — business, farms, churches and so on — as ultimately more important than the state, and they saw excessive political passion as misplaced. First, it took away from the private pursuits they so valued, and it tended to make political life more important than it should be. Second, they feared that ordinary men (women were excluded) might be elected as representatives at various levels. They set property requirements to assure sobriety (or so they thought) in representatives and at least limit the extent to which they were interested in politics. They set age requirements to assure a degree of maturity. They tried to shape representative democracy with standards they considered prudent — paralleling the values of their own social class, where private pursuits predominated and public affairs were a burdensome duty.

It is not that the founders regarded government as unimportant; to the contrary, it was central to civilization. Their concern was excessive passion on the part of the electorate, so they created a republican form of representative government because they feared the passions of the public. They also feared political parties and the factions and emotions they would arouse.

Parties and Party Bosses

Of course it was the founders who created political parties soon after the founding. The property requirements dissolved fairly quickly, the idea that state houses would elect senators went away, and the ideological passions and love of scandal emerged.

Political parties were organized state by state, and within state by counties and cities. These parties emerged with two roles. The first was to generate and offer potential leaders for election at all levels. The second was to serve as a means of mediation between the public — for multiple classes, from the wealthy to the poor — and the state. The political machines that dominated the country served as feeders of the republican system and ombudsmen for citizens.

The party bosses did not have visions of redemption or apocalypse. They were what the founders didn’t want: professional politicians, not necessarily holding office themselves but overseeing the selection of those who would. Since these officeholders owed their jobs to the party boss, the boss determined legislation. And the more powerful bosses populated the smoke-filled rooms that selected presidents.

This was a system made for corruption, of course, and it violated the founders’ vision, but it also fulfilled that vision in a way. The party bosses’ power resided in building coalitions that they could serve. In the large industrial cities where immigrants came to work in the factories, that meant finding people jobs, securing services, maintaining the schools and so on. They didn’t do this because they were public-spirited, but because they wanted to hold power. Even if companies that kicked back money to the bosses built the schools or the brother-in-law of a party boss owned the company that paved the streets, the schools got built and the streets got paved. The political machines were very real in rural areas as well.

Every four years, party bosses gathered at the party convention with the goal of selecting a candidate who would win. They would allow the candidate his ideological foibles, so long as they retained the ability to name postmasters and judges and appoint federal contracts in their areas. The system was corrupt, but it produced leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as some less illustrious people.

The Boss System Breaks Down

Starting in 1972, following Richard Nixon’s presidency, the United States shifted away from a system of political bosses. This was achieved by broadly expanding primaries at all levels. Rather than bosses selecting candidates and controlling them, direct democratic elections were used for candidate selection. Since the bosses didn’t select candidates, the candidates were beholden to the voters rather than the bosses. Each election year, the voters would select the candidates and then select the officeholder. Over time, the power of the political machine was broken and replaced by a series of elections. The founders did not want this level of democracy, but neither did they explicitly want the party boss.

This change had two unanticipated consequences. The first was that the importance of money in the political process surged. In the old system, you had to convince bosses to support you. That took time and effort and required that promises be made, but it did not require vast amounts of money. Under the primary system, apart from the national election, primary elections take place in almost all states. Candidates must build their own machines in each state and appeal directly to voters. That means huge expenditures to create a machine and buy advertising in each state.

As the bosses’ corruption was curbed but money’s centrality soared, the types of corruption endemic to the political system shifted. Corruption moved from favors for bosses to special treatment of fundraisers, but it was still there. Reformers tried to limit the amount of money that could be contributed, but they ignored two facts. First, a primary system for the presidency is fiendishly expensive simply because delivering the message to the public in 50 states costs a fortune. Second, given the stakes, the desire to influence government is difficult to curb. The means will be found to donate money, and in some cases it will be done in the hope and expectation of favors. The reforms changed the shape of corruption but could not eliminate it.

The second unintended consequence was that it institutionalized political polarization. The party boss was not a passionate man. But those who go to the polls in primaries tend to be. Turnout at American elections is always low. The founders set the election for a Tuesday rather than a weekend as in many countries, and it is a work day, with children to be picked up at school, dinner to be cooked and so on. The founders designed politics to be less important than private life, and in the competition on Election Tuesday, private life tends to win, particularly in off-year elections and primaries.

The people who vote in primaries tend to be passionate believers. The center, which holds the largest block of voters in the general election, is not a passionate place. The kids’ homework comes first. Passion exists on the wings of both parties. This means that in the primaries, only two types of candidates win. One is the extremely well funded — and the passion of the wings make funding for them even more important. The other is the ideologically committed. The top fundraisers face the most passionate voters, and the contest is whether the center can be turned out with money. Frequently the answer is no. The result is that the wings, although likely a minority in the party, frequently select candidates in the primary who have trouble winning the general election. From their point of view, winning means nothing if you give up principles.

All of this applies equally to elections to the House and Senate. It has been said that there has never been less bipartisanship than there is now. I don’t know if that is true, but it is certainly the case that the penalties for collaboration with the other party, or for moving to the center, are extremely high. The only ones who can do it are the ones who can raise sufficient money to draw the center out. And that is hard to do. As a result, everyone must run to the extreme in the primary and run to the center in the general election. The reforms have institutionalized hypocrisy and outsized strength for marginal groups, though they succeeded in breaking the party bosses.

Since 1972, the United States has elected presidents like Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I will leave it to the reader to determine how this compares to the boss-generated leaders. However, I would argue that the ombudsman system has broken down. Bosses, because they were corrupt, could provide an interface for voters with employers (who wanted contracts) and government. I suspect that the collapse of the boss system made it easier for the Italians, Irish and Jews to integrate into society, and harder for blacks and Hispanics. There are pockets of bosses, but they are not the norm, and they cannot offer as much without going to jail.

This is not meant to romanticize the bosses. We are, on the whole, better off without them, and we can’t resurrect them. I am trying to explain why our elections have become so long, why they cost so much money, and why the wings of the parties get to define agendas and legislative and executive behavior.

The Geopolitics of the U.S. Elections

There is a geopolitical side to this as well. The internal political process of the leading global power is always a geopolitical matter. The structure and method whereby leaders are selected shape the kinds of leaders who govern and define, to some extent, the constraints placed on governments. Geopolitics, as Stratfor uses the concept, argues that the wishes and idiosyncrasies of individual leaders make little difference in the long run. This is because leaders are constrained by global realities. It is also because internal political processes define what must be done to take and hold power. Those internal political processes have their own origins in impersonal forces.

There has been a long struggle between the founders’ vision of how politics should work and the reality of the process. The party boss was, in a weird way, an implementation of the principle of representative government. He was also a symbol of corruption and anti-democratic behavior. His demise has created the primary system, which carries with it its own corruption. Moreover, it has systematically limited the power of the center and strengthened the power of the most ideological. It has also caused U.S. elections to put the world ill at ease, because what the world hears in the Georgia, Vermont or Texas primaries can be unsettling. The American Republic was invented and it is continually being reinvented on the same basic theme. Each reform creates a new form of corruption and a new challenge for governance. In the end, everyone is trapped by reality, but it is taking longer and longer to enter that trap.

This situation is not unique to the United States, but the pattern differs elsewhere. Over the centuries, the U.S. public has been shaped by immigration, and the U.S. government was consciously constructed out of the theoretical constructs of its founders. It was as if the country were a blank slate. It was in this context that waves of reform took place, all changing the republic, all with unintended consequences.

I have tried to show here the unintended consequences of the post-Watergate reforms to illustrate why the American political system works as it does. But perhaps the most important point is that redrawing the government is endemic to the kind of government the United States has, and that the United States both absorbs change well and is frequently surprised by what change does. In other countries, there is less room to maneuver, and perhaps fewer surprises and standards of success. The political parties emerged against the founders’ intentions, because political organization beyond the elite followed from the logic of the government. The rise of political bosses followed from the system, and simultaneously stabilized and corrupted it. The post-Watergate reforms changed the nature of the corruption but also changed the texture of political life. The latter is the issue with which the United States is now struggling.

China, Russia and Europe are all struggling, but in different ways and toward different ends, frequently because of problems endemic to their cultures. The problem endemic in American culture is the will to reform. It is both the virtue and vice of the U.S. government. It has geopolitical consequences. This is another dimension of geopolitics to be considered in the coming weeks and months.

The Paradox of America’s Electoral Reform is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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