As 2020 dawned, daunting foreign-policy challenges from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nation-states loomed. Stateless, transnational challenges like climate change, cybersecurity and the global migration crisis did, too.
So to some it may have seemed like political science fiction, not political science, when the political risk and consulting firm Eurasia Group named the U.S. election as its top 2020 geopolitical risk early this year.
“We’ve never listed U.S. domestic politics as the top risk, mainly because U.S. institutions are among the world’s strongest and most resilient,” Eurasia Group noted on Jan. 6. But, it added, “this year, those institutions will be tested in unprecedented ways. We face risks of a U.S. election that many will view as illegitimate, uncertainty in its aftermath, and a foreign policy environment made less stable by the resulting vacuum.”
The threat assessment came pre-pandemic. Amid lockdowns, the Eurasia Group nailed it down in a March 19 update: “As the administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak continues to attract criticism, and the economy tumbles into recession, [President Donald] Trump will be tempted to sow doubts about the integrity of the election, not to mention aggressively going after presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.”
It was a prescient outlook.
“Things involving the United States have a much greater impact, but the likelihood of political risk coming out of the U.S., which is a strong and stable country, has been quite low,” Eurasia Group President and Founder Ian Bremmer said in an interview. “But it’s been going up; some of the political institutions in the U.S. have eroded. Not at a Turkey level, but they’re not Canada or Germany anymore.”
Bremmer mentioned this week’s events in Hong Kong, where four prominent pro-democracy legislators were purged by Beijing, prompting the remaining 15 to resign. “I don’t think that is a coincidence, that it’s happening in the middle of the United States having such incredible uncertainty,” Bremmer said. “I think there could be other things like that where rogue actors who oppose the United States decide to take advantage, to change the facts on the ground.”
Or in the air. North Korea, for instance, could “test an ICBM in the next month or two to improve their negotiating position with Biden coming in,” Bremmer said. “I wouldn’t be surprised; things like that are plausible” — a plausibility intensified by Trump’s transition intransigence, which sows doubt about the country’s capacity.
Some other plausible risks, like the coronavirus crisis, are harder to conjure, and thus conquer. So it’s timely that the latest issue of Foreign Affairs asks, “What Are We Missing? Predicting The Next Crisis” on its cover. Inside there’s a compilation of compelling articles about the methodological process of predicting geopolitical events, as well as an examination of three threats that may prove particularly pernicious: climate change, cybersecurity and U.S.-Chinese relations.
The magazine didn’t specifically predict this pandemic, but “for 15 years we’ve been banging away” at the possibility of such an event, editor Gideon Rose said in an interview. Rose, who served as associate director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said that while “the bottom line is nobody can predict the future,” individuals and institutions can create an intellectual infrastructure that enhances understanding of how the world works — or doesn’t, in the case of crises.
It’s crucial to avoid a “dogmatic way” of thinking, Rose said, adding that organizational structure is essential to develop “the Anthony Faucis of the world.”
The challenge, Rose said, “is to figure out ways to protect and encourage independent thinking and good flows of information throughout organizations” — in effect, he added, the antithesis of the current approach.
“We are in danger of politicizing the governmental bureaucracies that are supposed to be doing the dispassionate, objective, technocratic planning on preparations for the greatest threats we could face,” Rose said. “And the only chance we have to do better than just be helpless in the face of the next catastrophe is to try to empower, support, and encourage the best technocrats who are trying in the most serious and honest way to figure out what is going on, and truly has the [nation’s] best interests at heart.”
Bremmer believes that the best way to red-flag black-swan events like the pandemic “is to ensure institutions are resilient. The first three months should not be, in my view, about trying to reset the U.S.-China relationship, even though that’s incredibly important. It should be about trying to make sure that all key positions are filled. That the administration is working. It’s the boring, organizational, block-and-tackling stuff — which by the way the Biden team is going to be very good at. Because there has been a lot of institutional erosion that’s happened simply because Trump rules by himself and doesn’t care about the institutions around him, and Biden does and should.”
Rose sees promise in the president-elect’s anticipated team, too. He knows, and indeed has published, many of those under consideration for key national-security or foreign-policy posts and admires their “embrace of sensible, professional expertise.”
As world turbulence increases geopolitical risk, the incoming administration, Bremmer said, will “really need to figure out architecture for new global threats.”
These include the interrelated international impact of the Eurasia Group’s second- and third-rated risks, the “great decoupling” between the U.S. and China in the technology sphere, which “is the single most impactful geopolitical development for globalization since the Soviet Union collapsed,” as well as the fact that “divergences between the U.S. and China’s political structures are bringing irreconcilable differences to the fore, and tensions will lead to a more explicit clash over national security, influence and values.”
Other geopolitical risks lurk. New ones will emerge. Asked if he were advising the incoming Biden team what he would urge them to pay attention to, Rose answered: “Be open to the possibilities of things being much worse than we would expect. We’ve seen lots of downside surprises recently, the pandemic being the best example.”
But, he added, don’t miss more optimistic opportunities
“There have been major upsides in recent years” as well, Rose said, mentioning the U.S.’s rapid transition from energy importer to energy exporter. “Nobody saw it coming.”
Seeing it coming — or at least creating a process to strategically respond to crises — will be the Biden team’s job on Jan. 20.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” Rose quotes Dwight Eisenhower as saying in his forward to Foreign Affairs’ analysis. For the sake of the nation, and the world, all should hope that the planners succeed.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.