In an interview with Bloomberg Markets AM with Pimm Fox and Lisa Abramowicz on March 28, 2017, TAG President Jack Devine talks about his Spring 2017 Forecast for global risks including North Korea and its nuclear program.
March 31st, 2017
March 22nd, 2017
TAG President Jack Devine provides his Spring Forecast, including his predictions for the Trump administration, U.S. foreign policy, threats to national security such as North Korea and Iran, and key issues related to trade, health care, oil, and ISIS.
As anticipated, Trump is controlling the political agenda at home and abroad. It is no surprise that he continues to tweet, nor that the media and political world are still having great trouble dealing with his unorthodox approach to presidential politics. What we haven’t seen yet is any sign of self-discipline which would take the edge off his populist approach in dealing with the electorate. If this doesn’t change, Trump should expect to get burnt regularly by his open-ended use of Twitter, and face a commensurate drop in popularity ratings. Over time, this will compel him to moderate his tweets, especially those that have a direct impact on national security matters.
In the meantime, the media pundits will remain in high dudgeon. The growing frustration with the lack of objectivity across the political spectrum and the press, as well as a heightened skepticism about what is news and what is “fake news,” will gradually push Americans to tune out the perpetual partisan thunder. Already political fatigue is setting in, and a “Spring Break” is needed to unwind from the election and to focus on other less politicized national and international issues. Unfortunately, it is hard to see this resetting this spring.
Reinstate Moscow Rules
The recent political storm about the Trump team’s alleged collusion with the Russians in the U.S. political process, and the countervailing accusation that Obama tapped the Trump campaign for political reasons, will produce in the end goose eggs on both sides. With more smoke than fire on these alleged conspiracies, and no prosecutions or lasting political benefits flowing from them, the public will be left scratching its head and asking why so much time was wasted on these issues, instead of tackling the more serious geopolitical and economic issues America is really confronting. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a very serious problem with Russian hacking. The use of cyber tools to penetrate the military, political and economic infrastructure of potential adversaries is universal. What is new in the case of the Russians is a violation of the “Moscow Rules;” namely, using these breaches to directly influence internal political elections. This is a potentially dangerous game-changer that has to be walked back behind closed doors in Moscow and Washington. Hopefully, this is being done.
Because of the FBI investigation and the overall dust-up about Russia, Trump’s plans for a reset with Putin are going nowhere fast.
Foreign Policy Team Will Steady
The good news for Americans unsettled by the divisive 2016 presidential election and a tumultuous transition is that we have likely seen the low watermark of the Trump Administration’s management of national security issues. No doubt there will be periodic snafus on specific issues, but the longer arc of government will become better organized and focused as the pragmatists take charge at the NSC, State, Defense and the Intelligence Community. As anticipated, the internal struggle between the ideologues and pragmatists will continue for months to come, but the early departure of NSC Director Flynn has put the wind at the pragmatists’ back. Also, as Trump’s team gets its sea-legs and begins to line up with the career professionals within the respective departments and agencies, the White House will become more grounded on the key national security issues. Also, through the inevitable osmosis process of continuous briefings, Trump will become more knowledgeable and less prone to substantive slip-ups. This is a process that all presidents experience, whether they like it or not.
Despite the many global problems confronting the Administration, there are relatively limited parameters within which it will be able to work. This will be particularly true in our dealings with Russian aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea and ISIS-driven terrorism. For the most part, the policy will likely reflect a continuation of the post-WWII “containment strategy” which was designed primarily to keep in check our adversaries. Whether it is robust or soft containment remains to be seen, but it is a good bet that on many issues Trump’s foreign policy will retain the same general outline as his predecessors. It will be hard to embark on a genuine game-changing strategy, with the exception of Iran and North Korea, where the Administration may be forced to act boldly despite an inclination not to do so.
North Korea Will Remain Intractable
North Korea may be the toughest national security issue that the Trump administration will have to face this year. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle in North Korea, and it will be extraordinarily difficult to get Chairman Kim Jong-un to cease and desist from exploiting it to the fullest. The “strategic patience” strategy we have pursued over the past several years has had no impact. North Korea already has over 20 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, and is fairly quickly developing a ballistic missile capability to deliver these weapons against our allies, particularly South Korean and Japan. And, in the next five years, if not stopped, these missiles will be able to reach the continental U.S.
Many policymakers and Asia experts believe China is the best pressure point on North Korea. While that may be true in the abstract, we definitely should not count on China, especially in light of its response to the March 5, 2017 firing of four missiles into the Sea of Japan. Instead of showing outrage and calling North Korea on the carpet, the Chinese Government lashed out at the U.S. and South Korea. It blatantly criticized the U.S. decision to move forward with installing the anti-ballistic missile defense system (THAAD) in South Korea and has put increased economic pressure on South Korea to reject THAAD. Even if China weighs in to help, the U.S. needs to keep hardening our military position in the region, working existing diplomatic channels, maximizing economic sanctions on North Korea, acting covertly to undermine North Korea’s nuclear program and even consider positioning tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. The threat of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea may be one way that China can be brought around to support us on this existential threat. But, it will take more President Xi visits to Mar-a-Lago and Secretary of State Tillerson trips to Beijing to do it.
Iran Heading Toward Treacherous Waters
Running nip and tuck for the top thorny issue for Trump on national security will be the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump and the Republicans will try to modify the agreement, and in the process apply more sanctions. Iranian internal politics will not allow a rewrite of the deal or significantly increased sanctions. It is very likely they will feel compelled to tear up the agreement and press ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. The big question: Now what? We certainly can increase sanctions on Iran and squeeze its economy hard, but this won’t lead to a regime change or a step back in its nuclear policy. The Europeans will strongly resist an increase in sanctions, but it’s a 50-50 bet that in the end they may sign up in solidarity, and to avoid triggering negative economic consequences for themselves. Hanging in the balance is the reelection bid of “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s May election, which is staked in large part on economic benefits from the nuclear deal. If Trump follows through on further sanctions and challenging the agreement, realistically we are back to the drawing board with covert action programs and war planning as our only options. Not a good place to be.
Going It Alone on Trade
Notwithstanding these national security issues, arguably the biggest Trump international initiative to watch in the months ahead is the coming policy changes on trade, which will not only have major consequences on the economy, but also on our international relationships. The two hottest points of friction will be Mexico and China. While the NAFTA agreement won’t be abrogated, it will be revised enough to sour the relationship with Mexico and uncap nationalistic sentiments which would be economically unhealthy and unproductive for both sides of the Rio Grande. It certainly will compel all of Mexico’s likely presidential candidates in 2018 to run on an outspoken nationalistic platform with anti-American undertones. Look out for the potential rise of leftist leader Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador as a consequence. It will take great diplomatic and political finesse by all to avoid this problem. Much like Mexico, future trade policies will rankle the Chinese, put a chill on the overall relationship and nudge Chinese nationalism upward. Now that the United States has officially pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), China already has increased its efforts to lead on trade initiatives and negotiate multilateral agreements that leave the U.S. out. This will be especially tricky considering that China’s economy is contracting more than admitted publicly. As with Mexico, great diplomacy and artful maneuvering will be required to keep the relationship on a positive track. Hold on tight to your seat on trade issues.
Health Care, Oil and ISIS
Democrats are still reeling and not coming to terms with the long-range implications of their defeat last November. However, the Republican plan to reform Obamacare gives the Democrats a good whipping boy to keep the fight fair. Many a politician has broken his/her pick on health care, and House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump won’t be an exception. It’s hard to see how the Republicans can craft a plan which doesn’t cost them part of their constituency. The struggle over health care also will likely push tax reform and infrastructure spending further down the road on the congressional agenda. And, at least in the short term, it will give the Democrats a powerful issue to stake out a clear position and possibly refocus itself in the process. It will also reveal more clearly Trump’s relationship with Congress going forward, which is muddled at this point. Aches and pain lie ahead for the Republicans on this issue.
Keep an eye on oil prices. It is unlikely prices will move much above $55 for the foreseeable future due to the dramatic improvement in recent years in U.S. energy capabilities and technology, and because of China’s shrinking economy over the long run. Recent suggestions that the Chinese economy is improving will be short-lived. On the geopolitical front, low oil prices will have a particularly significant political and economic impact on Saudi Arabia and Russia. They both need oil prices above $50/barrel to meet their budget minimum requirements and to keep a lid on political dissent. If the prices fall below $50 a barrel for a protracted period, you can count on internal tensions in Russia and Saudi Arabia. Continued low prices will also have a worsening impact on Venezuela’s instability. Venezuela is already in deep economic and political turmoil and this could become an even more urgent crisis for the hemisphere.
ISIS will continue to weaken in the months ahead. But, remain alert for a terrorist event at home or in Europe designed in desperation to attract new recruits to the ISIS cause.
If you or your firm would like individualized consultation or information, please contact Jack Devine at The Arkin Group.
“Intelligence Community, Trump & Russian Hacking” Jack Devine on StandUP!w/Pete Dominick on SiriusXM Insight 121, January 2017
January 16th, 2017
In an interview with StandUP!w/Pete Dominick on January 12, 2017, TAG President Jack Devine gives his analysis of Trump’s comments about the CIA and the US intelligence community, Russian hacking and possible interference in the 2016 US election.
December 28th, 2016
TAG President Jack Devine provides his 2017 forecast, including his predictions for Trumpism, increasing growth, a big power showdown, the Middle East mess, ISIS, and more.
Enter Trumpism. Trumpism will be the coin of the realm for at least the next four years. Despite their current protestations to the contrary, many political and government officials will adopt his traits and positions. His slogans, policies and values will permeate American society. Public figures will increasingly use social media/Twitter and plain/tough talk in supporting the “forgotten man”. This will drive the media and establishment political elites up the wall, and they will be hamstrung on how to deal with it.
Social Media President. President Trump will continue to tweet. This needs to be recognized as the revolution and danger it might be. President Andrew Jackson once was hailed as the flag carrier for democracy when in the early 1800s he opened the White House to the public and allowed “the people” to traipse through. Today, everyone in America with a cellphone will be able to receive communications directly from the President, bypassing the media and political elites and even his own administration. This will be a new and powerful way for the President to set the agenda. However, for the good of the country, self-discipline will be needed to prevent this powerful tool from becoming a means of bypassing the policy vetting process or from becoming an instrument of demagoguery.
Potential Pitfalls. In getting his sea legs, Trump could step into a major political gaffe or run afoul of a conflict of interest in his business enterprise. But as he has shown during the campaign, he has an amazing ability to ride out major snafus.
United Front. With Congress behind him, Trump will have a virtually clear runway to carry out his policies. Despite the pundits’ doubts, Trump will try to deliver on his major campaign promises. He will build a wall along the border with Mexico and try to put the brakes on globalization and liberal trade agreements. At the same time, he will work with Congress to develop legislation to punish companies that take jobs abroad. He will try to muscle foreign competitors into more favorable trade arrangements and press US interests. They will bend for the most part, including China and Russia.
Hacking, Yes; Meddling, No. Russian hacking will remain a front line story for the next several weeks, but gradually will fade into the back pages as Trump assumes office, and Russia and the US try to sort it out behind closed doors. They will reach a modus vivendi. Hacking will continue, but interference in internal politics will dissipate. However, because of the politics driving the hacking issue here at home, it will spike from time to time over the next year.
Domestic Trends. Obamacare will be overhauled, but some of the key provisions will remain in place. The Supreme Court balance will move right during the next four years, during which time Trump may be able to select 1-2 more judges beyond the replacement of Judge Scalia. This will set the Supreme Court direction for a generation.
Increasing Growth. The US economy is already showing signs of renewed health, and Trump may well find ways to further stimulate the economy and GDP growth, perhaps above 3% per annum.
Big Power Showdown. There will be a greater emphasis on big power relationships, and Trump will try to use carrot and stick diplomacy with the top competitors, especially Russian President Vladimir Putin and China President Xi Jinping. They both will agree to a reset, but will quickly test the Trump Administration’s resolve. It will come sooner than expected. Putin and Xi’s nationalist agenda are built on expansion and competition with the West. Because of this, Trump, before too long, will find himself needing to continue the post-cold WWII war policy of “containment,” albeit with a more aggressive stance.
Bumpy Road Ahead. Despite relative economic stability in Russia and China, serious cracks could develop in their internal leadership control. There are greater political and economic problems below the surface than generally recognized, which could threaten stability.
Foreign Entanglements. Trump will try to lower our military footprint around the world, but the circumstances on the ground in the Middle East will make this a slow and problematic effort. Foreign leaders will be careful in probing him, and rightfully worry he will respond with force wherever he perceives an attack on US interests.
Ideologues vs. Pragmatists. The Trump Administration will be fraught initially with debilitating infighting, especially in the national security arena. There will be much tugging and pulling between the State, Defense, CIA and NSC establishments and the arch-conservative political appointees who joined the Trump camp early. There will be seemingly unending conflicts within the Administration between the pragmatists and the ideologies.
Pragmatists Win Out. This will be especially the case on policies relating to the Middle East and particularly Iran. The policies surrounding the Middle East could well turn out to be the Achilles’ Heel of the Trump Administration. A misstep that puts the Administration outside of legal lines, à la the Iran Contra Affair during the Reagan Administration, would inspire the Democratic Party to clamor for impeachment. However, this situation is unlikely to develop in the near term. This struggle will be tamped down with the inevitable personnel changes that will come about during the first two years of the Trump administration, as it shifts toward a more pragmatic foreign policy.
EU and NATO Persist. Europe will continue to feel the pangs of nationalism and resistance to liberal immigration policies. Virtually all the governments in Europe will feel strong pressure to move to the right, but the EU, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will hold together albeit frayed around the edges, and NATO will persist. Negotiations over Britain’s exit from the EU will continue to dominate headlines, and the legal separation of Great Britain from the EU will take more time than many may want.
Afghan and Middle East Mess. Afghanistan will drift and a Taliban comeback is in the offing. Afghanistan, like the Middle East, will remain a mess for a decade or more. Iran will continue to exercise great influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Syria will remain largely a quagmire with Assad steadily gaining the upper hand. Trump may try to cut a deal with Putin that accepts a Russian foothold and enduring influence in Syria in exchange for easing Assad toward the door. But, this is likely to fail unless an unexpected “Black Swan” event occurs in Russia which weakens Putin at home and pushes him to relax his aggressive posture. The weakening economy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and terrorist incidents in Turkey, may cause additional stability problems in the region.
ISIS Lashes Out. While ISIS will increasingly wither on the ground in Iraq, Syria and Libya, there will be a commensurate increase in the terrorist risk across Europe and the US as ISIS, in desperation, attempts to pull off high profile attacks. We will need to remain alert for threats at home. ISIS will want to undertake a sophisticated multi-pronged operation, but may well have to settle for stirring up self-radicalized domestic terrorists.
Democratic Party Vacuum. On the Democratic Party front, the departure of Hillary Clinton from center stage will create a deep vacuum which will be difficult to fill. Neither Democratic House representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Bernie Sanders nor the firebrand Senator Elizabeth Warren will fill the bill. The Democrats’ inability to bring back Reagan Democrats into the fold will set the Democratic Party on a fractious and weak path for some time. Because of this, and the lack of a fresh and compelling message, the Democrats could take serious losses again in the 2018 Congressional races.
Happy New Year!
December 28th, 2016
TAG President Jack Devine and Senior Director Amanda Mattingly respond that the likely 2017 hotspots in Latin America will be Venezuela and Mexico in the December 23, 2016 issue of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor.
December 28th, 2016
TAG President Jack Devine gives his analysis of the Russia hack and the impact of Trump’s current anti-CIA stance in an interview on Bloomberg Markets AM with Pimm Fox and Lisa Abramowicz on December 14, 2016.
December 28th, 2016
TAG examines the outlook for democracy amid a resurgent nationalist populism in Europe and recent election results in Lebanon and Ghana.
The Outlook for Democracy
The Rise of European Nationalism?
Analysts have decried the waning of progressive Western democracies in the face of a resurgent nationalist populism, while casting nervous eyes toward Russia. However, the recent Presidential vote in Austria saw the more moderate, pro-European candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, soundly defeat the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer. In France’s conservative primaries, voters opted for a moderate technocrat in Francois Fillon whose campaign will make it significantly harder for the far right’s Marine LePen to prevail in next year’s Presidential elections. These developments buck the current populist trend and will provide some reinforcement for European institutions and alliances that are grappling with a sclerotic economy and a pressing refugee crisis. Yet the recent constitutional referendum in Italy that prompted the ouster of Italian PM Matteo Renzi, will make it harder to manage its indebted banks, which will weigh heavily on the European economy. How Europe fares economically in the next few months will be determinant for German leader Angela Merkel and for the direction for Europe in general. No one is watching these developments more closely than Vladimir Putin. Putin is seeking any opportunity to bring bordering states further into his sphere of influence and capitalize on cleavages within the European alliances to woo certain heads of states, like Mr. Fillon, into adopting a more accommodating tone toward Russia, lifting sanctions and generally weakening NATO.
Elections Results You May Have Missed
A New Balance of Power in Lebanon
The recent appointment of General Michel Aoun as Lebanon’s President and Saad Hariri as its Prime Minister is a positive auger for restoring stability in Lebanon. Without a functioning government for the past two years, and in the shadow of Syria’s civil war, Lebanon’s endless challenges have only gotten worse. Many speculate that it was Hariri’s diminished fortunes that drove him to make a deal to endorse Aoun. Others say that it was the rapprochement of Aoun with his main Christian rival that forced Hariri’s hand. An entirely different possibility is that the Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has greatly diminished its capacity to control Aoun, leaving Hariri to draw him away from Iran’s circle of influence toward a more pro-Western and pro-Saudi position. Whatever the actual case, none of the major players are operating from a position of great strength. We may be seeing a very new balance of power emerging that leaves the key players dependent on internal alliances rather than only external influence. And this may present an opportunity for the Lebanese people: Lebanon’s ruling elite may actually have to govern.
Another Peaceful Election in Ghana
The leading opposition candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, won Ghana’s December 2016 presidential election last week. This election marks the third peaceful change in party power in Ghana – an important symbol of stability in an otherwise politically volatile region. President John D. Mahama’s government was plagued by accusations of widespread corruption and citizens have remained disenchanted with their country’s economic performance for much of his tenure. The Ghanaian economy has declined in the last four years, due to a slump in prices for exports of cocoa, gold, and oil. The incoming government supports the International Monetary Fund’s current efforts to restore fiscal stability amidst an increased budget deficit, high public debt, and inflation. Akufo-Addo has also promised to crack down on government corruption and is seeking to spur economic growth by providing each district with funds to spend on development projects.
December 28th, 2016
TAG Senior Director Amanda Mattingly responds to a question about Argentina’s plan to fight drugs in the September 21, 2016 issue of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor.
December 28th, 2016
TAG Senior Director Amanda Mattingly writes about the economic, political, and security crisis in Venezuela in an article published by the World Policy Blog on June 27, 2016.
Delta Air Lines Plans to Apply for Direct Flights to Cuba, Amanda Mattingly on WABE 90.1 Atlanta, February 2016
December 28th, 2016
TAG Senior Director Amanda Mattingly discusses the potential for direct Delta flights between Atlanta and Havana on WABE 90.1 Atlanta on February 24, 2016.