Think tanks are a wonderful and often overlooked source of garnering perspective on world events. Some, such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute or our own Fraser Institute are ideological hack factories posing as legitimate think tanks but there are others - Chatham House, Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and more that are balanced and a rich source of insight into today's and tomorrow's events.
With seismic events now unfolding, particularly this week in Washington, it's a fine time for a stroll down Think Tank boulevard.
Let's begin with my favourite, the venerable Chatham House, more properly known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs. A couple of items of interest. Chatham House director, Dr. Robin Niblett, writes of "The Demise of Anglo-American Economic Leadership
Niblett writes it may be game over for the era of neoliberalism ushered in by Reagan, Thatcher (and Mulroney), what he calls "the Anglo-Saxon model." Many of us will be open to that idea but it begs the question of just what will take its place and what sort of "place" will there be for us in that place? Uncertainty ensues.
More recently, Dr. Niblett wrote on "Liberalism in Retreat
," exploring how, with democracy in decline, liberal democracies must find ways to co-exist with their ideological foes."In the past, as other political systems have crumbled, the liberal international order has risen to face its challenges. Yet so long as the economies of its leading members remain fragile and their political institutions divided, the order they have championed is unlikely to regain the political momentum that helped democracy spread across the globe. Instead, it will evolve into a less ambitious project: an international liberal economic order that encompasses states with diverse domestic political systems."
Over at the exquisitely American, Brookings Institute, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy pose the question "What makes Putin tick, and what the West should do
."They write of three camps - those who underestimate Putin and those who overestimate Putin and a good many who do both."...many in the West underestimated Putin’s willingness to fight, for as long and as hard (and as dirty) as he needs to, to achieve his goals. Vladimir Putin will use all methods available, and he will be ruthless. Second, Western observers misread his skill as a strategist. Putin is not, as some have said, a mere tactician. He thinks strategically, and he has great advantages over Western leaders in his ability to translate that thinking into action. What we often fail to appreciate, however, is how dangerously little Putin understands about us—our motives, our mentality, and, also, our values. Only by trying to appreciate how Putin sees us can we see the logic in his actions—the logic he follows—and therefore get some idea of what he wants, where he might be headed, in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe and Eurasia…."
"...Vladimir Putin needs to be taken seriously. He will make good on every promise or threat—if Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it; and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal."
"In short, Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist. He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win. He didn’t give up as a kid in the Leningrad courtyards. He didn’t give up in Chechnya. He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood. Vladimir Putin’s rules for street fighting are essentially the same for his principles in domestic and foreign politics. Establish credibility and don’t back down until the advantage is yours and you’ve made your point. Once your opponent has capitulated and you have established your turf and terms, then you can patch things up and move on—until the next showdown comes along."
Doesn't that make you thank your lucky stars we've got Trump in the ring with Putin?"In the domestic and foreign policy arenas, Putin constantly sizes up his opponents and probes for physical and psychological weaknesses. Putin’s adaptation of Nixon’s “Madman Theory” approach helps flush these weaknesses out—it helps gauge reactions: They think I’m dangerous, and unpredictable, how do they respond to this? Have I got them unbalanced and on the back foot as a result? Then Putin tests his opponents to see if they mean what they say—will they also be prepared to fight, and fight to the end? If they are not, then he will exploit their empty threats to show them up, intimidate, deter, and defeat them."
Over at Carnegie, Amr Hamzawy, examines the aftermath of the Arab Spring concluding the region has returned to square one. He argues the Arab world must forge a new social contract
with its people.
Meanwhile, Carnegie senior fellow, Karim Sadjapour, explains why Trump is the favourite of fellow autocrats (and worse) everywhere
."While Trump lacks bipartisan support at home, he has not only the support of the Shia Iran but the Sunni ISIS. In August, an article in Foreign Affairs noted that an ISIS spokesman wrote on an ISIS social media channel, “I ask Allah to deliver America to Trump.” ISIS’s logic is simple: It believes that Trump’s erratic leadership will weaken America, and his abrasive style will alienate the Muslim world, in turn bolstering its efforts to recruit jihadists worldwide. In the words of a recent ISIS defector, “We were happy when Trump said bad things about Muslims because he makes it very clear that there are two teams in this battle: The Islamic team and the anti-Islamic team.”
"Trump’s most well-documented foreign enthusiast is Vladimir Putin, whom he has implied is a stronger leader than Obama. Putin has reciprocated, calling Trump “lively” and “talented” and “the absolute leader in the presidential race.” Former CIA chief Mike Morell called Trump an “unwitting agent” of Putin, and 17 U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Russian cyber hackers have attempted to tilt the election in Trump’s direction. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Americans hoped Russia could emerge as an economically prosperous, socially tolerant democracy. Putin not only helped thwart attempts to make Russia more like America, but he found in Trump an opportunity to make America more like Russia."
Sadjapour ends with this chilling observation:"The 14th-century North African philosopher Ibn Khaldun famously observed that empires are built and destroyed over the course of three generations. The first-generation founders are hungry, determined, and vigilant. The second generation inherits and manages what they witnessed the first generation build. By the third generation, the ruling elite are self-entitled, palace-reared elites who had no reason to develop the grit necessary to maintain what their grandparents built.
"Donald Trump is a third-generation American who never experienced life without freedom and privilege, running on a campaign projecting power rather than principles."
At the Council on Foreign Relations, there's a reprint taken from The Diplomat
arguing that Trump may drive Japan and China closer together
."Tokyo has always wanted American support against North Korea, but even a “hawkish” cabinet such as Abe’s will think twice before supporting operations that could lead to a new war in Korea. Japan Inc. would be the first collateral damage of a U.S. trade war with China should Trump follow campaign promises. And, obviously, Tokyo does not relish American Japan-bashing in the auto industry.
"Beijing has almost as many reasons to be concerned as Tokyo. An America weakened by a tweeter-in-chief with no attachment to U.S. core alliances and the international liberal order built by previous American administrations is good news for Xi Jinping. But enormous tariffs on Chinese goods, a national security advisor (Michael Flynn) who thinks China supports the Islamic State, and a president who seems regret that nuclear bombs aren’t used is not what the Communist Party of China (CPC) wants. Even if on balance Trump is likely to undermine America’s relative power in the world, there’s a significant risk that in doing so he could seriously hurt the interests of the Party in a negative sum game."
"The Trump presidency could thus be bad for both Japan and China. One country would turn out to be marginally worse off. But it’s a good bet that neither Xi nor Abe would be too pleased if their country’s economy went down 50 percent, even if their adversary’s collapsed by 75 percent. Moreover, neither Xi nor Abe know which of them would end up the bigger loser. This provides an opportunity for some imaginative diplomacy for Beijing and Tokyo to agree to a sort of cease-fire in their undeclared hostilities."
At the IISS, Nigel Inkster, director of future conflict and cyber security
, takes a look at what may develop in the weeks and months ahead.As to the wider geopolitical implications of Trump’s relationship with Russia, it is still far too early to make any judgements. The Trump business empire may have significant interests in Russia. But it also has significant investments in China, where it owns over 70 patents and is in the process of filing for 40 more. It has been suggested that a Trump administration may be drawn to some kind of strategic alliance with Russia based on racial and cultural affinity, and aimed at China. It is certainly the case that some elements in the emerging Trump administration harbour white supremacist inclinations. But there is no indication that Trump has any such ideological leanings – or indeed any leanings at all beyond the pursuit of self-interest.
While Putin’s Russia may welcome the prospect of a less fraught relationship with the US, it is far from obvious that a deal can be reached. A bigger worry may be what happens if efforts to yet again ‘push the reset button’ with Russia come to naught, as they may well do.
Meanwhile Beijing, though concerned about Trump’s suggestion that the One China policy may be up for negotiation, is keeping its powder dry and waiting to see what Trump actually does. At the same time, China is adroitly seeking to position itself as the prime guarantor of free trade and global leadership, a message President Xi Jinping will be looking to promote during his forthcoming visit to Davos. It remains to be seen, however, whether Xi can transcend the default Chinese Communist Party language to present a vision that resonates and carries conviction with the wider world.
The long and the short of it? No one is sure what to make of Trump. Opinions vary widely, perhaps wildly. One point of consensus. If it comes to horsetrading between Trump and Putin, it won't be Putin who goes home with empty pockets. Trump may, however, be sent packing with the trappings of victory for domestic consumption.
Great, just great.