on geopolitics

Remaining True to Our Mission

Rodger Baker
Senior VP of Strategic Analysis, Stratfor
10 MINS READJul 17, 2018 | 17:46 GMT
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the White House on June 25, 2018, for a campaign event in South Carolina.
(WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the White House on June 25, 2018, for a campaign event in South Carolina.

At Stratfor, we pride ourselves on our constant vigilance to avoid partisanship in our analysis. We may not always be entirely successful, but we have, from the founding of the company, established, maintained and refined systems and procedures to help recognize both conscious and unconscious bias in ourselves and to counter that bias in our analysis. At times, perhaps, the drive for nonpartisanship may compromise our willingness to address certain issues, particularly those related to the personalities of leaders. But while our job is not to judge the actors, nor assert that we know better how they should do their jobs, it is our job to understand, explain and forecast the future direction of the world.

This is not always easy. Analysts (myself among them) can lose sight of their role as observers and slip at times unknowingly into the role of pundits, armchair generals and Monday-morning quarterbacks. This is in part because, to understand and forecast, we must run through the chains of logic, the compulsions, constraints and circumstances as we understand them, and then place ourselves in the roles of the decision-makers to assess what their likely action is, then step back and assess the likely consequence. This is the nature of forecasting.

While many of our staff are from the United States, and we are a U.S.-based company, our employees come from different ethnic and national backgrounds, different political and social backgrounds, and different religious and educational backgrounds. Many come from and live in other countries. This is intentional. It is one of the tools used to identify bias and thus counter it. There are few issues in the world that do not raise some personal interest in at least one member of our staff, whether it be the logic of Brexit, U.S. immigration policy or Chinese-Indian competition in Bhutan and Nepal. So we are no stranger to trying to separate personal interests and ideals from nonpartisan analysis, even when it comes to the more difficult task of separating these right here at home in the United States.

We have had to be particularly sensitive to biases surrounding the current state of U.S. politics, not because an outsider won or an establishment candidate lost, but more directly because of the intentionally unconventional nature of President Donald Trump, the extremely polarized national and international dialogue surrounding the president, and his intentional use of the media, Twitter and public appearances to engender chaos in the public discourse. Trump's ability to create controversy through his statements is an intentional element of his strategy as president, as it was during his campaign. This is neither criticism nor praise of the president or his methods, but rather an observation based on both the past two years, and his previous business experience. It is not bias; it is analysis.

While much of the current political discourse now appears to assert that any critical observation or analysis is biased against the president, and any explanation of logic or behavior is biased in support, that is a false dichotomy. If we at Stratfor were to assert that Syrian President Bashar al Assad were unlikely to be forced from office, after looking at the balance of state, state-backed and non-state forces in Syria and the current international climate, that contention would be neither a sign of support for al Assad nor a condemnation of U.S. policies in Syria, but rather an analysis of the situation. If we argue that there are serious challenges to the continuity of British Prime Minister Theresa May's government because of the handling of the Brexit deal with the European Union, that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is going to face political challenges from shifts to immigration policies or that the European Union is facing fragmentation of its ideals if not its physicality, that argument is neither support for nor condemnation of the individual leaders; nor is it a desire to see the European Union dissolve or a wish for it to remain unified and strong.

If we are to remain true to our mission of understanding, explaining and forecasting the world, we cannot let perceptions restrict our coverage of the current U.S. president. It is not biased to assert that, whatever his methods, Trump is touching on many issues that have a long-standing position in U.S. policy, or that his actions are predicated on few good choices. Trump's haranguing of NATO and other U.S. defense allies to take more active responsibility — to put more "skin in the game" — is a continuation of similar requests and demands by past presidents, and it is a reflection of real changes in defense capability and commitment during the post-Cold War years. Trump's targeting of the international trading system, and China, in particular, is also well within the normal concerns facing a U.S. president, even if his method — tariffs — is outside the political norm.

The president's decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be out of the political norm, but the options — accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea or starting a war that would likely draw in all of the nearby countries — make a meeting seem like the least bad alternative of a poor set of choices. Trump's decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite the indictment of a dozen Russians for hacking during the U.S. election, is also understandable. Throughout the Cold War, the United States still maintained diplomatic ties with Russia, and were the president to label Russia an enemy of the United States, as some are arguing, there are subsequent consequences to that decision if the name-calling is to have any credibility.

Although his methods are unconventional and at times likely counterproductive, there are many things that Trump addresses that still fit within the logic of the world that this president finds himself in. His insistence on working outside the establishment, domestic or international, looks like it will ultimately limit the chances of success for his agenda, but that view is an analysis of the reality of the systems, not a critique of his intent or intelligence. There are times when the president is counterproductive to his own agenda, and the implication is continued gridlock and delay. But there are times when his actions may have longer-lasting consequences and clearly fall outside the spectrum of national interests, however defined.

Trump's news conference with Putin is likely one of these times. There was every logic to meet with Putin given the myriad areas where U.S. and Russian interests and actions collide or potentially conflate — from the status of conflict and competition in the Middle East to the frontiers of Europe to North Korea, from global energy supplies to the balance of nuclear arms. If the United States is serious in assessing China as the most significant rising peer competitor and sees Russia as currently aggressive but facing significant internal challenges that weaken it down the road, there would even be logic to attempt to ease relations with Russia as a counterbalance to China's westward expansion. It could make sense to exploit Russia's interests in Central Asia and its underlying fear of a powerful China on its borders to try and pull a reverse Nixon and gain the tacit assistance of Russia in constraining China.

But the president's use of the news conference to defend his election and to suggest that he takes Putin's word over that of his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies is likely more than a mere counterproductive moment, and more than a moment of personal self-interest and ego reinforcement. Real consequences may come from it, not least of which will be challenges from Congress, by both the Democrats and Republicans, to any broader strategic arrangements that the president could have pursued with Russia. Despite the power of the presidency and the near abdication of congressional authority over the past few decades, Congress remains a critical component of the U.S. system. Through its budgetary control, it can render most presidential initiatives moot, if it so chooses.

One can question the logic of calling Russia an enemy, but it is hard to justify anything outside of personal self-interest for the intentional degradation of the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community abroad merely to assert again that his election was his own and not due to outside forces. There are times for major shake-ups in U.S. intelligence, particularly after critical failures of the system. But even when necessary, these reorganizations have real world impacts on the United States' ability to collect intelligence on potential challengers to the nation and its interests, and they can disrupt or derail U.S. countermoves. The disruptions and lack of trust can also create additional friction between the intelligence community and the administration that can delay or undermine administration policy initiatives. How does an administration shape a trade policy around national security imperatives if it is also at war with its own national security apparatus?

The critique and identification of implications is not a reflection of anti-Trump bias, nor an assertion that the president is stupid or a tool of foreign powers. It is a recognition of certain aspects of Trump's personality that impact his policies and their likely success or failure. This is no different from recognizing the personality aspects of past presidents and understanding their implications. President Barack Obama centralized strategic planning, at times spent too much time on deliberation and pursued a liberal agenda that exceeded the willing pace of much of the country and raised concerns about American reliability abroad. In part, his decisions were shaped by the global realities within which he found himself; in part, they were shaped by his character. President George W. Bush was perhaps overreliant on his advisers to begin with, and his moments of decisiveness after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks later left him perceived as a caricature of a cowboy president bent on military action with little thought to the endgame.

Every president is a reflection of his times, constrained and shaped by actions far beyond his control, but also shaped by his character and personality. In the broad sweep of history, geopolitical analysis may downplay the personalities and emphasize the deeper forces at work, but in the day-to-day intelligence, personalities and individuals do matter, particularly the leaders of nations. They operate within certain constraints, they are pushed by certain compulsions, but their way of dealing with these issues ultimately reflects the individual's choice, even if from a very limited number of options. 

And every president is driven at least in part by ego and self-interest, by the desire to accomplish what others could not or did not, by the desire for re-election and by the perceived need to do what is politically expedient. But when choices based on self-interest lead to actions that run counter to the exigencies of the nation, there are consequences to those decisions. Recognizing and identifying the implications of those choices is one of the jobs of geopolitical intelligence analysts like those at Stratfor. It is not political bias. It is the nature of the job.

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