Could Turkey be nearing a resolution of its Kurdish problem? The March 21 ceasefire announcement from Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has certainly raised hopes of a resolution. The optimism, however, masks significant obstacles, not least of which is the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces structural incentives that could undermine his motivation to pursue peace as strongly and urgently as might be wished. The process could easily breakdown amid recrimination and a return to violence.
Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government and the PKK have been negotiating for several months. The authorities have allowed some members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to visit Ocalan in jail and communicate his position to the rest of the PKK's leadership, and the broad outlines of a deal are slowly emerging. The PKK will gradually pull back its nearly 2,000 armed militants operating in Turkish territory. In the meantime, the AKP and the BDP will start negotiations on a new constitution and revisions to Turkey's legal framework needed to ensure equal treatment for Kurds. The final stage would be the normalization of relations. Both sides will continue to maintain momentum by making small-scale concessions, though significant steps will have to wait until the PKK has fully withdrawn from Turkish territory.
For both sides, a ceasefire offers significant potential benefits and little downside, at least in the near term. The Turkish population is more inclined to consider a peace deal than at any time in the past few decades. Erdogan would reap considerable electoral benefit from resolving the long-standing violence and tension (though there would be little fallout if the deal were to break down). The BDP would gain electorally for improving, even if only marginally, Turkey's legislative framework regarding the Kurdish minority. The PKK leadership would avoid fighting on two fronts simultaneously given developments in northern Syria-while also giving their militants time to recover from the effects of the violent 2012 campaign in south-eastern Turkey. And then there are more intangible factors: The PKK leaders are thought to be tired of life on the run, and Ocalan too is believed to be angling for house arrest rather than jail.
But despite the momentum and the benefits from a ceasefire, peace could founder on one of several issues. While the mood in the country is promising, there is a wide gap between Kurdish demands and what the government can realistically concede ahead of the upcoming elections. There is also a very real danger that some factions in the PKK and the broader Kurdish movement may feel betrayed by the final deal between the government and Ocalan. That disappointment could trigger a resumption of PKK insurgency.
The most immediate challenge, though, will be implementing the PKK's withdrawal without violence, particularly given that a law assuring their safety appears unlikely at this point. The Turkish military as well as nationalist groups will find it very difficult to allow armed PKK militants to simply leave for safety in northern Iraq. And the PKK will not consider giving up their weapons, especially given the situation in Syria.
Finally, there are concerns about the process. Neither the government nor the Kurdish nationalists have any real experience in handling peace talks and the compressed time frame of less than one year to withdraw troops and write a new constitution significantly increases the complexity. Similar developments in other parts of the world took many years to complete and there is no guarantee that either side will be able to manage any potential moments of tension.
Naz Masraff is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Europe practice.
Note: Today is the seventh in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013
East Asia's geopolitical stability will continue to deteriorate this year. Countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan will take tougher stances on territorial disputes with China and seek to involve Washington more closely in these issues. But China's new government will find it difficult to compromise and may even take more forceful positions given its need to consolidate internal support and channel growing nationalism. Meanwhile, the US will continue to enhance engagement with Asian partners -- particularly on the economic side -- which will raise skepticism in Beijing.
The most worrying concern during the early part of 2013 will be the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, claimed by both China and Japan. Tensions surrounding the islands spiked in late 2012 following the Japanese central government's decision to purchase several of them from their private owners. The growing presence of Chinese ships and aircraft in surrounding waters is stoking nationalist sentiments in Japan and increasing the risk of a clash that could quickly escalate and ensnare the world's three biggest economies in an ugly dispute.
In 2013, regional governments will lean toward political considerations more than economic ones. In Japan, a new government led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become more assertive on foreign policy issues. The LDP was able to capitalize on nationalist sentiments in its campaign, and Abe will carry through with some of his promises in 2013 by establishing a more assertive national security and foreign policy posture. Abe will also bolster the U.S.-Japan security alliance and likely commit Japan to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. China will regard such moves as confrontational.
Meanwhile, Beijing's appetite for compromise will be limited. China's political transition will make it more difficult for Beijing to be flexible on foreign policy issues. The country's new leaders will need to consolidate internal support. Moreover, growing middle-class expectations and concern over the state's control of information are expected to encourage a more nationalistic foreign policy. If Beijing faces a foreign policy test, the incoming administration might feel the need to demonstrate its foreign policy mettle and avoid being seen as capitulating to outside interests.
Policies toward Asia from the U.S. will not change much: The rebalancing of its attention toward the region will continue, with more substance on the economic than on the strategic side. In particular Washington's trade negotiators will focus on negotiations for the TPP talks.
The South China Sea will be another hotspot. There has been relatively little tension there in recent months, but that calm is unlikely to continue. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, will maintain their aggressive postures toward China. Neither country has an interest in provoking a military conflict, but domestic politics make it difficult to back down without a perceived (even if minor) but unlikely concession from Beijing.
Later this week, we'll profile Risk #8: Iran
GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/GettyImages
By Cliff Kupchan
In Iran last week, sanctions pressure pushed frustration into violence. Iran's currency has lost half its free market value over the past month, and a clumsy policy response made matters worse.
The rial's dramatic depreciation is stoking a level of inflation that has become the most serious threat now facing the regime. The official inflation rate stands at 23.5 percent, but anecdotal evidence suggests the rate is much higher and climbing. The government's lack of a coherent anti-crisis strategy, economic mismanagement, corruption, and heavy transaction costs imposed by sanctions suggest the worst is yet to come. Sporadic protests are likely to become a fact of life in Tehran.
As a result, the bickering within Iran's political elite is becoming more vitriolic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blames foreigners and their sanctions for the current crisis; parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani instead points the finger at the incompetence of Ahmadinejad's government. Ahmadinejad can't seek re-election next June, but his exit won'tprevent these fights from heating up in advance of the vote.
Yet, there is no evidence that Iran is
close to the boiling point. Following the controversial presidential election
of 2009 and the street demonstrations that followed, the regime proved it can
and will use deadly force to intimidate Iran's fractious opposition. Nothing
has happened to suggest that new protests would produce a different result.
So what should Western governments, anxious to slow Iran's momentum toward a nuclear program, be hoping for? Iran's economic turmoil is unlikely to topple the regime, at least not anytime soon, but it just might bring about a more conciliatory Iranian approach to nuclear talks after the U.S. presidential election -- and especially after Iran's presidential election next year.
Over the past half decade, Tehran has demonstrated an almost existential commitment to the nuclear program, but the sanctions-induced pain is squeezing Iran's economy ever tighter, and that could make Iran more flexible. In turn, it's now very important for Western negotiating partners to offer a diplomatic proposal that allows Iran's government to save face before its people.
The Iranian government will never negotiate away its domestic legitimacy, but there might be room for a crucial compromise on the nuclear issue. Without such a breakthrough and relief from tightening sanctions, the Iranian regime has a bleak future -- and the country's leaders know it.
Cliff Kupchan is director of Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
By Alexander Kliment
Russian President Vladimir Putin's last minute decision to skip a G8 summit with President Barack Obama is a snub to Washington, but the Russian president's no-show may in fact increase the chances for a constructive relationship between the two countries.
Last week, just days after his inauguration, Putin let it be known that he would not attend the upcoming G8 summit at Camp David, where he and Obama were set for a one on one meeting.
The White House, in turn, said Obama wouldn't attend the 2012 Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit this fall in Vladivostok, Russia -- though it was always hard to imagine Obama skipping the Democratic National Convention.
According to the Kremlin's official explanation, Putin can't leave Russia right now because approving the cabinet nominations submitted to him by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is too sensitive a task for Putin to oversee by phone from Maryland. So Medvedev will send the list to Putin and head to the summit himself.
Putin's decision is a breach of G8 protocol, which expects that sitting heads of state will attend the group's summits. French President Francois Hollande, for example, will attend, just days after his 15 May inauguration. And by sending his number two to an organization in which Russia is already something of a second fiddle, Putin is raising questions about the wisdom of keeping Russia in the group at all.
Accordingly, many analysts have cast the move as a brazen rebuke to the U.S., which Putin alleges is behind the unprecedented street protests that have become a feature of Moscow life since last December.
It's true that the Kremlin's official explanation isn't wholly credible. Most cabinet decisions have likely been agreed upon already, Putin's re-election was never in doubt, and the G8 summit's date has been known for some time. That said, he reassumes the presidency amid rising popular opposition, which has sowed fresh doubts about his legitimacy. Keen to prevent infighting or, worse, insubordination among Russia's powerful elites, Putin could well be preoccupied with some last minute horse-trading at home.
The timing may, in fact, be no better in Washington than it is in Moscow.
Obama is entering a challenging re-election campaign in which he has already drawn fire from his Republican opponent Mitt Romney about the pursuit of a reset with Russia and his broader foreign policy track record. U.S.-Russia ties have deteriorated recently -- on account of disagreements over Syria, continuing friction over missile defense, and Putin's allegations of U.S. complicity in the protest movement -- meaning the U.S. president would be under pressure to take a hard line with Putin.
But that could risk an unpredictable flare-up with the notoriously sharp-tongued and pugnacious Putin. At the very least, it might complicate White House attempts to secure congressional support for granting Russia normal trade relations status so that U.S. companies can benefit from Russia's WTO accession.
In short, with both men facing heightened domestic concerns and pressures, Obama's meeting with Medvedev, who has warmer relations with Obama and who is seen chiefly as a messenger for Putin, carries much less political significance, but also much lower political risk. The practical result is that it leaves open the chance of greater flexibility between Washington and Moscow that could help maintain a pragmatic relationship in the medium term.
Alexander Kliment is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
By Damien Ma
Though the curious case of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has badly embarrassed China's leaders, it has provided them one important benefit -- it has diverted attention from the far more dangerous story of Bo Xilai. Regardless of the outcome in either case, the Communist Party's image has been badly tarnished. For a Chinese government that seems bent on investing in soft power, these last few months have offered clear reminders that soft power cannot be bought. It must be earned.
For a Chinese government that prefers to keep its differences behind closed doors, the Bo Xilai episode is a nightmare, in part because the involvement of the U.S. and British governments in the case has brought an unusual degree of international media scrutiny. (One of Bo's deputies briefly took refuge in the U.S. embassy, and Bo's wife has been implicated in the murder of a British businessman.) China's familiar tools of propaganda have been overwhelmed by frenzied speculation about the case in the Western press and China's social media echo chamber -- yet another reminder that Beijing can no longer afford to ignore Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
The party leadership has dismissed the Bo Xilai saga as a sideshow and Bo himself as an aberration within the country's otherwise upstanding roster of senior officials. But little of China's blogosphere appears to be buying it. Instead, Bo's story signals for many that China remains a corrupt and opaque place, that the unbridled capitalism practiced in China has mainly benefited politically-connected VIPs, and that greed has infected the leadership right to the top.
And though the drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng has given the public something new to speculate about, in some ways, the story reinforces the cynicism that Bo Xilai has exposed. Chen and Bo -- a powerless and once illiterate legal activist and a powerful political scion who long stood above the law -- seem polar opposites. But they have something important in common; both were left without a place to hide when the leadership decided they should be punished.
Few within the country believe that Bo or his wife will have their day in court, reinforcing public fear that average citizens have no real protection within a system manipulated for the benefit of the party. That Chen, like Bo Xilai's deputy, first sought sanctuary in the U.S. embassy underscores a point not lost on the Chinese public: The United States, not China's own government, offers protection of last resort in times of political turmoil.
These stories are engendering a growing trust deficit between the government and the informed public -- the very elites that the party counts as its crucial constituency. A perception of systemic "rot from within" and the lack of legitimacy it implies undermine the regime's monopoly hold on domestic political power.
Despite Premier Wen Jiabao's constant talk of political reform, the last decade of the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao administration saw an economy that raced ahead and a political system that changed very little. But to repair this latest damage to its "brand," the party may feel it has to produce some real change. Some within the leadership are already using this opportunity to push for political liberalization. In his closing arguments as premier, an increasingly legacy-conscious Wen Jiabao is making a final pitch for real political reform. But Wen is a lame duck.
Over the course of the next few months, China will introduce a new generation of top leaders. Any political changes they might produce are unlikely to fundamentally recast Chinese politics or to appear soon. But they may soon find that delivering go-go growth is no longer enough. They may find that, particularly in the online public square provided by social media, a growing segment of China's people will expect a new degree of accountability -- and a new kind of change.
Damien Ma is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
By Ayham Kamel
It may be tempting to view the plethora of recent gatherings -- the Arab League summit, the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Strategic Cooperation Forum, and the Friends of Syria conference -- as evidence that the global community is getting more serious about addressing the violence in Syria. But the summits really just exposed the rifts among the relevant players that will prevent a viable and coordinated response. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in turn, will profit from the lack of coherence; he will only nominally entertain Kofi Annan's peace plan as he maintains his grip on power, and the bloodshed will worsen.
International powers remain hesitant regarding any form of direct intervention. They considered initiatives calling for buffer or humanitarian zones, but ultimately no country seems prepared to act. Key powers appear to be pursuing their distinct policies, with only a hint of coordination.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar will provide extensive support -- including arms -- to the Syrian opposition, but are unlikely to supply the heavy arms that would lead to an immediate change in the balance of power. Heavy arms are more difficult to smuggle and training rebels would be much more challenging than during the Libyan conflict. Moreover, the escalation could provoke an un-calculated response from Assad's military. While their interests differ, the two powers see Assad's survival as a threat to their influence. Riyadh's purpose is to limit Iran's regional influence. Meanwhile, Doha has invested significant diplomatic and political capital in the struggle against Assad and any failure to deliver would represent a tangible setback to its prestige. Behind the armament policy is also a deep concern that if Assad regains control, Damascus and Tehran would aim to destabilize the al Saud and al Thani ruling families' grip on power.
Arming the rebels, who have had trouble obtaining ammunition sine the regime began its extensive military campaign in early February, will provide much needed psychological support and will help weaken Assad's forces. While the resolve of Syria's opposition will not abate, arms from the Gulf will neither arrive overnight nor will they immediately change the balance of military power, which is still heavily tilted in the regime's favor. An equally important element of the Gulf strategy is providing monetary incentives to officers in the Syrian army to incite defections. But Assad has built multiple safeguards to prevent defections, a tactic he inherited from his father.
The U.S. is willing to overlook, perhaps even support, GCC efforts to weaken Assad. But Washington is definitely not interested in playing an active role. It is concerned about Saudi Arabia's and Lebanon's support of Salafist rebels and al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri's call for jihad in Syria. While Sunni monarchies in the Gulf benefit from rising sectarianism in Syria, the U.S. interest in long-term regional stability could be compromised if the Sunni-Shia confrontations spread to Iraq and other countries. U.S. officials believe that a political settlement will be needed to prevent prolonged instability. Verbal support for the Annan process is a reflection of the desire to keep negotiations open, but U.S. officials are convinced that under current conditions the Annan plan will only enable Assad to retain power.
Assad will probably not implement key elements of the Annan peace plan, which calls for a halt of hostilities from all sides, and a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition. The regime views cooperation with the UN envoy as a way to secure the successes achieved by its military strategy and to gain some breathing space. While Annan is a shrewd diplomat, there are few reasons to think that success is in reach. Syria's opposition will probably not negotiate with Assad or agree to a settlement that keeps him in power. Meanwhile, there are no indications that the Lion of Damascus has reached a point where he would accept his own ouster.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice.
Mohammed Ameen-Pool/Getty Images
By Michal Meidan
A growing economic juggernaut and rising political power, China has many reasons to look to the Middle East: to import oil, extend its diplomatic influence, diversify its trade ties, and undermine U.S. hegemony. In that context, it seems hardly surprising that Beijing (alongside Moscow) vetoed a recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and set aside its commercial dispute with Iran to conclude an oil import deal -- undermining U.S. and European sanctions on Tehran.
But Beijing's Middle East strategy is hardly the coherent, well-thought-out doctrine that some believe. Instead, it's the product of a number of (sometimes competing) domestic interests that must be coordinated each time a crisis unfolds. Worryingly for Beijing, as China's commercial ties to the Middle East increase, it will inexorably become more involved in the region's politics. In the process, the risk of antagonizing an important commodity supplier, getting on the wrong side of Washington, or fueling unwanted domestic debates will become more costly and more complicated.
Some argue, simplistically, that when China blocks pressure on Iran to protect its commercial relations with that country, it pays no price for it. The reality is not nearly that simple.
First, Beijing's decisions on Iran and Syria have clearly irked Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the Syria veto "despicable." Moreover, ongoing oil trading between China and Iran has already led Washington to slap sanctions on a Chinese trader. In a year of presidential elections in the U.S. and political turnover in China, when both sides are trying to keep tensions at bay, Middle East politics will burden an already complicated relationship with an unwelcome irritant.
But Beijing has more than the United States to worry about. Take China's ties with Saudi Arabia, which provides China with almost one fifth of its oil. Beijing's reluctance to support Western-led sanctions on Iran isn't going down well in Riyadh either. Nor has China's decision to veto the U.N. Security Council's Syria resolution, a choice that Beijing claims was intended to prevent the situation on the ground from escalating further.
Finally, several diplomatic principles -- non-interference in a third country's sovereignty, support for non-proliferation, China's rise as a responsible stakeholder -- are increasingly being called into question by other governments. The decision to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria may have been motivated by diplomatic principles of non-interference in a country's sovereignty and by Beijing's desire to prevent the situation from getting worse, but it has plainly damaged popular perceptions of China elsewhere in the region, and Premier Wen Jiabao's criticism of the Iranian nuclear program rings hollow to Western ears.
When thinking about its foreign policy goals, does Beijing really want to provide the security framework for the Middle East? These are difficult debates that Chinese leaders must have, but they will certainly want to postpone them until after Beijing's leadership transition is complete next year.
In short, the more deeply Beijing becomes involved in the Middle East, the more complicated its foreign relations and internal policy-making processes become -- and the more China has to lose. The choice between alienating an oil supplier, challenging an important trade partner and a global political power or opening up its diplomatic principles for debate is one that Beijing would like to avoid. But as its global reach extends, so will the trade-offs it has to make.
Today, The Call presents our top risks for 2012. Click HERE for Eurasia Group's complete report.
1. The End of the 9/11 Era -- It was a truism of globalization: economics drives markets, and national security drives geopolitics. No longer. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and an end date for the war in Afghanistan, politics and economics will overlap almost entirely in 2012. Political officials around the world will worry mainly over economic risks -- the eurozone crisis, the strength of U.S. recovery, and China's evolving role in the global economy in 2012. Market players, in turn, are anxious mainly about political decisions, especially those that will be made in Europe, America, and China this year, as shortsighted leadership from virtually all the major geopolitical players generates policy stalemate and uncertainty.
2. G-Zero and the Middle East -- The inability/unwillingness of major powers to bolster the region's balance of force will generate greater turbulence across North Africa and the Middle East as unresolved religious, sectarian, and ethnic tensions threaten more unrest. The lack of a viable regional security framework, continuing protests, autocracies at risk, and enormous challenges facing newly democratic regimes will add to the potential turmoil. As this dynamic plays out in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, regional heavyweights -- Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey -- will generate friction as they vie for proxy influence.
3. Eurozone: the rollercoaster ride rolls on -- In Europe, it's not the breakup of the Eurozone we need to fear in 2012 but the "reactive incrementalism" that could spin beyond the control of political officials. The uncertainty and volatility we saw in 2011 has only just begun.
4. United States: right after elections -- Once the votes are counted in November, lawmakers will take up the $5 trillion worth of tax and savings decisions that must be taken in the final nine weeks of the year. Investors face uncertainty about their taxes and government contracts as well as about the broader impact of lawmakers' choices on economic growth.
5. North Korea: implosion or explosion -- The world's most opaque nuclear-armed state enters a year of uncertainty as the battle for power and influence within the regime gathers force.
6 - Pakistan: turmoil, spillover -- The end of the 9/11 era threatens neglect of other hotspots, and none is more combustible than Pakistan, a terrorism-plagued, nuclear-armed power burdened with an unpopular civilian government, a meddlesome military, politically motivated judges and an increasingly dangerous security environment. The expected withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year will fuel regional competition for new influence.
7. China: trouble in the neighborhood -- The Obama administration's recent emphasis on Asia will embolden China's neighbors to take more assertive positions with Beijing. Rising nationalism in China, its ongoing political transition, and the leadership's unwillingness -- perhaps inability -- to resolve internal debates about the country's role in the world suggest Beijing is especially likely to meet provocation with provocation in months to come with both naval and economic muscle.
8. Egypt: a transition in trouble -- Egypt faces the risk of political disintegration this year as anger builds between military and civilian political forces, both Islamist and secular. Egypt's base-line stability, its economic recovery, and its broader regional influence will suffer.
9. South Africa: populism ascendant -- The struggle for leadership of the ruling African National Congress will slow the pace of both policy and economic growth at a time when the eurozone crisis already weighs heavily on South Africa's trade and currency.
10. Venezuela: a no-win election -- The country's big political story this year is October's presidential election, which incumbent Hugo Chavez, if healthy enough for a vigorous campaign, is likely to narrowly win. But the outlook for economic and political stability is bad no matter the election result. Should Chavez die or abandon the race, the deep fissures between the Chavista movement and the opposition could stoke violence.
In addition, Eurasia Group identifies four red herrings, the big stories we don't believe will happen in 2012.
Fallout from the 2012 political transitions -- In 2012, we'll see political transitions in the U.S., China, Russia, and France, countries that together represent nearly half of global GDP and four-fifths of the UN Security Council. But there's surprisingly little at stake in the outcomes for geopolitics and the global economy.
This is probably the single most overrated risk of 2012. The political will to
maintain the eurozone remains strong among all the major political parties in
the core Eurozone states, almost across the board in the European periphery
and, just as importantly, among eurocrats in the ever-growing European
bureaucracy. And there's no effective political mechanism for a Eurozone
China's hard landing -- There are signs of overheated growth in China, but the state has the tools and resources to manage short-term trouble, and it will pull out every stop to prevent a serious slowdown, especially during a major political transition.
Mayan apocalypse -- Just isn't happening. And if it does, well, sorry.
Over the next three weeks, we'll be posting more ideas and information on each of these risks.
By Nicholas Consonery
Last week, in a major policy shift, Chinese officials gave Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party a big victory by signaling that China will not block Taiwan's trade negotiations with Singapore. In the past, Beijing has used heavy diplomatic pressure to block all but five of the island's potential bilateral trade agreements as part of a long-term campaign to limit Taiwan's global recognition.
What's more, the Ma administration appears convinced that Beijing will allow them to pursue trade agreements with other Southeast Asian governments in the months and years ahead. Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are the likeliest partners. Officials in Taipei also announced last week that they're pursuing an investment agreement with Tokyo that they hope will produce a trade agreement down the road. A higher level of economic integration with the broader Asian economy will encourage domestic restructuring in Taiwan and will boost the island's exports -- and therefore its economic strength. And all with Beijing's blessing.
What's going on here?
Reading Ian Bremmer's post below on the idiosyncrasies of Kim Jong-Il and Saparmurat Niyazov, I'm reminded that one of the toughest challenges for any analyst of politics is in predicting how an individual leader will make a particular decision. It's especially dangerous to assume that the president, prime minister, great dictator or "dear leader" sees his available options as we see them -- and that the key to accurately forecasting his choice is simply to find the most rational solution to his problem. He's not us, and we're not him. It's also dangerous to dismiss certain leaders as "madmen" whenever they surprise us and take some action that undermines our interpretation of their interests.
Six months ago, my friend Geoff Porter and I wrote a piece on Muammar al-Qaddafi. In it, we argued that the Libyan leader loves to spring surprises, but that his political calculations are not as crazy as they appear. Similar arguments can be made for Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- though the Iranian president made things a little tougher this week with a broadside attack on Paul the World Cup prognosticating octopus.
But what to make of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's recent decision to exhume the remains of Simón Bolívar, the revolutionary giant credited with liberating Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia from Spanish imperial rule? Conventional wisdom among historians is that tuberculosis killed Bolívar in 1830. But three years ago, not long after losing a public referendum he expected to win, Chávez began claiming that his hero had been murdered by a Colombian rival. Chávez ordered the exhumation to verify that the body buried in Bolívar's grave is in fact Bolívar, to run tests to determine the great man's true cause of death, and to rebury him among people of whom Chávez has a higher opinion.
Some say Chávez is simply manufacturing a murder mystery to divert public attention from Venezuela's deteriorating economy. True, things are bad. In the first quarter of 2010, Venezuela's economy contracted by 5.8 percent. Earthquake-ravaged Haiti is the only other country in the Western hemisphere to see its economy shrink so far this year. National oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) produces virtually all of the country's export revenue. The country's cash cow helped Venezuela produce 3.3 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in 2001. But a massive strike in 2002, the firings of thousands of PDVSA employees that followed, and the president's habit of milking the company for extra revenue have taken a toll. The government claims that it still produces 3 million bpd. Some experts claim the number is closer to 2.6 million. OPEC says Venezuela is now producing closer to 2.3 million.
In June, inflation hit 31.2 percent year on year. Venezuela imports nearly three quarters of its food, but shortages of basic foodstuffs in state-run grocery stores have eroded Chávez's popularity. A scandal erupted this spring when officials discovered tens of thousands of tons of imported food that had been abandoned to rot in state-run warehouses.
In other words, Chávez has plenty of reasons to create a diversion.
It's also true that no one does political theatre like Venezuela's president. The honor guard in blue gloves and white biohazard suits opening Bolívar's coffin made for unforgettable (official state) television. Anyone who missed the moment (and speaks Spanish) can relive the magic by reading President Chávez's live tweets from the event.
But history suggests it would be a mistake to overestimate Chávez's sanity when it comes to Simón Bolívar. He has renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and refers to his political agenda as the Bolivarian Revolution. He has been known to punctuate public speeches with his hero's jewel-encrusted solid gold saber. Some have accused Chávez of believing he is the reincarnation of his hero.
That's not fair. In their biography of Chávez, authors Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka recount an interesting story of how this mistake was corrected in the past. During the two years that Chávez spent in prison following a failed coup attempt in 1992, a former cellmate recounted a particularly memorable night of smuggled rum, kahlua and tobacco. Chávez "began to tremble and speak like an old man," the witness remembered. Addressed as the ghost of General Bolívar, Chávez replied, "No, I'm not General Bolívar. Don't flatter me." When another inmate guessed that Chávez might be inhabited by the spirit of his great grandfather General Pedro Perez Delgado, Chávez replied "That's right my son, here I am."
Maybe it never happened. Most of the witnesses who served as sources for this story are former allies who are no longer on Chávez's Christmas list -- though a key source mentioned by name in the account is now deputy foreign minister. It does seem to fit the profile that has emerged over the years of a megalomaniacal leader who believes he must fight American colonialism just as Bolívar fought Spanish imperialists -- a man who sometimes leaps across the boundary separating fantasy from reality.
In other words, to forecast what one individual might do, we have to account for every possibility -- including that, on some subjects, the man we're studying might be just a little nutty.
Willis Sparks is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice.
BERTRAND PARRES/AFP/Getty Images
For more than half a century, relations between Israel and Turkey have provided a degree of stability in the turbulent politics of the Middle East. Turkey was among the first majority-Muslim states to recognize Israel in 1948, and the two countries have profited from bilateral trade and military cooperation ever since. Unfortunately for Israel, things are changing.
It's not that current tensions between them will destroy their commercial relationship. Turkey remains Israel's top trade partner in the region. Nor is it that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government will move Turkey into some sort of anti-Israeli alliance with Iran and Syria. Turkey remains a member of NATO. And though accession talks on European Union membership are going nowhere, neither side wants to abandon efforts to bring Turkey and Europe closer together.
Yet, there's a change underway in Turkey's regional role, a shift rooted in the country's bitter internal politics, and it's not one that Israel will like. Erdogan and the AKP have seen their popularity eroded over time as the party's battle with Turkey's secularist establishment in the military, business community, and media has polarized the political class and dominated the country's agenda. But like so many leaders over time and around the world, Erdogan has discovered that foreign-policy accomplishments that raise a country's international profile can bolster a government's standing at home.
Recent international developments have added to Turkey regional clout. The U.S. regional presence is waning as U.S. troops are rapidly withdrawn from Iraq. Europe is too fully occupied with problems within the Eurozone to take up the slack as Washington redeploys. Regional players like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are distracted to some degree by questions of political succession. It will be years before Iraq's government has the self-confidence to play its traditional regional role. Though Iran's government has forced the opposition off the streets, the turmoil of the past year has done lasting damage.
This leaves Turkey in a
strong position. It's one of very few countries with influence in both Washington and Tehran.
Expectations for robust economic growth -- the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) forecasts an average of 6.7 percent per year between 2011
and 2017 -- bolster the government's self-confidence and the country's
reputation as a rising regional powerbroker.
This is bad news for Israel. At Davos in January 2009, Erdogan won widespread praise among critics of Israel by storming off stage following a heated exchange over Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Peres. This spring, Turkey burnished its geopolitical credentials by joining Brazil in a plan to end the international standoff over Iran's nuclear program -- and in voting no on U.S. and European-sponsored U.N. sanctions on Tehran. When an Israeli raid on a flotilla of ships trying to break a blockade of supplies to Gaza killed nine Turkish activists last month, Erdogan again won international applause by denouncing the attack as a "bloody massacre."
The risk is real that Erdogan will make good on threats to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel. There's not much Israel can do about it, and officials in Tel Aviv are mainly downplaying the problem to avoid making matters worse for economic relations. But they know well that Erdogan is looking to play a higher-profile, more independent role in Middle East politic -- and that Turkey is a friend that Israel can ill afford to lose.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
The 11 people arrested and accused of spying for Russia have titillated the tabloids and reminded Cold War veterans of the good old days. But they won't do much damage to U.S.-Russian relations. In fact, the two governments are getting along much better at the moment. There are three major reasons for this, and all of them have to do with the view from the Kremlin.
recently ailing economy is now feeling much better. The financial crisis
inflicted more damage on Russia
than on most other emerging markets, in part because of a steep drop in oil
prices. When Obama first proposed a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow was hemorrhaging
reserves, and Kremlin officials hadn't arrived at any clear idea on what to do
about it. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was traveling the country assuring local workers
that complacent oligarchs, not state officials, were to blame for the
volatility, and that their government would ensure that all would again be
well. President Dmitry Medvedev and his more western-oriented advisors were
beginning to look like convenient scapegoats should the public become restive
and Putin run out of businessmen to punish.
Things have changed. The economy has picked up thanks to some skillful economic management and a rise in oil prices out of the danger zone.
is feeling much better about its neighborhood. The Orange Revolution is now a
distant memory. In 2004, a presidential election in Ukraine lifted the Putin-endorsed
Viktor Yanukovych over Viktor Yushchenko. But Ukrainian nationalists and
several Western governments charged fraud, and the race was re-run. Yushchenko
won the do-over, fueling suspicion and hostility in Moscow. But his leadership earned little
public confidence during his five-year tenure, and Ukraine's latest election elevated
Yanukovych, who has now taken his country's bid to join NATO off the table for the foreseeable future.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
For the sixth time in less than four years, the U.N. Security Council has voted to impose new sanctions on Iran in connection with its nuclear program. Nothing new there. U.S. officials wanted stronger measures, but the Chinese in particular pushed back hard. Nothing new there either. The sanctions, which are still significantly tougher than earlier models and include tightened restrictions on arms sales, new headaches for Iranian shipping, and an assault on the finances of the Revolutionary Guard and about 40 Iranian companies, will not persuade Iran's government to renounce its nuclear ambitions. Nor is there anything new there.
The real news is that Turkey and Brazil voted no. That's a diplomatic coup for Tehran, which in five previous UNSC votes had won virtually no support. Qatar voted no on the first round of sanctions in July 2006. Indonesia abstained on the fourth round in March 2008. Support from regional heavyweights like Turkey and Brazil (and an abstention from Lebanon) give Iran something tangible to build on as its embattled government works to ease its isolation and to persuade other governments to resist U.S. and European calls for further sanctions outside the U.N. process.
President Ahmadinejad's recent dance card-a Russia/Turkey summit on security just before the sanctions vote and a trip to Beijing just after-illustrates the value of that strategy.
But there's a larger point here about the current state of international politics. It's getting harder for Washington to exercise international leadership. With 10 percent unemployment, an ambitious legislative agenda, an oil spill, and mid-term elections to worry about, President Obama has limited time and energy to invest in grand strategy on foreign policy. Managing geopolitical risk has also become much more complicated in a world that has shifted from a G7 model of international leadership to a G20 model that brings countries like Brazil and Turkey to the international bargaining table. And there is no emerging power willing and able to fill the gap left by new limits on American power and resources, because European powers, China, Russia and others who might lead on key transnational issues are likewise occupied with complex challenges at home.
In other words, no one is really steering this ship, and we can't expect it to sail smoothly through troubled waters.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
By Eurasia Group analyst Sean West
Earlier this month, the G8+5, the world's leading industrial states plus some other important developing states, committed to finishing the Doha Round of trade talks by the end of 2010. U.S. and Chinese officials paid lip service to finishing Doha this week during the inaugural bilateral "Strategic and Economic Dialogue." World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy will likely cite both announcements as cause for celebration. Healthy skepticism is in order.
Overblown fears of oncoming protectionism were all the rage just weeks ago. But as Ian Bremmer wrote in this space back in March, the financial crisis need not trigger as many new trade barriers as some feared. Still, the global liberalization envisioned by a completed Doha Round by the end of next year is likely a bridge too far.
Pledges aside, there's not much reason to be optimistic that a deal can be concluded in the near future. Personality conflicts may have receded, as both Susan Schwab and Kamal Nath -- who banged heads last year -- no longer represent the United States and India respectively. But domestic conditions in the wake of the financial crisis won't help much with trade liberalization. While there's ample reason to be skeptical that neither China nor the EU are any more ready conclude an agreement than in the past, all other countries can play wait-and-see unless and until the United States shows serious leadership.
Obama has yet to lay out a clear strategy for the Doha Round. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has said several times that the United States considers Doha completion as critical, but there's no evidence yet that he'll have the political support he needs to set policy and to bargain. Comments from Obama himself on Doha have been ambiguous at best, warning of an "imbalance" in potential trade-offs on the table in current negotiations. It's also not yet clear how much political capital Obama will put at risk at a moment when he needs the support of organized labor for a host of other domestic priorities. And in a nod to agricultural interests, he allowed his budget proposal to cut farm subsidies -- a critical sticking point in the Doha negotiations -- to die on arrival.
Real movement on trade policy remains on hold until the president explains publicly how trade policy fits into his administration's broader agenda -- a speech he might give in advance of the September G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. But he'll have to use that speech to persuade an anxious American public -- and many trade skeptical US lawmakers -- that trade deals can spur growth without killing jobs. Obama has an advantage. His history suggests that he believes in the benefits of trade, and in a Nixon-goes-to-China way, he can spend political capital earned on the campaign trail to bring trade-wary Democrats along with his initiatives. But he has so far provided no indication that he's ready to accept the political risks that come with the push needed to get Doha done within 18 months.
RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.