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posted on 02 May 2016

If We Covered The U.S. Election


-- this post authored by Rodger Baker

Stratfor strives to provide impartial geopolitical analysis and forecasts that identify critical trends in global and regional affairs, explaining the world's complexities in a simple but not simplistic manner. Through the years we have always sought to adhere to these core underlying principles, with mixed success.

Remaining "unbiased" in part means staying out of politics, avoiding policy prescriptions (or proscriptions), and addressing issues not from a good/bad or right/wrong approach but rather from a view of effective/ineffective. It means at times stepping away from the emotions of issues, examining deeper compulsions and constraints, and observing how leaders and global actors modify their behavior based on the shifting circumstances in which they find themselves.

It is a difficult endeavor and one that draws various accusations from our readers. We are accused of seeing the world through Cold Warrior lenses, of not caring about human rights and human dignity, of promoting some form of old-school realpolitik. At times, this underpinning philosophy draws equal accusations of being liberal shills, of being too centered on the United States, and of justifying the behavior of dictatorial or repressive regimes. At our best, we garner equal quantities of impassioned responses from all sides of an issue. Criticism is not something we shy from, particularly if our mandate is to ease back the curtains of perception and reveal, as best as possible, the underlying realities of a very complex world system.

For a company accused of being too focused on the United States, we also often receive criticism from our readers for failing to write enough about it. It has been noted more than once that we largely steer clear of covering U.S. politics or even presidential elections. In the grand scheme of geopolitics, over time the role of individuals is largely washed out - to be overly simplistic, the individuals rarely matter. This is, of course, not true, but it is a way to look beyond the subjective desires of leaders and instead to examine the objective realities they face, the circumstances that shape and constrain their options, the structure of the system in which they work, and the upbringing and background that color the way they see and interpret information and make decisions.

In some ways one could argue that, on a broad global scale, the difference in individual presidents, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to whoever succeeds him, has only minimal implications. Bush did not enter the White House with the intent to invade Afghanistan (it is highly unlikely that any U.S. president could conceive of a worse place for a maritime power to find itself). Obama did not enter the White House intending to be engaged in a conflict in Syria. One could perhaps argue that Franklin Roosevelt did intend to enter the war in Europe. But his initial comments, along with those of Woodrow Wilson ahead of U.S. involvement in World War I, gave little sense that this was the direction in which he was headed. Wilson sought to focus on domestic political issues; Roosevelt led an increasingly isolationist nation. World events placed stark choices before them. Bush had September 11. The Syrian civil war, the overall fight against terrorism and the rebalancing of the Middle East placed Syria on Obama's agenda, despite his grand proclamations of a Pacific pivot, which even at the end of his presidency looks a whole lot more modest than envisioned.

Geopolitics can help us understand the implications and pressures on different states, and the way those may limit or compel certain responses. But geopolitics is predictive of broad trends, not of final decisions. We strongly reject the idea of geopolitical determinism, but we also reject the idea that politics is somehow so fundamentally different from other fields that the human agent is supreme. Few completely reject Adam Smith's assertion of an invisible hand in economics; we argue that geopolitics helps us identify elements of a hidden hand in international politics. The narrower the time frame, the more discrete the geography and the more immediate the decision, the less geopolitics explains. But there are other analytical and collection tools to help account for that. Given our broad mandate to use geopolitics to explain the flow of the world system, rather than looking at individuals as unrestrained decision-makers, we seek to understand the circumstances and environment in which they operate. We don't call elections, but we do seek to identify the forces that shape the processes and the realities that will face the officials who rise to power, through whatever means.

Bias, Intentional or Otherwise

So more immediately, we are asked why we do not address the current U.S. presidential election. The first answer is that the contest is not yet at the election stage. We are watching the intraparty competition play out on the way to the nomination. This is politics at its most basic level: a component of a geopolitical approach, but only a component. Perhaps there is room at this stage to read from the primaries some of the broader undercurrents shaping society that will continue to play a role once a president is elected. But frankly, the market is saturated with assessments of the minutiae of day-to-day campaigning. If we are to help our readers understand the world system, there is only so much that we could add to that daily flow of information, assertions and assessments of the current campaigners - and little at this stage yet rises to broader significance.

Perhaps more directly, we do not cover the U.S. election at the same day-to-day depth as the general news media or political commentators not only because we are not political commentators but also because, for the most part, our staff lives in the United States. And this is where the risk of bias materializes. We are designed to be a neutral, nonpartisan service. On U.S. politics (as opposed to policy), it is hard to maintain that nonpartisan approach. Just by living here, we have a stake in the outcome of the analysis that could taint our perceptions. This is not insurmountable - one does not avoid bias by denying its existence but rather by recognizing openly and honestly what that bias is.

Bias is not always intentional. Intentional bias is the easiest to overcome, since it is the most obvious. On the other hand, subconscious bias requires more intense searching to discover. Bias is a natural result of numerous factors: Upbringing, family life, personal experiences, faith, education, friends and location all shape the individual and the way the individual sees things. We often argue here that one piece of information in five hands is of greater value than five pieces of information in one hand, thanks to the variety of perspectives that can be brought to bear. This is why Stratfor's analytical staff is multinational in composition. Techniques such as acknowledging and identifying bias, using alternative viewpoints in the analytical process, and clearly laying out assumptions as differentiated from facts all serve to help overcome bias. Perhaps the best individuals we could use to cover the U.S. election, then, would be foreign nationals living abroad, able to observe the process through less invested eyes.

A Dispassionate View

If we were to apply our process to the U.S. election, as divested of outcome and involvement as we are with other countries, it would perhaps be jarring to our U.S. readership (and perhaps our foreign readership as well). We would discuss the struggles within the opposition conservative party. With no viable centrist candidate, it is instead torn between a strong right-wing fringe candidate with a reputation among his own party in Congress for being uncooperative and an outsider businessman/media star who has openly donated to both parties in years past and who favors provocative statements (perhaps even intentionally provocative, given his extensive media experience). We would talk about the clashes within the ruling liberal party between an establishment candidate, the spouse of a former president and potentially the first woman to assume the U.S. presidency, and an avowed socialist who, despite his age, has drawn heavily on youth support.

We would look at a nation that is still recovering from a massive economic downturn, one that rocked the world. A country where the financial institutions that contributed to the crisis not only appear to have avoided punishment but also are once again thriving, exacerbating the gap between the status of economic recovery overall and the public's perception of economic stability. It is a country that, not necessarily seeing a strong economic recovery for the middle class or blue-collar labor, is now turning against immigration (once again - this has been a fairly typical cycle since nearly the nation's foundation).

It is a country that has been heavily engaged in overseas conflict for well over a decade, where support for the seemingly interminable, distant war is flagging. A country not only facing an imprecisely defined opponent (is terrorism a thing, an ideology or a group of people?) but also seeing the resurgence of peer rivals (Russia and perhaps China). It is a country dealing with a fracturing Europe, long the center of a global alliance structure. A country coming to grips with the unrequested, but no less real, shift of the global center of gravity from the North Atlantic to the North American continent. It is a country that appears to have a global responsibility but that, after years of extensive involvement, has come to question that duty.

It is a country with a changing population that, like those in Japan, South Korea and even China, is grappling with the changed significance of a college education. Meanwhile, a large segment of the population is soon heading for retirement. It is a country undergoing a new round of internal debates over just what social justice means in the "American" context; each expansion in the concepts of freedom and personal rights is considered by some as advancement and by others as further deviation from a known "ideal." It is a country that, consistent with its relative security, has the leisure to debate morality but also to question whether equality and individual freedom are achievable or even desirable at their extremes.

In short, it is a country that, on the largest scale, is now emerging as the center of the global system. On a narrower scale, it is a country ending a cycle of heavy international military engagement and shifting back toward, if not isolationism, at least the pursuit of (or reliance on) a balance-of-power strategy to manage the world system without policing it. It is a country that is coming out of a major economic crisis and seeing its labor market change with shifting technology. Although the shifts have led to new business methods and economic activity, they have also brought job losses in some sectors. It is a country that, like many other places in the world, is struggling with national identity at a time when globalization appears relevant and desirable.

What we see, then, is not yet the U.S. election, but instead the stage for that election. The process is less about the candidates than about the system that has allowed these individuals, as opposed to others, to rise to prominence. We see not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, or even John Kasich. Instead, we see the way these individuals - the systems in which they operate and the undercurrents of society - lead to this broader debate on a national level. What any of them will do as president will be a much different story. We can see the space into which they will emerge and how that might constrain their options. But a president does not exist in a vacuum. There is a Cabinet, a Congress, the courts, a society and the international system. It is not that the individual doesn't matter but rather that the individual will exist in a space that he or she largely does not control. Looking at the candidates, then, if we were to get partisan at all, it would be to find the ones most able to adapt and to act in a rapidly changing environment.

"If We Covered the U.S. Election" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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