As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters
Many readers expressed interest in the provocative comments of strategic forecaster George Friedman, founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, that we published in the March 31 issue of WORLD. Here are more edited excerpts of our recent interview.
I’ll give you the names of seven world leaders. You tell me whether they will be up or down a year from now in terms of either their popularity or their success. Let’s start with Donald Trump. Up or down? Pretty much where he is. He doesn’t have enough support to rise, and he has enough opposition to keep him where he is. He represents a real movement in the United States. He can fall and he may lose the election in 2020, but that movement isn’t going away.
Vladimir Putin? Putin will be precisely where he is, bluffing a busted flush. His economy is a wreck. His military is not capable of managing the Syrian situation. It’s a complete disaster for him, but he is bluffing beautifully.
Xi Jinping? Xi has declared himself the emperor of China. He is much weaker than he appears. He has a tremendous economic, financial problem. He has to fix it. He can’t fix it without hurting people. He is arresting anyone who might be able to respond, but it’s spreading wider and wider, so he has real opposition. He may survive, but the myth that this is another Mao Zedong is just myth. He is fighting for his life.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Erdogan will be even stronger than he is now. He can say he has found a basis for reconciling Islam and secularism. It is not a pleasant reconciliation, and it will probably not be this way in Turkey for the long run, but he is in charge and is the one leader in the area whose power can’t be questioned internally.
Benjamin Netanyahu? It’s very possible that he will be out, but it doesn’t matter because whoever replaces him will basically have the same position. Israel’s political structure is now fairly stable. It is heavily tilted toward right-wing nationalists. The old left is in decline, so you can pull him out, but the policy will remain the same.
Angela Merkel? Finished. If she remains as chancellor, her power is a shadow of what it was. The right wing took it from her—almost all its votes came from her party, the Christian Democratic Union. In some ways the Social Democrats are more powerful members of the coalition: They now control finance and foreign policy, and she’ll be in charge of meetings. Whether she will be out or in almost doesn’t matter.
Nicolás Maduro Moros? If you want to talk about a place that’s crazy, it’s Venezuela. They are smuggling diapers across the border across from Colombia. That’s how crazy they are. The army refuses to take out Maduro. The oppositions are waging war against each other as to who is going to be the next Cabinet minister after Maduro leaves, and therefore they can’t force Maduro out. No one in the outside has enough interest in what happens to intervene. No one in Venezuela has enough power to replace him.
‘[Trump] doesn’t have enough votes in Congress to get anything done. His best bet is to hold his base together and hope lightning strikes.’
Let’s talk about some places that are now miserable. Anything the U.S. can do to help the suffering people of Venezuela? One of the greatest sins is wishful thinking. We saw that in Libya when we killed Qaddafi and assumed that now everything would be all right. It got much worse. Nothing makes things as bad as good intentions complete with ignorance of the situation.
The United States says, basically, it’s not our fight? We would have to go in, invade, disarm the army, get rid of the president, impose a government, and then find out Venezuelan people actually prefer their own tyrant to American largesse. We learned this in Iraq, and it was really stunning. They hated Saddam Hussein. They hated us more.
And in Syria, the civil war keeps going on and on. This is what the Middle East normally looks like. It’s a cockpit of everybody’s ambitions. A big winner in this war so far is Iran. The defeat of ISIS cut the Iranians loose to dominate Iraq. They now dominate the Iraqi army. They gained a position in Syria. So now we see Israel changing its position. Until very recently Israel was in the best position it has been in. Its borders were completely secure. Syria was in chaos. Jordanians are friendly. Egyptians are friendly. Nothing is happening in Lebanon. Suddenly they’ve got the Iranians right there. And as the chief of staff of the Israeli army put it, “We’re going to war in 2018.”
True? The head of Israel’s defense forces has said that, which means it’s either true or it’s a lie. I can’t tell.
Do you have anything to say to Syrians who have been bombed and are living in basements—if they survived? Does this torture go on and on and on? Someone in Syria is going to be bloodied, killed, maybe annihilated. The choice is: Who’s going to be miserable? This is an issue that has existed ever since the French invented Syria back after World War I. The only time there has been peace is when there was a brutal dictator.
So your advice to the rebels would be: Give up? They can’t give up because they would be treated horribly. They could only keep fighting.
They’re being treated horribly. The choice is horribly or very horribly.
Let’s come back to President Trump. How can he advance his presidency? The tactical problem: He doesn’t have enough votes in Congress to get anything done. To get something done he’s got to give something. If he gives something, his base is going to revolt. His best bet is to hold his base together and hope lightning strikes.
What’s the role of his incendiary tweets? They strengthen his base, and they further strengthen it because newspapers attack him. Newspapers and Trump are now in a symbiotic relationship. Trump needs The New York Times and The Washington Post. He needs them to be unreasonably hostile. They need him because their circulation was way down. Now their newspapers are Trump all the time. It is the only subject. They have saved each other.
Symbiosis? He helps The New York Times solidify its control of a very important group. Remember, the votes for Hillary came from the Boston-Washington corridor and the West Coast of the United States. The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times need him to do things so they can write another story. If he went silent, The New York Times would just be another newspaper instead of the spokesman for the Northeast.
So, no way the attacks on Trump will decrease? If he didn’t tweet, he’d be attacked for the kind of press conference he held. If he didn’t hold a press conference, he’d still be attacked. He’s in a business he’s never been in, and the knives were out for him the moment he went to Washington. He gave them all sorts of ammunition because that held his support together. What is a tweet but a press release that’s shortened? It is in a way refreshing to hear directly from the president, not filtered through newspapers. He doesn’t know how to hedge.
—For more of George Friedman’s thinking, go to geopoliticalfutures.com