Jan 2, 2018

In 2017, unstable leaders took charge and big tech got its comeuppance

Putin, at a reception for Russian servicemen in Moscow on Dec. 27, 2017. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty)

Forecasters recovered last year after a horrendous 2016, when Brexit and Donald Trump broadsided almost everyone. I went five of six in my own annual geopolitical forecasts for 2017, a heyday for inward-facing, nationalistic and threatening politicians who led by grievance and communicated in cheap shots. Trump, Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un were at the center of much of the action. But Big Tech was there too.

How it works: The forecasts are guided by 15 common-sense rules of geopolitics (here are the first 14 plus the 15th), general principles for figuring out the direction of big events.

Where the forecasts were right:

  • A "triangle of instability" arose, consisting of Russia, North Korea and the United States. The source of this instability was their temperamental, unpredictable leaders who relished violating international norms—Trump, Putin and Kim. The forecast flowed from the Big Personality Rule, which defines leaders whose larger-than-life, idiosyncratic behavior can trigger and dominate events. But it was the compound impact when these willful outliers intersected that made the triangle of instability a particularly dangerous dynamic, one that continues into this year with promise of continued cyber attack on one another, and the threat of nuclear war.
  • Trump zealously executed on his immigration and trade agendas, as forecasted. He deported 25% more illegal immigrants than occurred in the Obama administration in 2016, withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and threatened to pull out of NAFTA. This forecast relied on the True Believer Rule, which explains the behavior of zealots who push ahead in the service of their own belief system, often regardless of old and new facts.
  • There was a backlash against Silicon Valley. After years of near deification as the lords of cool, Big Tech took in on the chin in 2017. Google, Facebook and Twitter especially found themselves suddenly at real risk of regulation by Congress, fallout of the Russian intrusion into the 2016 election. The forecast predicted an uprising against Big Tech, but from a different source—ordinary Americans who seemed likely to come to understand that automation was at the heart of their economic dislocation. But whichever the source of Big Tech's misery, it tracked back to the Injustice Rule, which can turn situations when large numbers of people feel aggrieved. In this case, Congress decided that Big Tech companies had been reckless and unheeding of the danger of their work, and demanded action.
  • The U.S. and China swapped roles. In a jarring speech at Davos last January, Chinese President Xi Jinping volunteered to carry the mantle of protector of the liberal world order. Meanwhile, Beijing enacted economic policies seeking to dominate future tech industries including self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. The Mountain Rule was at play here, describing the behavior of large states with outsized opinions of their place in the world. In this case, with Trump pulling the U.S. back from the leading role it held as the creator and defender of the post-World War II order, Xi was helpfully offering to assume that part himself, and meanwhile moving to capture the future economy as well.
  • Trump mostly held back from challenging China, a forbearance that he treated as a quid pro quo in exchange for Xi cracking down on North Korea. But that generosity did not stretch to the South China Sea, the usual theater of Chinese-American brinksmanship. A lot of analysts said any Trump aggressiveness seemed muted at best in this strategic body of water, especially in that the U.S. now called off naval forays. But that impression seemed to ignore numerous air actions by U.S. war jets, including this one in February and this one in May, not to mention this one in July. Again, the Mountain Rule was at play. In terms of consequences, the U.S. and China were risking the Rule of Miscalculation, which explains sometimes catastrophic accidents that can happen despite anyone's actual desires (think World War I). This factor was highlighted in the fall, when China deployed its own fighter jets in the sea as well.

And where it was wrong:

  • Putin did not—at least publicly—offer up Edward Snowden as a bargaining chip for better relations with the United States. Snowden, you'll recall, is the former NSA contractor who fled the U.S. in 2013 with a cache of top American secrets, went on to release them, and now lives in exile in Moscow. Prior to Putin's campaign for re-election in March 2018, this seemed like a chance for both him and Trump to play big. Alas, the kerfuffle over Russia's shenanigans in the 2016 U.S. election took center stage. Given the turn in relations, no such creative diplomacy took place, or looks likely any time soon.
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