Making predictions three weeks before the U.S. election is risky, but the likeliest bet right now is that the center will hold in American politics and Hillary Clinton will be elected president. That’s important for lots of reasons, the biggest of which is that it could begin to stabilize a very unsettled world.Nate Silver, a leading polling guru, projected Monday night that based on major surveys, the chances of a Clinton victory had increased to 88 percent, up 5 points in a week and 33 points from her low ebb in September before the first debate. Silver estimates that Clinton has a roughly 7-point lead in the polls, about the same margin in the Real Clear Politics average.
Anything could happen in three weeks, of course, but these numbers should dampen, at least slightly, what has been a feverish global mood. Traveling on three continents over the past two months, I have heard widespread anxiety about the state of the world. To many analysts, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has seemed on the march while the U.S. and its allies are in retreat.
The danger of U.S.-Russian conflict was described by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior CIA officer, in a recent article. “As a lifelong observer of Russia, I have never been as concerned as I am now on the state of Russian-American relations,” he wrote. “A dangerous zero-sum game pattern has emerged as U.S. and Russia make moves and countermoves that mimic practice during the Cold War.”
Aggressive Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria and cyberspace have led some analysts to review Cold War texts such as Herman Kahn’s classic “On Escalation,” which describes a psychology of “escalation dominance” where adversaries take action in the expectation that they will prevail. Some experts argue that Russia is tempted by the perception that the U.S. has lost its superiority in conventional weapons and its will to use them.
But there’s more stability in the current U.S.-Russian confrontations than some might think. First, diplomatic conversation between the two countries is nearly continuous. It’s easy to make fun of Secretary of State John Kerry’s tireless (and seemingly fruitless) negotiations with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. But these meetings reduce the possibility of accidental conflict. So do the almost daily contacts between the U.S. and Russian militaries to “deconflict” potential confrontations over Syria.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is working on new high-tech weapons that should eventually restore U.S. “overmatch.”
Russia’s seemingly dominant position in these conflicts is also more fragile than it looks. That’s because of the growing weakness of an economy suffering from sanctions and low oil prices.
Russia, by most measures, is moving in reverse: The International Monetary Fund projects a decline in GDP this year of 0.8 percent. Monthly wages fell by 9.5 percent in the year ended in August. Russia’s “rainy day” cash reserve has declined by nearly two-thirds since 2014.
Military muscle masks Russian economic decline. According to Reuters columnist William Pomeranz, the government’s share of GDP has nearly doubled over the last decade to about 70 percent, heading back toward Soviet levels. This has brought gross corruption and inefficiency. Even in its showcase energy sector, Russia lacks the technology to develop difficult offshore or Arctic reserves.
U.S. campaign rhetoric sometimes makes it seem like the world is falling apart. But the next president will inherit a stronger American economy and structure of global alliances than the sound bites suggest.
European allies, for example, are stressed by migration and populist anger. But so far, the fragile center seems to be holding there, too, and it would probably be reinforced by a Clinton victory. In Asia, the next administration will build on enhanced economic and military ties with two close partners, South Korea and Japan, which over the past year (with careful nudging from Washington) have become better friends with each other, too.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the biggest threat to the future remains the traditional Cold War problem of nuclear weapons. North Korea is recklessly seeking to become a nuclear state. Iran’s program has been contained, but for how long? And Russian leaders, recognizing their severe lag behind U.S. conventional forces (despite the showy operations in Syria), still seem to see their strategic depth in terms of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. election, on current evidence, will probably yield a modest consolidation for global order after a period of stress. The good news is that the bad news seems less likely than a few weeks ago. But as Nov. 8 approaches, the world is holding its breath.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.