The Crisis of Polling

George Friedman - February 9, 2016

Last week, in the run-up to the first vote that would help determine the Democratic and Republican nominees for U.S. president, polls said that Donald Trump would win the Iowa Caucuses. He didn't. There are many explanations for this, the leading ones being that his supporters were heavily tilted toward those who had never shown up at a caucus before, that the campaign's "ground game" was off and that his supporters didn't turn out to caucus. These are reasonable explanations and certainly part of the answer, but the issue of polling accuracy goes beyond Trump. British Prime Minister David Cameron was trailing, according to polls, prior to the election in 2015. He won a solid victory. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was supposed to be in the fight of his life before the 2015 parliamentary election according to Turkish polls. He won a substantial victory. It also seemed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would lose in 2015, and then he won. And in 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's pollsters genuinely believed he would beat Barack Obama. He didn't.

For many years, election polls were extraordinarily accurate. They may still have value, but they can no longer reliably predict which candidate will get the most votes on election day. It is important to understand why this has changed and how it impacts politics, bearing in mind that this is a global, not solely American, phenomenon.

Polling depends on three things. First, a detailed model of how people voted in previous elections in discrete geographical areas. Second, there must be a mathematical model for comparing current polling results with historical patterns. Finally, there must be a method for collecting data based on where the voters will vote. For a long time, the focus has been on the mathematical model. The basic data set had sufficient details and was the template against which to measure current data, and the mathematical model did the measuring and compensated for shifts. Many pollsters would say that this is too simplistic and I have missed many details. They'd be right, but what I'm trying to do is get a sense of why polling results have become so unreliable.

For years, the baseline used for U.S. polls was election results on a precinct level plus social and economic data drawn from the U.S. census or equivalent sources around the country. Using this data, pollsters could determine key social traits of the area, from the dominant religion to the average age of residents. Then, the polling organizations would call people in the area and ask them questions. This was relatively simple. Landline phones allowed pollsters to determine the location of the polling respondents.

The Anti-Migrant "Eastern European Union" With Orban As Emperor

Boris Kalnoky - February 9, 2016

This article originally appeared in Die Welt

BERLIN - Europe's migration situation is about to escalate - and it's taking the whole continent with it.

The recent influx of would-be refugees are putting pressure on governments in eastern and southeastern Europe in a way not seen since the end of communism. Their voting populations will now decide if their leaders made the right decision in wanting to join the European Union.

Eastern leaders increasingly complain about the functional failure of the public-policy machine in Brussels, as well as Germany's indecisiveness over policies to limit the entry of refugees.

Saudi Arabia Is Bringing Iran to Its Knees

Mudar Zahran - February 9, 2016

On January 11, 2016, Iran's official media confirmed the state had filled the Arak nuclear reactor core with concrete. In short: Iran has killed its flagship nuclear site and its nuclear program is now limited to smaller projects, paperwork, research and, of course, propaganda videos.

But how could this have happened? While the US-Iran nuclear deal does dictate that Iran must reduce the operational capacity of the Arak nuclear reactor in particular, nobody could have believed Iran would have jumped to execute this part of the deal so quickly. Iran has been known to never give up anything except for handsome rewards.

Iran's "sweet surrender" would never have been possible without the sophisticated and determined pressure of one country; Saudi Arabia, and one man; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

For years Saudi Arabia has been warning the West against the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East. What helps Saudi Arabia here is that it understands the region much better than many Western governments. When the revolution broke out in Syria in 2011, the West in particular dealt with it as local unrest, an armed revolution or a civil war at worst. Saudi Arabia understood clearly even then that Iran was on a mission to control Syria and turn it into terrorism export hub.

Meet the 'Ndragheta

Anna Sergi - February 5, 2016

The global war against mafias has a new number one enemy: the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta. At the centre of drug busts and manhunts throughout Europe and around the world, this mafia group from the deepest south of Italy seems to be everywhere. The ’Ndrangheta dominates the drug trade and shares business with El Chapo, all the while maintaining a constant presence in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Canada and the United States.

Although it was only recently categorised as a mafia in Italian law in 2010, the ’Ndrangheta has been around for as long as its well-known sister group, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. The name first entered the public consciousness during the 1980s and 90s, when the ’Ndrangheta carried out a series of kidnappings across Italy, in what was one of the bloodiest chapters of Calabrian history.

In August 2007, it stepped onto the global stage, when an internal feud led to the public murder of six Italians in Duisburg, Germany. By the end of the 2000s, the ’Ndrangheta was notorious around the world for operating a major trans-Atlantic cocaine ring.

The group’s singular name has Greek origins: the word “andranghateia” refers to a “society of men of honour”, and “andrangathō” means “to do military actions”. Like any other mafia, the ’Ndrangheta is highly secretive and operates within strict honour codes, which are deeply embedded in the societal values of Calabria. It has built a reputation on the violence of its feuds, the reliability of its business affiliates, its political influence and its global presence.

Will the West Choose to Lead on Trade?

Xenia Wickett - February 5, 2016

On Feb. 5, the United States and 11 other states finally signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade deal that was negotiated last October. The partnership represents the future; it is a milestone in what will be a slow but inexorable march toward open trade. And yet there is enormous resistance, enough so that U.S. President Barack Obama is unlikely to be able to move it through Congress on his watch. Whether one likes globalization or not, change is coming. The TPP allows its members (particularly the United States) to manage and lead that change. The alternative would be less comfortable for the West.

Putting aside politics and strategic importance for one moment, the mere process of getting the TPP ratified is going to be a painful one (in the United States and other member states). With the deal signed, the U.S. administration will have to provide Congress with the administering regulation indicating how it is to be managed. It then goes to the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee for debate.

Meanwhile, the International Trade Commission has already started reviewing the deal and anticipates completing its report on May 18, exploring the TPP's impact on U.S. gross domestic product, on exports and imports, and on employment and consumers.

It then can finally go to the full U.S. Congress for a simple majority vote.

The British-EU Agreement

George Friedman - February 3, 2016

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been negotiating with European Council President Donald Tusk on an amendment to the agreement that governs British membership in the European Union. As many other European countries are experiencing, there is a rising opposition in Britain to EU membership. Cameron is in favor of membership but is also committed to holding a national referendum later this year or early next year on whether the United Kingdom should remain a part of the EU. At the same time, he has been trying to redefine the British relationship with the EU, in order to diminish the opposition.

A draft agreement was reached on Feb. 2 and it is, like all international agreements, long and impenetrable. It is also subject to approval by all EU member states, and there are still some details - particularly on the key issue of a graduated system of benefits for European migrants - that are up for negotiation. Extracting the proposed agreement's essence is not easy. But even if the document is impenetrable, the core objection of opponents of EU membership is not. The opponents want to maintain British sovereignty and want Britain to have the right to reject or ignore the EU regulations with which they disagree. Simply put, they want to be ruled by their own sovereign and parliament as the supreme and undisputed law of the land.

There are many other issues involved and the views expressed by opponents are frequently more complex. But in the end, the principle of sovereignty is critical not only to opponents of EU membership but to the supporters who want to remain in the union but also want to retain some degree of control over the EU's regulations. If Cameron had been able to negotiate an agreement that substantially narrowed the EU's power to regulate Britain, the opposition would have collapsed, or at least been mortally weakened.

This is what Cameron went home with:

Where reasoned opinions on the non-compliance of a draft EU legislative act with the principle of subsidiarity, sent within 12 weeks from the transmission of that draft, represent more than 55% of the votes allocated to the national Parliaments, the Council Presidency will include the item on the agenda of the Council for a comprehensive discussion on these opinions and on the consequences to be drawn therefrom.

Russia's Manipulation of Germany's Refugee Problem

Judy Dempsey - February 3, 2016

The Kremlin and the Russian media are using Europe's refugee crisis to sow further divisions in the EU and weaken Angela Merkel.

Russia's propaganda machine-which went full blast against members of the Ukrainian government during the Ukraine crisis, labeling them fascists and anti-Semites-is in full swing again. This time, the target is Germany, once considered Russia's closest ally in Europe.

Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her intention to allow refugees from Syria to enter Germany, the Russian media have been reporting every twist and turn of the opposition that is building up in her conservative bloc and among sections of the German public to her open-door refugee policy.

But in recent days, the Russian state media, joined by none other than Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, have taken a different turn. They are tapping into Germany's community of 1.2 million ethnic Russians to criticize Merkel's policies and boost those who are unequivocally against Germany taking in refugees. The community is known for its conservative if not xenophobic views, as witnessed during demonstrations by Germany's anti-Islam Pegida movement, in which ethnic Russians participate.

Vietnam's National Congress: With Dung out, will reform slow?

Helen Clark - January 29, 2016

Vietnam has just finished its 12th National Congress, the five-yearly event that decides the direction of the country. It is largely conducted behind closed doors, with the local press carrying little more than official statements or excitable-yet-boilerplate copy (see here for some communist elan).

However, there have been some notable changes: two-term Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung failed in his bid to become General Secretary, the ranks of the Politburo and other bodies now have a substantial number of members drawn from the police and security services, and relations with Beijing have been under the spotlight after it moved an oil rig into contested waters just before the Congress began.

I covered the last National Congress in 2011. Like this one, Hanoi was going through an especially miserable winter and the city's mood was low. Corruption and inflation were on everyone's minds and the Government knew citizens' unhappiness couldn't simply be dismissed or managed forever. Dung survived that last Congress and flew into a second term after suggestions he may not have made it. After protests over the Central Highlands bauxite mines he had fought for, and the bullet train project which the legislative National Assembly voted down, it seemed he had been given a second chance to pursue his vision for an industrialised Vietnam by 2020.

I quoted departing General Secretary Nong Duc Manh at the time apologising for the teetering economy and other systemic problems: 'Quality, efficiency and competitiveness remain low. Bureaucracy, corruption, wastefulness, social vices and moral and lifestyle degradation have not been prevented,' he said.

Understanding Italian Defiance

Adriano Bosoni - January 27, 2016

The Italian government has been in a rebellious mood of late. During a war of words with the European Commission over his plan to increase spending this year, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told Brussels "Italy is back, more solid and ambitious." In an op-ed published in The Guardian a few days later, Renzi added that "the political and cultural orthodoxy that has monopolized thinking on how Europe should be run for the last decade isn't working" and promised that "Italy will not stop demanding to have its voice heard."

To be sure, Italy - the third-largest economy in the eurozone and a net contributor of funds to the European Union - believes it has cause to be annoyed with the bloc's officials. Rome views Brussels' constant requests for spending cuts as an obstacle to economic growth. It is also disappointed by the lack of progress in EU efforts to address the migration crisis. More recently, doubts over the health of Italian banks reignited a debate between Rome and the European Commission over Italy's plans to protect its banking sector.

But Italy's recent actions are based on more than short-term calculations; they are intimately connected to the way the country sees the world. To understand Rome's behavior, it is necessary to consider how modern Italy was born and what shapes its policies. Present-day Italy was created by combining dozens of unconnected pieces, constantly at risk from over a millennium of foreign invasions. Elements of Italian history mirror the European Union's attempts to create a united Continent, and they offer clues to the bloc's future.

A Fragmented State

The New Hegemon in the Middle East

L. Todd Wood - January 27, 2016

There's a new sheriff in town in the Middle East -- and it's not the United States of America, who just spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of soldiers in two different wars in the region. The new hegemon in the Levant and the Fertile Crescent is a rising axis of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian power.

Beginning with the Iranian Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani's trip to Moscow in July 2015 -- where together with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he planned the Russian and Iranian offensive that has preserved the Assad regime until now -- the Russian-Iranian partnership has blossomed in myriad ways.

Russia has backed the Assad family regime in Syria since the 1970's, when Nikita Khrushchev founded the Russian naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartus on the Syrian coast. It was always highly doubtful that the Kremlin would allow such a long-term ally to be shredded in the maw of the Arab Spring. Therefore it was only natural that the Syrian regime's biggest Shiite benefactor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, would be a natural ally for the Russian Federation.

Russia and Iran is a natural marriage -- each needs the other in different ways. For one, Russia needs money, badly. Iran is about to come into a lot of it, as the Iran nuclear deal is implemented, an agreement that, by the way, Russia helped put in place. Western sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine, and the collapse in the price of crude oil, are devastating the Russian federal budget. Iran can help alleviate this lack of cash flow by buying a whole lot of Russian weapons. Already Moscow is shipping Iran the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, and there is talk of Iran buying tanks from Russia to modernize its armor, which is antiquated and sorely lacking in capability. Analysts predict that if the price of oil stays in the $30 range, Russian foreign currency reserves could be depleted within two years, along with a significant devaluation of the ruble. Russia has also announced it will be assisting Iran with the development of nuclear power facilities in the near future. It is also likely that the Iranians are not driving as hard of a bargain as the Chinese when negotiating pricing with the Kremlin. Iran owes Russia for the coming sanctions relief, and is therefore negotiating from a position of weakness with Russia.

Is Europe's Economic Dependence Undermining Its Foreign Policy?

Hans Kundnani - January 27, 2016

BERLIN - As Europe struggles to deal with the refugee crisis, it seems like a long time ago that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras threatened to undermine EU sanctions against Russia. His flirtation with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year was widely seen as a way for Greece to increase its leverage in negotiations with its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund, which were reaching a critical stage in the spring. In the end, a deal was struck in the summer that prevented a default and allowed Greece to remain in the single currency, though it is unlikely to do much to solve Greece's deeper economic problems - and Greece remained supportive of European policy toward Russia.

However, as I argue in a new GMF policy brief, the situation of an EU member state seeking external help - or coming under external pressure to undermine an EU policy - is likely to recur in the future. Long-term changes in the structure of global trade are transforming the economic basis of the EU's external relations. In particular, for nearly all EU member states, trade with other member states is decreasing as a share of total trade. Intra-EU exports have declined as a share of the EU's overall exports from 68 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2014. This shift away from intra-EU trade raises difficult questions about the future of European integration.

The way eurozone countries decided to respond to the crisis is also exacerbating the trend of increased economic dependence on non-Western powers. In particular, a policy of prolonged and coordinated austerity, as well as constitutional limits on public debt to which eurozone countries have agreed, limit the potential for Europe to generate growth internally. This leaves no alternative to externally fueled growth, making EU member states more dependent on economies outside the EU in different ways. While the eurozone "core" will likely increasingly rely on non-Western powers as export markets, the "periphery" will increasingly rely on them as sources of investment.

Increased dependence gives non-Western powers leverage that can be used to prevent EU member states from taking tough positions or agreeing on common positions with each other or with the United States. In the medium term, China could be an even bigger challenge for Europe than Russia. EU member states have much to gain from trade with, and investment from, China, so it is likely to have increasing leverage over them. The increasing economic dependence of EU member states has already constrained the ability of Europeans to take tough common positions on issues such as human rights. As one official puts it, China has "bought a blocking minority" in the European Council.

Senior Russian Official Warns of American Plot

George Friedman - January 27, 2016

Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, said in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets that the United States was trying to weaken Russia in order to gain access to its mineral resources. He added that the "disintegration of the Russian Federation is not ruled out" by the United States. "This will open access to the richest resources for the United States, which believes that Russia possesses them undeservedly."

Coming from a senior Russian official and former head of the Russian intelligence service close to President Vladimir Putin, this statement has to be taken seriously. This is not because the statement is true, nor even that Patrushev believes it's true, but because it gives us a sense of how the Russians are framing the ongoing confrontations with the United States and in turn, the reasons for Russia's problems. The United States is being framed as an existential threat to Russia's survival because of conscious, intentional U.S. strategies. As the Russian economy disastrously declines and real wages plunge, explaining the country's troubles as the result of the malignant intentions of an outside power shifts the blame from a failure of the Russian government to an American plot. The Russian government becomes the victim and the protector of the Russian people, who in turn are expected to rally behind the Kremlin.

Putin has recently made several statements praising Josef Stalin. Stalin had miscalculated the Nazis' intentions and signed a treaty with them in 1939, only to then face a German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Stalin used the invasion to create a bond between himself, the Soviet state and the Soviet people. Whatever questions the public might have had about Stalin's wisdom in being so unprepared for the invasion became unimportant. Germany threatened the Soviet public, the state protected them and only Comrade Stalin could keep the state and the people together. There is a link between Putin's slow resurrection of Stalin and the idea that the United States is plotting Russia's destruction.

The reality of Russia's dire economic situation and the sense of embattlement the Kremlin is creating are two different things. To begin with, the Russian explanation for the American strategy is a desire to control Russian resources. The problem with this theory is that the United States is itself mineral rich, and the development of American energy technology dealt with whatever oil shortages existed. Most of the minerals the U.S. lacks are readily available in the Western hemisphere.

Ignoring National Security

Andrew Bacevich - January 26, 2016

This article originally appeared in TomDispatch.

To judge by the early returns, the presidential race of 2016 is shaping up as the most disheartening in recent memory. Other than as a form of low entertainment, the speeches, debates, campaign events, and slick TV ads already inundating the public sphere offer little of value. Rather than exhibiting the vitality of American democracy, they testify to its hollowness.

Present-day Iranian politics may actually possess considerably more substance than our own. There, the parties involved, whether favoring change or opposing it, understand that the issues at stake have momentous implications. Here, what passes for national politics is a form of exhibitionism about as genuine as pro wrestling.

A presidential election campaign ought to involve more than competing coalitions of interest groups or bevies of investment banks and billionaires vying to install their preferred candidate in the White House. It should engage and educate citizens, illuminating issues and subjecting alternative solutions to careful scrutiny.

Amid Protests, Moldova Finally Appoints a Government

Stratfor - January 22, 2016


Just a week before Moldova would have had to hold early elections, the country's Parliament approved a new government led by former IT and Communications Minister Pavel Filip. The vote allows the Moldovan Parliament to remain intact under a pro-European coalition. However, immediately after the legislature approved the new government, several hundred protesters - many of them supporters of pro-Russia parties such as the Socialist Party and Our Party - stormed the parliamentary building. Actions like this show that pro-Russia elements within the country will pose a challenge for the new government, perpetuating the divisions within Moldova's political system that undermine the small but strategic country's efforts to integrate with the West.


Moldova's Jan. 20 parliamentary vote to approve the new government ended nearly three months of political deadlock in a country that plays an important role in the competition between Russia and the West in the former Soviet periphery. The previous government, led by former Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet, collapsed Oct. 29, 2015 after Strelet lost a no-confidence vote over allegations of corruption. Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti then put forth Ion Sturza as a prime ministerial candidate on Dec. 21, 2015, but Sturza was unable to get the required majority of votes. Moldova's pro-Europe coalition then proposed oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc as a candidate in early January, but Timofti blocked Plahotniuc's nomination for "moral reasons." Following that, Filip was floated as a compromise candidate and garnered 57 votes in the 101-seat parliament - enough to become the new prime minister.