Short-Term Thinking, The Ruin Of Today's Politics

Democratic systems offer little incentive for long-term thinking. But unless we can implement true, forward-looking policies, problems like climate change will only multiply.

Election banner of Hildegard Bentele, a candidate of the CDU for the 2019 European Parliament Election
Election banner of Hildegard Bentele, a candidate of the CDU for the 2019 European Parliament Election
Johannes Hillje


BERLIN — The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) share much of the blame for waning confidence in their future leadership abilities.

The big coalition steers by sight, seeing itself only as a transitional government until a hoped-for new majority is obtained. As such, it keeps seeking short-term wins to boost its popularity numbers, but at the expense of self-imposed climate goals or tackling long-term reforms for pensions, infrastructure, education or for the EU.

At the same time — and this is not only the responsibility of the CDU and SPD — democracy as a whole suffers from notorious shortsightedness and ignorance of the future: Parties are hostage to the election cycles. And as a watchdog, the media is so fixated on personalities that it's rarely ahead of the game.

Public confidence with regards to future leadership abilities is highest for the Green party, but if they were to govern soon, they would first have to come to terms with the pressure of short-termism. Would they stick to their "radical realism" if the poll numbers go down again, or would they, like the CDU and SPD, only give small answers to the big questions of our time?

A promising option would be to institutionalize farsightedness in democracy.

A not unrealistic negative scenario is that governments change regularly and the big challenges remain permanently unsolved. In fact, the problems multiply.

These days we're talking mainly about climate change, and understandably so. But what about the increase of the world population by one third heading into 2100? But then, there could be about 2 billion people willing to migrate. How can democracies master such challenges and other mammoth ones in the long run, given their inability to demonstrate long-term thinking?

The fact is, there's no escaping any of this. According to the United Nations, at least 6.75 trillion people will be born over the next 50,000 years, completely outweighing the current population of 7.6 billion and all those 100 billion who have died so far. But the unborn have no interest group, no party, no parliamentary seat.

A Fridays for Future anti-climate change demonstration in Hamburg, Germany — Photo: Georg Wendt

There is little point in increasing the time gap between elections in order to reduce the pressure of maintaining power. Longer terms would stretch governments' legitimacy like chewing gum, thus thinning it and, in the worst case, tearing it. Nor does the solution to this problem speak for a greater involvement of citizens. This could perhaps increase satisfaction with democratic processes, but not the sustainability of their results.

A promising option would be to institutionalize farsightedness in democracy. There are already some examples: The Finnish parliament has a permanent committee for the future that controls and evaluates the long-term planning of the government. Between 2014 and 2016, Sweden even had Kristina Persson as its first minister for the future. She was responsible for the long-term consequences of government policy.

In Wales, Sophie Howe was named future generations commissioner in 2016. She cannot prevent laws, but she can force her cabinet colleagues to justify decisions vis-à-vis the unborn citizens of Wales. In addition, Howe actively participates in public discourse. She is the voice of future generations.

Parties are hostage to the election cycles.

This role in political decision-making may contain an important key: giving a future commissioner a veto right in the legislation would be an undemocratic decision-making authority. But lending the future a voice in public debates makes long-term consequences a permanent benchmark for politics that neither politicians nor the media and citizens can escape.

Of course, there could still be democratic majorities for politics that is blind to the future. In view of the current dissatisfaction with the future abilities of the German parties, however, this seems unlikely.

The rendezvous with the future could be more constructive, because politics and the future would be in constant dialogue with each other. It would be a step forward to give long-term thinking a firm place in politics. That alone could initiate a cultural change in democracy.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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