Geopolitical tensions will continue to escalate over the course of the next seven years.
Governments and institutions will be tested by considerable challenges over the next decade as the international order is restructured and global trends converge.
All forms of government in every region will face increasing tensions both domestic and foreign. In the short-term, these global trends will increase the threat posed by all types of terrorism, and the ability for asymmetrically-powerful state and non-state actors to adversely affect the International order and the global balance of power.
Tensions are rising because citizens around the world are raising questions about the relationship that exists between governments and themselves. The social contract that exists between society and their governments is unraveling as people demand increasing levels of security and prosperity. Globalization means that domestic conditions are shaped, to an ever-greater degree, by occurrences overseas.
Growing populism in the West threatens an international order governed by rule-of-law. Tensions between governing elites and their citizens are reshaping global geopolitics. A weakened United States would mean less of an emphasis on human rights and maintenance of global order.
Less of a U.S. presence on the global stage creates gaps for authoritarian powers like China and Russia. It also means a heightened risk of conflict arising between competing for regional powers like India and Pakistan or Iran and Saudi Arabia, and an international order comprised of competing “spheres of influence.”
1. Sharpening tensions and heightened doubts concerning the U.S. role in the world will continue for several years.
In the short term, the U.S. will have a diminished presence abroad due to domestic political divisions. These political divisions compounded by with the Trump administration’s preference for unilateral action, which threaten to isolate the U.S. diplomatically.
Economic crises and inequality have contributed to widening societal and class divisions. The number of men who are not working and not seeking work is at its highest since the Great Depression. However, incomes have risen slowly, and investors see high rates of return on both domestic and foreign investments.
Politically, the country is still profoundly divided. However, growing solidarity and activism around critical issues such as healthcare have been useful in checking executive and congressional power.
2. The European Union will need to implement badly needed reforms to maintain its legitimacy.
The Brexit vote of 2016 and rising popularity of far-right nationalist political parties in Western Europe has led many observers to question the long-term viability of a united Europe. In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many were concerned that European far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen would gain traction in their electoral contests.
However, despite considerable attempts by Le Pen’s campaign—and the Kremlin—Emmanuel Macron led a stunning rebuke of the populist trend circumventing the globe. Europe initially seemed to be trending away from the right as the United States Government continued to be paralyzed by the competing factions of the governing Republican Party. In light of a slew of populist and right-wing victories across E.U. member state, however, it’s clear that politics on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly polarized.
Rising ethnic, demographic, and economic tensions will make European integration more difficult. Furthermore, Europeans must repair the structural problems in E.U. institutions.
For example, E.U. agencies set monetary policy for members of the Eurozone; however, member states retain control over their financial and security obligations. This leaves poorer E.U. states like Greece with vast amounts of debt and decreasing growth prospects. There is no unified E.U. security policy; each member state determines its national security strategy.
3. Ongoing uncertainty surrounding the future North Korea’s nuclear program threaten East Asian security.
In North Korea, Kim Jong Un has consolidated his grip on power through patronage and fear and has doubled down on his nuclear and missile programs, developing long-range missiles that may soon endanger the continental USA.
Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington have a shared incentive to handle security risks in Northeast Asia, but a history mutual distrust, warfare, and occupation makes cooperation between the different parties difficult.
A resumption of North Korean provocations, such as nuclear and missile tests, may destabilize the balance of power in the region and result in the North’s immediate neighbors potential taking unilateral action to defend their security interests. Kim is determined to secure international recognition of the North as a nuclear power, for security, prestige, and political legitimacy.
Contrary to his father and grandfather, he’s had substantial success in terms of achieving those goals. He codified the North’s nuclear status in the party constitution in 2012 and reaffirmed it during the Party Congress in 2016.
Beijing faces a continuing strategic conundrum about the North. Pyongyang’s behavior both undermines China’s argument that the US army presence in the region is anachronistic and demonstrates Beijing’s lack of influence–or perhaps lack of political will to exert influence—within its neighbor and customer.
North Korean behavior leads to tightening U.S. alliances, more assertive action by US allies, and, on occasion, greater cooperation between these partners themselves—and might lead to a change in Beijing’s approach to North Korea with time. However, long-simmering tensions between South Korea and Japan fueled by the South’s historical grievances may hinder Washington’s efforts to present a united front against North Korea.
4. Populism and dissent will spread across Latin America.
Leftist governments have been kicked out in Argentina, Peru, and Guatemala. Venezuela’s left-wing populist government is stripping the country of its democratic institutions in a sharp slide towards authoritarianism, leading to a sharp increase in lawlessness across the country.
Furthermore, while Venezuela doesn’t produce drugs, it’s become a major transport hub for drugs going to Europe or Africa before being routed to Europe. Drug trafficking increases under as the rule of law decreases. After a 2009 coup in Honduras, the country was run by a fragile government—lawlessness increased dramatically.
Honduras now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Countries like the United States are seeing a significant increase in the number of people arriving from countries like Honduras that are plagued with violence.
5. Expect increasing assertiveness from Beijing and Moscow as both governments seek to lock in competitive advantages.
Beijing and Moscow will seek to lock in competitive advantages and also to right what they perceive as historical wrongs before economic and demographic trends can present impediments and the West regains its foundation.
Both China and Russia maintain worldviews where they’re rightfully dominant in their regions and able to form regional politics and economics to match their security and material interests.
Both have moved aggressively in latest years to exert more considerable influence in their regions, to contest the U.S., and also to force Washington to accept exclusionary regional spheres of influence—a situation that the US has historically opposed.
6. The standoff between Russia and the West will continue throughout 2019.
Diplomatic spats, strategic political and political tensions will last between Russia and the U.S. In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration may have few choices for relieving the strain because of increased checks on the president’s power and enlarged sanctions from the U.S. Congress.
In Moscow, meanwhile, forthcoming local and national elections will prevent the Kremlin from creating significant concessions. Consequently, sanctions enacted on Russia from the US along with the European Union probably will stay through the end of the year. Depending upon how investigations into Russia’s role at the 2016 U.S. Presidential election shape upward, Washington might even ramp up the political and financial pressure on Russia.
Similarly, North Korea will remain a factor in determining the direction of U.S.-Russian relations over the next several months. Russia will keep going along with the overtures that Washington has made to Pyongyang, but will skirt sanctions requirements and continue provide economic aid to North Korea as it sees fit.
7. China, for its part, may have domestic concerns to grapple with this year.
The Chinese Communist Party’s careful preparation for a change of direction was realized in the October 2017 party congress. The event reshuffled the highest ranks of the party and was a proof of President Xi Jinping’s near-absolute consolidation of power.
To date, all indications point to the Xi’s success in strengthening his grip over top decision-making bodies of both the Party and the state. Xi has already achieved the status of core leader of the Communist Party, the Chinese state and People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Xi has also managed to quickly promote a lot of his partners to prestigious positions in 2017 and 2018. Even more significant, party members nearly unanimously endorsed the addition of Xi’s philosophy of the Communist Party Constitution at the Party Congress, positioning him alongside the venerated figures of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.
8. Expect Persisting Volatility in Southeast Asia
Nuclear deployment requirements for naval-based delivery vehicles remove a safety valve that, until now, has kept atomic weapons stored separately from missiles in South Asia.
At-sea deployments of atomic weapons by India, Pakistan, and perhaps China, would increasingly militarize the Indian Ocean throughout the next two decades.
The presence of multiple nuclear powers with uncertain doctrine for controlling your stresses at sea incidents between nuclear-armed vessels increases the potential risk of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.
New Delhi, however, will continue to offer smaller South Asian nations a stake in India’s financial growth through development assistance and increased connectivity to India’s economy, contributing to India’s broader effort to assert its role as the predominant regional power.
India will be the world’s fastest-growing economies throughout the next five years as China’s economy cools and growth elsewhere sputters, but internal tensions over inequality and religion will complicate its expansion.
9. Violent extremism, terrorism, and instability will continue to hang over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region’s fragile communal relations.
The threat of terrorism, from Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LET), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and al-Qaeda and its affiliates as well as the Islamic State’s expansion and sympathy for associated ideologies—will remain prominent in the area.
Competition for jobs, coupled with discrimination against minorities, might contribute to the radicalization of the region’s youth, especially given unbalanced gender ratios favoring males in several nations.
Populism and sectarianism will intensify if Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan fail to provide employment and education for growing urban populations and officials continue to govern principally through identity politics.
10. The Middle East and North Africa will see continued, if not escalating instability.
Continuing conflict and lack of political and economic reform threaten poverty reduction, the area’s one last bright spot. Resource dependence and foreign assistance have propped up elites even as it fostered widespread reliance on the nation by inhibiting markets, employment, and human capital.
With oil prices unlikely to recover to levels of the petroleum boom governments may have to limit cash payments and subsidies. In the meantime, social networks have provided new tools for citizens to vent their political frustrations. Conservative religious groups—including Brotherhood affiliates and movements—and ethnically-based organizations like those based on Kurdish identity are poised to be superior alternatives to weak governments in the region.
Such groups typically supply social services better than the nation and their politics resonate with a general public that is more conservative and religious than the region’s political and economic elites.
11. Sub-Saharan Africa will struggle with authoritarian regimes
Practices have changed, civil society groups have proliferated, and citizens across the region demand better and more just governance. However, many nations continue to struggle with authoritarian rule, patronage politics, and favoritism. Many leaders remain focused on political survival as opposed to reform–with a few term limitations.
Global economic headwinds also threaten improvement by keeping commodity prices low and investment weak. Some nations who’ve made progress toward democracy remain fragile and predisposed towards violence corresponding elections. Tensions between Muslim and Christian groups can escalate into conflict.
12. Threats from terrorist and insurgent groups will persist and are likely to become more decentralized.
The threat of terrorism is likely to increase as the means and the motivations of states, groups, and people to impose harm diversify. Prolonged conflicts and the info age allow terrorists to recruit and operate on a large scale, demonstrating the evolving nature of the threat.
Terrorism kills fewer people globally than crime or disease, but the potential for new capabilities reaching the hands of people bent on apocalyptic destruction is all too real. This ultimate low-probability, high-impact event underscores the imperative of international cooperation and state attention to the issue.
Terrorists will continue to justify their violence by their very own interpretations of religion, but several underlying drivers are also in play. Within nations, the breakdown of state structures in much of the Middle East carries on to create space for extremists.
The world order is changing. The question is, how?
The post-World War II international order that enabled today’s political, economic, and security arrangements and institutions is in question. As power diffuses worldwide, seats at the table of global decision making are reshuffled. Today, aspiring powers seek to adjust the rules of the game and international context in a way beneficial to their interests.
This complicates reform of international institutions such as the UN Security Council or the Bretton-Woods institutions, also brings into question whether political, civil and human rights—hallmarks of liberal values and US leadership since 1945—will continue to be so.
Norms that were believed to be settled will be increasingly threatened if present trends hold, and consensus to build standards can be elusive as Russia, China, along with other actors such as the Islamic State seek to shape regions and international norms in their favor.