Security and Foreign Policy

Global Challenges for 2018: Key Geopolitical Issues In the Year Ahead

2017 was a year characterized by significant geopolitical developments and changes. As we enter 2018, these shifts will continue to pose challenges to global politics and international affairs. Our Global Challenges research primer highlights and examines the key issues that will dominate geopolitics in 2018. 

BY: OSSAMA AYESH and AISHWARYA GUPTA

2017 proved to be a challenging year for geopolitics, from the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to North Korea’s missile tests and the coup in Zimbabwe. The election of President Donald Trump changed the course of America’s foreign policy thus far giving leeway to China and Russia to assume the mantle. As we enter 2018, these shifts will continue to pose challenges to global politics and international affairs. The US’ ‘America First’ policy, China’s unencumbered growth, persisting North Korean threats, terrorism, the Iran-Russia-Syria alliance, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious goals and climate change are some of the most important issues that will face the world in the coming year.

‘AMERICA FIRST’ ABANDONS THE LIBERAL ORDER

The United States’ ‘America First’ policy is centered on prioritizing investment at home, which seeks to address issues of unemployment and depleting infrastructure. On the other hand, opposing viewpoints look to place an increased emphasis on international cooperation, international norms and globalization, ultimately providing a more cohesive foreign policy agenda. The current White House administration has to aim to strike a balance between both contrarian policy prescriptions. However, the manner in which President Donald Trump has chosen to execute his foreign policy puts American allies at risk. In his National Security Strategy speech in December, 2017, President Trump alluded to an overall weakening of US global security, with promises to redress US military might, pointing to China and Russia as strategic adversaries. If the US is indeed of the view that a strategic gap between the US and its adversaries needs to be closed, then shifts in the US’ foreign policy posture can be expected in 2018. Moreover, how the US reconciles its ‘America First’ approach with the previous administration’s cooperative and diplomatic approach to international relations will be a chief item to look out for in the year ahead.

CHINA LOOKS TO TURN AMERICA’S GAPS INTO GAINS

2017 was a successful year for Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the last Chinese Communist Party Congress, China’s most important political meeting, politburo members voted to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought” into the country’s constitution and overall ideology, making Xi Jinping one of the most powerful Chinese leaders since Mao Zedong. Under President Xi’s leadership, China has used its growing influence as leverage in several areas. More specifically, China has used its economic and political clout to influence the policies in other countries both in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In the past year, China compelled South Korea not to deploy additional THAAD ballistic missile batteries in exchange for easing Chinese sanctions on South Korean firms along with reinstating Chinese tourism to South Korea; China also flexed its muscles and became more entrenched in ASEAN following the end of the TPP. The pattern of using China’s economic largess, including China’s massive One Belt, One Road (OBOR) development initiative as a means to influence other nations, has signaled a norm to look out for in 2018. The OBOR initiative is likely to raise concerns as many nations want to benefit from China’s OBOR initiative economically, while other nations in Asia grow concerned with China’s growing economic and political might.

THE NORTH KOREA THREAT WILL GROW WITHOUT DIPLOMACY

TIme and again President Trump has made clear that North Korea is the number one issue dictating the US-China relationship. Notably, the US has motivated China to do more than it has in the past. At the United Nations Security Council in 2017, China agreed to include normal trade (i.e. seafood, textiles, coal, and iron) as part of the sanctions regime against North Korea. Despite the imposition of additional sanctions against the rogue regime, 2017 saw rapid progress and development in North Korea’s missile program. The country has fired 23 missiles during 16 tests this past year, further developing its nuclear weapon technology. In response, President Trump has vowed to unleash “fire and fury” on the North Korean regime. In November 2017, Pyongyang claimed its ballistic missiles were capable of reaching all of mainland United States. Washington’s options for diplomacy have been limited whereas China has not done much to leverage its economic ties with North Korea to compel Kim Jong-Un to make concessions on his nation’s nuclear buildup. Meanwhile, there is little evidence to prove that the $700 billion in defense spending approved by the United States Senate will actually be allocated towards expanding US missile defenses. Even if that does prove to be the case, there is no guarantee that building missile defense systems will serve as a deterrent against North Korea. However, as the current situation plays out, tensions between the United States and North Korea are likely to escalate at a more rapid pace in 2018 if diplomatic options are not explored.

THE CHANGING FACE OF TERRORISM

In 2017, the United States-led counter-ISIS campaign was largely successful in terms of pushing the self-proclaimed Islamic State out of major enclaves in Syria and Iraq. But the conditions that give rise for groups engaging in terrorism persist, creating the real potential for new flashpoints in Syria and Iraq in 2018. Regions rampant with ethnic strife and civil war are especially vulnerable as non-state actors exploit local grievances to galvanize support for their causes. While the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost major footholds in the Levant, there is still a possibility the group could gain territorial holds in new areas as the group continues to adapt and employ a more networked strategy to conduct its operations. Moreover, the persistence of great power conflict as well as proxy wars under the guise of counterterrorism between the two regional hegemons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, poses the risk of subordinating the terrorist threat in the region. Areas in Central Asia and South-East Asia are also becoming flashpoints for terrorist activity, with a combination of poor governance and draconian counterterrorism policies fueling anti-establishment sentiment. Ultimately, a combination of these factors has opened these regions up for smaller terrorist cells to fuse with larger transnational networks like ISIS and al-Qaeda to mount new attacks. If 2017 was any indication of how to deal with the terrorist threat, counterterrorism policies need to go beyond military policy to include diplomacy and local initiatives; otherwise, the current response mechanism to dealing with terrorism has the potential to cause backlash and unintended consequences in 2018.

IRAN-SYRIA-RUSSIA: THE ALLIANCE DOMINATING THE MIDDLE EAST

2018 poses a great deal of challenges in the Middle East, especially the question of what the long term US commitment in the region will be as it transitions from a counter-ISIS military approach into one that is confronting a number of other pressing concerns. In particular, emerging issues such as the Iran challenge in the Levant, the “post-war” Syria question, as well as ways to avoid escalation with Russia, which will likely maintain a presence in Syria for the foreseeable future, will continue to guide policy in the Middle East in 2018. The year 2017 was a victory for Syria, Iran and Russia; they were able to effectively re-secure strategic territory in much of Syria, regain control of supply routes for Hezbollah, and were able to present Russia as a guarantor of stability in the Middle East. For the US’ National Security Strategy to be successful at “neutralizing Iranian malign influence” in the region, President Trump will have to deal with the consequences of failing to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The consequences from this could very well lead to an already emboldened post-sanctions Iran to further entrench its influence across the region, and potentially fuel additional proxy conflicts. In terms of Russia, the challenge for the US will be to develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent Russia from restructuring the Middle East regional order to its liking.

THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA: REFORM VS. REGIONAL HEGEMONY

Of the biggest stories that surfaced in 2017, the reform policies of Saudi Arabia, the GCC crisis and the major changes within Iraq were most impactful for Saudi Arabia. Despite progress made on social reform, individuals within the Saud Royal family began to question whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been moving too quickly, threatening to interrupt the country’s social order as he continues to pursue his Vision 2030 plan, the massive social and economic agenda for the future. Economically, there are more imminent concerns for the Kingdom when looking ahead to 2018, such as the massive youth bulge and a struggling economy. The upcoming year offers a test of Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to deliver on his reform promises as continued success will keep dissidents at bay. On the regional front, the quagmire in Yemen will likely protract following the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh. As in Syria and Iraq, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to be at loggerheads with Iran prolonging an already long drawn out civil war in Yemen. The real source of insecurity in 2018 will be the risk of additional proxy conflicts throughout the region’s various flashpoints, namely Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

CLIMATE CHANGE POLICIES: WITH OR WITHOUT THE UNITED STATES

On June, 1, 2017, President Donald Trump announced the US would be pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the landmark international climate accord that promised to deal with GHG emissions. The announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time as dealing with climate change is more of a pressing concern now than ever before. 2017 was ridden with natural disasters, including raging fires across the US west coast, hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico, earthquakes in Mexico and flooding in Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. The decision drew harsh criticism from countries worldwide, including China. The withdrawal from the agreement effectively meant the US was ceding its role as a global leader on issues such as climate change, making room for China to step in to fill the gap. During his speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping mentioned the environment 89 times. China’s One Belt, One Road initiative is set to make China a global leader in sustainability and clean energy, while it is on its path to meeting its GHG emissions reductions as well. Some of the US’ allies, in particular France, are also expected to fill the void in climate change leadership throughout the coming year. French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to make “the planet great again“, sending a signal to the US that progress on climate change will be made with or without the US’ participation. This means that climate change policy will likely move forward globally in 2018. But the main challenge for the US will be how it measures the perceived benefits of reneging on its climate change commitments against reconciling itself with the consequences of climate disasters, both political and economic.

BREXIT, POPULIST VICTORIES AND EU INTEGRATION

With the first phase of the Brexit process coming to an end, the focus will shift to discussions on the transition toward the final UK-EU settlement. Both the United Kingdom and the EU have agreed to allow for a transition period that will last up to two years beginning on March 30, 2019, the United Kingdom’s last day of EU membership. But the problem lies in the failure to develop a clear plan on what the future UK-EU relationship will look like post-Brexit. Both parties have contrasting views and expectations of what the transition will result in. Then there is the other issue in Europe: populism. The recent success of populist political parties throughout 2017 is a reminder that populism is still a strong force in European politics. In Austria, a new coalition government took office, consisting of the conservative People’s Party and the right-wing Freedom Party. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany Party made additional gains and curtailed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chance at a majority government. Similarly, Italy and Norway are also experiencing populist surges. Despite the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France, populist groups are making gains to become part of the national leadership across Europe. The challenge for member states of the European Union in 2018 will be promoting further EU integration in the face of populism, Russian aggression, mass migration and terrorism.

Even though new challenges will continue to emerge in 2018, these challenges will dominate much of the geopolitical space in the next year. Despite the US taking a step back in geopolitical affairs, US policies will continue to influence and guide the response of many nations, be it supporting the US’ stance or countering it. With a plethora of elections and political transitions slated to take place in 2018, there will be many factors that will further complicate some of these impending challenges. Going into 2018, it is necessary to keep in mind the complex nature of these core issues as they will continue to persist and be at the center of the geopolitical agenda of many nations.

Ossama Ayesh is an Analyst at JP Morgan with a Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University. He has worked with various international firms and organizations, including Advanced Energy Group, Eurasia Group and the UN Security Council’s Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate.

Aishwarya Gupta is an Analyst at Morgan Stanley. She has previously worked with UN Women, Advanced Energy Group, UN Security Council’s Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate and various other organizations. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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