2017 promises to be an interesting year in global affairs. Conflicts linger around the world, for example, in Syria, Kashmir, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to name a few. Large-scale migration issues continue to plague Europe and Asia. It will be a time of great uncertainty as ongoing Brexit negotiations will play a major role in determining the UK’s future relationship with its neighbour. No doubt, this will also significantly impact the global economy. Most significantly, the power transition in the US will be the most vital event in 2017. While we remember 2016, it is now time to turn our eyes to 2017 and consider the security landscape that awaits us.
Each year, the Council of Foreign Relations conducts its Preventative Priorities Survey. It is based upon a survey of the views of 7000 foreign policy experts. Among their top 7 predictions for 2017 are a showdown between Russia and NATO forces; insecurity caused by North Korea nuclear weapons; cyber- attacks on the US, and declining political stability in Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. These are the priority suggestions given to US policy- makers by their leading think tank and they reveal where US priorities may lie.
For our readers, we have compiled the following list of areas to watch this year:
1. U.S.- Russia relations. 2016 was a turbulent year with show-downs in the UN, breakdown in diplomatic relations over Syria, and alleged Russian involvement in various stages of the US elections. This week’s sanctions against Russia by President Obama highlights the strained relationship he has with President Putin.
President-elect Trump shows promise of a better relationship with President Putin, but given his relative inexperience and frequent backtracking on issues, it is hard to know whether relations will really improve. A weaker and divided NATO may prove to be ineffective against an increasingly-aggressive Russia.
2. Tensions in South- East Asia. Tensions were high in in the South China Sea waters in 2016. The July ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague dealt China its first ever “punishment” in maritime affairs by an international law organization. Having no judicial power, the ruling was largely ignored by China – a reminder of the value that China sees in International Law. Increased international naval activity in the region has reminded us that this area has the potential for being the site of the next global conflict if not managed carefully. China and US relations continue to be frayed. Most recently, the Chinese were angered by President- elect Trump’s call to Taiwan (hinting at recognition of their status). By contrast in the Phillipines, the election of President Duterte has seen the country gradually moving away from long-term allies, the US, into the arms of China.
This severely disrupts the US plans of creating a string of pearls around China. The situation in the region is further complicated by North-Korea’s acquiring of nuclear weapons and its flailing relations with its Southern neighbour. President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership will most certainly fail without the support of Mr. Trump. This could see China playing a more assertive and stronger role in economic affairs and destroy a 10-year old plan aimed at containing a rising China.
3. Other Significant Smaller conflicts. Numerous other conflicts will play out around the world. It will be impossible to go into a detailed analysis but for now, the top seven to watch are:
- Potential for an all-out war between India and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed states).
- A rising Taliban will pose a significant challenge to stability in Afghanistan.
- Turmoil in the Middle- East with conflicts in Syria, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
- Issues arising from large-scale migration and immigration in Europe and South East Asia (as a result of the Rohingya crisis)
- Potential for a strong IS terrorist attack which could lead to an even stronger and combined effort of western countries
- Potential of a major cyber-attack which could scramble data or more importantly impact a populations access to basic resources
- Continued conflicts in African nations such as Burundi, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Finally, since the early 90s, the US has acted as if it is the sole super-power. However, the last five years have brought a decline in US power and the rise of several state and non-state actors. The international system, which the US helped establish, is showing cracks. This system includes the United Nations, the International Courts of Justice, the World Bank, and other such organizations. The events of 2016 must be seen as a turning away from internationalism towards territoriality. President- elect Trump has promised a more isolationist role for the US in the coming year. Perhaps that will be the best way for the US to manage its decline. But the question will be who fills up the vacuum created by an absent superpower.
More significantly, are the rules of global affairs going to be changed forever? Power transition theories have (correctly) predicted the decline in U.S. dominance. But something to consider is the durability of the international system. Can it continue when the US fades? Will there be one country to take its place or several? How will power be distributed in this system? 2017 will be a watershed year in getting some of these answers. The unfolding of all the above-mentioned global events must be viewed carefully and with this perspective.