The global geopolitical scene has produced more wild rhetoric than action in 2018. There has been extreme suffering — in Venezuela, Syria and Chinese labor camps, for instance — but the empty talk has been most notable.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un acted tough in 2018 until he met US President Donald Trump face to face and put on a smile. Every regime hack from Iran has a Twitter account these days, and uses it to rotate taunts against the US, Israel and Gulf Arab countries. China faked a hard bargain on trade but started lifting tariffs on American goods.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron acted tough against Trump and then his own people, only to find himself facing the worst political upheaval in the country in 50 years. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a brute as always, but he growls more than he bites. And in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservative Party lost their leverage in Brexit negotiations when they failed to act on their promises.
How will the unresolved geopolitical issues of 2018 impact 2019? In Europe, the big topic is Brexit. As the UK negotiates an exit from the EU, a large portion of the population wants to do the referendum over again. May recently won a vote of confidence in Parliament, but she remains unpopular among both the right and left. The Brexit agreement she negotiated is unsatisfactory to many, and the uncertainty is disrupting business.
Europe is also grappling with millions of immigrants who have arrived from Africa and the Middle East, and many communities are facing issues of language, social assimilation, poverty, crime and cultural misunderstanding.
The question now is not if, but how this demographic change will alter the social and political landscape of Europe. There are already signs of growing nationalist movements. Next year could see increased violence and protests on the continent as the political fabric that has peacefully unified most of free Europe since World War II continues to fray.
Russia continues to feed the continent — most notably Germany — with the fuel that powers its industry. But Moscow is untrustworthy as a geopolitical partner. Putin seems to maintain aspirations of annexing all of Ukraine, but he has not done it yet. It seems unlikely that anyone will stop him, just as no one stopped him when he invaded Crimea.
He also continues to harass European nations with menacing military maneuvers and even a daring assassination attempt in London. It seems both sides fear actual conflict, but at some point, perhaps in 2019, a proud nation such as Poland or the UK will be forced to respond to Russia’s aggression.
In the Americas, Venezuela will continue to be the greatest crisis into 2019. President Nicolas Maduro and his socialist regime are starving their own people. Despite the stories of deprivation and suffering streaming out of that once-prosperous country, the other countries of the Americas have done little but take in refugees.
Almost a year ago, the Brookings Institution published an essay claiming that 4 million people had already fled Venezuela. No one knows the numbers today, but the country may actually present a larger exodus than that from war-torn Syria. This will strain neighboring countries and lead to regional instability.
The US is sending a clear message that it does not want to be a police force in the Middle East. The big question is whether this will lead to instability or greater stability.
Ellen R. Wald
Farther north, there is a smaller crisis of migrants that continues to grow. In the border town of Tijuana, Mexico, a few thousand migrants — mostly from Honduras and Guatemala — are camping by the US border trying to get into the country.
The Mexican government has offered these foreigners temporary asylum and work, but they insist on entering the US. Residents of Tijuana have complained of a resulting increase in crime and refuse. Some of the migrants have even tried to extort authorities, saying they would return home for $50,000. This politically untenable situation between the US and Mexico must be resolved in 2019.
In Asia, China continues to antagonize its global trade partners, and soon the issue of the South China Sea will have to be dealt with. Beijing has built a chain of artificial islands in the sea, and claims that they give China rights over international waters.
If this stands, it would allow the country to impede trade over the world’s most traveled waterway. Ultimately, there will be a showdown between China’s navy and America’s, the world’s strongest. Most likely, China will defer before a major conflict ensues.
India will hold a general election in 2019 that might make the US election of 2016 look tame. Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads an alliance that remains popular, but his challengers are especially vitriolic in their opposition.
He is accused of tolerating religious violence, and his economic reforms are controversial. A change in power could lead India away from its recently strengthened alliances with the US, the UAE and Israel, and possibly toward a greater connection with Iran.
In the Middle East, the most immediate concern will continue to be the implementation of US sanctions on Iran. By May, the temporary exemptions granted by the Trump administration should expire. This would mean that all countries would be compelled to comply with full sanctions against Iran or face economic punishment from the US.
It is possible that the US will extend some of the exemptions. The world will be watching to see what the US does, how it enforces its sanctions, and whether the Iranian regime can survive the economic attack.
The region will also face a new reality as the US withdraws its troops from Syria and most of its forces from Afghanistan. The US will maintain forces in Qatar and in neighboring waters, as well as some in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, the US is sending a clear message that it does not want to be a police force in the Middle East. The big question is whether this will lead to instability or greater stability. There is much fear that the US may be leaving a vacuum to be filled by Iran, Turkey and Russia.
In South Africa, the white population continues to fear growing rhetoric from fringe politicians advocating for the violent seizure of their property. This could end the positive sentiment that South Africa gained with its peaceful transition of power 25 years ago. Further north, Libya remains in turmoil and could become the greatest haven for terrorists and insurgents in 2019.
In West Africa, the world’s medical community is watching for signs of a re-emergence of an Ebola epidemic. As of Dec. 20, almost 300 people had died of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Disease can be scarier than anything wrought by men.
- Dr. Ellen R. Wald is a historian and author of ‘Saudi, Inc.’ She is president of Transversal Consulting, and teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy