As far as foreign policy is concerned, what seemed like a seismic 2016 may turn even more turbulent in 2017.
That fact is reflected in the topics chosen for the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions” dialogues: nuclear security; conflicts in the South China Sea; prospects for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Saudi Arabia in transition; the future of Europe; Latin America’s political pendulum; U.S. foreign policy and petroleum; and the trade-offs involving trade, jobs and politics.
These themes are intentionally international, yet all revolve around a Washington that’s now another center of uncertainty. President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration is about a fortnight away, and foreign policy analysts have to handicap how sharp a departure he will be, which is one reason why the Eurasia Group, one of the world’s leading global political risk research and consulting firms, pegged an “Independent America” as its top 2017 risk.
“This is by far the most challenging geopolitical forecast that we’ve ever given,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said upon releasing its report. “We believe that the world has entered in 2017 a period of geopolitical recession that is marked by the end of ‘Pax-Americana’ and the U.S.-led global order; a willingness of the Chinese to challenge it economically but not step into America’s shoes as the global leader; the profound weakness of Europe internally; and the weakest that the transatlantic relationship has been since the end of World War II, as well as the continued implosion of the Middle East and a Russia which is much more willing to challenge historic U.S. norms, values and interests in its extended backyard.”
The report elaborated: “The world’s sole superpower was once the international trump card, imposing order to force compromise and head off conflict. Now it’s a wild card.”
How — and whether — that card is played will affect other crises and challenges. But no one knows for sure how Trump will translate tweets and speeches into actual policy.
Including the International Crisis Group, which just published its list of 10 conflicts to watch in 2017. “The world is entering its most dangerous chapter in decades,” wrote Jean-Marie Guehenno, the group’s president, in its analysis. Trump’s triumph was “unquestionably the most important event of last year and one with far-reaching geopolitical implications for the future,” stated Guehenno, who added, “But one thing we do know is that uncertainty itself can be profoundly destabilizing, especially when it involves the most powerful actor on the global stage.”
Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth, also noted the “rather uncertain transition.” Hanson, a former foreign service officer who will give his annual U.S. Foreign Policy Update at a Global Minnesota event on Jan. 24, added that not only does Trump’s transition indicate a switch from multilateral to bilateral diplomacy, “It’s almost as if with Trump we are going to get a neomercantilism as opposed to neoliberalism; he’s very much focusing on our trade relationships, the fact that we have to do more to promote our mercantile relationship in the world.”
Mercantilism regarding Mexico was news this week with Trump’s drive to get automakers to manufacture in Michigan. But the far larger scale and scope of trade with China, coupled with the challenge of the U.S. and the Pacific region reacting to China’s remarkable rise, will make it a risk this year, too.
In fact the Eurasia Group lists “China Overreacts” as its second top risk, particularly as Beijing prepares for a leadership transition that “will create risks that matter far beyond that country’s borders.” Chinese President Xi Jinping will not want to look “weak or irresolute,” and, according to the analysis, “Provocations from Trump, and the multitude of areas where U.S.-Chinese tensions might play out — North Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the East and South China Seas, and in U.S.-Chinese political and economic relations — make 2017 a dangerous year for China and all who depend on it for growth and stability.”
Hanson added Trump’s threat of tariffs to the uncertainties. China, he said, is patient in part because of inextricably linked economies. But if Beijing shifts, “It will be very disruptive to the global economy.”
Europe can hardly afford more economic disruptions, especially since political shocks like Brexit might be extended by right-wing movements winning upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and maybe even Germany. The Eurasia Group believes, however, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely win re-election, but “she’ll emerge as a weakened figure. This will leave Europe with no strong leadership at all — at a time when strong leaders are badly needed.”
They’re also needed in sub-Saharan Africa, whose exodus affects European stability, Hanson said. Particularly in South Africa, the Eurasia Group noted, which said that its succession struggles will limit its role as a regional stabilizer.
Meanwhile, “the single most important issue we need to address” is nuclear weapons proliferation, Hanson said.
Doing so will take meaningful leadership from the president-elect. To date, however, Trump’s tweet on the need to “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S. arsenal “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” have amplified, not dampened, proliferation worries.
2016’s geopolitics are unlikely to inspire nostalgia anytime soon. But 2017’s uncertainties may make last year seem more standard, if not stable, in retrospect.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and Global Minnesota are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.