Annual analyses of impending international issues usually concentrate on conflicts between or within nations. Or, if not armed-conflict, then cold shoulders in bilateral relations that reverberate well beyond the countries involved.
But what’s notable from foreign-policy experts this year is that beyond regional hot spots, they identify erosion of international institutions and the global order itself as even more profound problems.
“We’re planting seeds that are going to give us a really challenging harvest going forward,” Eurasian Group President Ian Bremmer said on a call introducing his organization’s “Top Risks for 2019” report, which listed these “Bad Seeds” as its top risk.
“It’s true if you look at the erosion of American political institutions,” Bremmer continued. “It’s true if you look at the systemic weakening of Europe — both the European Union as a whole, as well as individual European governments and their institutions and their leaders. It’s true of the system of global alliances, and U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, transatlantic and intra-European and intra-Middle East — all of these major relations are trending in a negative direction.”
Stir in stirred-up populists and nationalists besieging leaders including Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Theresa May and together it “doesn’t necessarily lead to a crisis in 2019,” Bremmer said. But if there is another “bolt-from-the-blue” like 9/11 or the world financial crisis, the international system would not come as close to coalescing as it did back then.
And it may not be bolt-from-the-blue, but clear-and-present dangers like “Cyber gloves off,” Eurasia Group’s no. 3 risk. “Hackers build new skills, our digital democracy deepens, and there are still no realistic rules of the road to help avoid cyber-conflict,” Eurasia Group states in its analysis.
Cyber conflict concerns Tom Hanson, too. A former foreign service officer who is now diplomat in residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Hanson will give his annual “U.S. Foreign Policy Update” at a sold-out Global Minnesota event Wednesday. In an interview, he referenced “self-generated issues” hobbling Washington and said that overall “the West has really had kind of a collapse of the mainstream parties,” which will likely manifest itself in upcoming European Union elections and an increasingly chaotic Brexit.
Indeed, Parliament’s paralysis approximates Capitol Hill’s, so there’s an elevated risk of a highly disruptive “no-deal Brexit,” which is just one of many reasons that 2019 “is going to be a time of cliffhangers,” said Hanson, who added: “There’s a whole bunch of issues that are poised to break one way or another.”
That list includes U.S.-China relations, which are a consensus concern for foreign-policy experts across the spectrum. The Foreign Policy Association made the Washington-Beijing dynamic one of its “Great Decisions” dialogues this year, and Hanson, Bremmer and Robert Malley, who wrote the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019,” all noted the fraught bilateral relationship, which comes in a context of a test of Western resolve to uphold global norms.
“The international order never functioned perfectly, and the Western countries that underwrote it also took their liberties,” Malley said in an e-mail exchange. “But the Great Powers seem increasingly inclined to test its limits. You see this with China in the South China Sea, with Russia in Crimea and the Donbas, and in the United States’ complicity in the horrors being committed in Yemen. Moreover, as the most powerful countries have cast aside the rules, they’ve also failed to come together in the multilateral institutions that are supposed to guarantee international peace and security. All around the world — from Syria to Yemen to South Sudan — we see evidence of the U.N. Security Council’s failings in protracted conflicts that it either will not or cannot resolve.”
Malley wrote from Nigeria, another country at risk in 2019 as noted not just by ICG but by Bremmer and Hanson, as well. The ICG also added South Sudan and Cameroon, and all three were wary about Ukraine. Beyond these specific conflicts, destabilizing issues like “European Populism” and “The U.S. at Home” were ranked fourth and fifth risks by the Eurasia Group, and the ICG wrote of “a world with fewer rules.”
The emergence of China and Russia as countries that are “trying to create strategic depth in their own regions” is one of the dynamics driving this era, Hanson said. Their leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, represent rulers whom Bremmer identifies as members of its seventh-ranked risk, the “Coalition of the Unwilling.”
“It’s important to recognize that [President Donald] Trump is not the only person out there that is strongly opposed to multilateralism and the existing U.S.-led global architecture,” Bremmer said. “He has a lot of partners,” Bremmer added, listing disparate despots (Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed bin Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un) as well as democrats (Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, often called “the Trump of the Tropics”) who are “not about to become a longstanding alliance, they do not unite under the same flag, but they all do have a common interest in breaking, and at least eroding, existing international architecture.”
The necessary check on these leaders is missing in most cases. And yet, “there’s always reason for hope,” Malley wrote. In the U.S., for instance, “for all Trump and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton have done to undermine multilateral institutions and alliances, those institutions are still there for a future U.S. administration that might want to reinvest in them. Western European governments may be struggling, but most haven’t yet been pulled into the populist slipstream, and the United States’ institutions are holding their own, with the recent election bringing a much-needed check on President Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.”
The existing international architecture Malley cites, however imperfect, created a postwar order that has delivered the world relative peace and prosperity at unprecedented levels.
These international institutions, and indeed the entire international order, should not be riven, but reinvested in, lest “bad seeds” lead to global crises.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.