The world outside our borders let us off easy in 2017, all things considered. ISIS lost its strongholds in Iraq, and had to settle for small attacks that didn’t dent life in New York and other American cities. Kim Jong-un launched missiles and lobbed insults, Donald Trump retaliated with bomber overflights and insults — but they didn’t actually start a war. The Netherlands, Austria, France, and Germany all staved off electoral challenges that might have put far-right parties in government. Political uncertainty in the U.S., Europe, and Asia didn’t translate into outright economic turmoil.
But just as undetected concussions accumulate damage in the brains of football players, so shocks to the international system add up. Everything is under control — until the day isn’t. And you have the 2008 global economic collapse, or the First World War — systemic failures set off by relatively small events. Here’s what you should worry about in the year ahead:
Something’s gotta give in North Korea. What happens when it does? Administration officials’ talk about a preemptive strike has so unnerved national-security experts that they’ve taken to the airwaves comparing it unfavorably to the run-up to the 2002 Iraq War — and that includes some who were involved in planning the Iraq invasion and the mess that followed. Unlike the Iraq War, there’s no bipartisan enthusiasm — and a lot of anxiety among those who know best what the human cost would be. Former top senior CIA and military officials put the chances of a conflict between 20 and 50 percent. A Chinese government official predicted that conflict was likely, specifically between year’s end and March 2018 — a period that overlaps with South Korea hosting the Winter Olympics. The optimistic scenario: Experienced professional diplomats from China, the U.N., the U.S., and North Korea work behind the scenes and reach agreements that stabilize the situation. Of course, that only works if all the actors involved actually want the situation stabilized. It appears that President Trump and others around him believe that the current uncertainty serves U.S. interests. As Steve Mollman points out, if 2018 passes without a war or a deal, that will mark the United States and the world having de facto accepted North Korea as the world’s ninth nuclear weapons state.
What if the simmering conflict in Middle East boils over? Despite Saudi Arabia’s failed efforts to change the government in Lebanon, and Donald Trump’s failed effort to change the status quo in Jerusalem, the Eastern Mediterranean stepped back from wider conflict at the end of 2017. None of the big players are going to stop pushing their luck in 2018, though. Russia wants to complete an Assad victory in Syria and bring more troops home. The Saudis want to keep the pressure on Iran and its allies. So does the Trump Administration. Iran wants to shore up its allies against the Saudis and the U.S. Extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda want to find new footholds and demonstrate their relevance. Keeping that much conflict at a simmer requires deft diplomacy and willingness to step back from public rhetoric. There’s reason to worry that a number of regional leaders will not be able to do that. And remember, not only does Trump face midterms at home, but Vladimir Putin is up for reelection.
Iran will seize the headlines again quickly in January, as the White House faces multiple deadlines to certify aspects of the nuclear deal with Tehran, or let it lapse and reimpose sanctions. Three months ago, the president kept everyone guessing for days until he “decertified” it in a way that punted the decision to Congress. But Congress didn’t act by year’s end. The game is now for legislators to produce a bill that sounds very tough on Iran but doesn’t affect the core provisions of the nuclear deal — allowing the president to say that he has punished Tehran without giving Iran’s leaders an excuse to pull out of the deal. But observers aren’t fully confident that the president will play along. At the same time, the administration is getting ready to unveil a review of Syria policy, which will shift U.S. focus to countering Iran. In case you’ve forgotten, Syria policy used to be a combination of countering terrorist groups and half-hearted attempts to help the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
So Washington is moving on multiple fronts to ramp up its confrontation with a regional opponent, Iran, that doesn’t have a nuclear weapon and isn’t threatening to attack the U.S. … while North Korea never stops pointing out that it does have nuclear weapons and could use them on the U.S. That is a level of challenge in American security policy not seen since the early days of the Cold War. But wait, there’s more …
What if the global economy takes a dive? Though the Trump Administration has made quite a few threats, 2017 closed without Washington having abrogated a single trade deal. The European Union took halting steps toward negotiating a Brexit deal with the U.K. that would limit economic fallout, and Asia-Pacific countries steadied their relationships with China and moved to put in place a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (minus the U.S., after Trump decisively rejected the draft agreement). Economists, who predicted trouble in 2017, are now betting that smart management will keep world markets ticking along, with jobs and growth in their wake. But “smart management” assumes Washington doesn’t launch into a trade war with Beijing or abruptly pull out of NAFTA, upsetting existing supply chains and employment; that Brexit talks don’t derail; that housing or debt bubbles don’t burst; that energy prices don’t move too dramatically.
What if Russia owns our elections … again? Russian bots made multiple appearances in the Alabama Senate campaign. While many state and local governments have taken steps to make the physical machinery of elections more secure, the Trump administration has done nothing to explore Russian interference or take steps to stop it from happening again. Russia experts say the aim is less to give one party or candidate a leg up, and more to sow doubt in American institutions and conflict in American society. They worry that it is working all too well, in the U.S. and elsewhere, like Spain, where polarization over Catalonia’s drive for independence is worsening, with Russian bots pitching in.
Many thousands of innocent civilians will die horrible, preventable deaths. The so-called “four famines” ravaging South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria will continue, putting more than 25 million people at risk of starvation. They are the result of an poisonous confluence of political and ecological factors, with no easy ends in sight. The suffering of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, victims of ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence, will continue. So will the suffering of Syrian civilians in their country’s civil war, and that of thousands of African and Central American migrants risking death to escape economic and political oppression. (This is also the threat you can most easily do something about — donate to a humanitarian-relief organization.) This fact doesn’t make most experts’ threat lists, because in the short term, they argue, this suffering poses no threat to us in the U.S. Yet in the long term, we know that the perception of a rich country’s indifference to human suffering, and indifference to Muslim suffering from non-Muslims, drives down the prestige and influence of international organizations and powerful nations such as the U.S. They also give extremist organizations propaganda fodder that contributes to turning angry young people against us.
But there will there be any good news? The absolute number and proportion of people around the world who live in extreme poverty — less than $1.90 a day — has declined steadily for 30 years and will continue to do so. And maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year the world eradicated polio. It won’t be the year the world got rid of polarization, or defeated fake news, but it’s a new chance to turn the corner on both. Happy New Year.