Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Reflecting on 2018, Looking Ahead to 2019

Below is a recent conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman. As you’ll see, they reflect on the major global political themes from 2018 and look ahead at some of the international storylines that will likely dominate the news/opinion in 2019.

Brad Nelson: So now that 2018's over and done, let's reflect on it a bit. What were the main world politics takeaways of 2018? Any overriding themes? Or emerging trends? I suspect you have a long list to pick from.

Yohanes Sulaiman: People are yelling left and right that Trump is going to destroy the world, but so far, life goes on. We could argue either the international system is far more resilient than scholars/analysts/pundits have believed, or they wildly overestimate Trump's ability to destroy the world.

But seriously, I don't think Trump's influence is really that huge. The media especially make him way bigger and dangerous than he really is and far inflate his influence. Besides, with or without Trump, there are lots ways that things can go wrong. Take the example of Brexit, which happens without Trump's rise. Or the Khashoggi scandal. I don't buy the argument that Trump emboldens dictators or causes global insanity. But critics need a bogeyman, and Trump provides a convenient one.

Putting Trump aside, though, there are several ongoing trends going that I think will have major implications for years to come. First, China is declining. No, China is not going to be like the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But the fact that Xi Jinping had to crack down massively on Muslims in Xinjiang and that China's economy is cooling down are indications that all is not well in China. China's problems started way before Trump's trade war, though the trade war exacerbated it.

Second, Iran may be losing in the Middle East's Great Game. Sure, Trump is withdrawing from Syria, or so he claims. But I think this will also lead to Russia pulling out from Syria. Why? Because Russia is there to prevent the US and EU from challenging it in its sphere of influence. Now that America's threat is withering, Russia will have the excuse it needs to dump an expensive war it can hardly afford. Iran would be left holding the bag and that would strain Iran's already crumbling economy hurt by low prices and sanctions. True, Turkey might try to expand its influence in Syria, but its economy is its Achilles' heel, thereby restricting the scope of Ankara's ambitions. And while a fraying economy does not necessarily lead to the collapse of the regime (see Venezuela and Cuba), a prolonged foreign adventure in the midst of such economic struggles could cause major internal instability and turmoil.

BN: Those are good choices. But in my view, the big story is the continued divisions in the West--between various Western countries and within various Western nations. Trump's a big part of this phenomenon. Trump--his policies, governing style, his personality, and, yes, his tweets--has sparked almost daily chaos and controversy in the US. And he's been the major source of the political unraveling we're now seeing between the US and France, Germany, Britain, Canada, and EU/NATO. The various world gatherings and summits in 2018 (NATO summit, UN annual meeting, G7, G20, Armistice Day), even more so than those in 2017, fully exposed all of the rifts between Western countries, with Trump at the middle of most of the disputes and rancor.

But Trump's not solely to blame. Right-wing populist movements have gathered momentum--due to a mixture of sweeping populism, nationalism, and country-specific factors--in Sweden, Austria, Poland, Germany, France, and Italy. And this, as we know, has created turmoil across Europe (entrenched political divides, protests, street violence, a spike in right-wing extremism). Right now, the West is in a funk, a malaise, which is problematic by itself, but it's caused terrible rippling effects throughout the international system. The West is distracted and preoccupied by internal troubles, creating openings for rivals and enemies and allowing global problems to fester. Climate change, the Syrian conflict and humanitarian fallout, the possible re-grouping of ISIS, Russia's resurgence, China's troublesome behavior, the weakening of international existing norms and rules--all of these things are continuing apace, and the West, collectively, is doing relatively little about it. The world's in trouble if we're counting on an outgoing Merkel, or Trudeau, or Macron to save it.

Now, turning to 2019, the Trump administration is probably the number one topic on my radar. According to reports, the Mueller report should be wrapped up sometime this year. Will it contain any bombshells? Or will it be a nothing-burger? Of course, except for a select few, nobody at this point knows what's in the report. But the impact of it could be dramatic. It could place the Trump presidency in jeopardy. And keep in mind, already, the Democrats are out for blood and pushing impeachment through the House. As a result, even if Trump's not ousted this year, it's pretty clear he'll face significant political heat in 2019. And that heat will inevitably bleed into his presidency.
Indeed, it's very possible the much-criticized 2017 and 2018 years of Trump's presidency will actually be the calm years of his time in the White House. Trump will likely be even more erratic, churn out ever crazier tweets, and lash out even more at real and imagined political foes, both inside the US and beyond. Will that cause more turnover in the White House? Possibly, right? And then there are the policy implications of a insecure, threatened Trump presidency. Does Trump do something rash? Does he manufacture a crisis to save himself?

YS: The divisions in the West are not a new phenomenon, but the group managed to keep it together for years due to good economic growth. Once the economy faltered in 2008 and the immigration crisis started as a result of the Syrian War, coupled with uninspiring leadership from the moderates, citizens in the West looked for political and economic alternatives. Under these conditions, populism has thrived. We have seen this before, back in the 1920s and 30s, when the moderates failed to lead and both the left and the right populist movements seized the initiative, with grave implications. At the moment, because of Trump, the populist right seems to be dominant, but there is also a leftist populist movement. The populist bent sweeping through the Democratic Party in the US is a perfect example. The moderates can provide a viable political-economic alternative or keep cajoling the extremists, it's their choice. But right now, the populists have the momentum.

On the Mueller report: no, I don't think it will be a bombshell. If there was a real smoking gun that implicated Trump, Mueller's team would have wrapped everything up years ago. All the leaks and indictments so far are just like a calculated drip to keep people interested. I won't be surprised if it ends up like the Starr Report, an indictment on a wholly different topic. And Democrats would be crazy to replicate the Republicans' impeachment attempt on Clinton: it will galvanize Trump's supporters and basically hand the election to Trump in 2020.

But I agree that this year could be a crazy year. Already, as you suggested, House Democrats are doing anything they can to destroy Trump, the Democrats are fielding contenders to run against Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and the federal government is closed with no sign of the stalemating breaking soon. So like it or not, 2019 will be another year about Trump, and that will crowd out everything else again.

BN: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about 2019?

YS: Pessimistic, since the moderates are running like chickens with their heads chopped off: they present no vision, no alternative to the global slump. Politicians and leaders are pandering to the worst, lowest instincts, not only in the US, but also in Europe and even in Asia. Merkel is basically a lame duck, and she hasn't been effective since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Macron is becoming irrelevant. Putin is a vulture. China is engaging in a knee-jerk foreign policy. Trump is Trump. 

In essence, things will go down, though I will be happy to be proven wrong.

BN: Overall, on a macro level, I'm pessimistic. The next 25 years will likely be very rocky for many parts of the world. Ian Bremmer's Eurasia Group recently released its "Top Global Risks" report for 2019, and it presents a dour outlook for the foreseeable future. And I agree. The trend lines on a host of important issues (US-China relations, cybersecurity, US politics, Europe, the global order, climate change, etc.) are all pointing downward. These are big and complicated issues, globally defining issues, that will be extremely difficult solve, and if they're not solved, major catastrophes could result. 

But I'm slightly optimistic about 2019, actually. For example, the war in Syria is wrapping up. Brexit issues should get resolved one way or another in the next few months. In the US, the Democrats have the House, which can help restrain Trump. The Mueller report will be released soon, and at that point we'll know whether Trump will serve out his term in office. Moreover, it looks like Europe is no longer hoping to woo Trump and is finally getting its act together by proceeding without the US until the next American president takes office. The world's most notorious despots are safe and not going anywhere in 2019. Yes, the global economy might dip a bit in 2019, but it doesn't look like anything terribly disruptive will occur. New leaders in Mexico and Brazil might offer some stability to their battered, corrupt nations. China is still biding its time regionally, waiting for Taiwan, the US, and the rest of America's allies in Asia, to weaken and stop resisting Beijing's influence, so I don't expect anything rash from Xi.

Russia is a wild card, admittedly. Its maneuvers in the Kerch Strait in November were concerning, and some Russia observers fear that Putin is planning on further expanding Russian control over Ukraine. Perhaps, though Russia's trouble making over the last decade has been of the plausibly deniable, low-cost variety, so I don't anticipate a full-scale invasion or anything of the sort. However, watch out for Ukraine's presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. Both offer Russia ample opportunities to disturb, harass, and threaten Ukraine's political systems and its sovereignty--perhaps via cybermeddling in the elections or provoking a security crisis beforehand. 

So, overall, there's a decent chance that 2019 could be slightly more stable than last year. But I'm going to add a caveat here. Of course, I'm purely looking at how 2019 might process the problems leftover from 2018. What happens when or if a significant crisis or danger pops up this year? In that case, all bets are off. Put simply, I'm not confident at all in the current batch of global leaders, particularly those in the world's great power nations. I don't see anyone capable of rising to the occasion to lead competently the international community during a crisis.