With Trump, Brexit and simmering tension in Asia, can the global security order survive 2017?
Hagai M. Segal says with geopolitical crises threatening many parts of the world, those still reeling from a painful 2016 should brace for potentially worse
In 1815, as the Napoleonic wars that had ravaged the continent came to an end, Europe’s great powers fashioned a new political order to establish and maintain peace. This order collapsed a century later, with humanity consumed by the devastation of the first world war. Another century on and the world is again teetering on the edge of the geopolitical abyss.
Many commentators have characterised 2016 as an annus horribilis, but it is in 2017 when we will see whether the geopolitical nightmare scenarios come to fruition. And we will find out whether the political consensus that has defined the global political and ethical norms since 1945 will be renewed or ruined.
The United Nations, formed after the second world war, was designed to be a truly global institution developing cooperation to prevent hostilities. Yet in 2017, we have politicians globally, including the incoming US president, celebrating their desire to challenge, if not dismantle, this system and status quo. The politics of international cooperation and human rights is out, replaced with a return to the doctrine of “our national interest trumps all other considerations”.
This change has been driven by, and itself now drives, the increasingly volatile global geopolitical landscape, and the litany of geopolitical hot spots today should alarm even the most hardened political observers. From Europe to Africa to Asia, grand crises loom.
In Europe, Britain will formally initiate the process of Brexit, and the Dutch and the French will go to the polls. While in France a win by Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections in May looks an outside bet, in the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ PVV is ahead in the polls for the March general election. Both have become synonymous with anti-Islamic and anti-immigration rhetoric, and would remove their countries from the EU too. They hope to replicate the popular backlash that in 2016 brought the resignation of the Italian prime minister and nearly resulted in a far-right candidate winning the Austrian presidency.
These elections could decide the future of the EU. If France or the Netherlands exit too, it is hard to imagine the EU – already weakened by Brexit, the migration crisis, terrorism and the ongoing economic crisis – surviving beyond the short term.
In Africa, militant Islamists are running parts of Libya and waging a war against Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, while Boko Haram, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda remain major threats. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war, and the interconnected battle for Iraq, will continue to consume the region.
Donald Trump’s much-publicised affinity for Vladimir Putin may result in diminishing tensions between the US and Russia, especially over Syria. There is an opportunity for cooperation fighting Islamic State. Yet even this may prove a false hope – Trump has consistently warned of the threat posed by Iran, and has pledged to annul the Iran nuclear deal. Yet Russia’s entire strategy in Syria has been premised on intimate cooperation with Iran to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. Either Trump has to turn a blind eye to Iran’s role in Syria, or Russia has to dramatically change policy, and it is highly unlikely that either will occur.
Islamic State, meanwhile, remains a huge threat, in the region and globally.
And if the Middle East was not chaotic enough, the Trump presidency is likely to trigger the latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Trump’s appointment of a pro-settlement Jewish-American as Israeli ambassador, combined with his promise to move the US embassy back to Jerusalem, has already brought threats from the Palestinian Authority to withdraw support for the peace process.
Meanwhile, Asia’s geopolitical hot spots continue to trouble. The multi-state South China Sea stand-off simmers on the back-burner, while the North Korean dynamic is again threatening to come to the boil. Any weakening of the resolve to address the political crisis through international action is likely to embolden Pyongyang.
So, is Armageddon unavoidable?
The worst-case scenarios are by no means a fait accompli. Yet it should be clear why figures from the Pope to Britain’s Prince Charles are warning of the frightening similarities between today’s geopolitical storm and the political climate in the 1930s that led to the second world war and the Holocaust.
Real leadership is required to explain these risks and realities, and to fight for stability and peace. Pragmatic and reasoned leadership will be required globally, in particular from Beijing and Moscow, especially if the worst fears about Trump’s presidency come true.
Political engagement from the average citizen is also key.
If these risks and realities are not fully comprehended, by politicians and citizens alike, we risk collectively sleepwalking into the geopolitical storm.
Hagai M. Segal, an expert in geopolitical risk, lectures at New York University in London