Today’s world has no shortage of hotspots. New challenges from revanchist Russia, a powerful insurgency in Iraq, and escalating tensions between China and its neighbors are each making worrisome headlines. So far, these sources of conflict have had little impact outside their respective regions. That’s about to change.
First, there is the challenge from the Kremlin. Ukraine remains the crucial piece of Russian President’s Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but the turmoil of the past nine months inside Ukraine has deepened the divide between the two countries. There can be no peace in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Kiev is determined to ease its economic dependence on Moscow and to deepen political, economic and security ties with Europe. To reverse this process, Putin will use every form of pressure at his disposal to force a rewrite of Ukraine’s constitution that would empower Ukraine’s regional governments, allowing Moscow to use its influence in the eastern provinces to slow Kiev’s westward progress. Neither side will compromise until it has to. The West will likely impose still harsher sanctions on Russia, which will then ensure that Europe shares in the cost of confrontation.
In Iraq, sectarianism is again the order of the day, creating closer ties between Iraq’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations on the one hand and their respective brethren beyond Iraq’s borders. Today, the Sunni militants that have seized control of cities across northern Iraq lack the means to topple the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The government, however, lacks the means to dislodge the militants, and the Kurds have established a de facto autonomy across their northern territories.
The larger risk is that Sunni-Shia battles in Iraq will metastasize into a single regional war. Sunni Islamists will use the land they control to recruit and train jihadis. Iran will deepen its ties with Baghdad. The Saudis will not publicly support the Sunni militants, but to avoid Shia dominance and a more formal Tehran-Baghdad alliance, they will allow money and weapons from sympathetic Saudis to reach them. The increasingly risk-averse Americans will remain on the sidelines. The Iran-Saudi rivalry will escalate in other proxy battles across the Middle East.
In East Asia, relations between China and its neighbors could become much more dangerous. To assert its growing regional influence and to appease demand, particularly within the military, for a more assertive foreign policy, Beijing has become more confrontational, particularly in the region’s disputed waters. For the moment, China is directly at odds only with Vietnam, in part because the economic fallout from this confrontation is much less economically dangerous than with Japan, and because Vietnam, unlike Japan and the Philippines, does not enjoy formal US backing.
This situation could become much more dangerous, however, because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced plans to “reinterpret” Japan’s constitution to allow Japan to move its security policy beyond self-defense. This increases the long-term odds that China and Japan will more often confront one another in the East China Sea, and the threat that Japan might become more active in the South China Sea on behalf of its allies will set Chinas military leaders on edge. The governments of the world’s second and third largest economies will work hard to avoid a military confrontation, but neither is deaf to domestic public demand for an uncompromising stand when things heat up. This risk is likely to rise quickly should China become much less stable than it is today.
The good news is that, in many ways, the world is better able to absorb the shocks created by these problems than it was five years ago. The US economy has largely recovered from its financial crisis. The Eurozone is no longer in immediate danger. China has avoided a hard landing of its economy. Interest rates remain relatively low. New sources of energy have taken the jitters out of oil markets. It’s a more stable world.
The bad news is that these strengths breed complacency, and the world’s policymakers can persuade themselves to avoid these mounting problems—until they become impossible to ignore. All these sources of turmoil are a product of the breakdown of the current international order, none of them can be resolved without a significant intervention from powerful outside actors, and no one is consistently both willing and able to accept the costs and risks that come with that responsibility.
With a distracted and increasingly risk-averse US less willing to provide global leadership and no one else ready to fill the resulting vacuum, the number of hotspots is likely to increase—and they will burn hotter than before.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and a global research professor at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer.