We live in a world of big political personalities, “breaking news” and fast-moving events, but to understand how the world will change in 2018, we must look more closely at four important political trends developing beneath the surface.
First, it is regional, not global, security that will matter most for war and peace. Donald Trump’s calls for an “America First” approach to US foreign policy inspired fear that Trump would dismantle alliances that took decades to build. His early provocative approach to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization added to the worries. Yet, Trump has relied mainly on experienced men in uniform to set policy, with a result, the occasional tweet-storm aside, that’s not so different than we might have gotten from President Hillary Clinton.
The real change is in a more regional approach to security. For the foreseeable future, the United States will remain the only country on Earth capable of extending military power into every region of the world. (The US continues to outspend China on defense by a margin of 3-1.) Yet, Trump is no more likely than Barack Obama was to use that force in surprising ways unless forced to by crisis. Trump, like Obama, is more interested in winning domestic political battles.
This opens the door for heightened competition for influence that includes the US and China, but also India and Japan in East Asia, and the US, but also Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey in the Middle East. These are the arenas of conflict, and potential conflict, that now matter most.
Second, ideological battles over political values like democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech are giving way to fights that are grounded more directly in naked self-interest. A decade ago, “western” political values appeared to have carried the day. Americans and Europeans assumed these values are so obviously central to their security and prosperity, that emerging powers like China, Russia, and Arab states would surely adopt them. They also believed that rising middle classes in developing countries would moderate their politics by using their newfound economic power to hold governments more accountable.
But those who lead China, Russia, and most Arab states had other ideas. They believed they could build prosperity within authoritarian systems. Financial instability and political dysfunction in the United States and Europe in recent years helped make their case – and persuaded them that prosperity depended on their refusal to open their political systems to the chaos created by multiparty democracy. Governments in other emerging countries – Brazil and Turkey, for example – have struggled to maintain political order as middle classes make demands that governments can’t meet. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded with a heavy-handed bid for more power. Brazil’s politics are weighed down with a cynicism generated by corruption, recession, and a polarized society.
In 2018, these trends will continue, and international politics will become a battle of every nation, and government, for itself.
Third, the nature of international trade continues to evolve. Trump made headlines in 2017 with an aggressively transactional approach to potential deals and a belligerent approach to existing ones. But it’s China that will tell the most dynamic trade story in 2018. As Trump backs the US away from new commitments, China’s government will continue to advance the Belt-Road project to extend its economic – and, therefore, political – influence across Asia, the Middle East and into Europe through investment in new roads, bridges, ports and other large-scale infrastructure projects. This is the project that reveals China as the one significant world power with a coherent global development strategy for the 21st century. Trade will remain a controversial topic in US elections in coming years, and China will continue to invest, expand, build – and to write the rules under which many other countries will do business.
Finally, it is in cyberspace that the global balance of power is shifting most quickly. Here is the arena where poorer countries can compete for influence with much richer ones. Here is where politicians within countries can attack one another with new weapons. Here criminals can create new forms of crime, hackers can expose the deepest secrets of governments, and terrorists can inspire and direct attacks in new places.
In 2017, economies around the world shrugged off domestic and international political turmoil. In 2018, we’ll begin to see more clearly that connections between politics, security, and our economies are changing more quickly and becoming more complex than we might have imagined when 2017 began.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of “Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World.”