As summer wanes and the fall air turns crisp, it’s hard not to feel a sense of normalcy. The predictability of the seasons marked by the excitement of a new school year (not to mention a new NFL season) makes us feel safe and at home. But the year-to-date in international affairs has been anything but normal. Since the international system is inherently anarchical, it’s important to understand the risks and threats we face as a nation and as a globe.
Usually, analysis like this appears at the beginning of the year, when business and government look to the year ahead and its attendant risks. To present it as we glide into the comfort of fall is to recognize that government, enterprise, and societies cannot become complacent. One look at the news and it’s easy to see how rapidly the risk landscape can change.
The general public in the United States is still a bit skeptical when climate change is presented as a security risk. The Pentagon was actually an early adopter of this notion. Tanks, troops, missiles and ships are the materials that come to mind when thinking about security, but an element of any security threat is unpredictability, and that is exactly what climate change delivers. Because of its largely unseen nature (think single degrees of warming or microplastic in the oceans), climate change just doesn’t “feel” like an impending threat. But precisely because it is hard to see and feel, climate change is unpredictable. The rate and scope of climate issues will increase at an exponential pace.
While humans can likely make adjustments to the climate effects, it is the downstream costs we may not likely be able to bear. As the seas rise and temperatures rise, migration from the global south to north will make the most recent refugee crisis seem like a drop in the bucket. It is this mass movement of human life which will strain resources and therefore democracy. The result will be unrest, far-right policies and increased conflict and war.
Another undercover threat, social media has demonstrated its power to disrupt democracy and create mass unrest. Witness Venezuela. As governance has faltered, China and Russia both have the ability to take advantage of a distracted populous to spread fake news, ultimately weakening collective mobilization and leaving Nicolas Maduro in power. The real power of social media influence campaigns is that they are difficult to counter on a national level. It is up to individuals to seek truth and reject disinformation.
Furthering the intractability is the fact that influence campaigns target domestic politics. They are designed to turn small divisions in opinion into large chasms of difference in public opinion. Invariably, one side of the political aisle will benefit from disinformation about the other. It is up to individual politicians to resist the urge to capitalize on information emanating from a foreign power. In 2016, the current administration went so far as to encourage the Russians to continue to dig around for more information about opponents. It will not always be possible to trust politicians to call out and resist these influence campaigns. Instead, democratic institutions must act quickly to ensure the necessary safeguards against this toxic element threatening democracies.
Threats to Democracy: Nationalism, Populism, and Protectionism
Although peace isn’t always necessarily achieved through democracy, a decline in peaceful relations can often be attributed to the challenges facing the nation’s institutions. Broadly, the more a state must focus on its own domestic polarization, the less it can deal with ongoing or emerging crises abroad. When a country that has previously led by example with an independent press and judiciary starts degrading these crucial institutions, it makes other, less exemplary states feel free to begin violating press freedoms and individual rights.
The unrest that ensues causes a cycle of protest and repression like that recently observed in Russia. Nationalism, useful for defining democracies, but ultimately harmful to their continued success, has reared its ugly head in locations and disparate as Indonesia, United Kingdom, Turkey, Mexico, and the United States and is often paired with populism (oftentimes using social media) to equate nation with ethnicity. This is a harmful practice, extinguished, or so we thought, through two world wars. The democratic process of reconciling views from many groups can be a proxy for the willingness to do so internationally.
Nationalism and populism can also lead to protectionism. The ongoing trade war between the US and China is a popular example, but there are plenty more. Hungary should be a rising eastern European power, just like its neighbors. But it has suffered economically due to practices (in this case for Russian automakers) that hurt trade and cause a brain-drain across the country.
Misplaced U.S. Priorities
The United States has been a leader and example for the free world since the end of the Cold War. The current US administration completely misses the mark in terms of prioritizing threats abroad. While immigration (an “invasion”) on the southern border, Iran, and the trade war with China dominate the headlines, none of these are true threats to American interests.
Separation of family units at the southern border and a vast reduction of admitted refugees (some of whom fought alongside the US in Afghanistan and Iraq) are shameful practices to be sure, but more importantly, broadcast a signal that the US is not interested in engaging with the rest of the world. Isolationism is not only an economic mistake (immigrants are a net positive on the economy) but oftentimes a leading-edge indicator of future conflict.
The rise of China, per se, certainly is a threat to US leadership around the world, as is the threat posed by Iran to regional allies and interests in the Middle East. But countering China through tariffs only encourages Chinese government-owned businesses to strengthen their supply chains at home and to seek and control new regional markets. Smart engagement is a much better containment policy.
The real threats the US should be worried about are interference in our democratic process by Russia and other actors, and rising seas and temperatures that threaten our naval bases and land forces. Secondary risks include cyber threats, theft of our government and trade secrets (by China), the import of drugs like fentanyl (originally from China) that kill tens of thousands of Americans every year, and regional unrest in Venezuela, where international terrorist organizations (you read that right) are able to train and posture, far too close for comfort to the United States.
Reduced Cooperation Between Allies
The rules-based world order that has existed since the end of WWII has been supported by a fabric of alliances between nations. Economic alliances are very important, and so are security-based agreements.
Sometimes they are intertwined and mutually harmed during disagreements. Witness Japan and South Korea. Owing to a theme of trade war efforts internationally, Shinzo Abe of Japan recently placed tariffs on South Korea, leading to South Korea’s decision to cut off intelligence sharing in a region highly vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated North Korean missiles.
Breakdowns in security and economic alliances are occurring across the globe, creating an increasingly fragmented balance of power. This fragmentation causes fragility and ultimately, increased conflict.
Chinese Foreign Development Policy
While the US has traditionally cultivated allies through defense, diplomacy and development, China is now proving to be an ambitious rival by extending a development network throughout South Asia, The Middle East and Europe. Known as the Belt and Road Initiative, China seeks to redevelop its traditional trading pathways across continents.
Such a grand vision is currently not being challenged by a fragmented West. Brexit and Trump have distracted to a degree that diplomats are not as able to focus on, say, Pakistan or Kyrgyzstan, as they once were. This vacuum creates an opportunity for China to attach demands to their loans that Western-backed entities see as predatory. China does not have a long history of overseas development and lacks some of the carefully curated development policies the West has employed in recent decades. The practices include empowering local workforces, gender-focused development programs and an emphasis on counter violent extremism and peacebuilding.
China may learn to cultivate these concepts through trial and error but given the jailing and “re-education” of ethnic Uighurs in the western part of the country, it does not yet seem like China is ready to build societies’ up, preferring heavy-handed security practices, instead. Instead of polarized infighting, the US will be better served by countering Chinese development practices through robust development and diplomatic activity around the world.
Unlike the dependable arrival of fall, the international threat landscape is uncertain and complex. Economic, political, climate and social factors are combining in previously unforeseen ways to produce risks the international community is not yet equipped to handle. The good news is that the private sector has taken on new responsibilities in countering some of the above threats. But until states do the same, the world will remain an unpredictable place.
Trevor Jones is the CEO of Lynx Global Intelligence. Lynx tracks the above threats in two ways. First, they place global events in context for their clients. Lynx advises and consults on how the outcome of the above dynamics create risks or opportunities for businesses and governments. Second, they map the above dynamics with the Lynx Mapping Platform, ingesting vast amounts of data, including social sentiment, to understand risk on a granular level. When leaders in government and business have more access to information, they can make better decisions. Mistakes and miscalculations occur in the international arena due to lack of readily available and transparent information. Lynx works to reduce that uncertainty and provide a feeling of comfort for their partners.