An Outlook into 2017

Ceteris Paribus within the current political context is practically a moot concept. The seismic changes in 2016 will continue sending after shocks well into 2017 and beyond. As I have argued in previous articles, the political spectrum is moving increasingly towards the great divide between nationalism and globalism. Whilst this movement has for some decades underpinned the dynamic with which the aforementioned influences intersect, it reached its crescendo in the year 2016 with newly solidified delineations stamping their mark on the political map. So in what could easily be described as naivety, ceteris paribus within the scope of this personal forecast relates to taking political actors for the most part, on their word.

I’m making particular reference to Donald Trump as his election was the crescendo within the crescendo. The US presidential campaign of 2016 was plagued in its later stages (and has continued to do so post election), with claims that Russia meddled in the election. Indeed throughout the campaign we witnessed rhetoric from Trump regarding Russia not as an enemy but perhaps as a hopeful ally in the future. Those claiming that Russia skewed the election in Trump’s favour with email leaks through Wikileaks (painting Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton in a negative light), insist that Trump and Vladimir Putin’s Russia share close ties. This can neither be proven nor disproven, however on the surface it appears that there may be a softening of relations under the Trump administration as compared to the previous administration.

Nevertheless, there are strong undercurrents beneath the surface and again the Middle East may serve as a platform for American-Russian diplomatic hostility. As I write this piece, news is coming in that Trump’s promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will not be followed through. It is not surprising as such a strong statement could send the Middle East into absolute chaos. It is however an indication of Trump’s strong backing for Israel. This cuts into Russian interests as Russia shares strategic ties with Iran, economically and as a military benefactor. Trump has overtly stated that he is in favour of tearing up the Iran Nuclear Deal which he sees as a failure of American foreign policy. This may not be a likely outcome any time soon but it is a clear indication that the Trump administration will not take too kindly to Iran’s muscle flexing.

So in addition to being a strong backer of the state of Israel (which Iran views as the biggest threat to a stable Middle East and a sworn enemy), Trump is also likely to take a staunch stance against Iran. This would involve a strong approach to Hamas which is heavily financed by Iran. This dynamic would certainly strain the veil of friendly relations between America and Russia.

Yet Putin may be in a position to take it in his stride. Russian Iranian relations have been touch and go. Whilst they’ve been favourable since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there have been times when relations were turbulent. Putin may not be too worried in letting Iranian relations take a bit of a blow so long as there are other interests that can succeed Iran’s place in Russia’s foreign policy strategies. Indeed, on Russia’s western front lies a European Union that is riddled with cracks and crevices. This serves as a good opportunity for Putin to exploit. Trump is in favour of strengthening Iranian sanctions which were lifted by the UN in January 2016 as a result of the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Putin would best serve Russian interests by allowing Trump to strengthen sanctions to secure its already strong arms sales to Iran thus allowing Putin some space to focus on its relations with Europe. However there is always the danger for Russia that China may succeed as a replacement. Russia will need to keep looking back over its shoulder.

A united Europe under the European Union is troublesome for Russia for three key reasons. Firstly a strong EU is alluring for Russia’s satellite states such as Ukraine and therefore a threat to Russia’s immediate sphere of influence. Indeed we saw Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 with the deposing of Viktor Yanukovych (supporter of Russian ties) as Ukranian president and the Euromaidan protests demanding closer ties with Europe. This was a strong message to the world that Putin was not going to let outside powers penetrate Russian strongholds.

Secondly, there is always a threat of an integrated EU military which would rival Russia. Needless to say, having an armed enemy on Russia’s doorstep would spell a disastrous future for Russia’s interests.

Lastly, a European continent without a political union would give Russia access to markets without the hurdles presented at the moment. Russia would be in a better position to negotiate with individual governments and business leaders. With its vast natural resources, Russia would have some leverage on the negotiating table.

If Putin plays his cards right, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Angela Merkel’s open door policy for refugees coupled with the ongoing economic woes that has plagued the EU and a series of terrorist attacks, there has been a rise in populist sentiment within member states. Anti EU sentiments have found a voice and the voice is getting louder. Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo has undoubtedly added to the flow of refugees into Europe. Whilst Putin has presented this in the light of coming to the aid of a long term ally in Bashar Al Assad, one could be forgiven for thinking that Russia has exploited the situation to fan the fires of populism in Europe by sending more refugees into the continent.

It is also the reason Russia extended an olive branch to Turkey even after having one of its planes shot down along the Turkish Syrian border. Turkey is in a key geographic location serving as a valve that can regulate the ebb and flow of refugees into Europe. An added bonus is that Turkey is a member of NATO which is another containment of Russian expansion. Having a NATO member within the fold could be very beneficial. Taking into account these factors, Russia will continue to build greater strategic ties with Turkey.

Tying this back to Trump and Russia’s relations with America, we may see an alignment of interests as Trump’s wishes of retrenchment of troops and a return to trade barriers fits in nicely with a breakdown of free trade zones, namely the EU. Trump has heavily criticized Angela Merkel and leaders in Brussels regarding their failure to protect citizens from terror threats and their failure to integrate Muslim migrants. He showed strong support for Brexit further undermining the EU. It is therefore possible that Russia would be ready to take a blow to Iranian relations if it pleases Trump so long as Iran continues to buy arms from Russia and Putin’s cooperation with Trump’s vision continues to further divide the EU.

 A dissolving EU would be beneficial for cultural preservation of member states. Under the Schengen Agreement, member states have seen wide scale cultural displacement in a very short period of time. Prior to the recent migrant crisis (although the influx of illegal migrants has been an ongoing issue) the EU had taken major damage as a fallout from the Global Financial Crisis. This had already set the stage for Eurosceptic sentiments. With the rise of leaders such as Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France; and Geert  Wilders’ Party For Freedom in Netherlands, 2017 is likely to see further disharmony in Europe. The EU is in free fall and whilst it is unlikely it will come to an end this year, 2017 will take it several strides closer to complete dismantling. This begins with Brexit.

With the passing of the referendum in favour of leaving the EU, economists have at this stage been proven wrong about their forecasts surrounding the doom and gloom of U.K’s future. The pound bounced back from its predictable drop immediately following the results of the referendum, and the U.K economy finished 2016 as one of the world’s strongest. In 2017, other member states will be looking at this successful extrication and considering the possibility that fear and gloom of economic woes lean heavier on the side of remaining. Whilst the influx of migrants can be an economic boost, the over million migrants that have come into Europe have brought in mostly uneducated young men who will become a strain on welfare systems thereby draining tax revenue.

In late 2016 the Deutsch Bank was reportedly on the brink of collapse along with a large chunk of Italy’s big banks. In light of the migrant crisis, on going economic volatility and centralisation of power in Brussels, Matteo Renzi’s failed attempt at reforming a large chunk of Italy’s constitutional bicameral system sent shock waves throughout Europe. It has made many nervous about confidence in the Euro. With all these factors considered, EU leaders will in 2017 allow themselves to drop some of their resistance towards the populist movement. This is largely because the EU is on the rocks. Merkel had in September 2016, called on populist party Alternative For Deutschland (AFD) to form a coalition after labeling it a hate filled movement. She has also called for a burqa ban where legally possible. These are clear indications that EU leaders are threatened.

Such gestures however have come too late. Media censorship, extreme political correctness and a focus on liberal migrant policy have left large portions of German and the European population distrusting. The EU is on its way out and the best such concessions can do now is cushion the fall. We will continue to see some concessions but the overall premises of the EU will not be compromised. The populist movement will be buoyed by the effects of Trumpism and Brexit. However, member states will be embroiled in internal strife as the cultural left voice fierce opposition to the populist movement. There may be increased riots on the streets of Europe involving groups such as Antifa. With more terror attacks, 2017 may see a rise in European vigilante resistance. The safety of Eastern European states such as Poland and Hungary as a direct result of measures taken to curtail the migrant influx will not be lost on the populace.

Which then brings us back to the Middle East and ISIS. As more and more ground is lost by the group, there will be increased attacks on Western soil as a sign that they are still in the holy battle. The clash of civilizations as outlined by Samuel P. Huntington does not need an established battle ground. It takes place beyond borders. Greater number of European attacks are sure to occur. ISIS will be sending messages to the Islamic diaspora around the world to commit attacks within their home nations.

Russia has kept out of a direct war against ISIS. As far as Putin is concerned, ISIS can be contained by Russia’s strong stance with immigration and assimilation. This would be more of a problem for America and Europe. It is possible that Russia may offer Trump some assistance in fighting ISIS if the request is made.

Eradicating ISIS is impossible. Trump will need to contain the threat that it poses. With an outlook that some describe as isolationist, Trump will not interfere in the region. Whereas in 2003 the Bush Administration invaded Iraq and destabilized the nation politically, Trump’s only reason to deploy troops in the region would be to engage in direct battle with ISIS in an effort to contain the threat.

The Middle East will almost certainly become an even greater area of instability as the entire region will be characterised by three very strong potential or ongoing conflicts: America and Israel against Hamas and Iran; the battle between America and ISIS; and the conflict between Sunni and Shia sects of Islam as can be seen with the current war in Yemen.

Iran may react to Trump’s increased cooperation with Netanyahu by not honouring components of the Iran Nuclear Deal such as complete shut down or conversion of nuclear facilities; access to International Atomic Energy Agency to review the extent to which Iran has limited its nuclear program; and weaponizing on any scale their nuclear resources. Iran may also try to continue flexing its muscles in the Persian Gulf as we have already seen in later 2016 when ships were deployed to harass US naval ships. Suffice to say Iran will likely become the focal point of the Middle East. With this will come increased attacks on Israel from Hamas and a strong reaction of containment and further Israeli occupation. Needless to say, Israeli expansion will elicit a large global back lash.

Whilst it is unlikely the Iran Nuclear Deal will be torn up, Trump will most certainly review its terms. Whether Iran is cooperative or not remains to be seen. As the current deal allows Iran to continue uranium enrichment programs once the deal is expired, and allows payments of large sums of money to be made to the Iranian government for the time frame, Trump will most likely want to cut funding, implement harder sanctions, make nuclear bans permanent or all of the above. This will not be taken too kindly by Iran and there will be increased friction between the two. Undoubtedly, there will be increased attacks within Israel.

Moving further East into Asia, Xi Jinping has taken on corruption and is claiming to weed it out from within the government of the People’s Republic of China. Whether this is truly as it seems or a further consolidation of power into his hands remains to be seen. What can be guaranteed now is that the Chinese economy will turn more introspective in 2017 concentrating on its own population. Chinese GDP growth has begun to plateau. Growth has dropped from the 10% rate that we had witnessed over the last decade to between 6.5%-7%. Economic growth at such speeds saw some monumental shifts in demographics. Firstly came the great migration from villages into the cities. Secondly China experienced a burgeoning middle class. Mixing these changes with traditional Chinese culture, values and traditions, China’s expansion into the South China Sea should hardly come as a surprise.

Historically China has been a cultural bubble with its doors shut to the outside world. China views itself as a divine power which deserves a rightful place at the helm of global affairs. As the changes in demographics have sliced into this traditional mindset through increased modernization and therefore by default, westernization, Xi Jinping has tried to counter balance this through stronger rhetoric of Chinese pride and hegemony. It is no wonder that even with past presidents’ strong focus on Chinese nationalism, Xi Jinping’s rhetoric is even stronger to curtail the increased westernization of Chinese culture. Indeed, on the streets of Beijing and other major cities China has seen a rise in westernized ‘hipster’ culture.

It is safe to assume however that the larger segment of the Chinese population for the most part expects big things for China’s future mostly because through the generations this is what they have been told. Being a strongly nationalist country bound by cultural importance to honour, and having a sense of a return to China’s historical greatness, the narrative has been etched into Chinese psyche. There is hence an expectation that China will become the greatest power of the world.

Putting the three conditions together: plateauing economy, increased westernization and cultural/political conditioning to expect Chinese greatness, China’s expansion into the South China Sea is a display of it’s return to eminence. Through this China sends a message to Japan that the invasion into Manchuria  and Japan’s imperial expansionism has not been forgotten. It sends a message to the Chinese people that China may be slowing its economic growth but politically and militarily China has become a power to be reckoned with. China has told the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea that they will not be dictated to. These are troubling signs.

China expects to transition into a service sector economy and market value added goods to the world rather than remain an exporter of low value goods. With Trump’s expected return to trade barriers and his accusations against China’s manipulation of currency, 2017 will see increased tensions between the super power and the rising super power. We could therefore expect greater activity from China in the South China Sea and a lot of strong words. There may be talk of war although it is extremely unlikely that the two powers would go to war in 2017.

As a resistance to China’s political strength we may see hand shakes between other Asian nations. In November 2016 Japan and India signed the Agreement for Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy.  The treaty will see Japan offer India nuclear fuel and technology and will strengthen their already warm relations. What is noteworthy here is that India is the only non signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty that Japan has entered into a nuclear relation with. There is little doubt that one of the factors in such a decision is to provide a counter balance in Asia to China’s power. It is likely that 2017 will see further collaboration and cooperation between Japan and India.

The menace with which China carries out its foreign policy efforts will continue to make other nations within the Pacific rim nervous. Australia has very strong trade relations with China however it’s defence reports have continually reported China to be its biggest military threat. Whilst culturally and socially tied to the West especially with the US, its economic ties have for the last two decades looked towards China and Asia. With China’s slowdown economically, Australia may have to look at where its interests lie. Trump has increasingly hinted at a return to traditional realist diplomacy and a retrenchment of troops. This gives further cause for China to carry on with expansionist foreign policies which could further lead to a creation of sides with America and its partners on one and China with its allies on the other. This will be a tricky position for Australia.

 Globally, as technology becomes increasingly integrated with the human experience nations will have to decide which side to pick in the battle against climate change. With changes in the political order, changes in trade relations and indeed cultural shifts in attitudes, concern for climate change may be pushed back. It will not be seen as urgent as it has been for the last ten to fifteen years. Aside from the shifts in political relations mentioned above, there is increased skepticism as the effects of climate change had been over blown in the past and none of them have come to fruition. People have also become tired of hearing about all weather phenomena being related to climate change. There are no observable consequences as yet that are apparent for all to see. As Trump and the world concentrate on new trade relations, economic opportunities and political relations, there is not much time left to focus on climate change. That is not to say that environmental groups and convinced scientists will not make noise and push to have climate policies ratified on the global stage. It is just a case of climate change being last on the agenda of global politicized issues amongst the big players.

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