On Geopolitics: Looking Back at 2018
Over the past 12 months, Stratfor's team of analysts have run the rule on the topics and trends that are shaping the world around us, providing considered insight on a whole host of issues, ranging from the technological battle between the West and China to questions about the development of artificial intelligence, the militarization of space and U.S. President Donald Trump's intentions on the global scene. Here's a look back at some of the highlights from our weekly On Geopolitics column published over the past year.
By Matthew Bey
Feb. 6, 2018: The United States is already in the middle of its next great war — even if it's only just starting to realize it. In the latest National Security Strategy, the White House highlighted China's growing technological prowess as a threat to U.S. economic and military might. The Asian powerhouse has taken on a leading role in several critical emerging technologies. Five years ago, by contrast, it was widely perceived as an imitator in technology, not an innovator. As hard as it may be for Washington to admit, China is catching up in the tech race. The question now is whether tech firms in the United States, a country that embraces private enterprise and a free economy, will be able to keep up with their Chinese counterparts' breakthroughs.
By Evan Rees
March 30, 2018: There are increasing signs that the Vatican might be poised to find a lasting balance between acceptance and censure. The two major sticking points for re-establishing an official Vatican presence in China have been severing ties with the Taiwanese government and accepting a policy of noninterference in Chinese religious matters. The first of these is the easier. Unlike many other diplomatic missions, the Vatican maintained support for mainland China after the Communist victory pushed the nationalists to Taiwan. (It was Beijing that eventually ousted the Vatican.) The demand for noninterference is more challenging for the Catholic Church, because it would entail relinquishing some responsibility for appointing Catholic leadership to Chinese authorities.
May 3, 2018: As a general rule, precautionary regulations pose a serious threat to technological progress. The European Union historically has been more proactive than reactive in regulating innovation, a tendency that has done its part in hampering the EU tech sector. The United States, on the other hand, traditionally has fallen into the category of permissionless innovator — that is, a country that allows technological innovations to develop freely before devising the regulations to govern them. This approach has facilitated its rise to the fore in the global tech scene. While the United States still leads the pack in AI, recent concerns about civil liberties could slow it down relative to other tech heavyweights, namely China.
By Omar Lamrani
May 31, 2018: The United States has moved to define the great power competition with Russia and China as its greatest priority, necessitating a restructuring of the country's global military footprint, reallocation of resources and shift in strategic focus. The Pentagon has already begun implementing measures in this regard, but it is by no means a straightforward process. Continued distractions abound, specifically the crises with Iran and North Korea, though more generally the enduring U.S. commitment to the global "war on terrorism." In the end, the United States will undoubtedly intensify its focus on great power competition, but overcoming these distractions will be no easy task — especially as China and Russia are unlikely to make the United States' attempts to disentangle itself any easier.
June 22, 2018: Donald Trump is nothing if not unpredictable as president. But when it comes to foreign policy, that just might be his greatest foreign policy asset. After all, America's ability to swing between aloofness and overreaction are embedded in its DNA thanks to its inherently strong geopolitical foundation. A mercurial spirit in the White House might make some big waves, but can also — at least in some circumstances — be harnessed into an opportunity. A grand strategist like Dr. Henry Kissinger, who has been known to advise Trump on occasion, likely detects such an opportunity in a Trump presidency.
July 17, 2018: Every president is driven at least in part by ego and self-interest, by the desire to accomplish what others could not or did not, by the desire for re-election and by the perceived need to do what is politically expedient. But when choices based on self-interest lead to actions that run counter to the exigencies of the nation, there are consequences to those decisions. Recognizing and identifying the implications of those choices is one of the jobs of geopolitical intelligence analysts like those at Stratfor. It is not political bias. It is the nature of the job.
July 24, 2018: Trump, by all appearances, is simply less interested in breaking down trade barriers to U.S. goods overseas than he is in restricting imports into the United States. Consequently, the European Union, and other U.S. trade partners, will probably keep reaching the same impasse in their attempts to negotiate with the United States on trade.
July 26, 2018: Just because a Western-oriented liberal model has driven the trends of globalization, political development and economic growth for nearly the past century — and particularly since the end of the Cold War — doesn't mean it will continue in perpetuity. Even a brief look at history emphasizes the frequency and scale of changes that have rocked the world system, so there should be little expectation of linearity moving forward.
By Omar Lamrani
Sept. 20, 2018: Because any space conflict would produce large amounts of space debris that would ruin the orbiting assets of all countries — and devastate the world economy in the process — the only way to win a war in space is to not fight one. To that end, space should increasingly be seen through a prism akin to that of nuclear deterrence in which the ultimate aim is to prevent a space war from ever occurring. There is a vital need to build up a defensive capacity to deter an attack in space, but this capacity should be tempered by outer space treaties and norms in much the same way as arms control agreements have played a vital role in restricting nuclear arsenals. The future of the world and its neighborhood depends on it.
By Matthew Bey
Nov. 1, 2018: The United States is threatening to sideline the World Trade Organization's crowning achievement — a strong dispute-resolution mechanism — giving the rest of the world just one year to offer concessions on reform to the United States, to seek other options or to face a world where the mechanism disintegrates. With the ascendance of a new global power — China — the Trump administration may have already decided that this trade tool, a relic of the Cold War era, isn't worth upgrading.
This article appeared originally at Stratfor Worldview.