28 March 2018

Ten Political and Security Risks to Watch in Q2 2018

The overall level of political and security risk around the world continues to trend upwards, particularly with regards to the potential for increased tensions, and even outright clashes, between two or more of the world’s more powerful political actors.  Furthermore, changing voting patterns in democracies and the efforts to strengthen the grip on power of authoritarian leaders in non-democratic (or semi-democratic) states is adding to the already high level of political and security risk in many areas of the world.  Here are the ten most dangerous political and security risks facing the world in the second quarter of 2018:

Russia and the West: Relations between Russia on one side and the United States and much of Europe on the other have been steadily deteriorating for more than a decade, but have recently reached their lowest point since the Cold War.  Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears likely to continue to expand Russia’s presence in areas of the world that had been considered to have been within the sphere of Western interest.  This could lead to a major escalation in tensions between Russia and the West, with the threat of military clashes between the two sides on the rise.

Eastern Syria: After the United States repulsed an incursion by Russian-backed Syrian forces into rebel-held areas of eastern Syria last month (and launched a devastating counter-attack that left at least 200 Russian soldiers dead), it appeared as if the Assad regime in Syria would forego for now its efforts to retake control of eastern Syria.  However, it appears that Syrian government forces, with Russia’s backing, are massing along the Euphrates River that divides the two sides.  This could lead to a major clash that will once again involve US and Russian military forces on opposite sides of a battle in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.

Northwestern Syria: No area of Syria is being more contested right now that the northwestern corner of that country, where a Kurdish-held enclave has seen a Turkish invasion and an influx of Syrian government forces in recent weeks.  As Turkish forces push south and east, they could come into contact with Russian or US forces based in the region, potentially leading to clashes that could involve two or more of these major powers. 

Afghanistan-Pakistan: As the winter snows melt, the Taliban is gearing up for a new season of fighting against Afghanistan’s armed forces and their US backers.  Last year, the Taliban made significant gains against Afghanistan’s armed forces and destroyed the notion that Afghanistan’s armed forces could destroy the Taliban on their own.  Now, with the US accusing Russia of arming the Taliban, Afghanistan’s future may be determined by the battles that will be fought in that country in the coming months.

Yemen: Yemen’s civil war is no closer to coming to an end and that country has effectively been divided among local and foreign military forces, none of whom are able to gain a decisive edge in the battle for control of that strategically located country.  Meanwhile, Houthi rebels have held on to their control of northern and central Yemen, despite the efforts of a Saudi-led coalition to defeat them.  In fact, the Houthis appear more likely to take the fight to Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by the recent series of Houthi missile attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia.

North Korea: Despite hopes for a stabilization of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, tensions are likely to remain high as long as the United States, Japan and others are determined to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapon and long-range missile programs.  Moreover, the proposed summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is likely to add to the risk levels on the Korean Peninsula, as it is highly unlikely that Pyongyang is willing to make meaningful concessions with regards to its nuclear and missile programs.

Japan: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been the dominant political figure in Japan for more than a decade, and he has overseen a recovery for Japan’s moribund economy and a strengthening of Japan’s military capabilities.  However, his grip on power is threatened by a cronyism scandal involving his wife and the sale of public land, and this could result in Prime Minister Abe being forced to resign in the near future, something that could throw Japanese politics into turmoil.

United States: The level of turmoil, uncertainty and staff turnover in and around the Trump Administration continues to disrupt the political system of the world’s most powerful country.  This will continue to raise questions over US leadership in the world and could prompt rival powers to take aggressive action to improve their positions in various regions of the world.  Furthermore, it has left the West largely leaderless as it faces growing challenges from Russia, Turkey, China and other powers.

Italy: Italy’s election results were even more favorable for populist parties than pre-election polls had suggested.  As a result, the inexperienced Five Star Movement is likely to end up in power, potentially together with the far-right Northern League.  This is likely to add to the political uncertainty that is once again on the rise in Europe as that region faces the fallout of a more assertive Russia to the east and the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Northwestern South America: The level of political uncertainty in northwestern South America has risen substantially in recent months.  In Venezuela, the far-left government there has presided over a complete collapse of that country’s economy, while rigging that country’s upcoming elections.  In Colombia, support for parties and leaders opposed to the government’s peace deal with the FARC rebel group is rising during an election year there.  In Ecuador, President Lenin Moreno has turned on his predecessor, leading to in-fighting within that country’s government.  Finally, the recent resignation of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski could lead to a period of political uncertainty in that country.

Without question, the level of political and security risk is as high now as it has been at any time in recent memory.  Worse, there is still much room for these risk levels to rise further, as the pace of political change accelerates and as many of the world’s most dangerous conflicts and disputes remained unresolved.  As such, the world needs strong political leadership to see off these rising threats to its security and stability.  Unfortunately, this leadership is unlikely to materialize in the near future, keeping political and security risks high.