21 December 2018

The Ten Leading Geopolitical Risks in 2019

2018 has been another year in which geopolitical risk played a major role in the security, stability and economic well-being of the world at-large.  In fact, few if any of the world’s leading flashpoints experienced a decline in their threat level in 2018, with the possible exception of the Korean Peninsula. Worse, overall global geopolitical risk rose to its highest level in recent years in 2018.  Looking ahead to 2019, there are dozens of flashpoints and disputes around the world that have the potential to raise geopolitical risk levels even further in the months ahead.  Here are ten of those flashpoints and disputes that have the potential to significantly destabilize global security and the world economy in the coming year.


  • The Threat of a US-Chinese Cold War: Relations between the world’s two most powerful countries deteriorated in 2018 as the two superpowers engaged in an escalating trade war, while China continued to attempt to weaken the US position in its near-abroad.  As 2019 approaches, the world will watch closely to see if the two sides can resolve their trade dispute before its spreads to become a global trade war, while China’s neighbors in Asia will warily eye China’s growing power and influence in that region.  Improved relations could help the global economy to soften its expected slowdown in 2019, but a further deterioration in relations could help push the global economy into a sharp downturn, while triggering a worsening arms race in Asia.
  • Russia and Ukraine: The recent escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine serve as a notice that the situation in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula remain unresolved and that Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine have yet to be fully realized.  With a presidential election in Ukraine scheduled for March 2019, this could prove to be the pretext used by Russia to dramatically ramp up its pressure on Ukraine in a bid to gain more leverage over that country. Should a full blown conflict erupt, the US and its European allies could find themselves forced to make a hard decision on whether or not to significantly increase their support for Kiev.
  • The Ambitions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE: The geopolitical ambitions of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have done much to destabilize the Middle East in recent years. With the tacit support of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to feel free to pursue their agenda in the Middle East, which will include efforts to weaken the position of their rivals (e.g. Iran and Turkey) in the region.  This is likely to lead to a continuation of the war in Yemen and the isolation of Qatar, and could lead to adventurism elsewhere in the region. As always, such developments have the potential to impact oil supplies from the region and could drag in outside powers, most notably the United States.
  • The Brexit Mess: As expected, the process of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has descended into a convoluted mess.  This situation is unlikely to improve as the UK actually withdraws from the EU in the spring of next year, and the potential for a “no deal” withdrawal remains in place. For both sides, Brexit will prove to be a geopolitical nightmare, as the United Kingdom finds itself dwarfed by the world’s leading powers, and as the European Union loses one of its most important members, weakening its efforts to have a voice in global affairs.  Try as hard as they may, both sides will be unable to hide the fact that Brexit is a geopolitical setback of the highest degree, for the UK and for Europe.
  • More Migration Crises: While global migration numbers continued to stabilize in 2018, migration remained one of the most polarizing political issues in many areas of the world. Furthermore, rising geopolitical and environmental risk levels could result in a new surge in the number of migrants in 2019.  For example, the number of migrants from Africa and the Middle East attempting to reach Europe and the Arabian Peninsula could soar again in 2019 if the security or economic situation in those regions worsens in the coming months.  Likewise, more migrant caravans from Central America could stoke tensions in the United States.
  • Afghanistan’s Never-Ending Conflict: 2018 proved to be another year of conflict and unrest in Afghanistan, a country that has not known peace and stability since the 1970s.  Worse, the current situation in Afghanistan has the feel of South Vietnam in the 1970s, as a weak and divided government is propped up by the United States, which itself is losing interest in doing fulfilling this role.  In fact, 2019 could prove to be the year in which the Taliban make a decisive breakthrough, either on the battlefield or in negotiations with the United States, while a presidential election in Afghanistan in April 2019 could lead to an even more divided government.
  • Latin American Political Divisions: The past 15 months have seen a flurry of elections across Latin America that have transformed that region’s political landscape.  Its two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, will soon be governed by ideological opposites, while the governments and leaders of many countries in this region have undergone major ideological shifts.  These divisions could harden the positions of both right-wing and left-wing governments in Latin America, divisions that will make it difficult for the region to work together to solve its worsening economic and social problems that have led to Latin America’s economy performing worse than any other region over the past five years.
  • Much to be Resolved in Syria: While Syrian government forces, with the support of their allies (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) made major gains on the battlefield in 2018, there are many flashpoints inside Syria that have yet to be resolved.  For example, a significant portion of Syrian territory is now under the control of US armed forces and their local allies, territory that the Syrian government has vowed to retake.  Furthermore, remnants of the Islamic State militant group remain active in remote areas of eastern Syria.  These flashpoints could bring US or Turkish forces into conflict with Russian or Iranian forces, a development that would have major ramifications for global security.
  • Venezuela’s Collapse: The gross mis-management of the Venezuelan economy and that country’s increasingly autocratic government have driven what was once Latin America’s wealthiest country into a state of complete collapse.  Three million Venezuelans have already fled abroad since 2015 and this exodus is likely to continue in 2019 as hyper-inflation leads to inflation rates in that country rising to more than ten million percent next year.  As this collapse worsens, the United States and some Latin American countries may consider options to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, including through the use of force.
  • El Nino and Rising Climate-Related Risk: Meteorologists are forecasting a 75% chance of an El Nino in early 2019 and this is further raising the threats to global security and the economy from climate-related issues.  More powerful storms or more severe droughts could bring hardship to many areas of the world in 2019, and those areas that are less prepared to deal with these issues could see geopolitical risk levels soar next year.  Among the regions that could face such risks are South Asia, Africa and the Pacific islands, each of which is ill-prepared for the risks posed by stronger storms, prolonged droughts or rising sea levels.

Without question, the level of geopolitical risk in 2019 will remain high.  All of the factors that have led to the rising level of geopolitical risk in recent years will remain in place next year, and increasingly, the world’s leading powers are finding themselves directly involved in many of the leading flashpoints around the globe.  Meanwhile, the world’s leading power, the United States, is finding itself unwilling or unable to impose its will on the actors in many of these disputes, emboldening those who wish to undermine or change the current balance of power in these disputes.  Likewise, the emergence of China as the first serious rival to US global dominance in 30 years, and the growing confidence of revisionist powers such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, is undermining the US-led security order that has prevented major power conflicts in recent decades.  Add to this the growing economic, environmental and social concerns that many countries and regions are facing, and it is clear that the level of global geopolitical risk will remain dangerously high in 2019.