‘2020 In Defence: What Will Happen This Year?’ by Michael Clarke

There is no future in trying to predict future crises in world politics.

There is no pattern – except that crises always happen over Christmas or bank holiday weekends, in the same way land battles always take place just on the join between three maps.

But if prediction is impossible, anticipation certainly is not.

Crises will always leave us tactically surprised, but we have only ourselves to blame if we are strategically surprised.

Certain situations in world politics are strategically spring-loaded.

We cannot know if and when a mouse will run over the spring, but we should be able to anticipate that it could. That is the essence of crisis planning.

The mouse will always be a surprise – the snapping of the trap should not be.

So, which parts of the global system are most obviously spring-loaded for 2020?

Middle East

The US-Iranian crisis around the assassination of Qassem Soleimani on 3 January got the year off to an edgy start.

After a build-up of mutual attacks between US and Iranian militia forces, the week of crisis that began the year left seven dead, including a senior Iranian commander, an Iraqi militia commander and a Hezbollah official.

More than 50 mourners killed at Soleimani’s funeral, 176 innocent people killed on Ukrainian airlines flight PS752, mistakenly shot down in a tragic Iranian military accident, and no US casualties anywhere.

So, all square after a week of violent crisis? Not quite.

The effect of the Soliemani assassination has polarised Iraq and probably set off an unstoppable process of US military withdrawal from Iraq that will change the face of politics across the Levant region of Asia.

The US thinks it has got Iran on the back foot by hitting it so hard; the Iranians think that action has put the skids under the US in Iraq, and eventually elsewhere in the Middle East.

Russia, China and Iran recently held joint naval exercises in the Sea of Oman.

Now, both Moscow and Beijing are waiting to see what happens next.

The US-Iranian stand-off has some way yet to run and 2020 may become the year when the Middle East explicitly embraces its ‘post-western’ future, however much the Saudis and the Israelis try to fill the growing policy vacuum.

South and East China Seas

The world is increasingly transfixed by the game-changing effects of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ across Asia and Eurasia.

But there is more immediate spring-loading for crisis in China’s ‘first island chain’, where its sovereign claims on major swathes of the South and East China Seas and the rapid transformation of coral atolls there into big military bases, create the growing potential for maritime conflict.

This is not just between China and its aggrieved neighbours like Vietnam, Japan, or the Philippines, but also with the US (and allies such as Britain) who conduct regular Freedom of Navigation Operations in those waters.

Add to this China’s determination not to accept the wave of patriotic fervour that has swept Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party back to power under President Tsai, with her promises to detach Taiwan further from mainland China, and it is not difficult to see how tensions in this maritime region will rise and may become hard to control.

Sahel Region of Africa

The Sahel region has been a dangerous neighbourhood for many years, but since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, international terrorism and separatist wars have become contagious across the region and around its borders.

Mauritania, Mali, Northern Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad have all been drawn into guerrilla conflicts that have internationalised the franchising of jihadist terror groups.

US, French and British forces have been operating to try to help established governments deal with some of the instabilities, particularly in Mali, but their operations can be no more than palliatives.

The truth is that a lightly populated, and often inhospitable region of Africa, defies most ‘stabilising’ efforts if the underlying dynamic is drifting the other way – which it is.

It would not be surprising to see recurrent crises in this region in 2020 and ones that seriously threaten the unity even of a country like Nigeria – the giant of west Africa.

Certainly, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger also have a good deal to worry about in the current unstable climate.

Eastern Mediterranean 

Not much noticed in Europe is the degree to which the politics of the Eastern Mediterranean have been changing in recent years.

The eccentric politics of Turkey under President Erdogan that set it in opposition to its NATO partners in several areas, the economic vulnerability of Cyprus since the global economic crisis, new Israeli interests in the area and the discovery of more lucrative gas fields around Cypriot waters, have all changed old political equations.

Not least, the Syrian civil war has brought Russia back into the political mix with more influence than it ever had in the Cold War.

Russia has a growing naval base in Tartus, a big air base at Latakia, as well as major economic interests in Cyprus where it would like to build a naval base.

Russia has also been accused of increasing involvement in Libya through its ‘Wagner’ mercenary group to support warlord, General Haftar, in his growing offensive on the recognised government in Tripoli.

After the discovery of significant fields of offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean around Cyprus and offshore Egypt, the area has become less a ‘NATO lake’ and more a sphere of local and international competition.

Israel, Cyprus and Greece are pressing ahead, with US support, with the ambitious EastMed pipeline to ship gas into Europe, and lessen its dependence on Russian gas supplies.

But Russia and Turkey ended 2019 with a series of overt attempts to thwart it.

Turkey claims that the pipeline goes through waters that belong to the unrecognised state of northern Cyprus and sends naval vessels to enforce that claim.

It has concluded a separate deal with Libya that would divide off-shore territorial claims between them to make the pipeline unviable.

Russia backs Turkey up on these positions, while the Europeans retaliate economically against Turkish obstruction.

The situation in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, from Libya to Israel is spring-loaded for a complex military stand-off that would involve both the US and Russia directly.

Beyond Geopolitics

Looking at regions geopolitically, of course, is only one dimension of international stability.

It might be argued that the ‘new’ sources of international instability are at least as important, such as cyber warfare, the growth of integrated and international crime, threats to the environment from climate change, the impact of new and disruptive technologies, or the impacts of social media on political behaviour.

They seem to pose a dizzying array of possible threats to peace.

But for 2020, one possibility seems to stand out above the others.

That is the phenomenon of what might be called ‘political insurgencies’ in different parts of the world, about quite different issues, and with quite unpredictable effects on their local politics.

From ‘extinction rebellion’ protests, to the ‘democracy movement’ in Hong Kong, unfocused but fierce protests against government corruption and incompetence in Iraq, Iran, Argentina, China, Mexico, potentially everywhere – or organised attacks on international trading brands, or the ‘me too’ movement.

The last few years have demonstrated the power of crowds – virtual crowds, crowds in cyberspace, crowds in squares, crowds in politics – to demand change.  

There is no unifying theme to these protests, and autocratic governments can turn out their own crowds to counter any pressures put on them.

The ‘autocratic internet’ is already the fastest-growing part of cyberspace.

But the ‘political insurgency’ phenomenon has emerged as a powerful means towards many different ends, and we will likely see a lot more of it in the year to come across the world.

It represents the new-found ability of lots of political mice to run around more or less anywhere.

It would be surprising if some of them did not run across some of the spring-loaded parts of the world.

See here for the full article published on Forces.net on 14th January 2020.