What Are the Global Risks to Watch in 2019?
In his 1555 book, Les Propheties, French visionary Nostradamus apparently predicted that 2018 would mark the start of a world war between two major powers which would only deepen in 2019. Could that be between the US and China? Let’s see. What we do know is that the usual suspects will still hang over us this year — from various Middle Eastern conflicts and cyber attacks to global economic weakness and natural disasters. These are factors that pose a threat to our stability — that’s global risk in a nutshell. But what else can we expect of global risk in 2019? Here are a few to watch for, based on a joint project with my NYU graduate students and crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat where I’m a lead analyst:
1) An Obscure World Order
Two years of US President Donald Trump’s anti-globalism reminds us the US-led world order that defined the post-Cold War years is clearly over. But what now? What is the new world order — is it simply post-hegemonic, multipolar with a few superpowers, bipolar with the US and China or something else altogether? The truth is we just don’t know and we really won’t figure it out in 2019. Most leaders are so preoccupied with domestic crises that their ability to help reshape the world order will be limited. The obvious rifts in global institutions (e.g. G20, APEC, EU) will not help. Today’s obscure world order is the greatest threat to our stability. As we muddle through another year, look for certain state and non-state actors to test their limits in a world where repercussions, for now, feel less likely.
2) The Internet Wars
In 2018, Eurasia Group rightly identified the dawn of a tech cold war between the US and China, especially in AI (note: AI expert Kai-Fu Lee gives China the edge); and the cloud of AI weaponry still looms large despite efforts to ban it. But look for the tech wars to also focus on the Internet. Different regions (i.e. US, EU, China, Silicon Valley) will clash more over how data is used in their borders and beyond (the US and China are currently competing over 5G). We are likely headed for the fracturing of the global Internet which, over time, will be a destabilizing factor for our geopolitics, politics, economy and society in ways we don’t fully understand yet.
3) The Steady Decline of Rule of Law
2018 was definitely the year of the autocrat (or faux democrat). And 2019 will be too, as certain leaders (e.g. Russia’s Putin, Hungary’s Orban) aggressively pursue their agenda as though there are no real repercussions. Why would there be in such an obscure world order? But the truth is democratic values have been in decline for over a decade. The World Justice Project’s 2018 Rule of Law Index reveals the decline in global justice in two thirds of the 113 countries surveyed. There’s no reason to think this trend will reverse itself in 2019. Human rights will steadily erode to the detriment of sensitive minorities (e.g. refugees) and targeted political opponents. International human rights groups and local activists really have their work cut out for them.
4) Rising Extremism in Society And Politics
Yes, ISIS has taken a hit militarily in Syria and Iraq, but it’s resurgent since President Trump announced plans for US troop withdrawal; and ISIS’ ideological success globally is undeniable as lone wolves linger. Now al Qaeda is apparently revving up for a comeback with “plane attacks” in the EU, just as the extremist threat from post-Soviet countries grows. We also can’t ignore the steady rise of far right, Buddhist and Hindu extremists. All these groups are empowered by social media, despite efforts of governments and tech firms. What’s perhaps more dangerous is the xenophobic rhetoric from certain governments (e.g. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who started targeting minorities on his first day or Denmark’s new plan to send migrants to an island once home to contagious animals). Where is the powerful counter-narrative to out-brand such thinking?
5) The Angriest Year Yet for the Citizen Protester
Back in 2011, many declared it the year of the protester as the Arab Spring movement against dictatorship began to emerge. But the reality is in recent years we have seen more citizen protests surface globally, from Occupy in the US to the EU anti-austerity movement and the citizen-led drive against corruption in South Korea and Brazil. 2019 is likely to be the angriest year yet for the tech-armed citizen protester, as major issues remain unresolved domestically and globally. The #metoo movement has spread everywhere and France’s populist Yellow Vest protests have already appeared in Belgium, Canada and Montenegro, while anti-government sentiment gains in places like Hungary and Sudan. The greatest challenge for most political leaders and governments will continue to be how to regain the confidence of an increasingly angry citizenry.
Countries Shaking Up the World
It may be 2019 but the 2020 presidential campaign has begun (even with the government shutdown). This is the election to watch. And things are going to get ugly. The inflammatory rhetoric of President Trump, true or not, will create ripple effects within political circles and society in the US and globally. (Of course all this could change if the president makes an early exit: a former Bush advisor and others now predict he will resign in exchange for immunity for him and his family… Yes, it seems unlikely, but still worth a mention. This would certainly reshape US politics and the world order.)
No matter the terms, the UK will be suffering for awhile after Brexit goes through on March 29 (assuming a second referendum doesn’t happen). The government itself has acknowledged the UK economy will be much worse off (apparently $1 trillion in assets from financial services is leaving the UK for the EU). Social fissures will continue to deepen with more xenophobia. The political system will likely struggle with more legitimacy challenges from its people. Is there a silver lining? Well, post-Brexit the EU may have higher growth rates, plus stronger export figures and saving rates. But the EU will still be losing 15% of its GDP without the UK. A no-deal Brexit will also have a global economic impact, from Eastern Europe to North Africa, according to the World Bank. And it will have a ripple effect on the EU Parliament elections in May as populism grows.
The refugee crisis is rapidly growing, as President Nicolás Maduro begins his second term (after a fraudulent election) and declares “the year of fresh starts”. Since 2015, the economic collapse and humanitarian crisis has caused over three million to flee to neighboring countries whose governments are struggling (or unwilling) to help; by late 2019, that number could reach over five million, according to the UN. Venezuela’s inflation could soar to 10 million percent this year, according to the IMF. There are no quick fixes for Venezuela’s problems, much to the detriment of the average citizen. This will be a tough year.
As you should know by now, the Rohingya Muslim minority are the most persecuted in the world, subjected to violence in the majority Buddhist nation (the UN says it’s genocide); others live as refugees in neighboring countries. But now those host countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Malaysia and India) are saying — go back to Myanmar — while the Burmese military takes steps to make the Rohingya’s exodus permanent… This is happening in the backdrop of the world’s longest running ethnic civil war and a recent attack by Buddhist rebels in Rakhine on the army (Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration has vowed to “crush” the rebels). Another difficult year.
The civil war began back in 2014 when Houthi rebels seized Sana’a and since 2015 Yemen has become the site of a proxy war with regional powers, plus home to a multitude of terrorist groups. The current ceasefire is shaky and we’ll see what happens at the next round of peace talks in Jordan. Regardless, Yemen is still home to the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, according to the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, with almost 25 million (75% of the population) close to starvation (some reports reveal Houthi rebels are stealing food aid, though they apparently were surprised by the accusation).