There is plenty to be concerned about geopolitically as 2020 comes barreling down the chute, much of it fairly obvious. Certainly Afghanistan, Hong Kong, the Horn of Africa, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Venezuela all could roil markets and even set off local or regional conflicts. And the U.S. Defense Department's increasing focus on the return of great-power competition - meaning challenging Chinese and Russian activity around the world - is appropriate.
But what is swimming just below the water's surface that poses a serious threat to the U.S. and it allies? And are there also opportunities with a reasonable chance of improving conditions in the first year of this new decade?
First, on the risk side of the equation, there is very real potential for a major series of coordinated cyberattacks around the globe. These could occur out of frustration as Iran or North Korea chafe under sanctions; both nations have highly capable offensive cyber programs. Russia or China could use cyber to undermine U.S. objectives in various regional hotspots, from Venezuela to Hong Kong - as well as the 2020 presidential elections, of course. It's also possible that lethal malware could be extracted or adapted from programs coming out of U.S. sources such as the National Security Agency, as seems to have occurred in Baltimore in May. And individual hackers and cybercriminals will have the chance to wreak greater havoc as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies increase in use.
The most significant change in cyber – for better and worse - is the daily addition of millions of devices to the internet, heading toward 25 billion as part of the "internet of things." Offensive capability is outstripping defensive techniques, although there are promising defensive improvements in biotech, end-to-end encryption and post-breach internal protocol management. Key indicators to watch are the level and frequency of commercial data breaches; the use of offensive cyber alongside real-world kinetic attacks (as in the cruise missile strikes on the Saudi Arabian oil fields in conjunction with attacks on Saudi Aramco's computer systems); and wide-area power and water shutdowns.
A second serious and growing concern is the environment. Each year seems to bring hotter temperatures, more melting ice masses, more drought, increasingly violent hurricanes, and massive brush fires. And 2020 may be remembered as a tipping point where the degrading environment began to cause real geopolitical crises. Some of the places to watch are the less-stable Central American and Caribbean nations (violent storms, mass migration); the Levant (drought, crop failure, refugee populations from Afghanistan and Syria); and the Arctic (melting ice permitting increased NATO vs. Russia competition in the High North).
Finally in terms of geopolitical risks, the world should be watching Pakistan. It is a country under a great deal of both internal and external stress, with a significant terrorist problem and a powerful and distrustful neighbor in India. As the latter intensifies its pressure over the disputed Kashmir region and increases Hindu nationalism at home, Pakistan will feel threatened. The potential for a major conflict between nuclear-armed rivals in South Asia is rising. Key indicators of the situation deteriorating will be political actions in both India and Pakistan sparking nationalistic sentiment; declining diplomatic interactions between them; and Pakistan's continued economic free-fall.
Not everything is a threat, of course. What are the opportunities in the coming year? Two come to mind.
One is the global rise of women. Progress will be uneven region to region, of course, and there will be setbacks. But the numbers of women coming into the workplace in equally-paid jobs; elected to higher offices; and finding relief from routine sexual harassment under Me Too-like movements, for example, appear to be accelerating trends. Three hundred years from now, this, more than the rise of China or India or biotech, may be what our current era is remembered for.
The other potential bright spot is perhaps surprising, considering all the dismissive pronouncements of late: the European Union. While Brexit reduces the overall size and scale of the EU, at least it will stanch the bleeding caused by the U.K.'s "pending" departure. The final act of withdrawal may actually give the European project a boost of energy. The new president of the European Commission, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, is smart and focused, and is building a good team. I know her well from my NATO days, and she is a superb choice. Greece's economy, a drain on the continent for well over a decade, appears to be turning around under an energetic new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. A change of leadership in Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's departure after 15 years, will bring fresh thinking in the largest economy in the bloc. French President Emmanuel Macron is driving a European defense policy independent of U.S. leadership (with the tacit acquiescence of President Donald Trump). While there will be plenty of countervailing forces, 2020 may see Europe begin to come back from a dismal past few years.
Geopolitics presents a mixed picture heading into any new decade. But given all the transnational trends I've listed, along with the wildcard of the Trump administration - in an election year and facing an impeachment trial, no less - the first year of the 2020s will likely have oversized impact on the nine that follow it.