2017 was one of the most challenging years for the international system as a whole. Of course the most significant cause of this was the changing dynamics of U.S. foreign policy in regards to international arrangements. For decades the U.S. has been promoting a liberal international order and it has endorsed and led multilateral initiatives in different parts of the world. However, since the beginning of the debates on the U.S.’s decline, there has been increasing unpredictability in regards to the U.S.’s policies around the world. The policies that were adopted by President Donald Trump in his first year signaled an end to the world system as we know it.
Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris climate accord and the expressive unwillingness to be part of multilateral initiatives at the global level represented a serious deviation from the previous position of U.S. foreign policy.
For decades the U.S. has been promoting a liberal international order and it has endorsed and led multilateral initiatives in different parts of the world.
Regional powers and U.S. allies, nowadays, try to figure out what the nature of this trend is and what it will lead to. Although it is dubbed “pragmatic realism” by actors of this new foreign policy, it raises concern about a new form of isolationism and a more aggressive form of unilateralism. The belated expression of commitment to the collective security clause of NATO has become part of this concern.
In 2018, one of the most significant aspects of global politics for observers will be the orientation of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. commitments about different trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If the current tendency continues, it will be an important factor for the emergence of a new international system.
Of course, the policies of other actors will also play an important role. China and its policies will be one of the most consequential factors in this sphere. Especially since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policies aimed to protect and promote the international liberal order and force countries like China to adopt its policies in accordance with this system.
However in the last year, there was an interesting role reversal. While the president of the U.S. expressed skepticism about the world order, the president of China constantly emphasized the need to protect the existing one.
China’s backing of the Paris climate accord and the Chinese president’s speeches and statements supporting the liberal world order raised a series of questions in regards to China’s approach to the world. It will be seen if these statements and reactions are just conjectural moves or part of a larger strategy and tendency to fill the vacuum in the existing international system. In this critical juncture, it will be important to analyze and understand the relations between the U.S. and China.
In this past year, there has been an improving degree of friendship between Trump and Xi. However, this friendship did not lead to the formation of a consistent pattern in relations. The two countries continue to have disputes in regards to key issues, such as the South China Sea and trade. None of these challenging issues has been resolved in the year 2017. Furthermore, the crisis in North Korea deepened the problem of confidence between two countries. The roles that the two countries choose to play in the international system will be very consequential in the evolution of the international system.
As with each and every transformation, the current transformation in the system generates too many unpredictabilities, misperceptions and potential crises. The unstable relations between the U.S. and Russia and the EU in 2017 have further increased these unpredictabilities. The domestic dynamics within the EU countries, particularly the rise of far-right groups and the Trump factor in U.S. politics can further change the dynamics in these relationships.
Those international tensions which were considered as the biggest risk for international security in 2016 similarly continued in 2017. As of today, in most of these areas the tensions only have grown. The dispute in the South China Sea continues to threaten stability in the Asian-Pacific and the North Korean nuclear crisis has become more dangerous this year after the high degree of confrontation between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. Similarly, there is a laundry list of crises that erupted in 2017 in the Middle East and may continue to risk the already fragile regional stability.
For instance, nobody was expecting such a major crises in the Gulf at the beginning of 2016 and the unresolved tensions still pose significant risks for the politics and economics of the region. In addition, the decertification of the compliance to the nuclear deal with Iran by President Trump started to signal a period of potential tension. There is a fair degree of uncertainty about the future of the nuclear deal and potential policies that the U.S. administration may follow against Iranian influence in the region.
This potential confrontation can also influence the internal dynamics in countries like Iraq and Syria. In addition, the future of Syria is still not clear and the region may continue to be fertile ground for the development of criminal networks and terrorist organizations. The attempts to reach a political solution for the problem will likely continue in the coming year. However, it is not clear how the existing humanitarian crises in the region will be resolved.
Furthermore with his decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump added a further tension and source of instability to the situation in the Middle East. In 2017, the most significant success for international security was the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa. However, the capture of Raqqa by another terrorist organization and uncertainty about the management of the territories generates a major problem for the future of the region.
In fact, under these circumstances there is not much ground for optimism in the presence of so many international crises and unresolved disputes in 2018. The international community needs to be better equipped to deal with these crises and to be prepared to handle the new ones. The inaction of some major powers and indecisiveness and incapability of others should bring forth stronger regional initiatives to manage the risks of an increasingly unstable international system. A new approach to the crises with new instruments, innovative solutions and proactive diplomacy may be the most needed things for 2018.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on December 31 , 2017.