Why the US Is the World's No. 1 Hot Spot

Why the US Is the World's No. 1 Hot Spot
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Why you should care

Washington’s wavering ways mean America is the biggest puzzle piece on the global stage as we look to 2019.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Projecting the outlook for a year ahead is always difficult and should be approached with a degree of humility by all who try — particularly in these times.

The think tanks and experts who do this usually run through the world’s hot spots — places that are particularly volatile and unpredictable. The problem is that, for the first time in this century, the United States qualifies as one of those hot spots. Normally, the prognosticator can assume a degree of stability and predictability on the part of Washington. Not anymore. Today, other countries justifiably wonder what U.S. principles, priorities and policies are — and how we arrive at them.

Policies articulated one day are reversed with little notice the next (Syria); things the president says he’s solved turn out not to be (North Korea); changes normally debated publicly and signaled in advance are sprung on the world (the space force); problems that U.S. experts describe as ongoing, the president says are solved (ISIS).

As other countries assess their worries for 2019, what happens here in the U.S. is likely to be their No. 1 hot spot.

Many international observers have said to me, “We have no idea what’s going on in your country.” So as other countries assess their worries for 2019, what happens here in the U.S. is likely to be their No. 1 hot spot.

With the world unable to calculate our actions, it’s harder for them to plan theirs, and therefore harder to estimate which countries will do what. With that gigantic caveat, let’s pick five international issues that merit especially close attention in 2019.

China

China tops the list as our most important bilateral relationship, both economically and as a global competitor for influence and military power. Although some internal problems weigh heavily on China as it tries to reorient its economy away from dependence on cheap exports, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power to a degree unseen since the days of Mao and should be able to pursue his goals with little real opposition.

What to Watch For: China is becoming more aggressive in asserting its claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, where it has transformed coral reefs into full-fledged islands with runways for jet aircraft and storage areas for missile batteries. The U.S. periodically challenges Beijing’s assertion of rights by flying and sailing through what the rest of the world sees as international air and sea lanes — but China’s warnings to stay out are growing sharper. We are one miscalculation away from a military confrontation there.

Russia

Where Moscow perceives weakness, it tends to probe and push. With the U.S. in internal turmoil, disagreement between the White House and Congress, and European unity under strain, Putin probably smells opportunity.

What to Watch For: Putin will be in no mood to surrender any of his hold on eastern Ukraine. His expansion of the conflict into the seas with his blockage of the Kerch Strait and seizure of Ukrainian vessels shows sanctions have yet to deter his impulse to escalate. And if the U.S. leaves Syria, look for Putin to consolidate Russian influence there and use it as a base for extending his leverage in the Middle East, where arms sales tempt and where his diplomats have been as active as his military at a time of U.S. reticence. Look for him also to establish more of a foothold in Africa and in Latin America, where Russia has already wrestled oil concessions from an impoverished Venezuela.

North Korea

The Hermit Kingdom has yet to deliver on the denuclearization pledges it made in its summit with Trump and meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

What to Watch For: Very little can happen in an arms control negotiation without a “declaration” — a statement of what a country claims to have (so that Washington can compare that with its own estimate). If that doesn’t happen fairly early in 2019, the odds of progress will remain low. Meanwhile, the momentum on diplomacy appears to have shifted to an intensifying dialogue between North and South Korea, the latter driving hard for a reconciliation with the North — potentially leaving the U.S. on the sidelines.

Iran & Saudi Arabia

The dynamic between these long-standing opponents is likely to become more dangerous in 2019. The pair, purporting to speak for the Shiite and Sunni parts, respectively, of the Arab world, remain at loggerheads in seeking pre-eminence in the region.

What to Watch For: Iran will work to exacerbate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s troubles in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. With a small investment, Tehran has thwarted the Saudi effort to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen. With its successful defense of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, in league with Russia, Iran has shown greater ability than Riyadh at projecting its influence outside its home base. In the competition between the two, 2019 is likely to belong to Iran.

Cyberwarfare

This newest domain of conflict will continue cutting through all of these issues and more in 2019.

What to Watch For: We will surely see more thefts of corporate and personal data such as the attacks on Marriott and Facebook this year. But all of this will become more sophisticated as artificial intelligence techniques start to merge with cyber intrusions (and with cyberdefense tactics as well). The early spread of 5G networks will increase the target base, particularly as the internet of things (connections among things like phones, cars and household appliances) becomes more pervasive. Such trends lend urgency to dealing with the shortcomings of our cyber policy — which include poor coordination between the public and private sectors and inadequate experience and understanding of elementary conflict concepts such as deterrence and escalation.

Having mentioned humility in my first sentence, I must conclude by saying that the only thing certain about 2019 is that it holds great potential for surprises we will not foresee — so buckle up.

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