A year ago, at the beginning of 2017, Donald Trump already appeared to be a danger to world order. He was an inspiration to populist and authoritarian regimes and leaders, and an element of uncertainty in his own right, because of his unpredictable personality and his disruptive agenda. But he had not come up against reality and had not had to make concessions to the demands of governing. One year later, there appears to be little doubt that the main global risk factor is Trump himself. He has just confirmed this with his out-of-control display on social media at the beginning of this year, intervening in exactly the most dangerous global flashpoints in his characteristic, irresponsible style.
This is the conclusion reached by a large number of governments, financial institutions, consultants and think tanks from the projections of economic and political risk they customarily prepare at the beginning of each year.
“The U.S. is now the most unpredictable actor in the world today, and that has caused profound unease,” said Paul Stares, a prominent investigator at the main U.S. think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, in the report of his predictions of the risk of war in 2018. Stares is the director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, which produces the annual survey. In point of fact, two of the hot spots for war risk this year, the Korean Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, have been subjects of the president’s destabilizing and threatening tweets. In both of these critical areas, one of them with the dangerous mixture of nuclear weapons, the analysts fear a military conflict in which the United States might become directly involved.
Trump’s initial disruptive impulse, which has found admirers among populist leaders around the world, from Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen, has already been contained. European populism has just about run its course at the polls, especially since Emmanuel Macron’s win over Le Pen and the difficulties that Brexit is encountering. But while Trump is in the White House, the authoritarian leaders will count on his backing. Russia and China will feel that they have more room to maneuver. And rivalries between regional powers, that Trump’s disruptive presidency encourages more than it discourages, such as between India and Pakistan or Iran and Iraq, will prosper. For the Eurasia Group consultancy, China represents the most significant political risk for 2018, because it is in a position to fill the vacuum created by the United States under Trump’s presidency. And China wants to do this according to rules of its own making, not the rules established in the past 70 years in an international order they did not help build.
One year has already been enough to see what Trump means for the demolition of the international multilateral framework. But he still hasn’t completely swung into action on his promised trade protectionism initiatives. Washington has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving China a free hand in Asia, but it is still renegotiating NAFTA and the trade agreement with South Korea. Washington intends to impose sanctions on China for infringements of intellectual property rights and for illegal subsidies on steel and aluminum, which could bring sanctions on the part of Beijing in response and start a trade war. And all this is in the context of a difficult balancing act: trying not to anger North Korea’s neighbors, which is essential for a policy of containment of North Korean nuclear escalation.
But the most worrying multilateral issue on the 2018 agenda, because it could slow the existing momentum in the world economy, is Trump’s drive to dismantle the World Trade Organization. This is being advanced on two fronts. On the one hand, Washington is boycotting the renewal of the commission for dispute arbitration, a fundamental institution for the proper functioning of the organization. On the other hand, it is trying to resolve disputes outside the WTO.
Another danger, many analysts agree, is the escalating use of information as a weapon (the weaponization of information). This is familiar ground for Trump with his “fake news” and his presidential campaign with the suspected aid of the Russian intelligence services. “Until now,” says the Barcelona think tank CIDOB, “it seemed that those with most to fear from the proliferation of information channels were authoritarian regimes.” But now, fear has changed sides, and when there are elections on the horizon, the fears multiply in democracies. This year, there are elections in Italy, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Colombia, in which the “fake news” that Trump is such a fan of will again be able to make an appearance.
A weak and inept president, surrounded by teams that are chaotic and not fully staffed, is confronted with a 2018 that Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, has characterized as the most dangerous geopolitically since the end of the Cold War. The United States, up to now an influence for maintaining order and a stabilizing and predictable superpower, has been transformed into the opposite in this year of the Trump presidency that has been so troubled and marked by diplomatic and political retreat.
This is also the main risk factor globally in 2018. Not only has Trump not managed to stabilize his administration, he keeps constantly running into shocks, almost always of his own making. Thanks to the scandalous revelations in the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by journalist Michael Wolff, Trump had an acrimonious falling out with Steve Bannon, formerly his chief strategist and election guru. This is another episode revealing the president’s fragility. However, it was reassuring to the Republican Party, which has been alarmed by the drift of the “alternative right,” or “alt-right,” which Bannon has backed, toward extremism.
Special counsel Robert Mueller, in turn, has been quietly making progress in his investigation of collusion between the Russian secret services and Trump’s allies in the effort to defeat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Bannon himself has claimed that the president’s son was involved in this.
Among the predictions for the coming year, there are many conjectures about the start of proceedings for the removal or impeachment of the president. This would require the approval of Republican members of Congress. A more likely alternative would be that the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, and maybe even the Senate, in the midterm elections in November; they could then attempt removal. Trump is the biggest danger in 2018. But 2018 could end with Trump out, or at least leave him without a majority in Congress: incapacitated, without claws or fangs, and ready to say goodbye to power.