Looking Ahead to 2019

January 16, 2019

By John J. Metzler

New York—It’s that time of the year again to consult the crystal snow globe and look ahead at what global political crises we may face in the upcoming year.  After a tumultuous 2018, it would be nice to have a respite from the political jolts, lurches and surprises of the past months, but that alas, is unlikely.

So let’s tour the world and view some of the key challenges facing the USA.

China  The relationship increasingly concerns Trade tensions and South China Sea/Taiwan status.   The Trump Administration’s commercial Cold war with China is hardly over but Beijing may blink.  The USA has played tough in trade negotiations and it looks like China will tactically concede.  Yet massive trade deficits of past decades can’t be wished away by a pen stroke nor can long-lost American industrial jobs from the last thirty years be brought back by good wishes.  Comprehensive and fair agreements are needed to even the commercial playing field and to tighten the rules regarding China’s high-tech and intellectual property theft.

The South China Sea presents a more complex geopolitical puzzle. China’s territorial maritime ambitions,  freedom of navigation issues, as well as continuing threats to democratic Taiwan pose a clear and present danger to East Asian stability.

Korean Peninsula   We need a comprehensive diplomatic peace settlement for the Korean peninsula.  Just a year ago, armed conflict was a real possibility with North Korea until both the South Korean government and the Trump Administration (with China’s help) pulled Pyongyang back from the brink.  The extraordinary Singapore Summit offered positive political optics but as I said then, style over substance.  Now what?   We stopped the ticking nuclear clock in the North’s nuclear program but sadly I sense this is a pause in Kim Jong-un’s long-term game strategy.  Kim won’t give up nukes but is trying to swoon and cajole South Korea’s president Moon away from the USA and to accept a poisoned chalice unification deal.  While the Winter Olympic thaw worked to defuse dangerous tensions, we are still not yet near signing a formal peace treaty ending the Korean war.

Europe   The European Union will be challenged by Brexit or rather Brexit will backfire on the British.  The United Kingdom stands to lose by leaving Europe especially in the slipshod and shambolic way the process has turned out.  Serious political turbulence will affect Europe; Britain, France and Germany.  Farther east, a stormy relationship with Russia continues largely over Moscow’s moves in Ukraine.  The festering Ukraine crisis continues to destabilize Russia’s relations with the West.

Syria/Iraq   I have been saying solve Syria now for years.  The war has churned on for eight years.  More than a half million people have died with almost six million refugees and millions more displaced inside their own country.   Amid the disparate players, it’s probably safer that American troops will be drawn down given competing powers (Turkey, Russia, Iran), rival factions (Assad regime, Kurds), and a lethal gaggle of terrorist groups (ISIL, Al Qaida, Al Nusra).  The USA is better removed from that quagmire.

Keeping the commitment to Iraq won by so much blood and treasure remains vital for the U.S. There’s a glimmer of hope reinforced by President Trump’s Christmas visit to the frontline troops in Baghdad.  Don’t squander hard won past gains in Iraq.

Iran.   Last year’s massive popular demonstrations rocked Iranian cities protesting the Islamic Republic.   Will the smoldering embers of social and political resentment to the Mullah regime resurface given Iran’s dire economic situation?  Iran could easily spark a Mid-East crisis.

Yemen and the humanitarian basket   The UN does humanitarian aid well.  But we still must solve root problems, not just treat symptoms.  As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at the start of his tenure two years ago,  Preventive diplomacy is key.  The problem is stopping ongoing crises such as Syria, Yemen, and Congo.   Yemen faces a massive humanitarian crisis with a fleeting hope of a UN brokered political settlement.

Venezuela   While the socialist system has collapsed this once reasonably prosperous and middle class country, the Maduro regime nonetheless endures, backed by Cuban secret police.  More than 3 million refugees have fled Venezuela, mostly to neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

Wild Card Wishes   Managing or enduring a tricky relationship with Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Erdogan.  Returning normality to Libya, a country serving as a conduit for massive illegal migrant flows into Italy and a nexus of  human trafficking.

And for the U.S. to refocus on foreign policy certainty, clarity and dependability.

Happy New Year!!


John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.

Contact [email protected]

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