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January weather in Davos predictably brings bright skies, cold air and a strong chance of snow. The political climate tends to be more changeable. Since the first Davos meeting in 1971, the World Economic Forum has witnessed dramatic shifts in the geopolitical weather.
The first two decades took place against a cold war background. The period from 1989 until 2001 was shaped by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the integration of former Communist nations into the global economy. After 9/11, the “war on terror”, the Iraq invasion and its aftermath dominated the agenda. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the backlash against globalisation and the rise of populism have set the scene.
Today’s US government is emphasising a new and ominous theme. The Trump administration’s national security strategy puts “great power competition” at the centre of US foreign policy. The White House argues that it is forced to respond to the assertive and destabilising actions of authoritarian powers, in particular Russia and China. It points to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to China’s disputed claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea.
The Trump era has certainly witnessed a marked deterioration in great power relations. Over the past year, the US has launched a trade war against China. Although the US’s precise complaints focus on Chinese trade practices, there is little doubt that it is motivated by fear that China aims to become the dominant 21st century power.
The relationship between the Kremlin and Mr Trump’s 2016 election campaign remains highly controversial. But, if the Russians hoped for a swift improvement in US-Russian relations following Mr Trump taking office, they have been disappointed. US sanctions on Russia have been intensified during the Trump administration, a policy partly driven by Congress. Tensions between Russia and the west continue to simmer, after further Russian aggression against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov.
Nonetheless, President Vladimir Putin’s government does have reasons to be pleased by US foreign policy under Mr Trump. The latter’s hostile stance towards the EU, in particular Germany, has opened a rift in the transatlantic alliance. Mr Trump has repeatedly voiced doubts about Nato, which the Kremlin accuses of harbouring aggressive intentions towards Russia. Anything that weakens Nato pleases Mr Putin.
Signs of EU disarray are mounting. If and when Brexit happens, it will be a severe blow to European cohesion, especially if acrimony between the UK and the EU persists beyond Brexit-day. France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who until recently looked like the most dynamic leader in the EU, has severe domestic problems. Spain faces a growing challenge from the Catalan independence movement and Italy is governed by an erratic coalition of populists and Eurosceptics pushing for a much more pro-Russian EU foreign policy.
Meanwhile, US influence in the Middle East is in sharp decline, while Russia is once again a key player, courtesy of its military intervention in Syria. Mr Trump’s announcement that the US intends to withdraw its troops from Syria sent a powerful signal that the US remains in retreat from the region and is an unreliable partner willing to desert its Kurdish allies. Mr Trump’s staff are trying to soften the withdrawal decision. This merely adds to the impression, however, that US foreign policy is flaky and hard to read.
The unpredictable nature of US Middle East policy means that the range of possibilities during 2019 includes renewed US military action. The Trump administration’s ditching of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama has sharply raised tensions with Tehran. John Bolton, US National Security adviser, was known as an advocate of military strikes against Iran in the years before he joined the White House staff. The journalist’s murder scandal that has engulfed Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, adds a further element of uncertainty, not least given the special relationship between the Trump White House and the House of Saud.
While Iran is one possible geopolitical flashpoint in 2019, another is the Korean peninsula. Last June, Mr Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, led to a relaxation in the tensions that had dominated US foreign policy during the first year of the Trump administration. But little progress on the “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula has materialised since then; hence Washington and Pyongyang are becoming frustrated with each other. If this leads to an abandonment of talks, military tensions could easily rise again.
The biggest geopolitical question facing the world is the future of the relationship between its two largest economies, the US and China. If the Trump government pushes through further increases in tariffs, the consequences will be felt well beyond the realms of business and economics. By contrast, a relaxation in the US/China trade war would lead to a decrease in geopolitical tensions between the two powers.
Any trade truce may be temporary, however, because the rivalry between the US and China is likely to increase over the long term. Beyond the blue skies of Davos, murky storm clouds are gathering.