5 Geopolitical Trends to Watch in 2020

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Entering 2020, there are a host of geopolitical trends that will significantly impact global security throughout the coming year and beyond.
  • Many of these challenges overlap and interact with each other and will be impacted by developments in emerging technologies, demographic shifts, and socio-cultural factors.
  • Five geopolitical trends to watch closely in the coming year are the continued proliferation of disinformation; rising anti-Semitism and the globalization of anti-Semitism and white supremacy extremism; an international system shifting from unipolar to multipolar; the momentum of worldwide protest movements; and the importance of energy as a significant determinant of states’ foreign and security policies.
  • The most urgent crisis in 2020 is how the conflict between the United States and Iran unfolds, but each of these trends presents complex challenges for the global community and to deal with effectively, require collaboration between states and non-state actors, the public and private sectors, corporations, and civil society organizations.

Disinformation

In 2020, the U.S. Presidential election will be mired in innuendo and false narratives that will make it difficult for the American electorate to divine fact from fiction. The most serious threat may be the convergence of ‘deepfake’ technology and analytical tools that mine personal data to identify swing-voters most susceptible to altered videos designed to influence their beliefs. Deepfakes, which is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven technology to create altered audio and video content to present the audience with a narrative that seems real, are becoming increasingly prevalent and growing more sophisticated. Laws and regulations governing the potential use of deepfakes and fake political advertisements to curry favor with American citizens are virtually non-existent. At least two states, Texas and California, have passed laws banning political deepfake videos. Both laws, however, have significant flaws. Facebook announced last year that it would not remove political ads known to be false. Twitter, in contrast, has banned political ads. Yet, Twitter has decided only to potentially flag, but not remove, political deepfakes. As such, because of the inadequacy of U.S. laws and regulations coupled with Silicon Valley’s cautious approach, there is a high likelihood that U.S. voters will be exposed to and influenced by political deepfakes during the 2020 election. On an international level, there are explicit global security threats posed by deepfakes, including conflict that could spill over from the virtual to the physical world.

Anti-Semitism/White Supremacy Extremism

Over the past few years, terrorism in the United States has been chiefly perpetrated by individuals associated with an anti-Semitic and white supremacist worldview. Attacks in El Paso, Pittsburgh, and Poway reflected a shift from a domestic threat inspired by Salafi jihadist groups like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda to one where radicalized individuals take inspiration from Nazi propaganda or disdain for immigrant communities. In late 2019, anti-Semitic attacks and acts of vandalism defacing Jewish cemeteries increased, especially in the New York/New Jersey metro area. An early December shooting targeting Jews at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City by individuals linked to the Black Israelite movement, an anti-Semitic hate group, resulted in five deaths. Later in December, in Monsey, New York, an individual with a demonstrated affinity for the Black Israelite movement, carried out a stabbing attack that injured five at a rabbi’s home during Hanukah. In response to the rising tide, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio created a special unit within the New York City Police Department to deal with the increasing threat of racially and ethnically motivated extremism (REME). In contrast, the U.S. federal government has yet to dedicate the resources necessary to meet the domestic terrorism challenge.

Shift Toward Multi-polarity

Following the end of the Cold War, the United States became the world’s dominant power for the better part of three decades. Moving into 2020, U.S. power has waned considerably. Within the next decade, China will inevitably eclipse the United States and take over the mantle as the world’s economic engine. Politically, the United States’ ability to leverage alliances has diminished, especially as President Trump has publicly questioned the value of institutions like NATO. The U.S. decision to abandon the Kurds, who were instrumental in the fight against ISIS, sent a message to potential future allies that the United States is unreliable. As the United States continues to retrench, it provides an opening to rising powers and near-peer competitors to fill the void, which countries like Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey have eagerly filled. Simply put, Washington’s appetite to use its military power to influence regional conflicts has waned considerably, although the recent assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani could bring Washington and Tehran into direct conflict in the region. The Soleimani killing greatly increases the chances of war between Washington and Tehran with the Iranians likely to implement a multi-phase approach to reduce American influence in the Middle East, beginning in Iraq. Both Russia and China welcome recent events and would be content to see the United States forced to expend precious time and finite resources dealing with the fallout with Iran. Technologically, the U.S. remains a world leader, but China is quickly closing the gap, particularly in the area of AI and other emerging technologies. Between restrictive immigration policies, diminishing population growth, and China’s significant expenditures in the AI space, 2020 sets up for a year of diminishing U.S. dominance in the technological sector. If U.S. global influence ebbs further in 2020, regional powers will continue to edge toward greater economic, political, military, and technological dominance to capitalize upon the United States’ steady decline.

Worldwide Protest Movements

2020 is likely to continue a series of historical changes that drive events across different regions of the world. Last year alone, the world witnessed protest movements in Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Sudan, and elsewhere. Many demonstrations retain overwhelmingly parochial characteristics, while some are more regional in scope, and yet others are more global in nature. It is difficult to disaggregate these events, which are shaping their respective countries and challenging existing systems of governance. As globalization proceeds unabated, authoritarian countries are seeking to harden their borders, even as social media transcends all physical boundaries and influences citizens and populations in different ways. Many of the protests, particularly those that swept throughout the Middle East, featured external intervention by states working through proxies to affect the outcome of the demonstrations. A range of factors have contributed to these protests, including corruption and inept governance; changing demographics and rapid population growth; incompetent natural resource management; and devastating poverty, marginalization, and inequality. As citizens struggle to transform political systems and demand accountability under the rule of law, many will face authoritarian governments using a combination of brute force and electronic surveillance to maintain a grip on power.

Energy Security

In a recent phone call, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both pledged support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Nord Stream 2 is a $10.5 billion project that will deliver Russian natural gas to Europe through a pipeline being built in the Baltic Sea. The United States recently enacted sanctions targeting the project, including all businesses and individuals involved in the construction of the pipeline. Washington has long worried that the project will make Europe generally and Germany more specifically vulnerable to and overly dependent on Russia. Another area where geopolitics and energy security are converging rapidly is in the eastern Mediterranean. Toward the end of last year, Turkey and Libya signed an accord with Libya’s internationally-recognized government that would create an exclusive economic zone between the southern shore of Turkey in the Mediterranean to the northeastern coast of Libya. The move is widely believed to be an attempt to block a conglomeration of states—Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt—in their quest to streamline gas from the eastern Mediterranean.

The most immediate challenge is how the conflict between the United States and Iran unfolds, which is a situation that is likely to drag on for months, if not longer. Many of these challenges overlap with each other and will be impacted by developments in emerging technologies, demographic shifts, and socio-cultural factors. Some of the most pressing issues, including climate change, can only be tackled throughout cooperation and multi-stakeholder buy-in. Each of these trends presents complex problems for the global community and requires collaboration between states and non-state actors, the public and private sectors, corporations, and civil society organizations.

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