Foreign Editor David Pratt runs the rule over four ‘other’ stories to watch out for in 2022
Russia and China tests America’s global leadership
Few would deny that at the start of 2022 the world seems an especially unpredictable place. However unsettling 2020 and 2021 were, this coming year could easily prove the most dangerous, particularly for the West, since the end of the Cold War.
As any foreign affairs writer, analyst or correspondent will attest, predicting world events in advance is a mug’s game.
This though never stops us from trying to read the runes, such is the almost universal obsession with gaining a better understanding of the world in which we live and its impact on all our lives no matter how alien and far-flung events might appear to be.
What follows is anything but a definitive list of those stories likely to shape 2022, but without doubt each of these themes will resonate in the months ahead, not least Russia and China’s ever-increasing testing of America’s global leadership.
If America remains something of a divided nation – and I’ll return to that later – then at least one of the few views shared across the aisle in Washington is that China is an adversary, the US is inexorably at loggerheads with.
It was early in 2021 that retired US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson sent Washington into near panic when he testified that China could invade Taiwan within a six-year period.
Since then, the tension has only risen as the US has quietly deployed more troop and congressional delegations to the island that lies about 100 miles from China’s mainland coast. In response, China has continued with a rapid military build-up and adopted an increasingly assertive attitude towards is neighbours, several of them key US allies.
Which brings us to the question of whether 2022 could be the year that sees China move militarily and risk invasion to realise its ambitions in Taiwan?
While recent Chinese military exercises certainly looked “a lot like rehearsals” as Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, observed last month, one can’t help feeling that now is not the moment for Beijing to take such a gamble.
With the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 20th national congress, due towards the end of 2022, President Xi Jinping is hoping to secure an unprecedented third five-year term. If achieved, it would confirm his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
With China now enjoying the fruits of more than four decades of peace, which have turned the economy from an agricultural backwater into one of the world’s industrial primary engine rooms, it would seem unlikely that Xi would risk a war that could spell economic suicide for China given US and other sanctions that would be imposed on Beijing.
While an invasion of Taiwan, might appeal to China’s increasingly vocal nationalists, it represents a much bigger risk, potentially creating a destabilising shock to the ruling Communist Party.
Much the same could be said about Washington’s other adversary right now, Russia, where President Vladimir Putin continues to use the threat of invasion in Ukraine. At home in Russia there seems little public appetite for such a military adventure and Putin’s manoeuvring likely has as more to do with keeping perceived NATO advancement in Central and eastern Europe in check than anything else.
But despite these caveats it would be wrong to dismiss such threats from Beijing and Moscow. Both China and Russia, sense an uncertain America right now and the testing of US resolve will go on and with it the potential for mistakes and misunderstandings that could lead to all out conflict.
Rivalry with China especially has fast become the prime ordering principle of US foreign policy. For that reason alone, this a story that requires the utmost global vigilance as it continues to play out in the year ahead.
Midterms and the threat to US Democracy
If as I’ve previously mentioned, Democrats and Republicans are agreed that China is the biggest foreign policy adversary the US faces right now, then there’s something else – albeit reluctantly- they also agree on.
This time it’s in relation to America’s domestic politics and comes in the shape of widespread acknowledgement that November’s midterms elections could well result in a drubbing for the Democrats.
It was all so upbeat to begin with at the start of 2021 for Joe Biden and the party. But how things have now changed, with Biden’s approval ratings showing him more unpopular than any president since the Second World War, except Donald Trump, at this stage of his four-year term.
High inflation, an immigration crisis on the southern border, a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and delays to his flagship $3tn “build back better” bill, have all contributed to the erosion of goodwill that accompanied Biden’s presidential election victory.
With every day that passes the odds that Republicans will retake one or both houses in the 2022 midterm elections grow.
According to some US watchers the Democrats are only compounding their problems by doubling down on what a Financial Times (FT) editorial recently called a “form of cultural liberalism that seems tailor-made to alienate centrists.”
Even Hispanic voters the paper noted are moving away with recent polls showing Republicans and Democrats running neck and neck in that demographic.
Labelling Hispanics as “Latinx” in a nod to the non-binary wing of the progressive movement is a case in point. Just 2 per cent of Hispanics approve of the use of this term, the FT observed.
Critics of Biden argue that he was elected to end the chaos of the Trump years and to restore a sense of normality to American politics, not to pursue Franklin Roosevelt-style economic and constitutional reform.
All this would be bad enough for Biden were it not also for the fact that America seems remains a nation still haunted by those images of Trump supporters storming the US Capitol just a year ago this week.
At that time, the US was more divided than at any point since the civil rights movement, but the signs suggest it’s still dogged by domestic polarisation and political dysfunction.
Some American analysts even go as far as to suggest that the country is already in very dangerous political territory.
Barbara F. Walter is a political science professor who serves on a CIA advisory panel called the Political Instability Task Force.
Set up to monitor countries around the world and predict which of them are most at risk of deteriorating into violence, Walter recently applied the predictive techniques herself to the US and the findings threw into sharp focus the threat faced to US democracy.
“We are closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe,” concludes Walter, laying out the argument in detail in a forthcoming book “How Civil Wars Start” which is published this month just as America enters a turbulent period in the run up to the midterms. Could it be that the threat to US democracy far for having dissipated is instead only biding its time? Whatever unfolds this for sure is going to be one of the most compelling stories this year.
Afghanistan and the Taliban’s survival
As 2021 ended Afghanistan found itself teetering on the brink of a full-scale humanitarian meltdown in the wake of the Taliban takeover. Never during my forty-year engagement with this country as a journalist can I remember a more perilous time and a bigger threat facing Afghans.
Understandably and rightly, the focus of late has been on highlighting the awful humanitarian crisis the country faces that could leave as many as 97 % of the population unable to fend for itself in a few months’ time.
The mass suffering currently unfolding looks set to sear itself into our collective global consciousness and it would be fair to say that we should brace ourselves for yet more harrowing images and stories from Afghanistan in 2022.
Following how this human catastrophe pans out should remain a priority, but in tandem another story is running alongside it, one that begs the question can the Taliban hold up?
As the war of words continues at the United Nations over how best to get aid back into the country and whether to recognise the Taliban, a story worth watching will be how the Islamist inspired group copes with the enormous, economic, and diplomatic pressure being exerted from outside.
Allied to this is the question as to what extent this has already caused friction within the Taliban’s own ranks reinforcing factional and leadership differences that could seriously undermine their rule and lead to Afghanistan spiralling off into another redefined conflict.
Though daily survival rather than thoughts of opposition preoccupies ordinary Afghans throughout the bitter winter there right now, this might well change as the year progresses. Just as the Taliban struggles to gain any international credibility it will also do so domestically if hunger, unemployment, and the growing presence of jihadist rivals in the shape of Islamic State affiliate IS-K continues to hurt the population.
Afghanistan is a very different place from when the Taliban last took power in 1996. Today, there are many young, educated Afghans, both inside and outside the country, strongly articulating for a constitution, advocating laying down the rights and responsibilities of people and the state.
Women too are in a very different place than they were before, even if again they have borne the brunt of a Taliban clampdown since their return to power. In short, a fledgling Afghan civil society of sorts exist and will not likely disappear any time soon in a country with a young demographic.
Make no mistake, the future of Afghanistan matters not just to Afghans but to the wider world when refugee flows, drug trafficking, human rights, and cross-border terrorism springs from such a crisis. Afghanistan’s impending humanitarian catastrophe will remain a major story this year, but the future of the Taliban is also well worth keeping an eye on.
Macronism and the future of Europe
As the international editor of the New Statesman Jeremy Cliffe observed the other day, no EU leader begins 2022 with more at stake than French president Emmanuel Macron.
Come the spring Macron will be looking for re-election, a feat no French president has accomplished since 2002.
Macron’s challenge comes too as Europe itself faces fresh challenges and realignments that have been emerging ever since former German chancellor Angela Merkel said auf wiedersehen as 2021 ended.
In a nutshell 2022 will be a critical year for Europe as the EU and national leaders wrestle with tense internal and external divisions. It will be a time too when Europe will be tested as never before in recent years as a player capable of looking out for its own affairs on the global stage rather that dancing to the tune of others like Russia, China, and the US.
That French election in April and one in Hungary will set the mood for much of European politics this year with right-wing populist forces doing all they can to push divisive agendas.
In Hungary’s case autocratic leader Viktor Orban is up against a much more consolidated opposition this time. In Macron’s case meanwhile, barring unexpected twists (a lot can happen in four months), his prospects of winning a second term look reasonably good.
Macron of course has long envisioned a stronger EU saying he aimed to make it “powerful in the world” and has never pulled his punches when insisting that Europe must stand up for itself as a clear, identifiable political entity not beholden to the US or anyone else.
Macron will take great comfort then at year’s end in hearing Germany’s coalition government agree that it wants to increase the EU’s “strategic sovereignty” as rivalries between world powers such as the United States, China and Russia adversely affect the bloc.
But in these times of massively shifting geopolitics both the French leader and his German counterpart, the recently appointed chancellor Olaf Scholz, will find no shortage of those willing to test their convictions.
As one newspaper editorial recently described the new year outlook, Europe looks set to be “squeezed between a malignant Moscow and ambivalent America”. For Macron of course he first must be re-elected in April before facing that challenge down. Whatever that election’s outcome, Europe and its future political trajectory are set to be another of those big stories to watch in 2022.
Happy New Year to you, wherever you might be.