Jan. 1 is the usual, useful marker of a new year.
But when it comes to 2022’s international outlook — the subject of this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — it’s not Jan. 1, 2022, but Jan. 6, 2021, that may actually be a more defining date.
That’s because the deep divisions on display in the attack on the Capitol diminish the U.S. in international eyes, which constricts the country’s foreign policy response to the threats ahead.
Some of these threats are described in annual analyses from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, and from other institutions and individuals. Others are unanticipated, albeit part of a pattern, like this week’s Kazakhstan standoff between protesters and pro-government forces — backed by Russia, which once again is projecting force into a former Soviet entity.
The specter that it may also do so in Ukraine vaulted that tension to the top of the ICG’s annual “Ten Conflicts to Watch” list. The world is indeed watching, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed more than 100,000 troops on his nation’s border with Ukraine, engaging in breathtaking brinkmanship with Western powers over NATO. “Russia may intend for the buildup to force concessions, but given Putin’s track record no one should rule out another military conflict,” the ICG analysis said.
Russia is fifth on EG’s “Top Risks 2022” list. “Relations between the U.S. and Russia are on knife-edge,” the report states. “What started as an incremental buildup of troops near Ukraine last year has morphed into a broader Russian demand to restructure the European security architecture. That, combined with ongoing concerns about election interference and cyber operations, means that Russia is on the verge of precipitating an international crisis.”
That crisis may come from weapons deployment, said Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who is now diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Hanson’s highly anticipated annual “U.S. Foreign Policy Update,” hosted by Global Minnesota in partnership with the Humphrey School, will be a virtual version this year, scheduled for Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.
In an e-mail exchange, Hanson said that Russia has “issued vague threats of a ‘strategic’ response if its demands are ignored. This could potentially involve deployments of Russia’s new Zicron missile, and we are likely to hear more about such hypersonic weapons in 2022.”
Hanson mentions China and Iran among countries that the U.S. may face increasing tensions with, and notes that Beijing, Tehran and Moscow “are drawing closer together.” For its part the ICG lists the bilateral Beijing-Washington relationship fifth among its conflicts to watch, stating that China “wants a sphere of influence in which its neighbors are sovereign but deferential.” That and other factors, according to their analysis, mean that “in Washington, one of the few views shared across the aisle is that China is an adversary the United States is inexorably at loggerheads with.”
The Eurasia Group acknowledges the tension but calls “Cold War 2.0” a “red herring,” saying in part that “Washington’s economy and Beijing’s are becoming more, not less, integrated overall.” Not that China isn’t a challenge — in fact EG’s top one — but the effects internationally are from internal dynamics, particularly its pandemic approach: China’s “zero-COVID policy,” the report states, “will fail to contain infections, leading to larger outbreaks, requiring in turn more severe lockdowns. This will in turn lead to greater economic disruptions, more state intervention, and a more dissatisfied population at odds with the triumphalist ‘China defeated COVID’ mantra of the state-run media.”
Like the virus itself, this won’t respect borders. Supply-chain disruptions alone, a significant accelerant of the jarring inflation besetting the West and bedeviling the Biden administration, will continue to impact politics, too, including the 2022 midterm elections, which the EG flagged as the third top risk. The November congressional vote “will be one of the most important in U.S. history,” said the report. “The votes will take place amid allegations of fraud by both Democrats and Republicans, and they will set up a 2024 presidential election that [former President] Donald Trump, if he runs, will either win outright or try to steal. This year’s vote will not itself provoke a crisis, but it represents a historic tipping point.”
The further risk, Eurasia Group President and CEO Ian Bremmer told me during a conference call, is the consequence of the U.S. potentially being “incapable of providing legitimate governance at the federal level, on the global stage for a period of time, that then creates a much higher ’empty lands’ risk than what we see right now.” (“Empty lands,” eighth on EG’s list, include places like Afghanistan, the Sahel, Yemen, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Haiti, all of which loom on the list of conflicts the ICG says bear watching.)
What happens, wondered Bremmer, if suddenly the Baltics, NATO or Taiwan is added to that list? “Those are very meaningful issues that fundamentally rip at the fabric of the present geopolitical order.” U.S. dysfunction might prod Russia and/or China to test our resolve and resiliency more aggressively. “The point is,” Bremmer added, “that the midterms set up a reality where in the next three, four years, we could be looking at not a geopolitical recession, but a geopolitical depression.”
A Republican resurgence in the midterms “will inevitably make the Biden team’s work more difficult,” said International Crisis Group President and CEO Comfort Ero. Via e-mail from Brussels, Ero added that “foreign counterparts also look ahead to 2024 and the possible return of a Trump-style ‘America First’ foreign policy and wonder whether any deal they strike with the Biden team will survive past the next Inauguration Day.”
Reflecting on a raft of recent polls quantifying America’s divisions, Hanson said that, “At a certain point our own domestic polarization joins the list of national security concerns, as even our closest allies begin to see us as distracted, unpredictable, and less a model of governance than before.”
America has the governance model to reduce the distractions and unpredictability. But the model needs to be rooted in the truth. Which is why the work of the congressional committee to investigate the Capitol attack is so crucial. Any entity, including a superpower, that cannot reckon with its failures is bound to repeat them. And a repeat of an attack on the citadel of democracy — or elections, the DNA of our democracy — not only impacts us domestically but our ability to protect and project America’s interests and values abroad. Accordingly, an accurate account of and accountability for those responsible for Jan. 6, 2021, is essential to effectively contend with the geopolitical challenges in 2022.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org