Predictions aside, there are obvious trends, plots, and paradigm shifts that will continue onward into the new year, that geopolitical observers should be distinctively aware of.
1. The War in Syria is Not Over
The United States conspired as early as 2007 to overthrow the government of Syria through the use of armed militants – particularly those aligned to Al Qaeda and who enjoy state sponsorship from America’s Persian Gulf allies.
The goal of eliminating the Syrian government was not an isolated objective, but rather fits into a much larger geopolitical agenda – including the overthrow of the Iranian government and the movement of militant proxies back into southern Russia and even into western China.
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, and the duration of the conflict itself complicates, even sets back US efforts toward these ends, but Washington and Wall Street’s desire for global hegemony will simply see these plans attempt to adapt and overcome current setbacks.
According to the Brookings Institution’s 2009 policy paper, “Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran,” one option proposed includes the US arranging with Israel for Israeli forces to conduct what would appear to be a unilateral attack on Iran.
The paper states:
…the most salient advantage this option has over that of an American air campaign is the possibility that Israel alone would be blamed for the attack. If this proves true, then the United States might not have to deal with Iranian retaliation or the diplomatic backlash that would accompany an American military operation against Iran. It could allow Washington to have its cake (delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon) and eat it, too (avoid undermining many other U.S. regional diplomatic initiatives).
For this to be convincing, the US and Israel would need to feign a diplomatic fallout, one the current administration of US President Barack Obama has been performing and just recently ratcheted up at the UN Security Council. With President-elect Donald Trump – undeniably and very publicly pro-Israel – coming into office in January, the window is closing for this option to be convincing.
One aspect of a covertly US-backed Israeli attack on Iran includes an opportunity for the US to subsequently intervene militarily if Iran were to retaliate. It is essentially a trap baited for Tehran. The trap could be sprung before President Obama leaves office, and US military intervention executed as President-elect Trump enters office.
Of course, Iran now possesses Russian S-300 anti-air defense systems, has a more formidable army today than when Brookings and other US policymakers first concocted war plans against Tehran, and the dynamics in the region have changed considerably as well. However, President-elect Trump has surrounded himself both during his campaign for president and amongst his incoming cabinet, with men who have promoted war with Iran for years.
This is perhaps one of the first, and greatest dangers that will need to be navigated around in 2017.
2. Economic Paradigm Shift, Driven by Technology
It could be easily said that alternative energy and electric cars are already creating shifting trends in global economics and the geopolitical power derived from it. The cost and proliferation of solar power continues to favor its use against traditional forms of power production, and electric cars are finally being taken seriously by traditional manufacturers in the face of stiff competition from newcomers like Tesla Motors.
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Nations that depend on petroleum and other fossil fuels for a substantial fraction of their GDP will need to begin planning how they will navigate what will inevitably be a total transition away from these sources of energy.
Automation is also a growing economic trend. Jobs are being taken from workers from North America to Asia by increasingly capable robots and forms of computer-controlled manufacturing. However, another component of this shifting trend is a drastic drop in prices and an exponential climb in capabilities of these automated systems. This makes it possible for smaller companies to use automation to manufacture locally, disrupting industrial monopolies and distribute the wealth obtained through automation through local entrepreneurship.
An example of this is 3D printing – with some machines with price tags comparable to a desktop computer. People working as freelance designers can now also include – and profit from – physical prototyping services once only possible from larger firms. As automated systems drop in cost and improve in capabilities, local companies will be able to do more with less, decentralizing manufacturing from the current, globalized model that now defines it.
How nations manage this transition – from China to Europe to the United States – will determine how much social upheaval is created as automation continues to take over. Those nations with highly unskilled workforces and with weak, inflexible education systems will suffer most, while those who retrain their populations to be designers and local entrepreneurs will survive, even thrive.
3. The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
Science fiction horror stories aside, artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of machine learning, is already taking over a large number of highly specialized tasks – and doing them far better than traditional computers or human workers could ever do.
These tasks include everything from energy efficiency studies and automation, providing advice to doctors, and gaming financial markets, to providing protocols for advanced genetic engineering and image recognition and automatic tagging on social media websites like Facebook. Other possible applications include teaching AI systems to hack faster and more adaptively than any human could. AI systems are also being taught to write news articles and even manage social media accounts like Twitter.
While AI will not manifest itself as sentient machines seeking to usurp humanity yet, these highly focused uses of AI give their human operators uncontested advantages in whatever realm they are applied in. An AI arms race of sorts has erupted, and in 2017, AI will increasingly be used to provide world leaders in AI research and development economic and geopolitical edges over their competitors and enemies.
A balance of power must be struck between nations and within nations to prevent the very sort of technological disparity that left the United States in 1945 as the only nation wielding atomic weapons. With that uncontested advantage, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It would use its advantage in the field of nuclear weapons as leverage geopolitically for years – threatening to use the weapons everywhere from the Korean Peninsula to Vietnam.
The sort of damage caused by such disparity in the field of AI cannot be predicted – but what can be predicted with absolute certainty, is that any advantage the world affords aspiring hegemons like the US, will be used and abused eagerly and without hesitation.
4. China and Asia Still Face American Designs for Regional Primacy
The United States’ “pivot to Asia” has turned into a second front in its global quest for hegemony. In order to encircle and contain the rise of China, the US has committed to series of economic, politically subversive, and military maneuvers throughout Southeast and East Asia.
In 2017, the US will continue cultivating proxy opposition fronts across the region in hopes of challenging or toppling increasingly Beijing-friendly governments everywhere from Malaysia and Thailand, to the Philippines and Indonesia. In Myanmar, the US and its Saudi allies appear to be inflaming the Rohingya crisis by arming militants to fight the very government the US spent decades putting into power.
The result will be an attempt to establish a US military presence in Myanmar under the guise of “combating terrorism,” just as the US did in the Philippines shortly after 2001. In reality, the US military presence in Myanmar will be next to impossible to remove – just as it has become in the Philippines. And while “fighting terrorism” will be the pretext, adding another point of pressure in America’s encirclement of China will be the main objective.
The prospect of direct military confrontation between the US and China is difficult to predict, but US policymakers have admitted that as time passes, the possibility of the US winning any confrontation against China in Asia Pacific diminishes. The temptation to provoke a conflict sooner than later will exist, and regardless, the decades-long efforts by Washington to maintain primacy in Asia at Asia’s expense will continue in earnest under President-elect Trump when he takes office.
The agendas of powerful special interests and the march of technological progress and its impact on human civilization are not divided into neat chapters as they appear in retrospect upon the pages of our history books. They transcend “New Years,” presidential administrations, popular culture, and even “eras” in our collective history. Understanding the actual motives, money, and machinations that drive those with wealth and power help us see what lies before us and gives us a chance to prepare ourselves and intervene rather than sit by as helpless spectators. This year, perhaps more people than ever will realize that our best interests, and even the fate of our future depends on us doing the former, and abandoning forever the latter.
Tony Cartalucci, Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”