In the world of foreign policy, no one knows the future. Certainly not me. But trends can be spotted, and their trajectories predicted.
Here are five predictions (admittedly aggressive ones) concerning what might happen in foreign policy in 2020.
1. Cyber Conflicts Will Become Real-World Conflicts
The world of cyber is already crowded with national intelligence services, criminal syndicates, hackers, and pirates. In 2019, state and non-state actors alike have been engaging one another with increasing frequency and “gusto,” and there’s no sign of this slowing down.
Specifically, as the U.S. enters a presidential election year, low barriers to mounting digital interference campaigns and their promise of potentially significant impact will prove too tempting for several foreign governments and others seeking to cause havoc in our political process.
U.S. leaders will also be under significant political pressure to identify and counter this interference, and will be inclined to respond aggressively in defense of the nation’s political institutions. This could, in turn, set off escalating responses that ultimately spill over into the real world politically, socially, and economically.
2. A Large-Scale Cyberattack
As cyber confrontations become more frequent and intense, the likelihood of escalation—and miscalculation—will increase. 2020 could very well be the year that we see a large-scale cyberattack that results in large-scale physical damage and significant loss of human life.
For example, a recent cyberattack thought to have originated in Iran targeted a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia and was intended to cause a large explosion that could have killed dozens. A coding mistake by the attackers is all that prevented the attack’s success.
While a similar attack is unlikely to happen in the United States, it could happen to one of our allies or partners and could still have significant implications for the American people.
If it does, the U.S. will likely have a strong hunch as to who produced the attack, but much of the information will remain in classified channels, allowing the private sector and foreign governments to retain doubt about the identity of the attackers. This will hamper an effective public response.
Instead, the U.S. likely will respond quietly in the background, and the aggressors may be chastened, but not deterred from future aggression.
3. More Chinese Abuses
The world will continue to learn more about Chinese human rights violations and general misbehavior.
Expect more reporting about the Uighur detention camps in western China and the Hong Kong protests to provoke strong reactions from the Western public. These reactions will shape the political context for ongoing trade and security negotiations with Beijing.
4. Aussies Turn on China
Australia will continue to uncover rampant Chinese interference within its social, economic, and political sectors. Its government will galvanize on these issues and will want to mobilize an international coalition to confront Chinese aggression and interference.
This effort may fail, however, due to European political and economic indifference and compromise, and lack of leadership from the United States.
5. European Capitulation to China
Many European countries are reaching a point of internal crisis, as they lack strong technological industrial bases and face mounting public dissatisfaction for their failure to deliver on promised cradle-to-grave entitlements.
Many of those countries will be tempted to make catastrophic security decisions in an effort to placate this public dissatisfaction and keep up with the technological advancements emanating from the United States and China.
This trend can already be seen in Huawei’s growing presence in Europe and in the fact that 23 European countries have signed agreements under Beijing’s predatory “Belt and Road Initiative.” Nineteen of these countries are members of the European Union, and one of them, Italy, is a member of the Group of Seven.
2020 could be a banner year for American foreign policy. I certainly hope it is. But even if it is, our nation will still face some serious challenges, and these five are just some that we should be prepared for.