External threats are easy to see. Russia, China and Iran are dominated by autocratic rulers who, territorially or spiritually, look to the past for future glory. Vladimir Putin seeks to recreate a regional power not experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; Xi Jinping clings doggedly to a historicallyflawed ambition to “reunite” Taiwan with its motherland; while Ebrahim Raisi’s determination for regional domination is set firmly in the Medieval ages – albeit one with nuclear weapons.
Each seeks to impose their will on sovereign democracies, either territorially or through cyber-based influence campaigns. But external threats tell just one half of the story. Not so long ago the international consensus-based order, established in the blood-soaked rubble of the Second World War, was considered inviolable and resolute by theWest.We simply weren’t paying enough attention.
Today, increasingly moribund international structures – such as the UN Security Council, the WTO, WTO and even Interpol – are held hostage by the smallest players who despise the very idea of a consensusbased entente and use it for their own short-term gains.The knock-on effect is we have all become more inward looking.
The return of Great Power Competition has led once again to the age of “agile alliances” – built not simply on geographic proximity or economic gain but ideology. For Britain this means identifying and nurturing connections with like-minded democracies.
While rhetoric may be strong, the post- Afghanistan reluctance in Western capitals to back it up militarily is not missed by our strategic adversaries – not to mention radical islamist groups everywhere. Nor do they miss the irony that this should happen just when the fabric of our democracies seems to be at its weakest, assailed from all fronts by factors of our own making.
Covid-19 restrictions, the paroxysm of cancel culture and the toxicity of “me first” social media – fuelled by sophisticated disinformation campaigns from those who would see us divided – all serve to heighten a feeling of instability at home. It’s not all bad news, though.
The speed with which the scientific community in Britain and abroad developed working vaccines against Covid-19, and their roll out, is a testament to human ingenuity and determination. But things will have to get worse before they get better, and we are left facing the greatest risk of unintended conflict since the end of the ColdWar.
RUSSIA Some form of conflict between Russia in Ukraine remains likely over the next two months, before the winter thaw makes the movement of Russia’s expected 175,000 troops and mercenary forces more problematic. Though talks are expected in January, it is widely feared Putin has left himself with little scope for manoeuvre after making demands – that Nato withdraws its 1997 status – which have already been rejected by Baltic states and Poland.
While it is unlikely any Nato forces will allow troops to join the fray on Ukrainian soil, conflict will impact Britain and her allies in other ways. By providing assets such as anti-missile capabilities and offensive cyber technology the US and Britain will make themselves targets for reprisals.
The same applies to harsh economic measures targeting Russia’s banking system and its access to SWIFT, the messaging network used by 11,000 banks in 200 countries to make cross-border payments.According to the London-based Sibylline strategic advisory firm, these may well target GPS satellites and internet connectivity, potentially bringing Western economies – and their militaries – to a standstill.
Capitulation by US president Joe Biden, in the same vein as Afghanistan, may be welcomed by nations such as Germany but would carry a much greater price in the long run. Russia would count the Balkanisation of its eastern flank – where formerly sovereign states fall under its sphere – as a win.
China watches intently. While Taiwan is expected to become a flashpoint within the next four years, any conflict with China in 2022 is more likely to happen in the South China Sea, conduit to a third of all global trade where tensions are already at breaking point.
This is underlined by the Chinese Communist Party’s once-a-decade leadership change at autumn’s 20th National Congress. While Xi Jinping faces no serious challenge to a third term as President, a more assertive foreign and defence policy may give rise to miscalculation, as Western navies continue to mount Freedom of Navigation operations. Britain, as a founding member of the AUKUS defence pact, may become involved.
The country also faces increasingly serious domestic issues – such as energy and water shortages, demographic decline, and stagnant growth and productivity. Having accounted for 30 per cent of global growth for the past decade, China’s $4trillion debt trap could tank economic growth around the world, while disrupting financial markets and supply chains.
IRAN shows no real inclination to reverse its development of nuclear weapons and time is running out. The Islamic Republic has already turned to China for relief against US sanctions and it now has another source of potential revenue following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, giving Iran greater access to Asian markets.
The prospect of targeted strikes by the US and Israel in 2022 is high. A new 10-year defence pact between Israel and the UK – underwritten by a mutual determination not to allow Iran to have nuclear weapons – contains technology sharing in the cyber and AI fields. It also sees closer military co-operation between both air forces, meaning the UK could find itself playing a discreet role.
In the meantime, Iran continues to have the ability to conduct drone and missile attacks against Gulf oil facilities and US military bases – and to use Hezbollah or other surrogates to engage in a shadow war with Israel. Freedom of Navigation operations through the Strait of Hormuz, another vital trade artery, could also spark limited conflict.
TERROR The US-led pullout from Afghanistan has provided an opportunity for resurgent Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates to use the country as a base to launch attacks overseas in 2022. Afghanistan already hosts between 8,000-10,000 foreign terrorist fighters. But the message it gives to global jihadism is just as dangerous.
Islamic State has already staged major suicide bombings in Iraq in recent months, demonstrating the group’s growth in capabilities amid high levels of instability. In sub-Saharan Africa, many jihadist insurgencies feeding on conflict and instability have expanded their attacks on local communities. Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates such as JNIM have successfully forced state withdrawal in rural areas in the Sahel, allowing them to boost recruitment and revenue streams.
Within the UK, extended periods of lockdown have increased the potential for internet-based radicalisation.And Europe’s migrant crisis will continue to fan the flames of RightWing extremism.