Geopolitical Events: 2017 in Review

by Matthew Kriner and Katie Valentine

By all accounts 2017 has been a year to remember — or forget, depending on your levels of optimism. We have gathered what we consider to be the most memorable events of the year, and will likely continue to be important in the coming year.

Russia Banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics

In December of 2017, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the 2018 winter Olympics in South Korea. The ban came after an IOC-led investigation found widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among Russian athletes. Despite the ban, Russian athletes won’t be completely absent from the games — some are expected to compete under a neutral flag. The flagship event of the Winter Olympics, ice hockey, will likely be without its household names this year with the NHL and Russia’s delegation out from competition. Could the 2018 Olympics hold another 1980 Lake Placid “Miracle on Ice” team of relatively obscure players who could capture the world’s attention? Like the 1980 Olympics (with the Iranian hostage crisis and the Cold War running strong in the background of the games), today’s games hold a lot of potential for politically inspired drama to play out on the sporting fields.

Olympic Security Concerns — North Korean Shenanigans

Security concerns surrounding the Olympics are nothing new: the games are a huge event, drawing athletes and spectators from across the globe, so fears of targeted attacks — like those at the 1973 Munich and 1996 Atlanta games — are common. But this year, the games’ proximity to the Hermit Kingdom was part of the concern — as tensions have risen between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, U.S. officials have expressed worry about sending American athletes to Pyeongchang, which is about 50 miles away from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

Kim Jong-un isn’t helping matters, with his regime announcing a planned ICBM missile launch — tipped with a nuclear device. This would represent a dramatic escalation of the current dynamics of North Korea’s nuclear testing, displaying its capabilities to put all the parts together into a working nuclear missile — joining an elite club of world powers such as the United States, Russia, China, the UK, India and Pakistan. In response to this escalating threat, Japan has set on a path to alter its long-held pacifist constitution and is gearing up its Self Defense Forces’ helicopter carriers for a capability to launch American-made F35 fighter jets — as well as its military budget to counter the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, pursuing long-range missiles for the first time in the post-WW2 era of Japan.

Climate Change — Storms and Infrastructure Risk

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused major damage to the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and helped make 2017 the most expensive hurricane season in U.S. history. Scientists predict that as the earth warms and sea levels rise, there will be a higher risk of intense hurricanes like Harvey, which produced record-breaking rainfall. Storms like these, along with flooding that comes with sea level rise, can cause major infrastructure damage and pose a risk to coastal military bases. Increased rainfall isn’t just a challenge to America’s infrastructure, but also to flood-prone regions like the Indian subcontinent and Latin America which both experienced devastating rainfalls and floods, further straining international aid capabilities to such regions in an era of U.S.-led reductions of support for U.N. and international aid entities.

In The U.S., Climate Change Isn’t Being Viewed as the Threat it Once Was

Under the Trump administration, climate change isn’t being viewed as the national security risk it once was. The Pentagon won’t mention climate change in its next National Defense Strategy, due out in January, despite the fact that Defense Secretary James Mattis has spoken of the risks a warming world poses to national security. And in December, the White House left climate change off of its National Security Strategy. The White House’s decision stands in sharp contrast to the Obama administration, which considered climate change — and the increase in migration and unrest that it can contribute to — a major threat to national security. The House did pass the 2018 NDAA with an amendment stating that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States” and calling for a report on at-risk military facilities. However, the impact its findings will likely be limited given the political partisanship on the topic.

Ongoing Global Conflict

Iraqi Security Forces celebrating the fall of ISIS-occupied Mosul. Image Credit: AFP


Climate change has also been linked to ongoing regional conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war, which saw significant developments with the advent of the Trump Administration. With his election, out was the American desire to fund and support opposition forces to President Bashar al-Assad; in was the desire to prioritize a political settlement with Russia aimed at stabilizing the security situation in the embattled country. This past year saw the brutal regime of the so-called Islamic State lose nearly all its territorial control in the Syria-Iraq region, prompting analysts to declare 2018 and beyond the initiation of ISIS as a cell-based terrorist organization, rather than a governing Caliphate.

Like a balloon, when you squeeze hard, it pops up between your fingers to relieve the pressure. In terms of counter-terrorism security, the implications of such a change to the organization’s modus operandi is an increase of low-risk, high-yield attacks. An increase in ramming and gun attacks occurred in 2017, along with an increase in targeting of softer locations like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Such locations are nearly impossible to fully secure, presenting unparalleled challenges to counter-terrorism and law enforcement agencies in protecting civilian populaces. ISIS is also expanding to conflict zones like Afghanistan, where the Taliban has also staged a resurgence. The U.S. has re-committed troops to total nearly 15,000 in what seems to be a never-ending war. With such conflicts deepening around the world, population displacement will continue to rise to unprecedented levels as issues such as the Rohingya, Yemen and Syria remained unresolved.

American Chaos

As the Mueller investigation began its first round of indictments in 2017, the Russia Investigation signalled to key allies a dramatic shift in America’s domestic political stability. Mass shootings carried out by non-Islamic actors have exposed the hypocrisy inherent in the post-9/11 security paradigm the U.S. has developed. And the ever revolving Cabinet of the Trump Administration has many allies wondering who they will liaise with in the coming year(s). Following the election of Doug Jones to represent Alabama’s second Senate seat, the House and the Senate are now in contention in the 2018 midterms elections, and could present a major check on the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda. However, if history holds, an opposition Congress and domestic scandals could push the bombastic president into more confrontation and war abroad — North Korea and Iran stand ripe for the picking. Trade policy, such as NAFTA re-negotiations, present the Trump administration another outlet to exercise its protectionist and isolationist worldview should Congress flip, or the margins of support alter to favor the Democrats. The implications of such inner turmoil and abandonment of America’s global leadership holds are significant to global stability and the liberal democratic system’s dominance.

Decline of Democracy

Global democratic rule has been challenged significantly in recent years and will likely be challenged even further in 2018. The Spanish government’s riot police response to Catalonia’s independence vote was quite controversial given the democratic nature of the vote. But Catalonia was not alone — Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has questionably extended martial law over ISIS regions and threatened to do so over the entire country, while simultaneously carrying out significant extra-judicial killings of drug users; Russia’s slide into autocratic influence under Putin’s regime has continued unabated without criticism from President Trump; and now Poland has evoked E.U. criticism for its increasing intolerance of democratic rule of law with a dramatic overhaul of its judicial system under President Andrzej Duda. With the Trump Administration publicly and loudly questioning the purpose of international bodies aimed at protecting the liberal democratic order established by the U.S. and allies following WWII, countries that exist on the periphery of democratic principles are likely to forego the dance of adhering to them, and could slide into autocratic or oligarchic rule.

Death of the Two-State Solution — A New Middle East Dynamic

One of the biggest stories in 2017 U.S. foreign policy was Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. We go into detail about the decision and its implications here, but one of the biggest concerns about the announcement is that it might spell the end of any hopes of a two-state solution. Jerusalem is claimed as an important holy and cultural site by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and in recognizing it as Israel’s capital, Trump ignored Palestine’s claim to the city. Trump’s decision to forego the standing policy of the U.S. over the past 60+ years stands as a testament to his proclaimed D.C.-outsider status and highlights the extent to which his administration has abdicated the global leadership role that America assumed following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

Iran’s Anti-Government Protests

Lastly, and just under the wire for 2017’s events, Iranian protests against the government have sparked again, evoking recollections of the 2009 Green Movement protests. Unlike the 2009 protests, the purported catalyst is not a singular event such as the presidential election results, but instead a broad dissatisfaction with economic malaise, inflation, and lack of beneficial changes following the JCPOA’s implementation for the average Iranian. President Trump’s controversial decertification of the JCPOA due to supposed Iranian non-compliance complicates the ability for the U.S. to support and promote legitimate political change, setting the stage for a potential repeat of the 2009 protests which sputtered out due to violent repression by the Iranian regime and criticism of President Obama for failing to do more in support of the Green Movement.

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