The Ones to Watch: A Net Assessment of the Global Future

Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. Pick your euphemism. The world can be both rich with culture and diversity and at the same time violently unforgiving. From nuclear-ambitious despots to resurgent Cold War adversaries, from refugee crises to climate change, threats and challenges exist in every corner of the globe. The question most often posed each year is which of these threats and challenges deserve our utmost focus? Where should we target our effort? What truly awaits us over the horizon?

Four writers, thinkers, and strategists have joined forces with The Bridge to widen our aperture and offer a glimpse into the security issues that confront us today and are likely to confront us tomorrow and into the future. With responses broken down by region, they present how a view of the most concerning of these issues. Perhaps this discussion will prompt an expanding discourse.

Four writers...four opinions...four global thinkers.


Short Term (Steven L. Foster):  The deadly trifecta of resource scarcity, mass migration, and violent extremist organizations will continue to plague the African continent. If the recent crises in the Central African Republic are any indication, the convergence of these factors creates an environment ripe for organizations like ISIL, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Shabaab, and the Lord’s Resistance Army to leverage and incite instability. As more African people seek to flee the violence in search of safety, security, and basic needs, the effects spread not only throughout Africa, but to neighboring continents as well.

Short Term (Steve Leonard): Gaining a toehold in post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization in Libya, the “Black Hole” of Africa, is important enough to garner its own line of effort in the new AFRICOM Theater Security Cooperation Plan, and it is of sufficient concern to become a topic of debate in the Beltway. Conventional wisdom suggests Libya will become, at best, an economy of force effort, which doesn’t bode well for the long term. And with the Islamic State already gaining a foothold on the continent through Libya, any practical response will have to be led by the Pentagon where manpower is an issue these days.

Long Term (Jon P. Klug): Population growth, especially in urban areas, will exacerbate Africa’s many existing well-chronicled issues -- poverty, conflict, lack of rational borders, corruption, and others. The percentage of people living in urban areas is projected to rise over fifty percent by 2030, and major cities such as Lagos and Kinshasa are expected to grow by sixty percent by 2025. The already overtaxed infrastructure of these major cities will be unable to cope, adding to security and law enforcement challenges.

Long Term (Diane Maye): Over the long term, Chinese influence on the African continent will continue to grow. Crime syndicates and warlords will continue to dominate in underdeveloped nations. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia will extend throughout much of East Africa. Iran’s increasing role in oil-rich Nigeria should be on the radar of economic and security analysts, as Nigeria is both the most populous country in Africa and one of the wealthiest.

Central Asia/ Russia

Short Term (SL): If we really want to make a dent in the direction Russia is taking, we will need to roll up our sleeves and engage Moscow in meaningful, old-school, diplomatic dialogue. We share a number of mutual interests, and we need to use these as leverage to keep them talking. At the same time, we need to be realistic about those areas where we aren’t on the same page and make some hard choices about what we can live with and what we cannot.  

Short Term (DM): The ruble is sagging, but Russia’s popular President Vladimir Putin will likely offset economic challenges by increasing anti-NATO rhetoric, boosting military spending, and challenging rebels in the Caucasus and the Middle East. With the Islamic State on its back doorstep, it would be in the best interest of the U.S. and its NATO allies to exploit Russia’s momentum and willingness to confront the terrorist organization. But do not expect an about-face on U.S. and Russian cooperation in the Middle East until after the November 2016 U.S. Presidential elections.

Long Term (SF): Russia has had a contentious relationship with the Islamic world for decades, particularly after its two wars with Islamic rebels in Chechnya in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With Russia’s recent intervention in Syria, it is apparent that Vladimir Putin wants to further Russian influence and protect Russian interests in the region. Given Putin’s track record of firm response to Islamic terrorism, this paradoxically creates an opportunity for expanded dialogue with the West, with Middle Eastern countries in need of a viable partner against terror, as well as increased support at home among the Russian people if his strategy is successful.

Long Term (JK): Putin sees the world geopolitically and not ideologically, and it is not an accident that he developed means that would provide leverage against the West, such as Gazprom. The geopolitical lens also lends itself to “its déjà vu all over again” with respect to how Russia sees the United States: threatening, surrounding, and encroaching. This view drives Putin to split the United States from Europe if possible. However, Russia paradoxically has an interest in cooperating with the U.S. against terrorist threats while simultaneously wanting the U.S. to remain bogged down dealing with these threats and others.


Short Term (SF):  Many would argue the attacks on Paris in November 2015 were an inevitable event given the unrelenting flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East into the open arms of European nations willing to assist.  These migrants are a combination of asylum-seekers fleeing the violence and instability resulting from conflict and extremism, as well as scores of refugees seeking to escape the abject poverty plaguing their home countries. Unfortunately, many European states face economic troubles of their own, as well as security fears in the wake of terrorist attacks, and are unable or unwilling to exert additional effort in supporting and assimilating these migrants. Moreover, the increase in attacks by ISIL terrorist cells further widens the already-existing chasm between Muslim refugees and their European hosts.

Short Term (JK): The overarching questions for Europe will be how economic disparities impact the European Union and how countries deal with internal tensions rising from immigration.  How long will Germany continue to economically underwrite states whose governments do not enact unpopular reform necessary to rectify perennially weak economies?  The second issue, immigration, will come down to how well countries are able to assimilate new communities, such as the recent influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and how those communities choose to assimilate in their new country. Frighteningly, lack of assimilation will create fertile ground for radical political recruitment.

Long Term (SL): If NATO is actually going to mean something beyond the next couple of decades, it needs to demonstrate the same kind of commitment to the new members as it once did to the original European members. One way to achieve this may be a Marshall Plan for the 21st century, regaining lost credibility, reemphasizing American commitment, and strengthening NATO’s reach into Eastern Europe.

Long Term (DM): The European Union will struggle with the relative decline of the Euro and illegal migration from North Africa and the Middle East. NATO members will look for the U.S. to push back against an ever-more assertive Russia. The Muslim sectors of European society will grow increasingly isolated, cut off from the economy and mainstream culture, yet these Muslim sectors will see higher birth rates compared to the general population. The isolation will foster more resentment, and Europeans are likely to see more terrorist attacks from Muslim youth, especially second-generation, urban males.

Middle East

Short Term (SL): Combating sectarianism in Iraq (the obstacle between a fractured Iraq and one free of ISIS) is critical. If Iraq can’t bridge the sectarian divide, any gains they make will be transitory, at best.

Short Term (DM): Saudi-Iranian tensions will increase as both nations struggle for hegemony in the region. In 2016, Turkey will become more fundamentalist, as the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) grows increasingly conservative in an effort to appease minority factions.  Iraq will continue to fracture along sectarian lines. The Gulf countries will see increased tension from their Shia populations.

Long Term (SF):  The worsening Middle East security situation, coupled with attempts to normalize relations with Iran, has placed a particular strain on U.S.-Israeli relations. With the U.S. and Israel both embroiled in a pitched conflict against violent Islamic extremists, this should be an opportunity for continued and closer partnership.  The divergent views of each nation’s leadership on the means to defeat it, however, as well as the role of diplomacy in strategy development, only increase strain on the relationship between the two powers.

Long Term (JK): While always a multifaceted and complex region, recent events like the conflict in Syria, ISIS writ large, and the continued rise of Iran have added additional layers to historical intricacy. The greatest security issue for this region is that additional nuclear-armed states are a matter of “when not if.”  While it is assumed that Israel has had nuclear weapons since 1966, Iran will also join the nuclear weapons club. The real question is how Israel and Saudi Arabia will react as Iran moves from research and development, to weaponization, to fielding delivery systems. Does Israel conduct a massive strike, which would only be a setback to Iran?  Will Saudi Arabia begin its own nuclear program? That future is uncertain.

North America

Short Term (SF): Mexico remains one of the most unstable and insecure countries in Latin America due to the persistent threat from drug cartels, transnational criminal organizations, narco-terrorist groups, and human trafficking rings. The combination of these multi-faceted hazards to stability and security poses a significant challenge to Mexican sovereignty, pushing the nation closer to the brink of failed-state status each day. With thousands of Mexicans dying or displaced each year at the hands of violent cartels, and the Mexican government woefully unable (or unwilling) to protect its citizens from violence, the country remains on a path to further destabilization. Given Mexico’s close economic ties, consistently high tourism numbers, and over 2,000 miles of shared border, this instability poses a significant risk to Mexico’s relationship with the United States and makes the situation in Mexico of particular interest to America’s national security.

Short Term (SL): In the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco, government responses to separatists, militias, and violent protest groups are waning at a time they should be hitting their stride. This is compounded by an exponential rise in these types of groups, with a 37 percent increase in the last year alone. We need to get serious, and we need to do it fast. One step is to develop a coherent National Security Strategy for Domestic Terror.

Long Term (JK): President Coolidge is credited with saying that “the business of America is business.” This is certainly true, and American power in the past rested on the solid foundation of the American economy. While this economy has had its issues over the past decade, the Federal Reserve finally felt confident enough to raise interest rates, the first rate increase in nearly a decade. The increased rate will impact investors, home buyers, and savers, but, more importantly, the Fed’s actions speak volumes on how economists feel that the U.S. economy is recovered enough to take off the training wheels. A recovering economy should also help underpin American power of all kinds, including military power.

Long Term (DM): With U.S. President Barack Obama in his twilight year as commander-in-chief, the U.S. will see a renewed focus on domestic issues in 2016. Over the long term, the next U.S. administration will be faced with important foreign policy decisions, most notably they must decide how to confront Russian assertiveness in Europe while remaining engaged with Putin regarding the Islamic State. In Mexico, the Sinaloan cartel will gain more power and prominence as it increases the distribution of heroin into the U.S. and undercuts its rival, the cocaine-dependent Colombian Medellin. As the Mexican cartels and sub-national crime enterprises grow, the U.S. will face the threat of narco-terrorism and illegal immigration, particularly in its border states.

Pacific /South East Asia/China

Short Term (SL): Implement a strategy of cooperation and engagement with China. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, China doesn’t want to fight us; they want to be us. Our colleges and universities are home to countless Chinese students, yet we can’t see fit to invite PLA leaders into our military schools. We’re missing an opportunity to build lasting relationships that could pay dividends for generations to come.

Short Term (DM): North Korea’s nuclear ambitions will be the main cause for concern amongst security-conscious Pacific-rim countries. China’s economy will continue to grow, but its ebbs and flows will have global repercussions. Japan’s economy will remain stagnant, as aging managers grow more and more reluctant to adapt to the global economy. Analysts should note the important implications of defense cooperation between India and Japan; both countries have an interest in limiting Chinese influence and growing their market share of the global defense industry.

Long Term (SF):  The days of double-digit economic growth in China seem to be well behind us, coming on the heels of the recent announcement their GDP growth for 3Q 2015 was 6.9%, first time it fell below   7% since 2009. As recent triple-digit declines in global markets have shown, Chinese economic degradation has far-reaching effects. If Xi Jinping’s government does not take corrective action and these declines continue over the long term, it poses significant risk to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to maintain control over this vast nation. As a result, the economic slowdown may cause the party to shift resources to maintaining internal stability, but it could also put a damper on China’s military expansion.  Conversely, this could force the Xi administration to increase its aggressive activities in the region, further expanding its  claims in the South China Sea to control the flow of economic activity in this vital shipping channel, bringing the risk of economic sanctions from global powers that would further cripple an already-declining economy.

Long Term (JK): Although its economic growth is still strong, China’s recent relative economic slowdown, at least compared to the previous decade, may indicate a sea change. There are many factors involved in this slowdown, including loans provided for political rather than sound business reasons, but at present it is unlikely to change China’s military build-up and efforts in the South China Sea. In fact, economics is the primary reason the Chinese have invested in seapower in the first place. Transforming reefs into islands, claiming these islands as Chinese territory, and using propaganda to both legitimize Chinese claims and de-legitimize counterclaims is brilliant, although it reminds me of Stephen the Mad Irishman in the movie Braveheart who said of Ireland, “I’m the most wanted man on my island…yeah, it’s mine.” It also demonstrates how China’s efforts are building potential energy, which they hope will eventually reach a point that allows them to realize what they want with little effort and little risk. The only effective way to combat this is to not allow the potential of the situation to change in Chinese favor during peacetime. U.S. diplomatic and military efforts are, in effect, doing this, including such efforts as bilateral discussions and freedom of navigation missions.

South Asia

Short Term (SF): The Taliban has enjoyed a recent shift in momentum in Afghanistan, leading the U.S. and its coalition partners to rethink their commitment to troop levels.  Declining troop levels and a fledgling Afghan National Security Force portend a risk of expanded Taliban influence not only in Afghanistan, but in neighboring Pakistan as well. Given Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan must be one of partnership with its neighbors to contain the threat, thus preventing the group from further destabilizing a nuclear Pakistan

Short Term (JK): In 2009 it appeared that for the long term the U.S. could “keep the lid on” in Afghanistan if it had the will to pay $4 billion a year and provide ten thousand troops to support the Afghan National Security Forces. What “keeping the lid on” meant then and now is to essentially maintain the status quo and prevent Afghanistan from becoming an open stronghold for terrorists. At this point, it still appears that, as long as the U.S. has the will, it can maintain an economy-of-force mission to support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and protect its own national security interests.

Long Term (SL): Disengagement with honor and making a dignified break from the “forever wars” is the long-term solution. Afghanistan will not be a self-sustaining state any time soon, and we can’t continue to pour resources into it in hopes that it will be. And the fact that we’ve spent billions there isn’t a reason to keep spending. At some point, we have to let go of the bike and let them ride on by themselves. That time has come.

Long Term (DM):  Pakistan and Afghanistan will stay at the forefront of U.S. national security decision-making for the next decade. The Taliban’s influence will grow in certain sectors, but decline in others. The U.S. will work with Pakistan to ensure its nuclear arsenal stays safe. Over the long term, India will rise as a major sea power and regional hegemon.  The next U.S. administration should prioritize military, economic, and political engagement with the 1 billion strong, Anglophone, sub-continent.  

South and Central America

Short Term (SL): Security leading up to, and during, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is critical. In the wake of Paris, Rio presents a lucrative target for violent extremists, whether aligned with terrorist organizations or not. Brazil’s armed forces are preparing to provide security for the Olympics, but will it be enough?

Short Term (DM): The Venezuelan economy will suffer because of Saudi Arabia’s infusion of surplus oil into the market. President Maduro’s socialist hardliners will be blamed by the center-right for the failing economy. The chaos will continue through all of 2016. The monumental nature of the Venezuelan economic crisis could prompt the country’s leadership into collusion with nations hurt most by declining oil prices.

Long Term (SF):  Russia’s influence is not isolated to Eurasia.  Historically, Russia has held interest in South American nations as well, partnering both economically and militarily. It seems the Putin government has renewed its interest in our neighbors to the south, and is seeking to expand its relationship with anti-U.S. states such as Nicaragua,  Ecuador, and particularly Venezuela. These states are looking for a global power to prioritize their interests, and Russia seemingly is the country to do that.

Long Term (JK): Criminal gangs and transnational criminal organizations will continue to erode state sovereignty in Central and South America. Some of these organizations will continue to intimidate governments or individuals into ignoring their illicit activities, and they may also seek to corrupt government officials with the massive wealth from the illegal drug trade. Debating whether these groups are “criminal” insurgencies or something else is an interesting academic exercise; however, the point is that they will perpetuate violence and corrode local, regional, and even national governments, exacerbating the many problems faced in the region.

A Final Thought

What the future holds is always a matter of debate. Someone is always right, and someone is always wrong. Just when you think you’ve got a clear view of emerging threats, the security environment takes an unforeseen turn. But by thinking about it from as many perspectives as possible, applying every analytic lens available, perhaps we can manage some of the risk inherent in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Perhaps.

The opinions here are those of the authors, based on their perspectives on global security, and are open to discussion and disagreement. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Steven L. Foster is an officer in the U.S. Army with extensive experience in logistics, and a current emphasis in operational and strategic planning. He is currently serving as a strategic planner at United States Transportation Command, and holds a Master of Public Policy with emphasis in National Security Policy from George Mason University. Steve's interests include policy, strategy, and history, and has been a regular contributor to The Bridge. He also has experience in the private sector in business management and a strong interest in leader development and talent management.  Follow Steve on Twitter at @slfoster22.

Jonathan P. Klug is an Army Strategic Plans and Policy Officer currently serving in the Commander’s Initiatives Group at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has served as an Army planner in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a graduate of School of Advanced Military Studies and the Army War College’s course for Strategic Plans and Policy officers. He has taught military and naval history at the United States Air Force Academy and the United States Naval Academy. As a doctrine author, Jon worked on counterinsurgency and security force assistance, including Army, multiservice, joint, and NATO publications.

Steven M. Leonard is a former U.S. Army strategist and the creative force behind Doctrine Man!! He is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild and a regular contributor to the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project. Follow his writing on The Bridge or his personal blog, The Pendulum, and on Twitter @Doctrine_Man.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Diane L. Maye is an external research associate with the U.S. Army War College, an affiliated scholar at George Mason University, and has taught undergraduate courses in International Relations, American Foreign Policy, and Political Islam. She writes on issues that involve security and governance in the Middle East, U.S. defense policy, and national security strategy. Prior to her work in academia, Diane served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force and worked in the defense industry. Follow Diane on Twitter at @dianeleighmaye.

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