Peace, War or Chaos?: The 5 Big National Security Challenges of 2018

Peace, War or Chaos?: The 5 Big National Security Challenges of 2018

Will North Korea conduct an atmospheric test? Will the frozen conflict in Ukraine turn hot? Daniel DePetris makes his predictions for 2018.

If, before Election Day 2016, you predicted Donald Trump would win the presidency, that a special counsel would be appointed to investigate potential collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin, and the U.S. military would take military action against the Syrian government, there’s a good chance that your family or friends would call you crazy. If you happened to add that provocateur Marine Le Pen would qualify for the French presidential runoff and that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un would threaten to bombard the U.S. territory of Guam, your loved ones might have tried to arrange an appointment with a psychologist.

Of course, all of this actually happened. Trump is approaching the one-year anniversary of his tenure. Guam is very much in Pyongyang’s crosshairs in the event of a military conflict with the United States. And Le Pen, a name synonymous with ultra-nationalism in French politics, beat every presidential aspirant except centrist and Europeanist Emmanuel Macron. Former FBI Director and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, meanwhile, continues to subpoena documents, interview witnesses and persons-of-interest, issue indictments and plea bargains, and keep the White House off balance.


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So, with the major disclaimer that I could be dead wrong at the end of the coming year and look like a lunatic living in fantasy land, here are five foreign policy predictions for 2018.

The U.N. Gives up on Syrian Peace Talks

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura, a career diplomat with a sterling reputation, endless optimism, and four decades of experience working in diplomatic trenches, has just about lost his patience. A job that veteran correspondent Janine di Giovanni aptly described as akin to “ staring into an abyss ” has proven to be just that for the U.N. troubleshooter; a period on unproductive, aimless diplomacy among combatants who don’t find it in their interest to negotiate.

After three and a half years of grueling talks between two stubborn parties who believe that history will vindicate them, De Mistura is ending the year atone of the lowest points in his long diplomatic career. He has presided over eight rounds of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva ballrooms since the process began in early 2016, with each round ending with nothing to show for the effort but bitterness and anger. In the days after the last round collapsed in December due the Assad regime’s refusal to talk about anything but counterterrorism, De Mistura expressed his disappointment to the Security Council at what he termed a “ golden opportunity missed .”

The special envoy is preparing for a ninth round of talks in January, with the writing of a new Syrian constitution and mechanisms for free and fair U.N.-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections on the docket. There is no indication, however, that Assad or the beleaguered Syrian opposition is in any way, shape or form prepared to meet one another halfway or even act constructively. In the very real likelihood a ninth and tenth round ends without any positive results, De Mistura may do what his two predecessors did years ago: pack up and fly home.

The Two-State Solution Is Buried

Whether one agrees or disagrees with President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the announcement seems to have killed the prospects of the United States as a mediator to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expected deep down in his psyche that Trump would begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he appears genuinely upset. Washington’s traditional role as the broker of the Mideast peace process is gone in Abbas’s mind , as is any peace formula the Trump administration finally publishes. In case the White House thought Abbas was just cooling off, he reiterated yet again that “[t]he United States has proven to be a dishonest mediator in the peace process and we will no longer accept any plan from the United States.”

In 2018, senior adviser Jared Kushner will release the administration’s Mideast peace parameters to the world. President Trump himself will attempt to market it as the product of a year’s worth of listening to all parties and debate among the inter-agency. Abbas will criticize the plan as too biased towards Israel’s position, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will applaud the president’s effort while putting the responsibility of resuming of the peace process in Ramallah’s court. If Washington is lucky, the Palestinians will drop their refusal to participate in a U.S.-led process and go through the motions—only for the entire thing to break down over prisoner releases, Israeli settlement building and the municipal boundaries of who controls what in Jerusalem. If the two-state solution doesn’t die completely, Washington’s role in its foundation will be surpassed by France, the European Union and Russia.