What to Fear: Les Principaux Risques Géopolitiques de 2016



Article anglo-français écrit avec un camarade de la LSE, en échange à Sciences Po , Alen Maulitov. 

Looking forward to what shapes up to be a turbulent year, one cannot resist to remind that it will also be the 400th birthday of that great poet Shakespeare whose words “They shall have wars and pay for their presumption” could not be more accurate in describing what we can expect in 2016. To keep you aware of looming disasters we present a first part focused on imminent geopolitical risks and a second part focused on the economic trends, that competent analysis judged to be most relevant for this year. Many important events were excluded to leave just the most important risks directly affecting the global security and the stability of the international order. US presidential elections are in too early stages to draw conclusions since no candidates are yet completely ruled out. The rise of populism as a long term trend seemed to hit its peak in 2015 and if it is meant to come back, surely it will be just in time for Brexit in 2017. EU’s immigration crisis and ISIS represent mere symptoms of a failing international system and the Middle East has bigger worries when it comes to sectarian politics. Meanwhile cyber security and climate change will affect global security on a much larger time-scale and long after 2016 has passed. By the time you will be once again celebrating New Years, the following trends will change our perception of international politics in most radical ways.

PART 1 – Geopolitics and the Fall of Order (by Alen Maulitov)

  1. Russia’s Desperate Despot And His Crumbling Regime

An increasing number of analysts and commentators are becoming aware of the growing instability within Russia’s borders. Last year’s Russia was a feared bully whose show of force in Ukraine and Syria proved how little order exists on the international scene. Today’s Russia however finds itself stuck between firstly, the costly strategic stalemates in both Eastern Europe and Middle East; secondly, the drain on resources that a fully energy- and water-dependent Crimea has become; and lastly, the destitute domestic finances of an obsolete uncompetitive economy relying on plummeting profits from oil and gas exports. The danger presents itself as the crumbling Putin’s regime becomes not less, but far more reckless in its policies, as the strongman desperately fights adverse pressures from the starving population, discontented elites and unruly military. Authoritarian leaders like Putin rarely give up power voluntarily, thus the internal and external pressures will inevitably clash with all the regime’s efforts to persist.

Like all authoritarian leaders Putin typically relies on three tools to maintain power: buying popular support with public spending financed from energy profits, strengthening the coercive apparatus of the state to repress discontent, and reinforcing the cult of personality by fostering imperialism, chauvinism and ethnocentrism of the masses. Without the income from energy sales the increasingly desperate regime turns to the two latter means. Despite the domestic approval ratings consistently hovering above 80% since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin publishes a book of his own quotes and a photographic calendar in a laughable attempt to salvage some popularity. Turning to repressive capabilities, Putin recently adopted a legislation allowing the secret police to shoot protestors, further suggesting an increasing fear and paranoia amongst the high ranked officials.

These reckless measures will only intensify as contestants to the regime multiply amongst the elites losing prestige and fearing popular anger, but also within the masses suffering from the deteriorating living standards and disillusion with their almighty leader. These tensions will only grow in 2016 making Putin’s foreign policy more unpredictable and aggressive than ever before. The regime will undoubtedly seek to aggravate external hostilities to divert attention from its failures at home, destabilising the international system and compromising global security. These uncertainties are especially worrying if you are aware of the conclusions from the latest conflict simulation carried out by the Rand Corp. together with US military and government personnel. The think-tank report stipulates that if “Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow, outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days.”  

  1. A Power Vacuum In the Middle East

While ISIS seems to be a hot topic of the Middle East region, the danger it represents is just a hint of a bigger issue rooted in the conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims. If the Paris attacks brought the focus back to the world’s largest terrorist organisation, the real problem of the region results from a power vacuum created by the rollback of US leadership. Despite authorising approximately 10 times more drone strikes then the Bush administration, Obama’s “smart power”, “leading from behind”, “ending wars by withdrawing from them” have upset the balance of power enough to let regional actors assume more radical policies without fear of repercussions. Worse even, a retrenchment policy and the nuclear deal with Iran alienated traditional US allies leaving Saudi Arabia and Israel fearing abandonment.

Uncertainty that the US forces will upkeep regional order, will force these actors into adopting increasingly aggressive foreign policies as a matter of self-defence. As tensions between the Saudi kingdom and Iran exacerbate following Iran’s open hostility after the Saudi execution of a top Shi’ite cleric, we can expect an escalation of the proxy conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region. In the confidential “Draft Ceasefire Modalities Concept Paper” memo, UN officials have admitted that the organisation cannot effectively enforce a Syrian peace deal making the current peace talks little more than meaningless talk.

  1. Decaying Transnational Institutions

What the two key risks above have demonstrated is more than anything else the slow systemic decay of our international institutions that seem to struggle in the face of current adversities. NATO’s funding suffers as member states have a hard time to give away 2% of their GDPs towards defence spending, sabotaging the military capacities of this once feared alliance facing multiplying adversities. United Nations admits that it has no capability to enforce a Syrian peace deal and monitor any possible cease-fire, weakening the case for any possible political settlement of conflicts. Meanwhile EU’s values and structure are under fire, with the Union’s utility challenged by the immigration crisis and the looming UK’s referendum on Brexit due by the end of 2017. All in all, time has come to admit to ourselves that the order we organised around western values and institutions is surely and safely falling apart.

The Eurasia Group – a top player among political risk consultancies argues in its latest report that « the trans-Atlantic partnership has been the world’s most durable and significant alliance, underpinning the global economic order and bolstering peace and stability for nearly seventy years, […] is now weaker, and less relevant, than at any point since the Marshall Plan ». What the report correctly captures is a decline of a western order and its liberal values championed by the US with the support of European countries. With international anarchy more apparent than ever, states are increasingly self-interested and wary of other state’s actions. While this will exacerbate existing tensions and sabotage friendly alliances, it might also provide the China’s peaceful rise with an opportunity to assume leadership and propose its alternative model of international governance.

PART 2- L’Incertitude et le Nouveau Contexte Économique (par Laurent Weil)

Au sommet du Forum économique mondial de janvier 2016 dernier, qui s’est tenu comme chaque année a Davos, l’élite du capitalisme mondial s’est retrouvée pour participer à un brainstorming sur cette année qui s’annonce sombre. Selon les acteurs qui y étaient présents, la situation géopolitique est le facteur principal à l’origine de ce pessimisme. Entre l’incertitude qui règne sur les marchés à cause de leur volatilité et les craintes de la Fed (banque centrale des Etats-Unis) vis-à-vis du système bancaire américain; entre la chute du prix du baril de pétrole et ses conséquences sur le marché mondial de l’énergie; entre le ralentissement de la croissance Chinoise, on se doit de réfléchir, en plus des grandes questions géopolitiques, sur ces points pour comprendre les principaux risques économiques en 2016.

L’instabilité financière: l’inquiétude générale sur les marchés

À Davos, le “club des riches” de notre planète a principalement débattu autour du thème “maîtriser la Quatrième revolution industrielle”, exprimant leurs craintes sur les problèmes qu’elle engendre en bouleversant très rapidement et très fortement l’économie, la société et la politique. On n’est plus dans le cadre de la bulle internet des années 90s, mais bien à l’aube d’une ère de la robotique qui pourrait changer radicalement nos vies. Mais ce changement rapide et brutal qui préoccupe tant, n’est qu’une goutte dans l’océan parmi les facteurs économiques qui auront un impact réel sur les marchés en 2016. En effet, qui parle de revolution industrielle parle de croissance et d’excitations sur les marchés financiers. Or en 2016 ces derniers dépriment plus qu’ils n’enchantent. L’inquiétude est le maître mot de l’année, pour l’élite dirigeante de Davos, et aussi pour tous les micro-agents qui investissent sur les marchés. La conjoncture économique chinoise fait peur. L’incompréhension du désastre moyen orientale qui coïncide avec le retour du pétrole bon marche bouleverse toute prévision économique mondiale sur le marché de l’énergie à court terme comme à moyen terme. Et enfin les résultats financiers des marchés en 2015 laisse croire que 2016 ne sera au fond que la continuité de l’année passée avec une croissance sur les marchés lente, très lente.

Cette situation expliquerait peut-être aussi la raison pour laquelle la Fed évalue en ce moment même des possibles scenarios de “cygne noir” sur les marchés financiers.

Les enjeux de la chute du prix du baril de pétrole

Longtemps surnommé “or noir” on a assisté en 2015 à la chute vertigineuse du prix du baril de pétrole – de 70% -, et au cours des dernières semaines ce prix est passé sous la barre des 30 dollars. Ce phénomène s’explique par l’augmentation massive de la production de pétrole ces dernières années, mais aussi peut-être par la levée des sanctions économiques contre l’Iran qui provoque un nouvel afflux de pétrole sur le marché. Aujourd’hui ce surplus d’offre ne trouve plus de demande et ceci est dû au ralentissement économique des pays émergents tels que le Brésil ou la Chine continentale. En plus d’avoir des repercussions économiques sur les pays producteurs de pétrole de l’Opep qui se retrouvent en situation de déséquilibre budgétaire (à part l’Arabie Saoudite qui peut tenir le rythme grace à ses faibles coûts de production), la chute du prix du baril a des repercussions politiques encore pires – tels que le Venezuela qui ne maîtrise plus les contestations de sa population -. En revanche, cette chute, est avantageuse sur le plan géopolitique pour les Occidentaux car celle-ci affaiblit la Russie et l’Etat Islamique, tous les deux dépendants de la rente pétrolière.

Quant à son influence sur la production d’autres ressources énergétiques, il semble évident d’émettre l’hypothèse qu’en 2016 l’investissement des acteurs économiques dans le secteur des énergies propres devrait connaître un ralentissement.

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