Predicting future conflicts is not easy, especially considering that social unrest and dramatic political changes can happen at virtually any time. But world-altering events don’t unfold in a vacuum — it’s all about reading the signs. Here are seven geopolitical hotspots that have the potential to change the course of history.
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the largely bipolar geopolitical superstructure, the world has become an increasingly fractured and unstable place. George W. Bush’s New World Order never materialized, due to dynamic economic, cultural, and political processes, the renewed rise of national interests, and the steady encroachment of sectarian radicalism.
There are many “hotspots” in the world today, including tenuous situations in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Central Asia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Turkey. As awful as these situations are, none of them threaten to disrupt the global balance.
But after speaking to several futurists and international affairs experts, I learned that there are at least seven different possible scenarios that could trigger the start of the next major war.
1. Ongoing turmoil in Pakistan
Nuclear-capable Pakistan continues to be a headache for international observers. Ongoing drone strikes by U.S. forces have largely alienated its population of 176 million. The country is notorious for serving as a springboard for extremist groups, including those set against its mortal enemy, India. Pakistan has also suffered through three consecutive years of devastating floods, and thousands of civilians have been displaced on account of military occupations and militancy. The nation’s transition to democracy has been slow-going — a process that could be disrupted if extremist parties take power in the elections later this year.
I asked Georgia Tech’s Margaret Kosal about Pakistan, and she expressed her concerns with its government and the upper echelons of Pakistan’s military. The country is currently experiencing internal anti-government problems, which include, but are not limited to, Islamist radicals.
“The risk,” she told io9, is that “nuclear weapons may be acquired by groups outside the military or by those affiliated with such groups who would transfer them to transnationalist groups who will use them.” This, she contends, is just as likely a threat against India as the U.S. or other western nation. (image: Associated Press)
2. Unpredictable North Korea
The isolated and nuclear-capable nation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the last true Marxist hold-out. It's alone in a world dominated by capitalist interests. Kim Jong-un’s seemingly erratic and perplexingly belligerent behavior has even served to alienate its longtime ally, the People’s Republic of China.
While it’s tempting to poke fun at Kim for his recent tirade, his actions were actually quite calculated. Knowing that full-scale war would be certain suicide, Kim’s sabre rattling was a blatant attempt to rouse international attention (possibly for the purposes of forcing an easing of sanctions, or having its nuclear status recognized) and to compel its enemies into action and military overspending (the U.S. reacted by spending $1 billion to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast). Trouble is, Kim’s foot-stomping has increased tensions to such a considerable degree that even the slightest misunderstanding or provocation could result in an actual military exchange. It’s for this reason that the Korean situation remains an extremely dangerous one.
More about the map featured in the top image here.
3. Syria spillover
Syria is already embroiled in war — a conflict that has resulted in nearly 80,000 deaths.
Frighteningly, and as history has repeatedly shown, wars have a nasty tendency to drag other nations in, whether they like it or not. Though it’s been two years since the civil war began, the conflict shows no sign of ebbing; the Assad regime is proving difficult to topple. Moreover, the insurgency is divided, leading many experts to predict a second — and perhaps even more brutal — stage of the war, if and when the government is overthrown. The hardline Sunni Islamists are certainly bracing themselves for a fight. At the same time, the conflict threatens to trickle over into neighboring areas like Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Turkey — which could in turn work to further destabilize the Middle East. Add to this the potential for the U.S. and Russia to fight a proxy war in Syria, and you have a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the Spanish Civil war of the 1930s — a precursor to the Second World War. (image: Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images)
4. Revolution in China
As the fall of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union starkly demonstrated, it’s often difficult to predict momentous disruptions in authoritarian states. A revolution or coup in one-party China certainly seems unlikely, but it’s definitely not an impossibility. The Brookings Institute, for example, considers a revolution in China to be a potential black swan event.
Margaret Kosal shares this concern, citing simmering internal challenges and the prospect of internal unrest. Factors at play in China include its highly problematic housing boom, the government’s growing emphasis on economic growth to ameliorate underlying civil discord, the rising (lower) middle class, corruption, lack of rule of law, and the huge disparity between a few enormously wealthy people and the rest of the population (many of whom are familiar with conditions in Hong Kong, thanks to the Internet).
“Over the last 25 years, the CCP has fomented very strong nationalism,” Kosal told io9. So, with greater attention from the global community, potential instability from a rise of China competing with the West (and especially the U.S.), along with long-standing unresolved internal tensions, we have what Kosal calls “a very worrisome mix.” And indeed, given China’s recent row with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, the region is perhaps not as stable as it appears to be. Add North Korea to the mix as a possible troublemaker, and the potential for increased tensions in the area is likewise heightened. (image: Xinhua)
5. War against Iran
Last year at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously drew his “red line” for Iran’s nuclear program — the “final stage” to a bomb in which Iran was over 90% of the way towards having sufficient weapons-grade material.
His hope, of course, was to have Iran back down from its nuclear ambitions. It’s the closest that any Israeli official has come to publicly laying out precisely which Iranian actions could trigger an Israeli military strike on Tehran's nuclear infrastructure. The Hawkish PM has advised the United States to preemptively attack Iran, a strike that would likely require hundreds of planes, ships, and missiles.
But the fear is not that Iran could develop a nuclear bomb — but whom they might give it to. Indeed, as recent events in Canada have shown, Iran’s commitment to suppressing the rise of terrorist groups is now seriously in question. (Image: Jason Szenes/EPA/NBC)
6. Vulnerable North Africa
Events in Mali, Algeria, and Nigeria have made it clear that radical Islam is working its way south from the Middle East. Earlier this year, French troops liberated the northern portion of Mali from the quasi-totalitarian Sharia yoke set up by al Qaeda-linked fundamentalists, while insurgents attacked an oil refinery in Algeria killing over 80 international workers. Meanwhile in Nigeria, the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths in recent years. And the situation in Egypt (not to mention Libya) is far from resolved given that the Muslim Brotherhood has essentially established a new Islamist state.
Looking to the future, radicalism could trickle down into other parts of Africa — a highly vulnerable region with a weak infrastructure, an inability to defend itself against an experienced and determined opponent — and an impressionable and marginalized population featuring a median age of 20. Could Africa become the next Middle East? (Image: AP)
7. Saudi collapse
As with a possible revolution in China, things could change quickly in Saudi Arabia. It’s the world’s last absolute monarchy, a nation in which King Abdallah has complete authority.
The Brookings Institute’s Peter W. Singer told io9 that Saudi Arabia features a “combustible mix” in which a succession crisis lurks around the corner. Indeed, as foreign policy expert Bruce Riedel notes, a revolution is conceivable, owing to the Arab Awakenings. He writes:
[Its] combination of religious piety and vast revenues has so far been sufficient to stave off the kind of unrest that has shaken much of the Arab world in recent years.
Nevertheless, revolutionary change in the Kingdom would be a disaster for American interests across the board. As the world’s swing oil producer, prolonged instability in Saudi Arabia would cause havoc in global oil markets, setting back economic recovery in the West and disrupting economic growth in the East.
Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country, but it has plenty of internal problems, including those churned by significant income disparities. Its Sunni/Shia mix is another interesting consideration. As Singer told us, a revolution in Riyadh is “low probability, but big impact.” (Image: Reuters).