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2018 And The Clash of World Views

Bullets

During 2017, a series of events have set up what has become a clash of world views, rather than a clash of civilisations.  This year, the moves of the previous year will play out in potentially dramatic ways, ranging from military disruptions that threaten spiralling conflicts, to economic stand-offs between major nations and major shifts in the role of media and information in shaping our society.

The opening Sign of the Times for 2018 presents a list of key themes that during the next 12 months have the potential to be catalysts or triggers for changes that will shape our world, our markets and our lives.  Last year, as a new president took office and set about implementing his agenda, the implications overshadowed every other theme and turned accepted wisdom on what might happen in 2017 on its head.  One year later, the world has indeed seen significant change, with the US withdrawing from the TPP, increasing instability in the Middle East, India’s economic reforms working their way through the economy, and ongoing political challenges across the EU.  With the benefit of a tumultuous year’s events to consider, this month’s Leader will again attempt to identify the key political, military, economic, social and technological themes playing out in 2018 (and beyond), along with counter-pointed scenarios and a briefing on their potential impact on the world in the years to come.  While recognizing the considerable uncertainty in the world today, 2018 has the makings of the year in which we may be forced to reconcile booming markets on the one hand with the prospect of dangerous political games on the other hand, potentially triggering further discord and conflict.

Military and Security Events

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

Political Events

Table 4

Table 5

Economic and Finance Events

Table 6

Table 7

Table 8

Technology and Science Events

Table 9

Table 10

Society Events

Table 11

Table 12

 

Concluding Thoughts: Alternative Realities

One’s views on any given subject are of course a function of one’s own reality.  In determining what one believes about the shape of our world, it is worth considering two extreme views both based on the same set of events.

In one reality, what “America First” means is now clear.  It is the US pursuing a ruthless win-lose for the world with a “scorched earth” strategy worthy of the most aggressive empires of history.  In this reality, America is cunningly playing Muslim against Muslim in the Middle East and is painting a target on Israel’s back with its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, seen as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of America; it recognizes that these events and the “Muslim Ban” will make America, and the West as a whole, a target of fundamentalist terrorism, but sees this as a unifying force that will ultimately unite the West in the face of the common enemy; it is the catalyst behind a potentially devastating nuclear war in Asia as it attacks North Korea and sees Japan and South Korea having to live with the aftermath; its tax cuts are aimed at driving its markets upwards in ways that others will try to match but will fail to sustain given their greater social spending requirements and nations that try will thereby only weaken themselves; it knows that its industrial, digital and now space leadership will create the next generation of technologies that will far outstrip competing countries, and that these technologies will be financed by a world that will seek the relative stability of America as their own backyards are increasingly devastated by conflict and confusion; and it will continue to battle its critics at home, almost all of whom will be silenced as they discover that America’s institutions with their checks and balances in fact protect the president more than his opponents.  A much-strengthened America will face China and be able to utilize India in the future either as an ally or, given the border differences between the two, as someone that could be lured into a future conflict with China once fully armed (which America is doing).  In this reality, whether by raw instinct, cunning strategy, or some combination thereof, “America First” is a path to renewing America’s geopolitical and economic power in a cynical and calculated gamble that uses its strong position to weaken and feed off the world.

In another reality, many countries are grappling in these deeply challenging times with how to meet the needs of their nations, particularly in terms of creating prosperity and preserving security.  Under this world view, America is one of many countries, albeit the most powerful, doing what it must, competing with the world to create a strong homeland through its foreign policy, its homeland security initiatives, its tax policy, its investments in industry, technology and its big bets such as space exploration.  America’s Middle East policy supports it core values and its longstanding allies in a hope that progress will be made.  Its support is aimed at promoting liberal views in Saudi Arabia, curtailing the darker possibilities of Iran and recognizing the realities of Israel’s position.  In this reality, North Korea is becoming a global threat and could devastate the world and someone has to have the courage to “call them out”, with the country and its neighbors having to bear the consequences, no matter how horrible.  In “draining the swamp” of American politics, it takes an outsider, no matter how polarising, to lead the way.  This world view holds that the leader will be successfully contained by the strength of character of its political representatives from both political parties and by the continued functioning of America’s great institutions, which will also determine the truth of any collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign, and take the appropriate consequences.  In the meantime, America will march ahead in a difficult world in the right direction towards a more prosperous and secure future, albeit with a few of its allies upset.

Clearly, these are views from two extremes.  The reality of unfolding events may well prove to undermine these views.  Unintended consequences may also provide for outcomes that are far different from the plan and help observers decide what to believe too.  No doubt, each of you will have your own personally tailored view of these extremes and your own views on the picture that emerges from the streams of events shaping the world.

 

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[1] Source: Donald Trump’s various tweets on Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, e.g.  here, here and here
[2] Source: US Department of Defence, Center for the National Interest
[3] Source: Bruegel
[4] Source: Real Clear Politics polling average from 27-Nov to 13-Dec
[5] Source: Martin Feldstein, President Emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research
[6] Source: Ernst & Young
[7] Sources: India’s Digital Leap – The Multi Trillion Dollar Economy, Morgan Stanley, Sept-16; Asia Pacific Portfolio Strategy – 2018 Outlook: A Solid Year After a Stellar One, Goldman Sachs Equity Research, Nov-17
[8] Derivatives trading drives volume given that it is easier and less capital intensive than cash trading and delivery of the underlying asset.
[9] Source: Financial Times