It’s the end of the decade, and what a decade it’s been. For me, I went from a teacher in the United Arab Emirates to a geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, plus added some kids, moved a few cities (and countries), and had a marriage thrown in for good measure. (My marriage is on-going, thanks)
For Planet Earth and its nation-states, we went from the “we can get back to normal” attitude of Obama’s “Yes we can” to the “there is no normal” of the Trump era, interjected with an Arab Spring, several civil wars, a revisionist Russia, oddly unending economic growth, social media as warfare, and a host of other changes that few in 2010 would have been coming.
So the track record amongst those who predict the future isn’t great. But while getting specific is a great way to be wrong, being broad – or at least setting up rules – can have value. In that sense, there is one big driver of geopolitical behavior that I firmly think will be with us in 2030: nationalism.
2010s analysts often overlooked nationalism; they overplayed some drivers (especially economic ones, as some did when they predicted the U.S. would not hurt itself by starting a trade war with China) or underplayed others (in particular ideological ones, as when some said the U.S. would not abandon the Iran nuclear deal because the diplomatic and strategic costs could be too high). And while it’s the name of the game, the blind spot to nationalism still seems to lurk.
But I think that’s about change in the 2030s. Here’s why.
Nation-states need something to believe, and honestly there’s not much left on the ideological board
Take your pick of ‘isms’ – even China has dumped communism, imperialism is quite dead, fascism is, despite Antifa’s hyperventilating, too old school for today’s modern audiences, and everyone’s favorite slur, neoliberalism, is so deeply unpopular that its defenders are most effective when they argue it doesn’t even exist. Jihadism is still a thing, and has its proponents in the Muslim world, but the rise and fall of the Islamic State took much wind from those sails, with fewer Muslims attracted to the apocalyptic vision that jihad offers.
In such a vacuum, something must emerge that can hold disparate groups of strangers united beneath a state. Nationalism, as it turns out, is getting another go.
You needn’t look far for examples. America First is American style nationalism overlaid with the gaudiness of Trump’s 5th avenue penthouse suite. China’s dabbling in nationalism again as it pivots off communism. The Israeli elections are being decided by a nationalist swing vote. And Brexit is if nothing else a nationalist impulse writ electoral.
if the 2010s kept flabbergasting analysts who believed that the international order was, if imperfect, at least set, it was because such the seemingly non-material impulse of nationalism kept overthrowing established rules. That nationalism has reared its head several times – to the shock of many professionals – in just the 2010s should be a reminder that voters and politicians are often willing to risk a great deal in the pursuit of true belief. They will take counter-tariffs from their primary markets and nary change a vote, as Trump supporting farmers, the subject of counter-tariffs by Beijing, have; they will vote again and again to sabotage the banking sector their biggest city relies on, as they did in Britain through Brexit; they will happily smash Europe’s post-war order, if it brings them a flag they love, as Crimeans did in 2014.
Where and how nationalism will play out by 2030 is hard to say precisely, but there are strong contenders. The United States, both left and right, will embrace it, and give it their own flavor. Britain will spend much of the decade deciding if it’s British nationalism or just English. The French and Germans will dabble with it too, though haunted by demons of the past they may try to find a kinder, gentler version of national pride. In Russia and China it will be the plank of the governing systems, and the one good card they can always play in any situation. In the Middle East, nationalists will not only take on foreign rivals but also inept states, as Iraqis, Lebanese, and Algerians already are, as they seek to use nationalist feeling to overwhelm the broken states that rule them. This is to say nothing of places in Africa and Latin America, whose leaders and voters will see nationalism as an easy way to bind their peoples together in the face of uncertainty and change.
Thus for those looking for answers as to why a country behaves in a way that seems so counter-productive, the answer in the 2020s will more often than not be “nationalism.” It will answers questions as to why the unexpected could happen, why economic, diplomatic, legal, and even political barriers seem so ineffective in containing change.
It won’t be the answer to everything – plenty of old school causes of geopolitics will remain. And there’s even the danger that, as the decade goes on, it becomes the everyman’s answer to all geopolitics, the way so many still use the tired trope that America’s in the Middle East for oil (if Abqaiq didn’t kill off that stereotype, it should have harmed it pretty badly), or the way that investors get caught flatfooted when big economies do things that harm their bottom lines.
And by 2030, perhaps, it will have evolved into something new – another ism to replace itself, bind together communities and split the world into differing camps. And that too will be something that catches many of us off-guard.