Reading "Waving Goodbye to Hegemony", a New York Times essay whose message is pretty well contained in the title, I came across author Parag Khanna's predictions of the world in 2016.
It is 2016, and the Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama administration is nearing the end of its second term. America has pulled out of Iraq but has about 20,000 troops in the independent state of Kurdistan, as well as warships anchored at Bahrain and an Air Force presence in Qatar. Afghanistan is stable; Iran is nuclear. China has absorbed Taiwan and is steadily increasing its naval presence around the Pacific Rim and, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The European Union has expanded to well over 30 members and has secure oil and gas flows from North Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea, as well as substantial nuclear energy. America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline.
I'd say these are more wrong than right. I'd say as a rhetorical point that predictions should never be used to advance an argument. I expect to see a decline in US power pretty much from now on, but that's probably hopeful thinking as much as anything. US power increased from 1980 to 1990. I'm not sure there is anything fundamental I can say about 2008 that I could not say about 1980.
So about the US overall standing in the world eight years from now. The US has less standing than it had last year at this time. Maybe that trend will continue, maybe it will not.
I really do not expect to see an independent Kurdistan. If there is an independent Kurdistan then I expect Turkey to take a major symbolic step against US interests. Something like closing a US base in Turkey, or joining a free-trade agreement with Iran or leasing a naval base to Russia. Something dramatic.
It is easy to predict that there will not be a pro-US government in Iraq eight years from now. I find it harder to predict how many US troops will be in ideologically hostile Iraq. The easiest guess is more than 100,000 troops. The United States invaded so that it could have leverage over the Iraqi government, and it needs a substantial amount of troops to do that.
The bases in the Persian gulf remaining is a pretty easy guess.
Afganistan being stable is unlikely. The Taliban being either routed or disbanded and territory where Taliban is currently influential being under the sway of Kabul is close to inconceivable. The US is more likely to pull out of Afganistan and leave it under a ruling arrangment negotiated between local groups, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. The most likely situation is that Afghanistan in 2016 looks a lot like Afghanistan in 2008. A lot of territory is contested. Not a lot of open warfare.
Iran being nuclear as in having a weapon is very unlikely. Iran being "nuclear capable" is a very easy guess, since Iran is "nuclear capable" today. It is easy to predict that Iran will receive more investment in its energy sector than it does today. US sanctions of some sort will continue to have some modest impact.
China absorbing Taiwan is very unlikely. China will steadily increase its commercial ties with Taiwan. Public opinion in Taiwan may be more favorable towards unification in 2016 than it is today. That is not a safe prediction though.
China's navy will be stronger than it is today. It will not be strong enough to capture Taiwan. The global naval balance will feel in 2016 a lot like it feels in 2008. The US will remain by far the most powerful naval force.
The EU may expand. EU access to gas will probably be secure, but access to gas is for the most part secure now. I guess that's a safe prediction. I'm not sure what unsecure access to gas would mean in the context of the EU.
In the Middle East, it seems that a consensus is forming that the US is not and should not be the only game in town. Saudi Arabia and now Egypt seem to be pulling out of the US orbit. I expect this to continue, but sliding out of an orbit is a gradual process and it is hard to predict what landmarks will have been passed in eight years if any. Egypt in particular will have a new leader in 2016. The safest prediction is that it will unfortunately be Mubarak's son.
2016 is a long way off though. I'm more interested in what 2009 will look like.
The United States is going to expend a lot of resources this year keeping both Olmert and Abbas in power. Once one is gone though, it can let go of the other. I'm confident that in two years, both Israel and Palestine will be represented by more radical leaderships. One year is harder to predict. I'm leaning towards either more radical elements of Fatah or Hamas being in power in the West Bank and Israel's right wing replacing Olmert by this time next year.
It is easy to predict that the United States will continue its policy of refusing to engage Hamas until Hamas renounces the right to return. And Hamas will not renounce the right of return. Forgetting morality, this is the most impractical possible policy for the US to take and it will take a toll on US relationships with other powers in the region while pointlessly leading to Palestinian and Israeli deaths that otherwise would not have occurred. US Gaza policy bears the mark of an exceptionally untalented administration in the US executive branch.
Next year at this time, Hamas will be in power at least in Gaza. One way or another goods will easily reach Gaza through Egypt. The weaponry and skill of anti-Israel forces in Gaza will increase substantially. It is possible but not quite probable that over this year rockets from Gaza actually are going to become routinely fatal to Israelis. I hope though that in two years, after a year without Bush and Rice, a long term cease-fire is reached that stops the rockets and ends the siege. This siege is comically stupid. It accomplishes nothing. It has to be the stupidest siege in history.
It is easy to predict that the United States will continue to insist that Lebanon's Shiites will not have proportionate power in Lebanon's government and that Lebanon's Shiites will not end the current stalemate as long as US allies in Lebanon reflect this position. This policy will pointlessly lead to Lebanese deaths that otherwise would not have occurred. In the end, the Shiites will have a veto just as smaller population groups do. This must be the stupidest political stalemate in the world today.
Next year at this time there will be a government in place in Lebanon. Hezbollah will not be disarmed and may be in the process of folding into the Lebanese army. Effectively, the Shiites will have veto power and there will be reforms to the electoral system. Nasrallah will describe it as a victory. I'll probably agree. In other words, the stalemate will have been broken in Hezbollah's favor.
I expect a pretty uneventful year in Syria.
Hopefully Kirkuk will not be part of Kurdistan this time next year. I'm optimistic that it will not. Most likely the postponements of the referendum in Kirkuk will be so routine that everybody knows the referendum is never going to happen.
2008 looks to be a good year in terms of not many US soldiers killed in Iraq.
Iran has informed the IAEA that it is testing a new centrifuge design. At this time next year there will be at least some operational. What Iran has now is really enough though, so getting a few hundred of another design running doesn't change the strategic picture at all. Of course neither the US or Israel are going to bomb Iran in 2008.
So we'll see by January 2009 how well these predictions held up.