Peter Burdin is the BBC’s former Africa Bureau Chief. He has thirty-five years experience as a senior editorial leader in the BBC’s International News operation and has worked extensively in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Indian sub-continent and Asia from where he has covered numerous major international news stories. He has won several Sony Awards for his news and documentary programmes, including the war in Bosnia, the Tiananmen Square protests, South Africa’s first democratic elections and the funeral of President Nelson Mandela. (www.peterburdinafrica.co.uk) Peter is currently an Advisor to BBC Africa and is lecturing in International Journalism at universities in the UK and Africa.
What took Jules Verne eighty days – three former British Ambassadors did more speedily as they went spun round the world in forty minutes highlighting what 2018 has in store for global political risks.
They were speaking at the recent ExCred Political Risk Conference in London where they took their audience of business leaders on a global tour de force that included stops in the US, Russia, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe and on to China, Korea, Asia and Africa.
The journey started and ended with President Trump and how the world is witnessing a major shift in the global power balance and, this was before the recent chemical weapons attack followed by the US, UK, and France joint action.
Former Ambassador to Brazil Peter Collecott started his diplomatic career as an Arabist. He argued that although the US started to disengage from regional conflicts during the Obama Administration, this trend has become more partisan under President Trump particularly in the Middle East where he’s overtly supported Israel by endorsing Jerusalem as its capital and supported Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with Iran, Qatar and Yeman:
“President Trump is taking sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and in the Sunni-Shia rivalries. This has had the effect of the US no longer holding the ring by being the neutral arbiter or solver of regional disputes. As a result the west is hastening the demise of its own power and influence and is making the world a more disorganised, unruly place”.
Former UK Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Peter Jenkins who was engaged in Nuclear Non-Proliferation negotiations in Vienna felt that relations between the US and Russia are at their lowest ebb since the mid-1980s:
“In Europe certain NATO members were pressing for measures that Moscow could well interpret as provocations, while on both sides of the Atlantic only a minority understood the extent to which US and European misjudgements had brought about the coup in Ukraine and subsequent Russian belligerence”.
That said all three Ambassadors felt that the Cold War logic of mutual deterrence continues to apply. Peter Jenkins pointed out that President Trump had benign instincts towards Russia, while Peter Collecott felt President Trump appeared to have a sneaking admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism and has done little to control it:
“He’s given Putin a free hand in Syria, he’s denied Russian interference in US elections, and he’s taken little action over Crimea and Ukraine. However the danger is that Putin will overstep the mark and come into a confrontation with the US.”
Perhaps this is seen most starkly in the Middle East where according to the former Ambassador to Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt struck James Watt the current situation is fraught with danger, making Middle East still the biggest political risk:
“There have been tensions in the region for decades but there’s also been continuity and predictability. Now it is conflict-ridden and unstable in a way that has never before been the case”.
Watt points to how the Russian-backed Syrian government is also heavily dependent on Iranian support. Israel is concerned by the proximity of Iranian forces, and, potentially, Iranian missiles on its border, while the Saudis are equally exercised:
“Above all it is the Saudis who are sounding the alarm about the Iranian military presence in Syria. This is in the context of the wider Saudi concerns about Iran’s ambitions in the region”
For Peter Jenkins these conflicts are taking place as the nuclear agreement with Iran looks like it could unravel this year after President Trump declared his intention to pull out of the deal which was one of President Obama’s main achievements:
“The risk is real. Europe is trying to find a compromise but Israel and Saudi Arabia will be pressing the White House to “tear up a flawed agreement”. It’s possible that Iran can be persuaded not to carry out its threat to withdraw because withdrawal would be a far worse option for Iran than staying on board and settling for fewer benefits than first promised”.
According to James Watt China has long-standing relations with Iran and now major interests in Saudi Arabia and therefore won’t take sides but will continue to work for a peaceful resolution of differences.
China’s $900 billion Belt and Road initiative to extend its global influence is probably one of the biggest current and future developments on the world stage. It has a strategic interest in
stability in the Gulf as the largest importer of oil from the region.
Likewise in the Korean Peninsula where the recent trading of threats and insults between North Korea and the US threatened to cause the greatest political risk of all, namely a nuclear exchange. Nuclear expert Peter Jenkins now sees an outbreak of hostilities as unlikely:
“North Korea has been refraining from nuclear and long-range missile tests for several months and fit’s possible that it will want to build on the modest détente ushered in by the Winter Olympics.”
He adds that uncertainty as to how China would react to the use of force must also be exerting a moderating influence on US decision-making.
Chinese influence is undoubtedly growing throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, just as the US and the West seems distracted by popularist movements which have led to the election of President Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK where Peter Collecott sees a chaotic outcome to the negotiations with the European Union as the clock runs down to the UK’s departure from next March:
“The British government has sidestepped difficulties, not resolved them and has taken a position on the final settlement which is unstable and anathema to the EU. I see a chaotic end with Prime Minister May making last minute concessions and fudging other issues for settlement later which will annoy the Brexiteers”.
For Collecott the rise of populism in the West is a symptom of a world which is becoming a
more “disorganised and unruly place”. He cited continued US disengagement from the world as a further contributor to this trend:
“The US has left Russia to re-establish its role in the Middle East, and in Asia President Trump has disengaged from multilateral agreements while confusing allies through Trump’s confrontation with North Korea and failure to corale China.
Peter Jenkins also concluded that the US had contributed to this sense of greater risk:
“Compared to the sense of promise I had around 1990 I currently have a sense of foreboding. For this I blame the US which has stumbled from one blunder to another since 2001”.