Quartz’s geopolitical forecast: What to watch for in 2018

More than a photo op.
More than a photo op.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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After the turbulence and tensions of the past 12 months, 2018 may be the year when everything shakes out: Brexit negotiations may produce a real plan, the status quo could finally end in North Korea, and local elections from India to the United States will offer referendums on controversial national leaders. By region, here’s what to watch for in the coming year:

Americas: The Trump effect spreads

Canada rising. While the US grapples with a historically unpopular, isolationist leader, Canada stands in sharp contrast. At 3%, the country’s GDP growth is projected to outstrip other developed nations. Prime minister Justin Trudeau has pledged a 2018 agenda of gender equality, cooperation on climate change, and a focus on global peace. There are already signs of a tech brain drain from the US, and investors predict a 2018 boom in tech IPOs in Toronto.—Heather Timmons, Washington DC

The end of NAFTA? Negotiations to revamp the trade agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada will kick into high gear next year. The goal is to have a deal by the spring, before elections in both Mexico and the US. But it’s hard to see how the three countries can resolve ideological differences over what a new NAFTA should achieve. Trump’s administration prioritizes reducing the US trade deficit, while Canada and Mexico believe that free trade should remain the top priority.—Ana Campoy, Texas

America’s existential crisis continues. If this year seemed messy for Americans, wait until 2018. With a series of regulatory rollbacks and unorthodox government appointments in 2017, the new administration has set the stage for assaults on the rights of women and minorities, the environment, and the rule of law. Meanwhile, an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election will probe deeper into the White House, potentially spurring more erratic policy—and tweets.—Heather Timmons, Washington DC

The Trump effect in Mexico. Backlash against US president Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans could elect a left-wing populist to the presidency next year. Andrés Manuel López Obrador is running ahead of other presidential contenders in recent polls. If he wins Mexico’s July elections, he’s likely to be more defiant of US positions on immigration and drug trafficking than his predecessor—and ratchet up tension between the two neighbors.—Ana Campoy, Texas

Chavismo’s comeback. Earlier this year, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s regime seemed on the verge of collapse amid critical food shortages and mass street demonstrations. Now, Hugo Chavez’s successor looks poised to keep his grip on power for several more years. In 2017, Maduro sidelined political opponents by replacing the National Assembly with a new Constituent Assembly controlled by supporters. He is expected to run for president in 2018 and has already barred some opposition parties from running. If that electoral process is anything like recent local elections, he’ll win.—Ana Campoy, Texas

Europe: Longtime leaders will hang onto power

Russia’s political shakeup. The result of Russia’s March presidential race is not in doubt. Vladimir Putin will walk away with six more years in the presidency. But there’s plenty to watch for: How much support will socialite Ksenia Sobchak—nominally an opposition candidate, but thought to be a Kremlin stooge—cobble together? Will activist Alexey Navalny revive anti-government protests? And perhaps most importantly, who will be Putin’s prime minister? Picking a serious power player would suggest Putin’s testing a possible successor; sticking with the beleaguered Dmitry Medvedev could mean he can’t decide; and a serious economist (paywall) could signal Putin’s plan to whip Russia’s decrepit governance into shape. Of course, choosing a nobody could mean he’s grooming a loyal replacement—just as Yeltsin did with Putin.—Max de Haldevang, London 

Germany emerges from political limbo. Europe’s most robust economy is expected to start the year in fine shape, with unemployment at record lows. It also enters 2018 with a caretaker government and a weakened Angela Merkel. To dodge a snap election and begin her fourth term, Merkel will need to coax a cross-party coalition into existence in January, and the Social Democrats will likely demand increased domestic investment. Looking beyond Germany’s borders, Merkel has said she is fully committed to pushing ahead with “ambitious” EU reforms.—Jill Petzinger, Berlin

Tensions between Spain and Catalonia mount. The autonomous Catalonia has a long history of trying to break away from Spain but this year’s crisis shows it’s unlikely to fully secede. After sacking the Catalan government and imposing direct rule this year, Spain’s central government will allow the region to vote for a new government in 2018. Tensions will throw up major questions over Spain’s treatment of the region and more broadly, about the EU’s response to such inflammatory local issues.—Lianna Brinded, London

The reality of Brexit. Little over a year remains to sort out the most complex parts of Britain’s departure from the EU: trade, financial services, immigration, and security. London has already wasted time and made missteps in its attempt to disentangle from the bloc, so it’s unlikely a real Brexit will happen by the March 2019 deadline. Instead, we’ll probably see a transition period, though neither side can agree on its length. The EU is also reportedly preparing (paywall) the option of a loose trade deal similar to that with Canada.—Lianna Brinded and Max de Haldevang, London

Africa: Promises of change

France boosts engagement in Africa. America’s retreat from the global diplomatic stage in 2017 allowed many other actors to try the limelight, including French president Emmanuel Macron. Since his election in May, Macron has visited Africa four times, promising change and pledging to build up innovation, rather than development aid. In 2018, with the help of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Macron has promised to help combat armed groups in the Sahel region, evacuate African migrants from Libya, and fight human trafficking.—Abdi Latif Dahir, Nairobi

Campaign pressure builds. South Sudan, Egypt, and Zimbabwe are some of the countries that will hold presidential elections in 2018. Campaigns in two of Africa’s largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, are only just beginning: Supporters of president Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, who spent several months this year sick and out of office, hope he’ll spend the year preparing to run again for election in February 2019. And after repeated delays, the Democratic Republic of Congo will hold elections in December 2018. The big question: After 16 years in power, will president Joseph Kabila agree to leave?—Abdi Latif Dahir, Nairobi

Asia: Last year’s tensions turn into troubling action

Something has to give on North Korea. It’s never easy making predictions about North Korea. But 2018 does seem like the year that the status quo comes to an end—one way or another. Diplomatic negotiations might get another chance, the Trump administration could launch a preemptive attack, or maybe the world will resign itself after all to a nuclear North Korea. However it goes, North Korea’s weapons advancements will likely force the issue.—Steve Mollman, Jakarta

Taiwan may attract unwanted attention. The US Congress just passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes mutual visits by navy vessels between Taiwan and the United States in 2018. China has warned it would invade Taiwan if US warships made port visits there, and has been conducting “island encirclement” patrols near Taiwan in recent weeks. Since Beijing also suspects Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen wants to formally declare independence, its military buildup in the South China Sea likely anticipates the necessity of invading Taiwan.—Steve Mollman, Jakarta

China’s globalist dream. In March, China’s all-powerful leader Xi Jinping is expected to assign a new leadership team to key government posts, and to turn his vision for China into a real plan at the annual “Two Sessions” meetings. The coming year will see Xi continue to push for leadership of globalization, despite Western countries’ wariness toward Chinese influence-building. North Korea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea will remain high on Beijing’s agenda, as will its love-hate relationship with Trump, who recently declared China a “rival power.”—Zheping Huang, Hong Kong

India: Elections, elections, elections

India’s run up to 2019. The coming year will see a handful of provincial elections decided in the run-up to the big one: India’s general elections in 2019. These early polls will be seen as a referendum on prime minister Narendra Modi and his performance so far. Despite his bluster and promises, Asia’s third largest economy isn’t firing all cylinders. The year will also be a crucial one for the opposition Indian National Congress. Can India’s GOP pull up its socks? Or, will the Modi juggernaut continue unchallenged?—Devjyot Ghoshal, New Delhi

Tiny Bhutan tries the polls for a third time. Political transitions can be painful (just look at Myanmar), but this small Himalayan country’s transition from monarchy to democracy is a successful experiment so far. Employment and the environment will be key issues when the February electoral process kicks off; giant neighbors China and India are watching closely. The three countries share a sensitive border, where Indian and Chinese troops faced off each other for weeks earlier this year.—Devjyot Ghoshal, New Delhi

Pakistan’s star-studded general elections. Deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party will compete against Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, and former cricketer Imran Khan before September. Elections in the country’s aren’t just about politicians, voters and the ballot box. Pakistan’s powerful army and its generals, who once had a penchant for coups, will be watching closely. So will neighbors Afghanistan and India, two countries currently dealing with terror groups that were once backed by Islamabad.—Devjyot Ghoshal, New Delhi