Six geopolitical predictions for 2013

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and Syria’s Bashar Assad
Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and Syria’s Bashar Assad
Image: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, FileAP Photo/
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Earlier this week, we presented the 14 rules of global events, a Quartz algorithm for making sense of international news and creating your own scenario of what comes next. Now, we apply the rules to some of the biggest issues of 2013 and take a stab at predicting what lies ahead. (If you’re really keen, read this with the rules open in a separate window.)

We do not claim divining powers, only a vantage point on the news based on history and the observation that events seem generally to follow a set of rules. Send along your own rules and 2013 forecasts (s@qz.com), and we will publish the best and most interesting.

Japan and China won’t go to war

The signs are troubling. Japan’s new government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is decidedly revisionist when it comes to World War II, seeking to tidy up local histories of the era. It’s also nationalist, opposing constitutional pacifism. And both Abe and China’s new leadership, led by Xi Jinping, stridently defend their respective claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

So what do the rules say about happens next? National leaders tend to become overwrought over territory (Rule 8), and are swayed by their populations (Rule 14), who get easily jingoistic too. Yet however hard the sabre-rattling, war is unlikely. Nations will walk up to a precipice but only very rarely plunge over the edge (Rule 2). War between the two Asian giants would be a frightening leap. Both are pragmatic and know they have much to lose from hostilities veering out of control.

Iran will stop building a bomb

Over a two-week period this summer, two important things will happen: Iran will elect a new president, and US financial sanctions against already-struggling Teheran will tighten considerably. Since incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot run for a third term, there is a plausible opening for a face-saving deal in which Iran stops enriching uranium, and the sanctions regime is loosened, thus lifting one of the greatest perceived threats to global peace.

Arguably, there has not been a more favorable time in memory for a thaw in US-Iranian tensions. Yet hopes have been thwarted many times.

Rules 11 and 12 might tend to suggest a pessimistic outcome–Iran is a country of true-believers with an exaggerated sense of self-importance as a perceived great power. Yet other rules contradict that conclusion: Rule 2 (the Precipice rule) suggests that, given Iran’s dire economy, whoever is the country’s new president should plead for a deal. And supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who will take the ultimate decision on Iran’s nukes, wants to stay in power (Rule 7). He may fear how the population will react (Rule 14) to tighter sanctions—another Green Revolution, perhaps. That might override his deep distrust of the US and lead him to stop enrichment. The weight of the rules appear to favor a deal.

Afghanistan will begin to fall apart

US forces are scheduled to withdraw in 2014. Afghan presidential elections are also scheduled, and President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from serving a third term. As the time nears, the Taliban will position itself to dominate. The recipe for a brutal 2013 and 2014 combines the fervor of true believers (Rule 11) with the surpassing potency of local politics (Rule 14), and adds an Afghan history of violent rejection of foreign forces and perceived collaborators. Karzai is no doubt mindful that the last time the Taliban had a chance at power—when they seized control in 1996—their fighters dragged former President Najibullah through the streets of Kabul and hung him and his brother from lampposts. It did not save Najibullah that he was no longer in power. Not that it matters in terms of the coming bloodletting, but we believe that the US and NATO ultimately will leave no troops behind in Afghanistan. It will be both a result of choice—US President Barack Obama long ago made clear a desire to be rid of both Afghanistan and Iraq as US military theaters—and circumstance, as they will not be welcome in the post-Karzai environment.

If Assad falls in Syria, it will be by betrayal

The Syrian uprising follows the familiar lines of Rule 4 (injustice breeds rebellions) followed by Rule 7 (rulers want above all to stay in power). Opposition forces have captured large swaths of the country, and created insecurity in Damascus, while President Bashar Assad has scorned them and said he will stay put. Short of unlikely military intervention from the outside, we do not foresee rapid-fire territorial success by the opposition. Unless, of course, someone invokes Rule 6—the Caesar rule. It states that power often can only change when a ruler’s vital ally or set of allies defects, critically undermining his power structure, or assassinates him. Some 74 senior government officials and diplomats have already defected, but none has been the pivotal actor who can bring down the house.

The US will reach a fiscal deal

US politics again threatens the global financial system. Republicans say they will go to any length to force big spending cuts on Obama without accepting new tax increases. But after two substantial political triumphs (his own re-election, and a tax hike on high earners to avert the “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1), Obama wants more tax concessions out of them. The flashpoint is the end of February, when the US will reach a ceiling on government spending. At risk if it is not lifted is a default on US debt, a further cut in the country’s risk rating, and global economic mayhem.

Can the rules unravel what is popularly called an irretrievably broken political system? We think they can.

Republicans are a bit like a recovering great power, as described in Rule 12 (corollaries 2 and 3). Even after four years, they seem unreconciled to Democratic control of the White House. This is exacerbated by their Tea Party branch, who have the zeal of true believers (Rule 11). But in Obama, the Republicans are pitted against a big personality with his own sense of destiny (Rule 10). He is energized by knowing that 69 current House Republicans showed themselves potentially pliable by voting for the tax hike on Jan. 1.

Yet Rule 2 (people generally don’t plunge over the precipice) suggests room for a deal. The two sides are in fact much closer than they claim to be: Both favor deep spending cuts, Medicare reform and changes in Social Security law. So Obama will agree to a higher retirement age, a smaller annual cost-of-living increase on pensions, and Medicare reform. Republicans will accept the closing of tax loopholes. And later in the year—on the strength of Rule 14, which describes the potency of local politics in global events—we foresee Obama finally approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, and Congress passing an immigration bill.

Of course, sometimes governments ignore the rational middle (Rule 14) in their pursuit of self-interest. One or both sides could dig in, eye fixed on the 2014 mid-term elections, and a gamble on winning more seats–and leverage–in Congress.

The exploitation of the Arctic will gather pace

Climate change is beginning to clear the way for commerce in the Arctic Ocean. Underneath the waters lie 25% of the world’s remaining oil and natural gas reserves, according to the US Geological Service. But the recent grounding of a Shell drilling vessel in turbulent Alaskan seas highlights the hazards confronting Arctic oil drilling, regardless of how much ice melts.

To look at the prospects, we turn to a previous set of Quartz rules–the 10 indicators of energy geopolitics.

What we derive is a collision of two rules. Indicator no. 1, “oil prices”, suggests that oil, once discovered, rarely becomes stranded—it is so valuable that it almost always gets out to the market. But Indicator no. 6 says that a critical mass of public opinion against a project can doom it. A case in point is the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which has halted oil drilling off the California coast ever since. In the case of the Arctic, history and local politics suggest that, when the economics are right, oil and gas drilling in the Russian section of the sea will go ahead–unlike the US, Russian public opinion does not oppose offshore drilling. We look for American public opinion–and US regulators–to respond to the Shell incident by demanding more safety measures before continuing any drilling in the Alaskan Arctic.