From financial crisis in Russia to cyber warfare with North Korea, 2014 has generated new flashpoints right into its final days, setting 2015 up to be just as turbulent.
Almost all of the major confrontations, such as the battle with Islamic State militants, the West’s stand-off with Russia over Ukraine and the fight against Ebola, will rumble on. Others could erupt at short notice.
“Normally after a year like this you might expect things to calm down,” said John Bassett, former senior official with British signals intelligence agency GCHQ now an associate at Oxford University. “But none of these problems have been resolved and the drivers of them are not going away.”
The causes are varied – a global shift of economic power from the West, new technologies, regional rivalries and anger over rising wealth gaps.
In June, a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace showed world peace declining for the seventh consecutive year since 2007, reversing a trend of improvement over decades.
The same group said in November deaths from militant attacks leapt 60 percent to an all-time high, primarily in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, this at a time when the West’s ability to respond militarily is constrained as Washington and its European allies cut defense budgets.
While Western policymakers hope Russia’s economic crisis will curb Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, others worry it could make him more unpredictable.
“It’s not necessarily going to make Russia any better behaved,” says Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. navy pilot now senior fellow at the Institute for Study of War.
NATO officials say the alliance would treat any aggression, even covert, in NATO member Baltic states as an act of war.
China is building up its military might. It lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.
In the East China Sea, a string of islets claimed by both China and Japan have strained ties severely.
Some officials and analysts say Western overstretch means a confrontation in one part of the world can encourage potential adversaries elsewhere to try their luck, a potential factor in North Korea’s increased assertiveness.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of launching a cyber attack on Sony Pictures after its film on the fictional assassination of leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea has rejected the charge.
“The recent hack on Sony has highlighted the vulnerability of the West to the growing threat posed by cyber attack,” said Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura.
MIDDLE EAST MAELSTROM
Washington’s adversaries are becoming more adept at “ambiguous warfare”, using deniable tactics or proxy forces such as the “little green men” in unmarked uniforms and vehicles the West says Russia deployed in Ukraine.
Covert tactics may no longer be enough to satisfy Israel it can slow Iran’s nuclear program. With a mid-year deadline for a deal, some analysts believe Israel’s government might launch a military strike to knock it back.
“If Iran agrees a deal, and that remains a big “if”, that could constitute a trigger for such an event,” said Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and now head of transnational threats at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He said much would depend on whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins March elections and how hardline a coalition results.
On one threat, most of the world’s powers are coalescing.
Pushing back Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a high priority for western states, Gulf powers and Turkey, Russia and China.
Whether they can bridge differences on the fate of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, however, remains unclear.
Already some worry the anti-IS operation initially to safeguard minority refugees in northern Iraq is suffering “mission creep” as U.S. elections hove into view.
More than 1,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division will deploy to Iraq in the New Year to help train Iraqi forces.
The first months of 2015 will also be key in tackling a very different foe: Ebola.
A major U.S. military deployment to build treatment centers in Liberia is credited with helping slow new cases there but the virus continues to spread in Sierra Leone and Guinea.
“It really is an unusually broad range of challenges,” said Kathleen Hicks, U.S. Principal Deputy Secretary of Defence for Policy from 2012-13 and now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
PETER APPS (Editing by Mike Peacock)