Imagine that it’s the fall of 2019. After a damning report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller and a midterm sweep by Democrats, the drive to impeach President Trump is accelerating. It still seems likely, but not certain, that it will stall in the Senate.
Within the Trump administration, more of the self-proclaimed adults who have been trying to curb the president’s worst excesses have given up, or — like Defense Secretary James Mattis — have been fired.
The long bull market is over and the U.S. economy is sliding into recession. The political class is focused on the next presidential election. Yet Trump still is tweeting and holding rallies with a slowly dwindling band of true believers. At times it seems that no one is really in charge.
But the United States is far from the only country in turmoil. Major challenges are brewing on several continents, where the right moves could make the difference between war and peace, or help achieve a longstanding U.S. objective. Yet Washington is preoccupied and ill-prepared.
Perhaps most surprising is the speed at which Vladimir Putin has run into trouble in Russia. Sanctions have damaged the economy, which still is dependent on oil and gas and burdened with massive corruption. Out of economic necessity, officials in 2018 raised the official retirement age in Russia, breaking an unwritten social contract that had held through the Putin years: keep quiet about autocracy and corruption and you’ll enjoy an improving living standard.
Putin’s popularity still would make Trump envious, but it has taken a hit. In a country without a democracy’s safety valves for releasing tension, Putin is nervous. When he gets nervous, he tends to create a crisis. This time, he is focused on the former Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, resurrecting accusations that they discriminate against ethnic Russians, and complaining that they offer a base for Western meddling in Russia. Moscow has increased its military maneuvers in the region.
While all three countries are now members of NATO and the European Union, Europe is far more focused on Brexit and tensions with its own right-wing nationalist governments (which Putin has encouraged). German Chancellor Angela Merkel is too weak to rally Europe against the Russian threat. European relations with Washington have never been so bad. There may be no one to stop Putin if he decides to act.
In Iran, the currency lost 70 percent of its value in the first eight months of 2018, and the talk of the country was a shortage of disposable diapers. That seems quaint now. Protests are widespread. Hardline politicians blame Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions. They are threatening to restart Iran’s nuclear program.
Everyone is looking to Washington. Does it risk publicly backing the protests? Would that encourage legions of young people fed up with an aging theocracy? Or would it provide an excuse to crack down? Then there are the Israelis and the Saudis. Both are urging a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities now, sensing an opportunity amidst the chaos and a chance to set back Iran’s nuclear program before it can be restarted.
North Korea has abandoned neither its nuclear program nor its effort to weaken South Korea’s alliance with the United States. While Kim Jong Un hasn’t conducted any more tests, satellite images suggest that North Korea hasn’t stopped working on its nuclear arsenal or its missiles. China, angered by U.S. tariffs, has closed ranks behind North Korea. South Korea is being forced to weigh the reality of China’s power and proximity, and the lack of a coherent East Asia policy from Washington.
However, South Korea also is eager to build economic ties with the North. Road and rail links announced in 2018 were only the start. President Moon Jae-in is pushing ahead with plans to integrate the two Koreas, China, Russia and Mongolia into a rail network, arguing that it can eventually expand into cooperation on energy and the countries’ economies. Trump still thinks he can pressure Kim into giving up his nukes, but his administration seems too distracted to formulate a broader policy.
In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro’s government appears to have crumbled, but what replaces it is anyone’s guess. Whoever takes charge must tackle hyperinflation, crumbling oil infrastructure, severe shortages and debt. Every day, thousands of Venezuelans seek refuge in neighboring countries.
U.S. officials are beginning to discuss a substantial aid package for Venezuela. They need to coordinate closely with the International Monetary Fund (which some administration officials think should be abolished) — and be mindful of Latin America’s longstanding suspicions of U.S. motives. China, which extended credit to Maduro’s government in exchange for future oil deliveries, already has signaled its willingness to restructure the loans, ensuring it will retain major influence in the Western Hemisphere country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
Is all this about to happen? Almost certainly not, and some of it may never occur. But it could. Or a different crisis could appear from nowhere. Few anticipated the Arab Spring, for instance. Trump actually has been lucky so far. But his luck probably won’t last forever, and the country looks ill-prepared for the moment it runs out.
Chances are that the chaos will get more dramatic — because the stakes are going to increase.