This article is the result of the collective reflection of the American Security Project (ASP). Coordinated and edited by Patrick Costello, it has benefited from contributions by members of ASP’s Board of Directors, members of the Consensus for American Security, and ASP adjunct fellows.
To paraphrase Niels Bohr, the Nobel laureate in Physics, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. Yet as we look at the world in 2022, there are a number of challenges and vulnerabilities for American national security and foreign policy that are well known, and we are more aware of various points of interdependence as well as fracture and divergence. Much of today’s uncertainty is less about what and more about how and when. Here are a selection of issues and trends that ASP’s contributors and leadership have identified to watch in the year ahead.
American Democracy in Crisis
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 brought into sharp relief the fragility of American democracy—but it would be disingenuous to look back on the events of that day and say that it is in the past and that we as a nation have moved on. A number of respondents cited a multi-dimensional threat to our constitutional order manifesting in our local politics, toxicity in the U.S. Congress, extremism in the military ranks and the erosion of civilian-military relations.
While the events of January 6 occupy much of the public conscience and there is an understandable impulse to look back and imagine that we can, in fact, simply look back, ASP Board Director Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, United States Army, (Ret.), warns that
“thoughtful analyses about what this REALLY means in terms of our vulnerability to severe democratic backsliding is thin.”
Fellow Board Director Lee Cullum shares this concern and writes:
“a chronicle of trouble foretold as Greg Treverton, former chair of the National Intelligence Council, looks ahead to civil war in our own country and The Atlantic tells us that January 6 was only a practice round for 2024…They all suggest a subterranean circumstance to look for in 2022: revolution.”
Competition in the Grey Zone
Countries challenging the United States are becoming increasingly active in the “grey zone,” seeking to gain strategic advantage without provoking a conventional military response. Respondents highlight information warfare and disinformation activities used to sow division and spread propaganda by Russia and China as specific threats. ASP Board Director Lieutenant General Norman Seip, United States Air Force, (Ret.), writes that we must examine the concept of grey zone conflict and “full spectrum information operations to include integrated deterrence” to gain advantage in the grey zone.
Great Power Rivalry
Great power competition will set the geopolitical stage in 2022 and the U.S.-China rivalry has become the international system’s defining feature. Alex Gray, member of the Consensus for American Security, writes:
“The PRC will continue to test the “seams” of the international system in 2022- the areas of great power competition that have been traditionally neglected. Whether the floor of the ocean or the Arctic and Antarctic or the remotest Pacific Islands, the PRC will press against long-standing international norms and continue to challenge the U.S. and its allies to respond in areas where there is often little institutional memory for sustained competition and fewer resources available. The PRC, and to a lesser extent Russia, will also increasingly encroach into the United States’ backyard, from the Caribbean to the Southern Cone and South Atlantic. Washington has been repeatedly slow to respond to economic and political coercion in these areas after decades of policy focused farther afield. 2022 will likely see the continuation of Beijing’s campaign to test the limits of American attention and resources and force Washington to make difficult questions about priorities in areas that, while not often in the headlines, directly impact core U.S. interests (sic).”
Other respondents identified China’s continued global soft power campaign as well as China’s use of economic instruments to advance foreign policy goals as areas of concern. There was a widely held worry that the American penchant for separating economics from politics has constrained policymakers and that China is far more effective at using economic statecraft for geopolitical purposes.
Finally, the U.S.-China rivalry will manifest itself in efforts to address the climate crisis. The United States and China are significant contributors in the research and development of low-carbon energy technologies, and both are keen to grasp the mantle of global leadership on climate. We can expect increased competition in the electric vehicle market as China seeks to control assets all along the electrified transportation supply chain, from mineral extraction to battery production to vehicle manufacture. Fusion is another area of competition. Like the global market for solar panels, where China now dominates the global supply chain, respondents warned that China could attempt to control the fusion marketplace, not only blocking export revenue from the United States but also delaying the implementation of this potentially transformative technology.
Other Geopolitical Tensions
- Trans-Atlantic Relations: Russia’s military build-up along the Ukrainian border was a widely shared concern. The transatlantic relationship will be center stage during this immediate period of tensions and, as we approach the NATO summit in Madrid in June, Putin’s actions along the alliance’s eastern frontier will condition the focus of those consultations. Respondents also cited the diminished deterrent in Europe and the need for a more robust forward military presence.
- Iran Nuclear Negotiations: While the situation is arguably more complicated than in 2015, there were bullish and bearish assessments of the multilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program—an area of shared concern was whether Israel will act unilaterally if it determines that the negotiators are conceding too much.
- Syria and the Arab world’s diplomatic fold: ASP adjunct senior fellow Giorgio Cafiero drew our attention to the Levant and a trend in the Arab region toward renormalizing diplomatic relations with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. He warns that this may be a point of friction between Washington and its Arab allies and partners.
- The Space Domain: Several respondents warned that advancements in space technology and the proliferation of actors in space may lead to conflict over control in space. Existing international laws and conventions are insufficient to address today’s space-based technologies and capabilities.
Elections & Leadership Around the World
The year ahead will feature hundreds of millions of people going to the polls. There will be democratic leaders seeking to reestablish public trust that has been shaken with the pandemic and authoritarians working to consolidate their bases of support. In addition to November’s mid-term elections in the United States, there will be a number of consequential elections in 2022. Some of those specifically mentioned include:
- South Korea presidential elections (March) – President Moon Jae-in is term limited.
- France’s presidential elections (April) – President Emmanuel Macron is running for re-election and there is a possibility of far-right candidates Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour making it to the election’s second round.
- Philippines presidential elections (May) – President Rodrigo Duterte is not eligible for another term, but he will stand for election in the Senate and his daughter, Sara, is the vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Bongbong Marcos, son of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
- Brazil presidential and parliamentary elections (October) – President Jair Bolsonaro seeks re-election, his likely opponent is former president Lula da Silva.
In terms of leadership, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s term ends in September and some predict the appointment of a female Secretary General for the first time. In October, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will convene. President Xi Jinping is consolidating his control of the party and a third 5-year term would mark the beginning of a new era.