With domestic shifts in the US, Russia, China and the European Union impacting on the international order, forecasts about what the year could bring centre on two main conclusions.
The first has to do with the varying outcomes of the influence of domestic affairs on the foreign policy course adopted from one country to another. Preparing for elections this year, the US, for example, is focusing on its domestic affairs more than foreign policy issues. Most probably, US foreign policy will be employed to serve the elections, even if this means being involved in limited foreign military operations.
In the case of China, domestic issues tend to reflect in a conciliatory tone in its foreign policy, as long as the matter is not related to sovereign issues (Taiwan, the South China Sea). Although there has been a change in China’s foreign course during the tenure of President Xi Jinping, gradual transformation remains a major feature of Chinese foreign policy, along with the concern to secure the international conditions necessary to protect China’s ascension.
When it comes to the European Union, there is a host of domestic issues affecting its foreign policy, such as the rise of the populist right, increased polarisation and tensions between regions and major cities benefiting from or harmed by globalisation, the rising risk of secession, especially in Spain following Brexit, as well as varying military spending and financial policies. These issues tend to restrain the foreign performance of the European Union and end in weak coordination between member countries regarding a number of crucial foreign policy issues, such as the relationship with the US and Russia, the future of NATO and European military coordination.
The second conclusion relates to the pattern of interactions between the four major powers during 2020, as Russian-US relations are expected to become more polarised and confrontational on a wide range of issues, while Russian-European relations may improve due to a combination of factors, including continued European dependence on Russian gas. China’s relation with Russia may lead to more coordination and cooperation as long as it does not intensify US-Chinese polarisation. Finally, European-US relations may be further strained by a combination of factors, such as disagreement over how to deal with Russia, and the gas issue.
It is in the light of these two dynamics that expectations can be drawn as to the course of the world’s most powerful countries, based on domestic developments in 2019, some of which may continue to reverberate this year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly