By all accounts, 2017 was an intense period of seemingly endless global transitions and growing tensions. A new — and certainly controversial — U.S. president took the oath of office; North Korea tested missiles and nuclear weapons that have many concerned that a second Korean War — where millions of people would lose their lives — could soon be on the horizon; tensions with Moscow continue to grow thanks to lingering questions over Russia's role in the 2016 election, new sanctions, and now arms sales to Ukraine; troubles in the Middle East seem never-ending.
But just you wait. In 2018, we will see a world trying to navigate around a series of potential powder kegs — some armed with a nuclear fuse — that could place America on a path toward armed conflict. Not to sound overly alarmist, but just one false move, one missile going in the wrong direction, one plane smashing into another, or one solider firing a round in a tense moment, could light a spark that would set off a war.
Here are five potential conflicts just waiting to explode in 2018:
1. A U.S.-Russia showdown in Syria?
With American and Russian forces flying near one another over what must be one of the worst civil wars in all human history, there is the chance that Moscow and Washington could come to blows. While neither President Trump nor President Putin would dare start a shooting war on purpose, an accidental clash is possible. Already, routine close encounters have sadly gone underreported. All it would take is a Russian MiG getting too close to a U.S. F-22 resulting in an accidental collision. With neither side likely to back off in what could end up being sold as a test of wills — and both states still armed with lots of nuclear weapons — let's hope 2018 sees a peaceful conclusion to this bloody conflict once and for all.
My prediction: Things are stable for now, but with Trump having already taken military action once in Syria, anything is possible.
2. A U.S.-Russia showdown in Ukraine?
While largely out of the headlines, tensions over Ukraine — thanks largely to Trump's badly timed decision to arm Kiev with anti-tank weapons — are likely to spike again in 2018.
While neither side has an interest in a larger confrontation, Putin may need to save face by increasing arms shipments to his separatist allies in Eastern Ukraine. This, of course, could result in Trump having to up the ante as well, creating an unending cycle of moves and counter-moves that do nothing to end the crisis.
My prediction: A short-term increase in fighting and casualties seems inevitable as both sides will jockey for position after this latest move by Washington.
3. A U.S.-Iran war?
While I can't say I love the Iran nuclear deal — because, you know, it has an expiration date and does nothing to settle the billion other points of tension between Washington and Tehran — 2018 could be the year America's neocon hawks get their way and wage a war of choice against their favorite enemy of the free world.
With big decisions coming soon on the nuclear agreement, and Iran continually spreading its influence all over the Middle East, the Trump administration may feel it is time to confront a rising Tehran, setting the stage once again for another showdown.
Prediction: I see more big talk than big bombs being dropping. This seems more about Trump keeping a promise to rip the deal than actually hating it for some ideological reason. Expect Trump to talk tough — and his surrogates to talk even tougher — but nothing will actually happen, thank God.
4. A U.S.-China war?
I believed strongly that 2017 would be the year that America got tough on China. But thanks to North Korea, that certainly didn't happen.
But don't you worry, if you were itching for a fight between Washington and Beijing, 2018 just might be your year. Thanks to issues ranging from the status of Taiwan, to the always contentious South China Sea (which Beijing seems poised to dominate), to clashes between Beijing and Tokyo in the East China Sea, what was on ice — a tension-filled relationship between a rising power and an established superpower — might finally heat up with animosity.
Prediction: As in the case of America and Russia in Syria, all it would take is a Chinese fighter and U.S. surveillance plane to smack into one another for a crisis to breakout — heck, it's already happened once. But you know where the real danger lies …
5. Nuclear war with North Korea?
Sadly, there is a very real possibility that America and North Korea, within the next few months, could be in a shooting war. With Team Trump signaling that it will accept nothing less than a North Korea that comes to the negotiating table on bended knee, ready to give up its nukes, the stage is set for trouble. And with Kim Jong Un having enshrined atomic arms into his nation's constitution, as well as starved his own citizens to build nukes, that seems as likely as Trump giving up his Mickey D's burger and fries.
Prediction: In all my years of watching Asia and North Korea, I have never seen tensions this high. If the Trump administration is indeed bluffing, then there will be no war and they will do what most reasonable analysts are urging them to do — contain and deter Kim and his band of bad guys. But if not, and Trump is serious about disarming North Korea through armed conflict, then 2018 could be the year millions of people die horrible deaths, either through nuclear weapons strikes, or chemical or biological warfare hell.
Let's just hope cooler heads prevail and the diplomats can solve this crisis at the negotiation table.