How Is 2017 Shaping Up For Defence?
When an earthquake happens the ground often shakes again soon after, usually smaller aftershocks, but sometimes it is an even bigger quake that follows.
You’ll only know when it actually happens.
That’s pretty much where the world stands at the start of 2017.
Brexit, Trump, and the stepping up of the fight against the Islamic State terror group all helped make 2016 the most significant year in world history since 2001, according to Professor Michael Clarke, former Director General of the RUSI think tank.
“If 2016 was the year of big unpredictable decisions then 2017/18 will be the years of implications, the years of implementing decisions.”
If the last year taught us anything it is that making confident predictions is a mug's game, but here goes anyway.
Dealing With Daesh
The self-styled ‘Islamic State’ terror group is undoubtedly losing the territory that it needs to create a ‘state’.
Unless something goes very awry Daesh should be levered from its last stronghold in Iraq, Mosul, leaving it a broken and scattered force in the country.
Western politicians insist, while it may take longer, the same will ultimately happen in Syria.
But this is not the same as ‘destroying’ the group. It’s ideology and at least some of its fighters will live on and can go elsewhere.
“The question is how do you suppress and contain it”
- Dr Julian Lewis MP, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee.
So should there still be a role for the British military once Daesh has lost all its ground in Iraq and Syria? “Only if it’s in pursuit of a coherent strategy,” says Dr. Lewis.
The more pressing question for Britain and its friends around the globe is how to deal with the hundreds of radicalised, and now terrorist-trained, people who may be heading home from fighting for IS.
The United States
Donald Trump will become President on the 20th of January 2017.
Beyond that, genuinely, who has any idea?
It’s hard to know what will happen when the ‘last remaining superpower’ is to be led by a brash businessman-turned-reality TV star who has no previous political experience and who chooses to address the world on Twitter.
“I predict, fairly confidently that we’ll see a year of real chaos in American policy with lots and lots of unintended consequences, and what I think will happen is that Trump and the people around him will be forced by the autumn of 2017 to get a grip and reappoint a lot of people”.
- Professor Michael Clarke
If that’s how it goes NATO is going to be shaken by the instability of its biggest member and contributor.
It's already been unsettled by Trump's suggestion that he could only defend NATO members who “pay their way”.
But Dr Julian Lewis sees a spark of hope in the incoming President.
“He prides himself on being a top class negotiator. So it could be the case that by threatening to turn away from NATO unless the European NATO powers stump up more money, he’s actually going to force them to stump up more money… and as a result of that NATO will be stronger”.
In 2016 Russia was calling the shots in Syria, and calling the tune in the diplomatic and ceasefire talks.
It’s allowed Vladimir Putin to tell his people that Russia’s global power is back, and its helped him thumb his nose at the West by forming a working alliance on Syria with a NATO member, Turkey.
All the while Russian ground forces have been massing close to European borders, Russian planes have pushed the boundaries of NATO airspace, and for good measure it's one steam-powered aircraft carrier sailed through the English Channel belching black smoke.
But what next? Well, see above, because a lot may depend on the very unpredictable presidency of Donald Trump, who has previously praised President Putin.
America’s next top diplomat will be an oil executive who seems to have good personal relations with Russia.
The natural assumption is a less confrontational approach, an attempt to charm Russia, but will Vladimir Putin see anything in that for him and his nation?
Britain should begin the formal process of leaving the European Union in March.
Theresa May wants a smooth Brexit, a Red-White-and-Blue Brexit, and for all the predictions of chaos that never materialised last summer that certainly remains a possibility.
But while the EU has no direct defence role if the Brexit talks sour there is the potential to pollute relations within NATO, just as America tells Europe to step up more in the alliance.
There is the possibility that Brexit could end up looking like a sideshow, it’s a slim possibility but we know how those can go.
France votes for a new president in April, and the country’s far-right leader, Marine Le-Pen looks like making it to the final two.
If she were to snatch victory it could throw the EU into chaos.
Germany too must have a general election by mid-autumn, with a real possibility of Angela Merkel being replaced as Chancellor.
The waves that could create in Europe may be smaller on the surface, but run much deeper.