The Start of a Dangerous Race
The United States will head into the last quarter of the year facing one of the greatest direct nuclear threats to the American mainland since the Cuban missile crisis. Over the past three months, North Korea has stepped up its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, leading U.S. intelligence officials to conclude that Pyongyang will obtain a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead before next year is out.
Washington will race against the clock to find ways to stall North Korea's progress and bring it back to the negotiating table. The United States will likely try to court the support of Russia and China in this endeavor as it doubles down on employing diplomatic and financial pressure to dissuade further weapons tests by Pyongyang. But getting their help will not be easy. Even if the United States casts a wider sanctions net to include Russian and Chinese firms that trade with or provide financial services to North Korea, it will not weaken either country's determination to protect the stability of the government in Pyongyang while advocating a policy of engagement rather than isolation.
But therein lies the problem.
Dialogue between North Korea and the United States presents somewhat of a Gordian knot. Pyongyang will agree to talk with Washington only as an equal, and it will not curb its weapons development to do so. Pyongyang is also willing to accept the risk of further sanctions, confident that its troop presence on the Korean Peninsula and its burgeoning nuclear capabilities would preclude any military action against it. Washington, on the other hand, has demanded that Pyongyang freeze its nuclear weapons tests before talks can begin. Washington also views coercion as the most effective method of blocking Pyongyang's continued weapons development. Because the two adversaries' positions are incompatible, their dispute will doubtless escalate in the coming quarter.
As North Korea continues to conduct weapons tests, the risk of U.S. military action against it will rise. Though the United States could launch a limited strike against North Korea with the assets it currently has near the peninsula, Washington is far more likely to gradually build up its military presence in the region throughout the quarter, giving diplomatic overtures and sanctions a chance to take effect. And though an accident or close call during a North Korean missile launch may force the United States or its allies to shoot down the device, they will not make the decision to initiate a more serious military intervention before the end of the year.
The Side Effects of U.S. Tunnel Vision
As the United States becomes consumed with managing the North Korean threat, other foreign policy priorities will take a back seat. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump's opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran — and his desire to contain Tehran's growing influence over its neighbors — the White House won't be able to afford to withdraw from the agreement entirely. After all, doing so not only would risk the resumption of Iran's nuclear weapons program amid a similar crisis with North Korea, but it would also revive the specter of a military confrontation with Iran as the United States deploys its forces to the Asia-Pacific region.
Even as the deal stays in place, however, tension between Tehran and Washington will mount. Though the United States will continue to waive sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program, it will expand its punitive economic measures against Iranian individuals and entities in other areas. Washington will also maintain its support for Iran's rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council, perhaps even granting the U.S. military freer rein to engage with Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf in the event of a provocation.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic standoff between the United States and Russia will drag on as the sanctions that the U.S. Congress signed last quarter leave Trump with few options for easing friction. Similarly, the Kremlin won't be able to make the concessions needed to persuade U.S. lawmakers to lift the measures before Russia's presidential election in March 2018. Yet as the two countries' ties sour, Russia will continue to seek a pivotal role in regional crises around the world, collecting bargaining chips that it can use in talks with the United States down the road.
In fact, that strategy may begin to bear fruit next year. Russia's recent request for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine could come with many strings attached, but it has laid the groundwork for negotiations between Russia and the West over the conflict. For Moscow, the proposal has the added benefit of driving a deeper wedge between its Western foes: European leaders like Germany consider the offer to be a positive step, while the United States remains suspicious of the motives behind it.
A continent away, Russia is gaining ground in yet another regional conflict: the Syrian civil war. Loyalist forces, backed by Russia and Iran, broke the Islamic State's grueling siege against Deir el-Zour in September. Now those troops will be free to push toward the Iraqi border even faster. As they do, the United States will have to maintain contact with Russia to prevent the outbreak of clashes between their battlefield proxies.
Closer to home, Washington will have to come to grips with Moscow's presence in a third unstable environment. Venezuela is inching closer and closer to a financial default, and Russia (along with China) is one of the last allies the foundering country has left. Caracas has even asked Moscow to restructure Venezuelan debt as U.S. sanctions weigh heavily on its finances.
As Western Protectionism Surges, the World Adjusts
The return of protectionism will continue to manifest in trade, investment and technology relationships across the globe through the end of the year. As has been true for most of 2017, the United States will lead the charge, particularly with the renegotiation of NAFTA underway. In fact, Washington has already put forth plans outlining the ways in which bilateral trade deals should be implemented instead. It has also called for the introduction of a U.S. content requirement in certain sectors, stipulating that foreign goods must contain a given share of parts produced in the United States in order to qualify for reduced tariffs. Washington has even gone so far as to suggest an automatic sunset clause that would terminate NAFTA under certain circumstances.
Both proposals have drawn criticism from Canada and Mexico, but they also have signaled Trump's determination to significantly revise the North American pact. Despite adopting an aggressive opening stance in the talks, however, the United States will not abandon NAFTA. Instead, the three partners will eventually reach an agreement, albeit beyond the fourth quarter's end.
Over the past few months, the United States has shifted more attention toward its trade complaints with China and South Korea. As a result, disputes between Washington and both Asian nations will become more heated in the months ahead. U.S. investigations into China's technology transfer requirements and other practices related to intellectual property could lay the groundwork for sweeping action against China, including broad tariffs. However, such moves likely won’t come until next year.
The United States may not wait that long to clarify its intention to pursue a case against China through the World Trade Organization (WTO). If U.S. investigators discover that Chinese tactics are inconsistent with the bloc's rules, Washington will be compelled by both its WTO obligations and U.S. law to bring the disagreement to the organization before unilaterally imposing other punitive trade measures. On the other hand, if China's activities are found to hurt American companies in ways that are not addressed by WTO regulation, the United States will be able to more swiftly respond as it sees fit.
The United States is not the only party concerned about Beijing's strategy for acquiring Western technology, either. In September, the European Commission called for the Continent to establish more mechanisms for scrutinizing investment into strategic sectors from companies backed by states outside the European Union — a move clearly aimed at Chinese money. Italy, France and Germany have each supported this sentiment as well, fearing that the Chinese government may be using the resources of the state to encourage takeovers of European companies to "buy" the core technologies and know-how that underpin the world's modern economies. As usual, France will lead the protectionist charge within the European Union in the months ahead. But Paris' proposals will create controversy among market-oriented countries, such as Denmark, and Eastern European states, which will view with suspicion any undertaking that could rob them of Chinese investment opportunities or increase Brussels' control over their economies.
These differences of opinion, along with many others, will be on full display this quarter as Europe tackles the task of reforming the union. Now that critical elections in France and Germany have concluded, the bloc will weigh proposals to create a European Monetary Fund, boost public investment across the Continent and introduce risk-sharing measures in the eurozone. Though Berlin is willing to find common ground with Paris, Germany will spend the remainder of the year building a governing coalition at home. Even so, the debate over Europe's future that will become a defining feature of 2018 will kick off within the next three months.
Amid the resurgence of economic nationalism in the United States and parts of Europe, the rest of the world will scramble to adjust its expectations and strategies. The 11 members left standing in the Trans-Pacific Partnership will continue to hash out a pact without the United States, but there is no guarantee that they will find compromise. The group's large, developed members — Japan, Australia and Canada — are certainly eager to sign a deal, but their less-developed counterparts may demand enough concessions to precipitate the negotiations' collapse. The incipient bloc's best chance for success, then, lies in its speed, suggesting that talks could progress quickly before the year's end.
With the WTO's biennial ministerial meeting set to take place in December, countries will likely spend the months leading up to it lobbying for their pet projects. The bloc will also hold an unprecedented "mini-ministerial" meeting in October to try to firm up an agenda for the full summit in Buenos Aires. But this year's convention may not be as fruitful as some states had hoped. In light of dissent from the United States, India and South Africa earlier this year, China and Germany's hopes of reaching a comprehensive agreement on the facilitation of investment have been dashed, as has any chance of a deal to restrict agricultural subsidies. Even so, some progress on issues such as e-commerce, public stock holdings and fisheries subsidies cannot be ruled out.
A Crude Awakening
Meanwhile, the world's oil stockpiles are declining, but not quickly enough for global producers' liking. In the United States, one of the most closely watched markets in the industry, crude oil inventories totaled 471 million barrels (about 24 percent higher than the five-year average) as of Sept. 22. Such gluts will spur the strongest advocates of production cuts — Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela — to redouble their efforts to extend the quotas among OPEC members and non-OPEC states beyond March 2018. At the same time, they will ratchet up pressure on exempted OPEC members Libya and Nigeria, which have increased their collective output by 622,000 barrels per day since the fourth quarter of 2016, to join the pact. However, these states are unlikely to sign on. And if the cuts are extended, it won't be long before compliance among existing signatories starts to weaken.
The United States, for its part, continues to see its output climb. But by the end of June, U.S. crude production reached a little under 9.1 million bpd — just 27,000 bpd higher than its February total. This suggests that the recent growth in U.S. output is not as resilient as industry experts initially expected. And though the country's production will keep rising slowly throughout the quarter, it will not be cause for debate and contention among the global producers trying to counter the persistent oversupply in the oil market.