In the world of foreign policy, no one knows the future. Certainly not me. But trends can be spotted, and their trajectories predicted.
Here are five predictions (admittedly aggressive ones) concerning what might happen in foreign policy in 2020.
1. Cyber Conflicts Will Become Real-World Conflicts
The world of cyber is already crowded with national intelligence services, criminal syndicates, hackers, and pirates. In 2019, state and non-state actors alike have been engaging one another with increasing frequency and “gusto,” and there’s no sign of this slowing down.
Specifically, as the U.S. enters a presidential election year, low barriers to mounting digital interference campaigns and their promise of potentially significant impact will prove too tempting for several foreign governments and others seeking to cause havoc in our political process.
U.S. leaders will also be under significant political pressure to identify and counter this interference, and will be inclined to respond aggressively in defense of the nation’s political institutions. This could, in turn, set off escalating responses that ultimately spill over into the real world politically, socially, and economically.
2. A Large-Scale Cyberattack
As cyber confrontations become more frequent and intense, the likelihood of escalation—and miscalculation—will increase. 2020 could very well be the year that we see a large-scale cyberattack that results in large-scale physical damage and significant loss of human life.
For example, a recent cyberattack thought to have originated in Iran targeted a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia and was intended to cause a large explosion that could have killed dozens. A coding mistake by the attackers is all that prevented the attack’s success.
While a similar attack is unlikely to happen in the United States, it could happen to one of our allies or partners and could still have significant implications for the American people.