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Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine was not a bolt from the blue.
After all, the Kremlin cleaved Crimea in 2014 and destabilized eastern Ukraine in intervening years. And despite decades of intelligence failures in multiple Mideast countries, Washington was more keen than Kyiv on Moscow's intent to take the rest of Ukraine.
Indeed, Russia's revanchism was less a "black swan" than a "gray rhino" event.
"A gray rhino is that big, scary thing coming at you," said Michele Wucker, who literally wrote the book on it ("The Gray Rhino: How to recognize and act on the obvious dangers we ignore").
Wucker, a former think tank and media executive who is the founder and CEO of consultancy Gray Rhino and Company, said that a gray rhino event is different from a black swan, which she defined as an "improbable, unimaginable thing that you can only see in hindsight. And the black swan is meant to help us recognize how much uncertainty there is in the world. The gray rhino is forward-looking, it's a challenge to people making decisions, to be brutally honest about how they are responding or not to the big obvious thing in front of them, and to be some of the people who respond and act appropriately instead of the ones who just let themselves get trampled."
The three gray rhinos ready to trample, Wucker said, includes "the financial fragility in front of us" (interest rates, recession threat, popping asset bubbles, national budget pressures, and underinvestment in education and health, she cited). The climate crisis is the very definition of a gray rhino, Wucker added. And as fraught as the warming planet are overheated geopolitics, a result of "tectonic global shifts" — especially between the U.S. and China.
These tectonic shifts are reflected in "10 Conflicts to Watch" issued by the International Crisis Group think tank and the 10 "Top Risks" issued by the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. The annual, influential lists are different by design: ICG focuses mostly on inter- or intrastate conflicts, while EG adds transnational dynamics involving economic, technological and other forces.
But both agree with each other (and Wucker's rhino of global shifts) on their top conflict or risk: Enduring turbulence from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"Thus far, Ukraine has resisted Russia's assault, thanks to Ukrainians' valor and Western aid," stated ICG's analysis. "But after nearly a year of fighting, there's no end in sight." In part because "Ukraine's resistance was as fierce as Russia's planning was inept."
The inverted international effect is that "A cornered Russia will turn from global player into the world's most dangerous rogue state, posing a serious and pervasive danger to Europe, the U.S., and beyond," Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan, CEO and chairman, respectively, of Eurasia Group, wrote in their report and reiterated with reporters from around the world in a conference call. "Rogue Russia," they wrote, "is a threat to global security, Western political systems, the cybersphere, and food security. Not to mention every Ukrainian civilian."
Among potential impacts on global security include the long-simmering Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, which boiled over two years ago in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. It's reheating, and thus is second on ICG's list. Russia was able to broker a cease-fire in 2020. But now, ICG believes, "Russia's travails in Ukraine have upset calculations in the region."
Calculations regarding China, second on EG's list, are because of one man, and one-man rule: "Maximum Xi," referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the most powerful — and unchecked — Chinese leader since Mao. In fact, "with no dissenting voices to challenge his views, Xi's ability to make big long-term mistakes is also unrivaled. That's a massive global challenge given China's outsized role in the world economy," EG reported. For evidence, look to the sequential mistakes of Xi's "zero-COVID" policy, followed by a rapid reversal and resulting health emergency not seen since the pandemic's panicky early days.
Beijing's bellicosity toward Taipei is 10th on ICG's list. "The biggest flash point between the U.S. and China looks increasingly unstable, as Washington seeks to maintain primacy in the region and Beijing pursues unification with the island" the ICG stated, later adding: "Growing concern about China's rise, its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, and its commitment to build its military capabilities have become a core preoccupation of U.S. policy. Hawkishness on China — including related to Taiwan — is a rare issue enjoying bipartisan consensus in Washington."
Yet that congressional consensus is fraught. In fact, on the day of the reports' release, serial votes for House speaker spoke volumes about the "Divided States of America," as EG dubbed the eighth risk on its list. "The U.S. remains one of the most politically polarized and dysfunctional of the world's advanced industrial democracies heading into 2023," its report said.
This will make it harder for the U.S. to respond to other risks on EG's list, including "inflation shockwaves," the "energy crunch," and "water stress," among others. Or to respond quickly to an international incident sparked by its third risk: "Weapons of mass disruption," described as "the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to manipulate people and disrupt society." AI advances, EG's report states, "will help autocrats undermine democracy abroad and stifle dissent at home, and they will enable demagogues and populists within democracies to weaponize AI for narrow political gains at the expense of democracy and civil society."
Tragically, dictators diminishing or disappearing democracy through less technologically transformative means is already occurring, as evidenced in Iran (fifth on EG's list and third on ICG's tally). ICG additionally focuses on other Mideast, North and sub-Saharan African conflicts, including Yemen and Pakistan (fourth and ninth, respectively), Ethiopia (fifth), the Democratic Republic of Congo and Africa's Great Lakes district (sixth), the Sahel (seventh). Add to that this hemisphere's permacrisis country — Haiti — and it looks like a year when the risk of not acting beyond Eastern Europe could invite more intensive international crises.
"The importance of the Global South continues to grow, demographically and politically," Thomas Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth and chair of the Minnesota Committee on Foreign Relations, said in an email interview. Accordingly, "the U.S. intends to make Africa a higher priority."
Hanson, whose highly anticipated annual "U.S. Foreign Policy Update" will be delivered at a Global Minnesota event on Jan. 25., added that "hunger and drought in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Afghanistan will require a large-scale humanitarian response from the global community."
Such a response is already impressively, imperatively happening in Ukraine, which makes it harder to rally attention, let alone action, on many of the conflicts chronicled by the International Crisis Group or the risks reflected upon in the Eurasia Group report, which by definition are gray rhinos — even if there are potential black swans within them.
Including, however improbably, peace.
An "unexpected peace in Ukraine would be tremendous," Wucker said. "Really a wonderful surprise to the upside."
New years bring new fears. But also new possibilities, however remote. So all should hope that among the black swans and gray rhinos, a white dove flies over Ukraine, and beyond.