The Global Economy Confronts Four Geopolitical Risks

CAMBRIDGE – The end of the year is a good time to consider the risks that lie ahead of us. There are of course important economic risks, including the mispricing of assets caused by a decade of ultra-low interest rates, the shifts in demand caused by the Chinese economy’s changing structure, and European economies’ persistent weakness. But the main longer-term risks are geopolitical, stemming from four sources: Russia, China, the Middle East, and cyberspace.

Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia remains a formidable nuclear power, with the ability to project force anywhere in the world. Russia is also economically weak because of its dependence on oil revenue at a time when prices are down dramatically. President Vladimir Putin has already warned Russians that they face austerity, because the government will no longer be able to afford the transfer benefits that it provided in recent years.

The geopolitical danger arises from Putin’s growing reliance on military action abroad – in Ukraine and now in Syria – to maintain his popularity at home, using the domestic media (now almost entirely under Kremlin control) to extol Russia’s global importance. Russia also uses its gas exports to Western Europe and Turkey as an economic weapon, although Turkey’s recent decision to source gas from Israel shows the limits of this strategy. As Putin responds to this and other challenges, Russia will remain a source of substantial uncertainty for the rest of the world.

China is still a poor country, with per capita GDP at roughly a quarter of the US level (on the basis of purchasing power parity). But, because its population is four times larger, its total GDP is equal to America’s (in PPP terms). And it is total GDP that determines a country’s ability to spend on military power, to provide a strategically significant market for other countries’ exports, and to offer aid to other parts of the world. China is doing all of these things on a scale commensurate with its GDP. Looking ahead, even with the more moderate growth rates projected for the future, China’s GDP will grow more rapidly than that of the US or Europe.