From potential nuclear armageddon to a new global compact on migration, and much in between– UN Dispatch presents our annual year-in-preview of key stories and trends to watch in 2018


Will the Security Council Stay Unified on North Korea? (And If Not, Will A Nuclear War Become More Likely?)

North Korea’s nuclear provocations escalated sharply in 2017, including several missile launches and a powerful nuclear test in September. The Trump administration turned to the Security Council to mount a response and the council delivered with the strongest set of sanctions ever imposed. The first sanctions were leveled in August, after a ballistic missile test, and then in September following a nuclear test explosion. In each case, the Trump administration lead in the drafting of these resolutions and secured the unanimous vote of the entire council. This was a worthy achievement that demonstrated international unity in confronting this crisis diplomatically.

In 2018 the degree to which that unity can be preserved will be a function of the degree to which the United States still seems determined to find a diplomatic solution to this crisis. Pugilistic tweets from President Trump have so far undermined efforts to engage Pyongyang, including  those undertaken by his own secretary of state. Meanwhile, there is a growing chorus inside the beltway that is willing to accept a military solution to this stand-off, despite the hundreds of thousands of people that could perish.  

UN officials have warned that a lack of communication between North Korea and the United States increases the prospect of confrontation or miscalculation. Because of these heightened tensions and the unpredictable nature of President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the risk of a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula–or even the US homeland–is distressingly real.

— Mark Leon Goldberg


A Global Agreement on Migration…With or Without the United States

2018 will see the finalization of the Global Compact for Migration, the first international agreement to address migration in all its forms. Following the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016, the UN has hosted numerous consultations to gather governmental information and viewpoints on the issue. Now in September, UN member states will meet for the final negotiations at the annual opening of the General Assembly.

Progress towards a global compact recently hit a roadblock when President Trump announced the US would not participate. Although this complicates the process, migration has become a pressing global issue and other countries are unlikely to halt the progress that has been made in the past two years.

The final compact will not be legally binding on states, but represents a unified statement of principles that is desperately needed as countries in every region of the world struggle to cope with increased migrant numbers. Advocates hope the final compact will help address controversial policies currently in effect, such as Italian aid to the Libyan coast guard, the EU-Turkey agreement, and Australia’s offshore detention policies. With the such high stakes and the recent revival of the primacy of sovereignty, the final negotiations will likely be contentious as countries struggle to come to a compromise on one of the most pressing issues of the century so far.

— Kimberly Curtis


A Big Year for UN Peacekeeping

2017 was both a year of profound successes and painful losses for UN Peacekeeping. The missions in Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire wound down after more than a decade in operation, which was a demonstration that Peacekeepers successfully worked themselves out of a job. The mission in Haiti has also concluded, though with record more mixed than UN Peacekeeping’s undeniable success in west Africa. But 2017 also brought tremendous hardship to UN peacekeeping. In December, 15 peacekeepers were killed in an attack in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was the worst single attack on UN peacekeepers in decades. Meanwhile, Mali continues to be a particularly deadly mission for UN Peacekeepers–over 80 have been killed there since 2013. In all, by the end of 2017 there were nearly 107,000 personnel serving in 15 peacekeeping operations around the world.

These successes and challenges will provide the backdrop for negotiations that will occur in 2018 over how UN member states will divvy up the costs of paying for deploying UN Peacekeepers across the globe. These negotiations occur every two years at the UN and decide what percentage of the entire UN Peacekeeping budget every member state must contribute. The United States is currently the largest single contributor to UN peacekeeping, paying about 28% of the $8.7 billion price tag. This rate was agreed to by the Obama administration, which recognized the value to UN peacekeeping and the relative bargain it provides to the us. (The average cost of deploying one peacekeeper per year is $17,000. The average cost to deploy one US troop for one year is $2.1 million.) The Trump administration is intent on cutting the US share, meaning these negotiations have the potential to be yet another venue in which the Trump administration will clash with other UN member states. The results of these negotiations will have a profound effect on the effectiveness of Blue Helmets to protect civilians and end conflicts around the world in 2019.


— Mark Leon Goldberg


Local Governments Go Global

One trend of the past year that is likely to continue is the growing involvement of local governments in global issues. Several cities have already incorporated the Sustainable Development Goals into their city planning. But cities and other local governments are getting more directly involved in a host of other global issues, from migration to climate change.

One key example in the coming year is the Global Climate Action Summit in California this September. Similar to a local government version of the annual Conference of Parties that resulted in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, the summit will bring together local governments, corporate leaders and NGOs from around the world to work on approaches to climate change.

A similar trend is emerging when it comes to migration. Shortly after President Trump announced the US would not participate in the upcoming negotiations on a Global Compact for Migration, several mayors from American cities announced their intention to participate instead. They joined a petition signed by more than 130 mayors from around the world requesting a formal role in the negotiations. With the majority of the world’s refugees living in urban areas and cities being natural magnets for all forms of migration, including city leadership in the negotiations makes sense. It is unclear whether the UN will allow formal participation, but it is just the latest example of local governments tackling the same complex global problems that states are wrestling with.

— Kimberly Curtis



A Big Deadline Looms for the Paris Agreement

2018 will be a big year for the Paris Agreement. Although the broad outlines of it were hammered out in 2015 and affirmed in 2016, countries have yet to write the specific rules governing how the agreement will function in practice. That includes guidelines for how the UN will determine whether countries are keeping their climate promises, and how countries’ pledges will “ratchet up,” yielding the steeper emission cuts needed to keep the world within 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the agreement’s goal. The deadline for the Paris Agreement rulemaking process is the end of 2018.

The strength of those rules, and the signals countries send while laying them out, will determine if the agreement will be effective in the face of the US’s weird one-foot-out-the-door status, which remains the elephant in the room is nearly every international climate discussion. In addition to writing the agreement’s rulebook, diplomats will also be looking for countries to continue to increase their ambitions. EU member states — Germany in particular — are under pressure to deliver steeper emission cuts. Diplomats will also be watching to see how China reconciles its forward-thinking climate change policies — including its enormous, newly launched carbon-trading market — with its growing economy, which caused an uptick in global emissions this year.

— John Light


Expect New Political Crises in the Great Lakes Region of Africa

In the coming year, it’s likely that the constitutional and electoral crises of the Great Lakes region of Africa will resurface as key priorities on the global agenda.

Within the past few years, these crises have made international headlines as presidents in the region came up with creative ways of staying in power. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame, president since 2000, ran for a third term in 2017 after the constitution was changed to drop the two-term limit. Many Rwandans in and outside the country criticize Kagame’s restrictions on freedom of speech and political dissent. In the Republic of Congo, a widely opposed referendum was held in 2015 which scrapped constitutional two-term limits for President Sassou Nguesso. Protests were met with brutal crackdowns. In Burundi, unrest followed the third-term election of the president in violation of the Arusha peace agreement.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Kabila was supposed to step down in 2016 at the end of his second term, as constitutionally mandated, but retains his position as elections continue to be postponed. In Uganda, presidential term limits were eliminated in 2005 and last year President Museveni, in power since 1986, was re-elected in highly contested elections. On December 20, parliament voted to eliminate the constitutional age limit for the presidency so that Museveni can run again in 2021.

The countries of this region have inter-connected conflicts and politics, which makes it more likely that instability in one will spread to others. These tense political situations have fallen under the radar recently, but it’s only a matter of time before people lose their patience with the status quo. 2018 could be the year they really make their voices heard.


World Food Program Funding Crunch Portends More Hunger

In 2017, northeast Nigeria, Yemen South Sudan, and Somalia were at risk for famine. The UN reported that over 20 million people were at risk for starvation and desperately needed aid to avoid a massive humanitarian crisis. Though the initial panic over this hunger crisis has ebbed in 2017, this issue is likely to rear its head again in 2018. Though a lack of sustainable food sources is a problem in this Eastern African region, the hunger crisis this year was largely man-made. In South Sudan, for example, the ongoing and ever escalating civil war is ripping the government apart while also endangering the lives of its citizens. Conflict creates instability but also prevents millions of people from getting much needed aid. In early 2017, the United Nations estimated that 100,000 South Sudanese were starving, and that 5 million more — 42% of the country’s population — have such limited access to proper food that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

In 2018, the likelihood is that this hunger crisis will remain acute in Yemen, South Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia. The World Food Program has already said it does not have enough funds to address all of the hunger needs, and this lack of funding is likely to continue into the new year.


— Coby Jones


Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is going to get worse

The last decade has been the story of common antibiotics slowly losing against the most frequent bacterial infections. Pneumonia, Staph A, Tuberculosis, Gonorrhea – they’re all getting harder to treat. In fact, all bacterial infections are getting harder to treat, as bacteria develop resistance and then share their resistant genes with each other. 2018 is going to be no exception. We’re going to see things keep getting worse.

We have already seen gonorrhea that can only be treated with a toxic last-resort drug in ten countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Next year, we can see that kind of gonorrhea in the US, too, and probably India.

Tuberculosis resistance will also get worse. Right now, 9.7% of people who have drug-resistant tuberculosis have extensively drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), which is very difficult and expensive to treat. In 2018, that number will go up to at least 12%. XDR-TB has been identified in 104 countries to date; in 2018, it will get to 110.

Finally, one positive prediction. Drug companies have identified both the problem and profit potential of antibiotic resistance; they are slowly increasing their research efforts for new ways to fight bacteria. In 2018, we’ll also see a promising new treatment for bacterial infections, possibly through new combination therapies that involve pairing existing antibiotics with other drugs to overcome bacterial resistance.   There are also three new antibiotics that are very close to market; at least one should come to market new year. Omadacycline is a new drug in the tetracycline family which has shown promise for treating pneumonia. Lefamulin is another new antibiotic; it was developed for skin infections and is also being tested on pneumonia. The last candidate, Solithromycin, has been shown effective against skin infections; but was not approved by the US FDA because of concerns about liver damage. The company that developed it is now collecting more data to address those risks.


— Alanna Shaikh


The Syrian Civil War Whimpers On

The conflict in Syria was huge news at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 when the devastation in Aleppo made international headlines. Over the year, though, the conflict in Syria has receded from international attention, even as the humanitarian catastrophe grinds on.   Recently, though, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria. This announcement, coming in the last month of 2017, will have a significant impact on the situation in Syria in 2018. It was, after all, Russia’s intervention in 2015 that turned the tide of conflict in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. President Putin says his work is done in Syria and is ready to help broker peace, but with millions of people still displaced and living as refugees in foreign countries, hundreds of thousands dead from the conflict and countless wounded, there is so much more work to be done. Time will tell if peace will come to Syria in 2018, but it will take generations for the people of Syria to recover from this conflict.

— Coby Jones



Get occasional updates from UN Dispatch


Get the Global Dispatches Podcast!