In 1978, Peter Matthiessen published “The Snow Leopard,” which detailed his quest to find a snow leopard. It is a “great cat” that inhabits the forbidding heights of Central Asia, so elusive that it is called “the ghost of the mountains,” so rare that it had only been seen twice in the previous quarter century. Matthiessen’s tale is a moving and powerful read. It won two National Book Awards and is invariably ranked among the best travel books ever written.

Peter Engelke, who works on strategic foresight at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, tracks “snow leopards,” a term he uses to describe “known but underappreciated — perhaps even forgotten — phenomenon.” His snow leopard lurks in the background until it sneaks up “and vividly reminds us that it exists.” He contrasts the snow leopard with the far better known “black swan,” noting that the snow leopard isn’t necessarily a single discrete event and its arrival is preceded by ample information that is readily available if looked for.

The snow leopard is a useful metaphor as we head into 2022 and brave (or foolish) analysts make projections for the year ahead. Engelke is keeping an eye on the growing role of cities in the fight against climate change, the “dawn of lab meat” and the resurgence of environmentalism and mass activism on a global scale, among others. Other studies highlight the takeoff of electric vehicles, digital currencies and space travel, along with low-orbit satellite infrastructure and connectivity.

All are worth watching but — the headlines are likely to track different developments — and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely dominate that list. The response to the omicron variant has been an eye-opener and whatever relief may have been expected as vaccination rates climbed has since vaporized. The International Monetary Fund has said that it will likely downgrade its forecast for global growth in 2022 because of omicron. Mathew Burrows and Robert Manning, two Atlantic Council forecasters who had stints doing the same at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, warn that the failure to get vaccines into the arms of the world’s poorest citizens means that more variants will emerge and we should be prepared to live with an endemic threat from COVID-19.

That dark outlook contrasts with the considerably more bullish thinking of banks and investment houses. Typical is UBS, which argues that investors underestimate “the runway for above-trend economic growth.” One Financial Times analyst noted that the self-interest of those institutions helps explain such Panglossian thinking, while conceding that there is a basis for optimism. Katie Martin, another FT writer, added that omicron doesn’t seem to register among most investors, highlighting a survey in which 70% thought the new variant would have little economic impact; just 5% identified COVID-19 as the top concern for this year.

Another big variable is China. In recent weeks, there has been a drumbeat of commentary (in the West at least) about growing difficulties that the country faces. Drawing on a new study by their colleague Dexter Roberts, Burrows and Manning warn that a weakening Chinese economy may be more of a danger than the country’s strength. They flag energy shortages, demographic decline, declining growth and productivity, skyrocketing debt and the party’s tightening grip on the economy. These are long-term problems, but a crisis there could ripple through the global economy.

That danger puts a third trend, sharpening geopolitical competition between the United States and China and increasing bifurcation of the world into two technological spheres, in a slightly different perspective. Separation might not be a bad thing if one of the world’s major economies (pick your favorite) has a crisis, but the time lines will unfold at different speeds.

Nevertheless, governments’ focus on economic security will intensify, and that will yield ever more fuzzy distinctions between national security and plain old protectionism. Businesses are going to have to be alert to this new landscape and plan accordingly. It will require considerable retooling of internal policy and procedures. My former colleagues at CSIS and the gurus at the BlackRock Investment Institute both focus on this set of issues.

Central to that evolution will be developments in Washington. The Biden administration had a tough year. Despite real accomplishments — it got substantial sums of money into the economy and rolled out a vaccine — it has battled perceptions of incompetence (Afghanistan), a failure to fix the most pernicious elements of the Trump legacy (trade policy), deepening domestic political divisions and COVID-19 fatigue. If Republicans win big in the 2022 midterms as anticipated, then political paralysis will be the best that can be expected. That will undermine U.S. credibility in the eyes of allies and adversaries.

That could encourage miscalculation by other leaders: Russian President Vladimir Putin might be tempted to bite off more of Ukraine; Kim Jong Un could press his luck on the Korean Peninsula; Iran’s leaders could press ahead with their nuclear program, which would threaten a response from Israel; and Beijing could feel free to do something with Taiwan, to either instill some discipline in an unruly “renegade province” or generate support from a domestic population unnerved by the problems just mentioned.

Japan has to be alert to these concerns. It will be buffeted by a downturn in China and a loss of U.S. credibility or capability. There is also the prospect of domestic political instability here. There will be an Upper House election in the summer and a poor showing by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party would damage Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s standing. Fortunately, his approval ratings are climbing but that trajectory isn’t set. My greatest concern is that Kishida is unable to master circumstances and is forced to step down early, unable to complete a two-year term. That would signal a return to pre-Shinzo Abe era politics as usual, and a revolving door in the Prime Minister’s Office would undo many of the gains of Abe’s historical tenure.

All could work out, too. Omicron could prove to be more infectious, but considerably less dangerous, and the pharmaceutical companies could develop a pill that prevents COVID-19. In the U.S., inflation, COVID-19 and anxiety recede, allowing Biden to make the case that he and his party deserve to govern. That, along with GOP overreach, allows the Democrats to flip expectations and prevail in the midterms. A victory for common sense and traditional U.S. politicking goes a long way to stabilize not only U.S. politics but those of the West more generally. A stronger, more capable U.S. could help Biden and Xi Jinping recognize the importance of their relationship, establish a floor and then build upon it to restore trust, confidence and a positive trajectory.

For what it’s worth, in the Atlantic Council analysis, most risks are deemed high or medium probability, and opportunities are low or medium probability. Sigh …

Pondering those trajectories, I couldn’t shake the thought that the big things that lurk in the future are very much the product of all the little things we’ve struggled through in our recent past. Engelke’s snow leopard owes a lot to Arnold Toynbee’s account of history as “one damned thing after another” or Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy — “gradually, then suddenly.” There is an easily traced path from “then” (pick your starting point) to now, and while there may be a good bit of post-hoc rationalization at work, connections are easier to see in retrospect than at the time. Unless you are, like Engelke and Matthiesson, tracking those elusive beasts.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.