Themes and questions for 2018

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The new year might clear up issues in the US, Asia and Europe

As we reach the end of 2017, here are some of the key themes - and questions - that look set to shape global events next year.

Will US special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation mark the end of Mr Donald Trump's presidency?

Next year could be the year we get a clearer idea of the legacy Mr Trump will leave.

First, it should become clear just how much mileage Mr Mueller's probe into alleged collusion with Russia in last year's presidential election really has.

Further arrests of high-profile figures might signal that investigators have acquired useful information from key individuals now helping them with their inquiries, particularly former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump aide George Papadopoulos.

The real question is if Mr Mueller can pin evidence of a conspiracy on Mr Trump. If the prosecutor cannot reach Mr Trump himself, some of Mr Trump's Russia problems may begin to ease.

But if it becomes clear that Mr Trump or those near him have attempted to pervert the course of justice, then the situation will change abruptly.

Will Mr Trump or North Korea risk moving beyond bluster and posturing to military action?

In many ways, the likely trajectory of events surrounding North Korea is easier to predict.

Based on events so far, it seems almost certain North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will continue to test increasingly powerful bombs and rockets.

As Pyongyang's ability to strike the US mainland increases, Washington will get increasingly aggressive - but it likely will still remain reluctant to launch any kind of strike that could trigger a devastating conflagration.

Also, do not discount Pyongyang's growing cyber capabilities. Its suspected efforts to penetrate the US electric grid could escalate into crippling attacks on critical infrastructure.

Will Europe's multiple crises reach crunch point?

After the shock Brexit vote last year, France and the Netherlands fended off electoral challenges from the far-right.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel emerged from the October election with diminished support and a struggle to form a viable coalition government. That means the country may have to go back to the polls next year.

The problem is that none of the strains within the continent have gone away - frustration with policies on migration, the ongoing struggle to keep the single currency bloc and, of course, the ongoing trauma of how to make Brexit work.

Will new conflicts erupt as the US' influence in the Middle East slip?

For all the sound and fury following Mr Trump's decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, next year will likely see the US ever less at the heart of events in the region.

US forces will continue to mop up remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other militant groups, but Washington will increasingly take a backseat to Saudi Arabia and Iran when it comes to driving events.

With Teheran seeming to have strengthened its influence in Iraq and Syria this year, expect Sunni Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to push back ever harder against their Shi'ite rival.

The war in Yemen will likely remain the bloodiest theatre, a catastrophe largely invisible from the outside world.

Will 2018 see growing challenges to authority in Russia and China?

On balance, this year was a good year for the leaders in Moscow and Beijing.

While the West remained mired in domestic clinical crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin have never looked more in control.

Beneath the surface, however, those assumptions are already being tested. Russia saw a string of anti-government and anti-corruption protests throughout this year, and Mr Putin will no doubt be hoping to avoid a repeat next year of one of the few prospects that could complicate the presidential election he seems certain to win.

In China, Mr Xi secured his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong at the quinquennial Communist Party Congress in September. But there too are signs of quietly mounting discontent and protest, particularly in Hong Kong.

Do not expect either country to see seismic change next year on the back of these trends. But they are worth watching, for they may point to much more significant things to come. - REUTERS

The writer is Reuters global affairs columnist.