Where will the political hotspots be in 2014? Our first day of discussions at the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi resulted in a frightening list of things that could explode over the next 12 to 18 months. Syria could fall apart, spreading refugees, misery and instability to its neighbours; traditional US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, could go it alone in the Middle East to pre-empt the consequences of a possible deal with Iran; Egypt could implode; tensions could resurface in the South China Sea; and a tapering of the US monetary stimulus could destabilize emerging markets – in a year when a large number of key emerging countries are holding elections. In short, 2014 will be the year when geopolitical problems will return to the global stage.

There was a time when governments around the world looked to global institutions such as the UN and the IMF for solutions. Since global institutions looked gridlocked, unrepresentative or ineffective, countries started searching for regional solutions with the help of the EU, the Asian Development Bank or the African Union. Today, few of the experts on our Global Agenda Council seem to believe in the power of international or regional institutions. It is once again the nation-state that has to act.

But today, most states look pretty weak, too. The US is paralysed by internal divisions; China – traditionally reluctant to shoulder much international responsibility – is embarking on a major experiment in economic opening without political reform; and European countries are still busy with their smouldering euro crisis. Many governments around the world are struggling with growing populism, political polarization and declining legitimacy – not the best preconditions for a muscular and forward-looking foreign policy.

What happens when geopolitical instability grows in a set-up in which institutional frameworks are derelict, leadership is lacking and state actors are weak? The only solutions possible today seem to be to rely on ad hoc pragmatism. The US and Russia (not the best of friends these days) get together to forge a deal on chemical weapons in Syria. Turkey rethinks its foreign policy and is once again talking to both Iraq and Iran about regional stability.

Such ad hoc solutions can work because they are quick and flexible. But they may come at the expense of long-term stability and the integrity of international institutions.

Author: Katinka Barysch is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader who is participating in the Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi. She is Director of Political Relations at Allianz SE, and a Member of the Global Agenda Council for Geopolitical RiskThe views expressed here are her own.

Image: Tents are seen behind barbed wire in a refugee camp REUTERS/Murad Sezer.