The champagne had barely gone flat before sobering global events made 2016 look like a hangover from 2015.
The new year’s news began with Iranian protesters sacking Saudi Arabia’s embassy following the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. A diplomatic split quickly ensued as the Saudis and several Sunni allies downgraded ties to Tehran.
Next was the jolt of jittery equity markets mimicking China’s deep dive.
And then the reliably unpredictable Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea had tested an “H-bomb of justice,” although most experts judged it to be “just” an atomic bomb.
The globalization of commerce and conflict gives these episodes a worldwide impact, just as other events or trends likely to mark (or mar) 2016. And while few foreign-policy practitioners predict specific dates or exact outcomes, many suggest that the year will be fraught.
The Foreign Policy Association’s 2016 “Great Decisions” topics reflect real-time crises (Mideast alliances, ISIL, the Kurds, the Koreas, migration) as well as longer-term challenges (climate change, Cuba and the U.S., the United Nations).
In reaction to these dynamics, President Obama has continued a trend toward multilateralism, said Tom Hanson, a diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who will give his annual U.S. Foreign Policy Update at a Minnesota International Center event on Jan. 26, added: “The problem in working with regional actors is you get caught up in their own disagreements and tensions.”
Like those between Saudi Arabia and Iran — countries that are key to reaching a diplomatic solution to the savagery in Syria. That war, along with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are just three of “10 Conflicts to Watch,” according to a Foreign Policy article by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, president of the International Crisis Group. But some that aren’t often front-page news — yet — are also on the list, including Libya, Burundi, South Sudan and the Lake Chad Basin. There’s cautious optimism about Colombia, Guehenno argues, but caution about the South China Sea, where China has rankled neighboring nations — and the U.S. — with territorial claims.
Indeed, the U.S. response if China escalates the dispute is one of the five big foreign-policy questions for 2016, wrote James M. Lindsay in the Council on Foreign Relations’ “The Water’s Edge” column. Lindsay also cites China’s slowdown as a factor in its top question: “Are we on the verge of a global economic slowdown and, if so, what will be its consequences?”
China is also on the mind of the Eurasia Group, but from different perspectives. Its annual “Top Risks” roundup proclaimed the prospect of a Sino “hard landing” as one of the year’s “red herrings.” “China’s Footprint,” however, is No. 3 on the list: While many countries acknowledge that China is “both the most important and uncertain player,” the analysis argues, those more exposed to China “aren’t ready for this change, don’t understand or agree with Chinese priorities, and won’t know how to react to this new state of affairs.”
China itself may not know how to react to neighboring North Korea, despite the two countries’ ostensible alliance. And while Pyongyang’s provocations did not make its list, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said Monday during a conference call: “I would not deign to predict what we are going to see out of the world’s most isolated and totalitarian regime over the course of an entire year. … They feel like attention is one way they can grab cash out of people. The one thing you can count on is the occasional surprise from the North Koreans to keep themselves relevant.” North Korea’s surprise — and relevancy — returned a day later.
The world’s increasing chaos cannot be contained unless more orderly nations and international organizations lead. But Bremmer began by saying that in 16 years of preparing the top-risks list, “This is going to be by far the most volatile and challenging in terms of geopolitical risks. We enter it with six failed states across the broader Middle East, with an unprecedented refugee crisis, with the most powerful-ever terrorist organization and with a lack of leadership. And that plays out across much of the world in 2016, and none of these issues are going to get better in the context of what we decided was going to be risk No. 1: the hollow alliance” between the U.S. and Europe. This alliance once created the global security and economic and values architecture, but “the transAtlantic relationship has never been weaker,” Bremmer said.
And beyond Western powers, “we’re edging into a more multipolar world, and countries like China and Russia are going to keep asserting certain interests in their immediate periphery,” Hanson added.
Fortunately, there’s a presidential election in which to suggest strategies to address the Western malaise and the world’s conflicts. Unfortunately, the debased debate of the campaign has not been commensurate to the complexities of 2016’s first week, let alone the next 51.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.