war on the rocks

A Stubborn Optimist’s 2016 Forecast of World Affairs

January 6, 2016

Forecasts of the year ahead tend to reflect the general mood of the year before and, for Americans, fears about the world around us. So it’s no surprise that after a most depressing 2015 in geopolitics, doom and gloom dominates 2016 predictions thus far. As if the ongoing civil war in Syria was not bad enough, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has proven itself to be one of the most resilient and capable extremist groups in the world, committing and inspiring attacks far beyond the physical territory it occupies. A resurgent Russia kept the world guessing in Ukraine and opportunistically opened a new front in Syria. Even as the year ended on a happy note in Paris with a global accord on climate action, the tragic attacks a month earlier in the City of Lights, depressingly similar attacks in Ankara, Sinai, and Beirut, and daily violence across Iraq and Syria have all combined to create a pessimistic climate of fear along with the worst humanitarian crisis of our times. Add in the specter of domestic terrorism — such as the attacks in Charleston and San Bernardino — and it is little wonder that many Americans are looking at the new year with dread.

Yet there remains room for stubborn optimism and a focus on the positive side of stories that often get Trumped, both literally and figuratively. Given how bad 2015 really was, 2016 can’t be much worse. In fact, it could be much better.

The Americas: The Greatest Case for Optimism Starts in the Western Hemisphere

No continent deserves greater optimism than North America. Since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville, America has been the envy of the world protected by two large oceans and enriched by its robust natural resources. Less than a decade after a recession, the United States now enjoys one of the healthiest economies it has ever known. David Petraeus among others, has argued that if the 20th century was an American Century, the 21st is poised to be a North American Century, with Canada and Mexico joining the United States as significant players on the world stage. North American states have always enjoyed great advantages given the continent’s collective natural resources, the ongoing energy revolution, and relative stability within the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, states in the Western Hemisphere can simultaneously be Transatlantic and Transpacific regional powers.

Once-intractable problems in the Western hemisphere hold promise for vast improvement, from the dire state of politics in Argentina, political and economic upheaval in Venezuela, and the thawing Cold War between the United States and Cuba. Brazil will host the 2016 Olympics in Rio and — despite all the bad press — will pull it off, just as they did with the 2014 World Cup. The fact that Brazil has become the greatest cause for concern in Latin America, with its slowing economy and political turmoil, is a testament to just how far South America has come. This is reason to celebrate in and of itself. The wild card for the Americas is of course the U.S. presidential election in 2016 where vastly different views on how to engage its neighbors, from building walls to pulling out of the North American Free Trade Area, are currently being discussed. However, beneath the surface, the election of Speaker Paul Ryan and America’s history of smooth elections and peaceful transitions of power mean that there is cautious room for optimism regardless of the results.

Asia: Where the World is Heading

I am also optimistic about Asia in 2016, despite the possibility of great power conflict. In fact, Asia probably has the greatest number of flashpoints for the United States to be concerned about. War may break out any moment on the Korean Peninsula, in Taiwan, the South China Sea, or between India and Pakistan. Yet as the recent terrorist attacks on an Indian airbase blamed on Pakistani militants demonstrate, the lines of communication between New Delhi and Islamabad have remained surprisingly open, emphasizing that all Asian states (including China and Japan) have more incentives than ever to work together. A major war in Asia today would be more disastrous than perhaps ever before, given how closely interlinked Asian economies are. China’s slowing economy increases the necessity of maintaining access to markets in Southeast and Central Asia. Beijing’s signature economic initiatives — the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt, One Road initiative — have spurred competition with Japan and India who will increasingly seek partnerships in the West to supplement their private sector investments. While the consolidation of power in Beijing and Moscow’s Asian overtures will continue to disrupt a truly liberal order in Asia, America’s traditional allies will be joined by the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries and new players such as India and Indonesia in counterbalancing any longer-term trends in Asia. The majority of global summits this year will convene in Asia: Japan will host the G7 in June and China will host the G20 in September. 2016 could very well be the long-awaited global pivot to Asia that everyone has been debating.

Africa: Still the Fastest Growing and Yet Most Overlooked Region in the World

Last year, President Obama convened the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya as a part of his long-anticipated pan-African trip that included a historic stop at African Union headquarters. These events highlighted the promise that Africa holds for the world. Having entered 2015 as the fastest growing region in the world in terms of both demographic and economic realities, Africa remains poised to continue its growth in 2016 even though its starting baseline and lower-scale development continues to lag behind other regions. The world has taken notice of opportunities in Africa, as evidenced by the global competition now taking place across the continent between Chinese government-led investment and public-private support from America, Europe, and Asia. While governance and intrastate conflict continues to be the single biggest problem in Africa, there is hope. Though the African Union is no European Union, this could be a blessing in disguise. The AU continues to grow as an institution and encourage African nations to assume greater responsibility with the support of American and European aid and security agencies. As a result, Africa is moving both economically and institutionally in the right direction for 2016 and beyond.

Europe: Learning the Lessons of the Past

Europe had a particularly difficult 2015, but emerged stronger despite various crises and real questions about the viability of the Eurozone and the European Union. Greece continues to be a perennial problem, but talk of a “Grexit” has faded. Unfortunately, we are now looking at the possibility of Britain’s exit from the European Union. However, all this bad news pales in comparison to the enormous leadership role that Germany took on in the personage of Chancellor Angela Merkel. She captured the attention of the world, not just in the heated debates about Greece or tense negotiations with Russia over Ukraine, but in welcoming Syrian refugees despite a backlash that continues to build on the right side of the political spectrum. Even as anti-immigration nationalist outbursts are to be expected in places like Hungary, the defeat of the Nationalist Front in France shows that there is still room for optimism in Europe even as its neighborhood becomes more difficult to embrace. Yet German strength alone can no longer power Europe. Attacks like those in Paris and the broader ramifications of returning foreign fighters from the Middle East are growing regional concerns. Still, Europe can prepare for 2016 by learning the lessons of 2015 —that what makes this continent the most developed and prosperous in the world are the values of openness and freedom achieved through great struggle in the last century. While Russian actions in Ukraine were jarring, NATO did not fail any treaty defense tests and continues to reinvent itself to remain relevant. Putin may have further surprises in store for 2016, but his ability to spread chaos has been diminished by stubbornly low energy prices, international sanctions, and picking a fight with Turkey, which all remind Russians of their relative global weakness.

While the Balkans of the 1990s may seem like a distant memory to the peaceful Europe of today, the lessons of this period have never been more relevant for the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. This comparison makes a strong argument for Western action in Syria and Iraq against the destructive forces of both Assad and ISIL. Europe’s problems are not entirely of its own making; some problems spill over from its Middle Eastern neighbors. Turkey — an EU aspirant and Southeast European anchor — suffered tremendously in 2015 from the largest terrorist attack in the country’s history and increased political instability as a result of multiple elections. Yet 2016 looks brighter, owing to greater EU-Turkish cooperation and a global recognition of the need for action in Syria. Even in Europe’s most intractable conflict of Cyprus, resolution has never seemed closer at hand — the nation’s two leaders offered a joint Christmas/New Year’s greeting for the first time in history just last month.

Middle East: Still Hoping for the Least Worst Outcome

The case for optimism in the Middle East is perhaps the weakest of any region. In the short run, the destructive trends and lack of action by world powers in 2015 will engender further regional problems in 2016. However, we have witnessed some steps in the right direction: international resolve in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, regional championing of the global coalition to fight ISIL by Saudi Arabia, international Syrian peace talks, and the recapture of Ramadi by Iraqi Security Forces. Still, the constant struggle between regional activism and outside intervention that has plagued the Middle East since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire is still alive and well.

The Kurds, the largest ethnic group without their own state, are the single greatest cause for optimism in 2016. They are fighting ISIL on the ground and seeking political compromise in Iraq and Turkey for inclusion in federalized structures and increased autonomy. Of course, a lasting solution demands willing partners in Ankara and Baghdad that must work together with their Kurdish citizens to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. As Turkey knows better than any other regional power, an intra-civilizational war is not in anyone’s interest, and defeating the more extreme elements of Kurdish nationalism like the PKK will require political rather than military victories.

The nuclear deal led by the P5+1 creates the possibility of Iran’s return to the international community, where economy and global leverage can be applied in a way that its back-channel and non-state actors are immune to. The deal, regardless of eventual implementation or outcome, also created one of the world’s most successful working groups that brought Chinese and Russian negotiators together with European and Americans that should be maintained to continue discussing shared challenges in the Middle East such as ISIL. A similar coalition could build on this framework to help the Arab world regain its footing in favor of progress, lost after the Arab Spring. Supporting stability and unity in the Gulf will be paramount particularly as tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran aggravate the Sunni-Shiite rivalry. As much as Syria and Iraq will continue to be torn apart given their demographic make-up, Egypt’s progress will be the most important area for regional revival as Israel continues to try to get along with its neighbors even as its own domestic politics are contradicted by the lack of progress of a two-state solution. A major breakthrough in Israel-Palestine seems almost impossible, but a more active U.S. presence in the region should be welcomed as a stabilizing force that should manifest itself more often in the form of commercial diplomacy, private sector investment, and entrepreneurial opportunities rather than increased security assistance and troop levels. Regional solutions for Middle Eastern problems are preferable in the long run but in the short term de-escalating between rivals and focusing on shared regional power politics to defeat non-state forces may be the best we can hope for.

Conclusion: 2016 Can’t be Worse than 2015

Predictions for 2016 are notoriously dangerous, but it’s important to always be proactive and know what lies ahead. Asia will host the majority of global summits this year as Japan plays host to the G7 in June and China plays host to the G20 in September, whereas the eyes of the world will be on America for its presidential election that has already produced a 2015 of unpredictability and intrigue. While natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and wars will certainly hit in 2016, there is room for optimism and hoping for a year better than 2015 as we manage the emerging trends that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Here’s to a better 2016 than 2015!

 

Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) leads the Japan work of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and is a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State.

 

Photo credit: Judith Doyle