2016: Political, economic and social upheaval

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments
The terrorist attack in Paris in November serves as a reminder that the wars in the Middle East and North Africa don’t stop at those borders.

The terrorist attack in Paris in November serves as a reminder that the wars in the Middle East and North Africa don’t stop at those borders.

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Bohr’s injunction is worth keeping in mind as we explore some of the major trends that will shape the global political and economic landscape in 2016.
The shocking terrorist attacks in San Bernadino, California, in December and Paris in November, which followed the murderous bombing of a Russian airliner, attacks in Beirut and, earlier last year, the killings at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, serve as a stark reminder that the intractable wars of the Middle East and North Africa do not stop at that region’s borders.
The earthquake unleashed by the collapse of Libya, Syria and Iraq and their descent into chaos is being felt right across Europe, Russia and in other parts of the globe. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed or injured. The number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, alone, is more than four million. The world is witnessing the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. And there is no sign that the conflict in these countries is going to stop anytime soon.
The November 2015 meeting of the Syrian International Support Group of 17 nations and international organizations agreed to a road map of sorts that would see a UN-sponsored ceasefire, the creation of a transitional government led by the current government and opposition groups, and eventually free elections in 2017. But this seems more like wishful thinking. The United States and Russia are at loggerheads over the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Russians and Iranians still want to keep him around, at least for a while, whereas the Americans want him out now.

Middle East contagion spreads
Like the Thirty Years’ War in Europe roughly four centuries ago between Protestants and Catholics, sectarian violence between the two predominant branches of Islam — Shiite and Sunni — is changing the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and beyond.
But the immediate problem is how to deal with the Islamic State, or Daesh, as some western countries now refer to this terrorist group. Far from being “contained,” as U.S. President Barack Obama declared, IS is expanding. Chillingly, its henchmen are even training Afghan children. The underlying question is whether the West has the stamina or fortitude to eradicate IS fully, or whether, as Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson has implied, the lack of strong and effective action is a further symptom of the West’s inevitable decline.
Most security experts believe it will take “boots on the ground” and not just bombs from the air to eliminate this threat. But don’t expect the U.S. to lead the charge during an election year. France is leading the call to arms after the Paris attacks, but is finding few takers, even among its European neighbours. So expect the Middle East contagion to continue.
And you can also expect it to spread southwards to sub-Saharan Africa as groups such as Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram forge alliances with Daesh and embrace its extremist ideology. The terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, in November, was led by none other than former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was responsible for kidnapping two Canadian diplomats in Niger several years ago.

Europe unravelling
When former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger stepped onto the stage in November 2015 at the Global Security Forum organized by Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, he said the crisis in the Middle East presents “a challenge to the future of Europe.” The flood of refugees surging into Europe, he noted, is not just a humanitarian tragedy; it also poses a grave threat to Europe’s post-war cultural transformation and the very fabric of its institutions.
The European project began with the European Coal and Steel Community and eventually blossomed into the European Union. It has been focused on erasing borders and promoting the unrestricted movement of goods and people. The Schengen Agreement of 1985, abolishing internal borders and allowing for the guaranteed free movement of persons among its signatory states, is one of Europe’s key symbols.
As European governments struggle to control the flow of refugees and migrants and to deal with the scourge of growing terrorism, they are being forced to take control of their borders. The flower that was Schengen may soon wilt.
French President François Hollande introduced border controls for a three-month period under emergency legislation following the attacks in Paris. Trains that run from Malmo, Sweden, to Copenhagen, Denmark, are also now subject to border checks.
The political leadership of Europe, and not just its institutions, may also be affected by this crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming under extreme pressure from public opinion and some of her political coalition partners to stem the refugee tide that has seen more than 5,000 refugees a day entering Germany. Her popularity in the polls is taking a major hit. The absence of a bona fide successor to Merkel if she falls is worrying.
Extreme right wing nationalist parties in France and other parts of Europe are also capitalizing on the current crisis to promote their xenophobic political agenda and curry popular favour.
Europe’s sluggish economic performance and high levels of unemployment, especially among its youth, will contribute to this volatile brew. Mounting social unrest driven by various social and economic pressures will contribute to Europe’s governance challenges.
Europe’s crisis of identity is also compounded by the ambivalence of some key EU member states, such as Britain, which will hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017.

The shock of falling commodity prices
Commodity prices in energy, metals, minerals and agricultural raw materials will continue their precipitous decline in 2016 as they did in 2015. It is not simply Canadians who are being subjected to this rude awakening as their incomes and standards of living fall because of the central importance of the energy and agricultural sectors to the economy. Throughout the world, many countries that benefited from strong economic growth and investment expansion for the better part of decade are also taking a hit.
Nowhere is the shock being felt more keenly than in the emerging economies of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where the commodity boom at the beginning of this century, fuelled by Asia’s rapid industrialization and growth, proved a boon to countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana. Now, as revenues fall, economic, social and political stability will be threatened. Some governments may even find themselves unable to provide basic services to their growing populations. In those countries where democratic rules of governance are weak, the spoils to service the vast patronage networks that hold ruling parties together will dry up. This will also affect political stability.

China’s mounting yin and yang tensions
We will see more of the yin and yang (darkness and cold versus light and warmth) in China’s behaviour in 2016. China’s conduct will continue to confound its immediate neighbours and the West. China will likely accelerate expansion its territorial reach in the East and South China seas. It will not be deterred by American naval patrols or overflights of the territorial waters it now claims. China’s leadership is driven by mounting nationalistic fervour that will not easily be quelled by the flex of superior American military muscle. The temptation for China’s regime to deflect the country’s mounting internal economic difficulties and accompanying social unrest toward the world outside is simply too strong.
At the same time, China acutely needs the rest of the world just as the world needs China. Global production value chains reach deep into the heart of the Chinese economy. China’s rich portfolio of foreign direct investment and finance capital also spans the globe. China is not only a major player in international institutions, but it is also developing some of its own institutional innovations, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
China’s new Internet Plus strategy, which seeks to build “smart cities” and promote mobile data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things, also means that it cannot be “business as usual” in the way China manages and controls the internet within its borders. If China wants its companies, including its smaller- and medium-sized enterprises, to expand and dominate the global market as part of a bigger push to transform its economy from excessive reliance on heavy industry and manufacturing toward financial services, IT, aerospace, biotechnology and innovation, it is going to have to behave differently in cyberspace from the way it does now, where it is one of the major sources of attacks on the west.
The west’s challenge is trying to reinforce the best instincts of the yang in Chinese behaviour, while also curbing the worst of its yin.

American leadership?
You can expect a lot more talk about American leadership in the world in the coming year — but don’t expect a whole lot of action. The U.S. will be in full election mode in 2016. Its eyes, and the eyes of the world, will be focused on what is shaping up to be an epic, gladiatorial contest between the Democratic Party, which has all but anointed its leader, former first lady and secretary of state, Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the Republicans, who are still at war with themselves. The Reagan question in the 2016 race will be: “Do you feel more secure than you did eight years ago?” Hillary Clinton would have more trouble than any other candidate with that query.
Obama is in full pursuit of securing his political legacy (and corralling donors to cough up for his presidential library). He is going to do his best to avoid sending ground troops to do battle against IS/Daesh even though he is grudgingly extending the Afghan mission. The Russians know it, which is why Russian President Vladimir Putin is emerging as the go-to guy to help solve the crisis in Syria. And he is going to put that political capital in the bank in his quest for greater control over Ukraine and Central Asia. Regional powers, such as Iran, following the nuclear accord and lifting of sanctions, are also going to increasingly assert their power.
Obama’s penchant to “lead from behind” has meant, to paraphrase the Israeli diplomat and politician, Abba Eban, that he has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Whether it be in the early days of the Syrian uprising and Assad’s brutal response, the disintegration of Iraq after Obama pulled out U.S. troops, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Obama let chance after chance go by. Many critics view his global leadership as an abject failure and it would be hard to envisage any successor in 2017 doing less for the U.S.’s global reputation and credibility.
The prospect of a world in which China is rising as the U.S. continues to struggle at home and abroad, alone guarantees that pinpoint predictions about how all these global forces will play out in the year ahead is, as Niels Bohr said, indeed difficult.

Columnist Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow & Director of the Global Security & Politics Program, CIGI. He is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

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Category: Diplomatica

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Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

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