Why you should care

Because events on the horizon will shape America’s relationships in some of the most strategic parts of the world for decades to come.

Last year was a busy one for new Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of the American diplomatic corps, but the next six months could just make 2013 look downright sedate by comparison.

Forging a successful resolution on even one of these fronts would be historic. Failure is more likely.

The first half of 2014 is dominated by a series of weighty foreign events that could resolve decades-long international conflicts, give new direction to the Arab Spring, end America’s longest war and relieve one of the worst humanitarian crises of our generation. Or it’s possible that these situations will devolve into further strife. But while the U.S. has varying degrees of influence in each scenario, there’s no doubt they will shape America’s foreign relations — particularly in the Muslim world — and global geopolitics going forward.

Egypt’s Constitution

2014 kicks off with Egypt’s constitutional referendum, slated for Jan. 14. Egyptians overseas have already started voting. The new constitution, a reworked version of the document approved by former President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government, is expected to be easily approved by voters. The Egyptian military and its leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, remain popular among a broad swath of Egyptians despite its crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters — most recently declaring the group a terrorist organization — and civil society groups.

While the U.S. has varying degrees of influence in each scenario, there’s no doubt they will shape America’s foreign relations.

There is skepticism in the West, however, that the referendum will advance Egyptian democracy. ”In fact, the country’s new constitution might entrench, rather than manage, Egypt’s deep political divisions,” writes Nathan Brown, a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ”The constitution will be approved and accepted by its supporters. But that will not persuade its opponents.”

Syria Peace Talks

Close on the heels of Egypt’s vote, Syria’s warring factions are scheduled to meet for peace talks in Switzerland. But few are optimistic that the talks will end the nearly three-year civil war in Syria, which has claimed the lives of at least 126,000 people and displaced millions — or that the meeting will even take place. The main Western-backed Syrian opposition organization, the Syrian National Coalition, has still not decided whether it will participate, torn over whether to talk to Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it continues to bombard opposition strongholds and kill thousands of civilians. Further complicating prospects of a resolution is the splintering of opposition forces and the rise of Islamist fighters who have joined the battle to take down Assad.

Man looking at camera with head piece and rifle by his side as he sits.

Soldier from ’Sockor Al Shom’ militia wait for fight as he hear noise of closing tank.

Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal

In February, attention shifts to Afghanistan, where just over half of the 66,000 U.S. troops there are slated to come home. The White House has yet to decide how many troops it will keep in Afghanistan after the war officially concludes at the end of 2014 — and it doesn’t help that Afghanistan has still not signed an agreement authorizing a post-2014 troop presence. There is a broad consensus among experts, as well as many Afghans, that Afghanistan’s security forces will continue to need foreign support after 2014, albeit in a strictly training and counterterrorism role.

Having agreed on the pact text, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been stalling, issuing new demands and proposing to delay the Bilateral Security Agreement, as it is known, until a new president is elected in April. The U.S. told Karzai he had until the end of 2013 to make a decision. With that deadline past, the United States will continue to press Karzai to sign the agreement this winter so the U.S. military and NATO allies can plan for transition in 2014 and beyond.

People with blood on their hands and faces facing the camera

Israeli settlers are seen as they are detained and beaten by Palestinians from the village of Qusra on January 7, 2014, eyewitnesses and officials said.

Israel-Palestine Peace Talks

Looking ahead to spring, the foreign policy calendar heats up at the end of April, the deadline Secretary Kerry set for the U.S.-brokered peace talks underway between Israel and Palestine. The latest round of talks kicked off in July and there are few signs of progress thus far, although the State Department insists that’s the result of a mutually agreed-upon press embargo among the talks’ top players. ”The fact that there is not a lot of information coming out doesn’t mean that the talks aren’t being productive,” Kerry told reporters in December. Still, with less than four months left, there is widespread skepticism that the two sides will reach agreement on the entire range of core issues dividing them — most especially the borders of a future Palestinian state, ways to guarantee Israeli security, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future status of Jerusalem.

Nuclear Iran

Amidst these landmark events, U.S. negotiators will continue to participate in international talks with Iran over its nuclear program. World powers reached an interim agreement with Tehran in November that would temporarily freeze the country’s nuclear enrichment activities. But the agreement — which has a six-month time line — has not yet kicked into gear. Negotiators are still working on an implementation plan for the freeze and the accompanying lifting of Western economic sanctions — which are expected to be finalized sometime in January. From there, the plan is to hammer out a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that brings it into international compliance and eases international suspicions about its intent.

Forging a successful resolution on even one of these fronts would be historic. Failure is more likely. Either way, America’s role in the Muslim world could be fundamentally altered in the wake of decisions made in the next six months.

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