Why you should care
Because 2014 introduced a slew of intricate problems — leaving us to untangle them as best we can in the new year.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Something fearsome this way comes. In recent years, an array of complex, volatile international problems has unfurled. It’s made confident prediction about the future nearly impossible. But what we can say is that this year, we’ll witness a number of vital turning points. And there are at least a few larger trends that cut across many threats: Oil prices are plummeting. Terrorism remains a huge threat. And the careful balance of diplomacy with military force is a continuing difficulty.
In the Middle East, America must focus on combating the Islamic State and limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
Islamic State: The coalition plans to mount a major counteroffensive, hoping to retake a key city like Mosul. If it succeeds, we could be cautiously optimistic, despite a yearslong struggle ahead involving not only Iraq but also Syria … where far less progress is likely.
Iran: Things are likely to come to a head by midyear, when we reach the June deadline extension the six parties agreed to in November. The talks are stalling over the amount of uranium that Iran can enrich — not to mention Iran’s refusal to reveal data about explosive testing (which plenty suspect was related to developing nuclear weapons). Without an agreement, you can bet on heated debates over whether we should launch a military operation to block Iran’s program.
China: Will Chinese President Xi Jinping’s fierce anti-corruption campaign and other reforms revive a faltering economy? That same economy has started to create political problems for the Communist Party. After decades of double-digit growth, Beijing last year experienced its slowest growth rates in five years. Which leaves Xi trying to turn the economy from one less dependent on exports toward one relying on domestic demand. In foreign policy, meanwhile, there’s good news: China’s reduced some of its warrior stance toward Japan and other neighbors, cooling (at least the rhetoric on) its expansive claims in the South and East China seas, thereby lowering the chance of confrontation. Of course, an accident could still cause the region to erupt, and with a contentious Taiwanese election ahead in 2016, we could see Taipei-Beijing tensions rising.
The larger worry in Asia this year might be the unpredictable, bizarre North Korea. Apart from its alleged cyberattack on Sony, Pyongyang probably has the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on one of its shorter-range missiles. And it may at last succeed in building an intercontinental ballistic missile. Expect the U.S. to amp up consultations with South Korea and certainly with China, which accounts for more than 90 percent of Pyongyang’s trade.
In Europe and Russia, low oil prices and Western sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis are spurring a deep recession. But President Vladimir Putin’s popularity still soars around 80 percent. When hardships trickle down to Russian households, as they surely will, this could all change.
Though Putin’s rhetoric is softening, his long-term aim to expand Russia’s sphere of influence remains unchanged – even though he may loosen his choke hold on eastern Ukraine for awhile. Farther south in Ukraine, however, he’s still itching to carve out a Russia-Crimea land bridge, especially now that Kiev has cut off electricity and transport services to Crimea.
In South Asia:
Coalition forces in Afghanistan will reach their lowest level in 13 years. And, for the first time, they’ll have no combat role. Which probably presages an upsurge in Taliban attacks, especially once the weather warms up. Meanwhile, America will struggle to gauge the threat, hampered by a lighter presence throughout the country. And Afghan forces will find themselves struggling without NATO’s robust logistical and transport support.
Pakistan’s government, spurred by the Taliban’s massacre of schoolchildren in December, pledges a tougher policy toward extremists. This is a huge departure from Pakistan’s history of looking the other way on some terrorist groups. Then again, this is a tune we’ve heard before … so put this one in the “wait-and-see” category. The only certainty? That Pakistan’s hard-core extremists won’t sit still.
In Africa, there’s good news: Countries seeing economic and governance improvements include Morocco, Tunisia, Botswana, Rwanda, Senegal, Cote’d’Ivoire, Mauritius and Uganda. But the bad news: Terrorism’s sticking around in Nigeria, Libya, Somalia and the Sahel — where there are large, ungoverned spaces providing safe haven.
In Latin America, Venezuela — where more than 90 percent of export earnings come from oil — will be dealt a real blow by the falling price of crude. The same goes for the dozen or so Latin countries that rely on soon-to-be-reduced oil subsidies from Caracas. One such country is Cuba — which explains, in part, Havana’s recent diplomatic and economic opening.
Here, again, we’re reminded that the tremors stemming from oil prices are touching many a fault line.
And in the United States: As the reality of our coming energy independence sinks in, count on a debate about the costs and merits of America’s foreign obligations — especially in the Middle East.
In the end, we’ll do well to keep in mind the counsel of physicist Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult — especially about the future.” More difficult than ever, it seems, halfway through the 21st century’s second decade.
But OZY is all about staying ahead of events, so bring it on, 2015. We look forward to the challenge!