As 2015 draws to a close, every region of the world is experiencing some amount of volatility that will persist into 2016. Some countries around the world will resolve their problems and thrive; others will fail to meet their challenges and continue to suffer.
Europe continues to muddle through its occasional economic crises while bearing the weight of a politically fractious influx of Middle Eastern refugees. Russia is attempting to punch above its weight in conflicts on its near abroad while NATO beats its chest in response. Former Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia have seen their economies take a collective nosedive, following the descent of both oil prices and the Russian ruble. China’s government is grappling with a domestic economic slowdown while trying to secure a sphere of influence. The rest of Asia, suspicious of Beijing’s initiatives, is coalescing around security concerns, but each nation there is dealing with its own domestic challenges. Latin America is enduring simultaneous political crises in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Several countries in Africa are dealing with persistent terrorist threats from Islamic State (IS) affiliates, while others have seen their domestic politics unwind into violence. In North America, the United States is witnessing the ugly sides of domestic politics emerge as the November 2016 presidential election looms. Looking forward, it is better to focus on larger international issues rather than the futures of individual states.
Global Economic Outlook
The global economy is slowly piecing itself back together. Europe has pushed through a number of economic crises, East Asian economies are still moving along and North America is rebounding well. “The Economist” predicts a global growth of 2.7% in 2016. They also predict that Asia, Africa and North America will grow at or above 3% in the coming year. With the US Federal Reserve set to hike interest rates, this seems plausible, but financial markets will need time to adjust. This will also have consequences for the value of currencies worldwide—the rate hike is meant in part to stave off inflation in the US where years of quantitative easing have flooded the economy with cheap dollars. A rebounding dollar could hit developing states hard, especially in emerging markets across Latin America and Asia. But it would also make their exports more attractive compared to American goods and services.
Natural resource exporters will suffer from low commodity prices. The addition of Iranian and American hydrocarbons to world markets will keep energy prices depressed. These same low prices can help fuel growth in other countries that leverage the availability of cheap energy and raw materials. More developed and sophisticated economies like India and South Korea are best positioned to take advantage of cheap, plentiful energy. Economies that depend on a sole supplier – especially those in Eastern Europe that depend on Russian hydrocarbons – may use this time to diversify their supply options.
The Cyber World
Cybersecurity continues its rise in importance and prominence. Developed nations will compete to create better cyber capabilities to protect utilities, banks and other types of infrastructure that are connected to the internet, and the demand for skilled information technologists will continue to surge worldwide. Developing nations, beset with other challenges, will struggle to keep apace. The most advanced countries, such as the US, China and Russia, may begin to offer cyber capabilities to developing nations in efforts to gain influence.
Meanwhile, increased government interest in the cyberworld will be matched by private citizen efforts to protect internet freedoms. Nations will settle debates over the competing importance of security and privacy differently. Those that land on the side of security and surveillance may find themselves under scrutiny from both hacker collectives like Anonymous and prominent civil liberties advocates. But mass surveillance and data collection will continue across the world; internet privacy for individuals will continue to be dismantled in 2016.
Terrorism will remain a worldwide security concern in 2016. Countries across the globe will continue to collaborate to combat terror threats, although different governments will implement vastly different measures. Inevitably, headline-grabbing attacks will be attempted in the West and Asia this year. The victimized nations will ramp up their security capabilities, possibly at the expense of civil liberties.
The Islamic State’s appeal to jihadists will remain strong, but it will remain physically isolated within parts of Iraq and Syria and focused on securing and legitimizing its caliphate. While fresh attacks are all but certain, an event on the scale of 9/11 is highly unlikely based on what information is available. IS cannot match al-Qaeda’s former capabilities, and multinational efforts will likely prevent IS from reaching that level. Al-Qaeda itself is no longer potent enough to carry out major attacks on the West, and it does not seem capable of resurrecting itself this year.
Politics and Security in the Middle East
The Syrian crisis won’t be resolved. Refugees will continue to flee the conflict zone and surrounding nations must deal with the consequences. As the Islamic State is continually bombarded, outside actors like the United States, Russia and Iran will pick their proxies on the ground and commit to them this year. The US will continue to back Iraq as long as possible, but with Iranian and Russian military advisors also present in Baghdad, the Iraqi-American relationship may start to unravel. As relations deteriorate, the US will have no choice but to put its weight behind the Kurds. Washington must attempt to forge a mutual understanding between Kurdish leaders and Turkey to bring them both together against IS and the Assad regime. But the US will likely fail to create a meaningful Turkish-Kurdish alliance, unless both the Islamic State and the Assad regime cause all three enough pain to bring them together.
Turkey will not stand for the Kurds, IS or Assad gaining power in Syria and will vehemently protest American support for Iraqi Kurds. It will consider a unilateral incursion into Syria, and taking some of northeastern Syria under its control is likely. However, Turkey will not aim to engage Russian forces, limiting its activities to Kurdish and IS territories.
Russia and Iran will continue to support the Assad regime. However, they will seek a diplomatic solution where Assad remains in power over the Alawite-controlled areas of Syria between the western cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Russia will push hard for a diplomatic solution ensuring Assad’s survivability, even if that means leaving the regime with a smaller territory and putting the rest up for grabs among rebel groups. Assad’s forces have lost substantial manpower, and Russia needs to get out and focus its attention on issues closer to home. Iran has apparently begun withdrawing some of its forces from Syria. If IS becomes threatening enough to demand the full attention of other rebel forces, a settlement may become a possibility. But rebel enmity for Assad will not fade this year, and no agreement will be reached.
Sunni Arab nations will mull the possibility of extending support to non-Islamic State Sunni factions in Iraq and Syria, but will not get deeply involved unless a major Shia-led atrocity occurs. But in this conflict, the possibility of genocide cannot be ruled out. Arabs will maintain their strong focus on the civil war in Yemen where they will increase their support for anti-Houthi forces. Kuwait recently became involved on the ground alongside Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati forces; all these nations will redouble their efforts to eliminate the Houthi rebels. On the other side of the conflict, Iran will struggle to provide comparable aid to the Houthis due to Saudi Arabia’s effective blockade around Yemen. Yemen’s civil war could end this year in favor of the ousted Sunni government. The coalition of Sunni forces are certainly stronger right now, but they must achieve a decisive victory over the Houthis to see the conflict end. Iranian support will not enable the Houthis to push back, but economic pressure on the Gulf nations may diminish the total commitment that coalition members can make, delaying the end of the conflict.
Maritime Claims in Asia
China will continue to aggressively exert control over its proclaimed possessions in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Japan and South Korea will hold fast against these claims in the East; Japan’s recent apology to South Korea for atrocities committed during World War II is a sign of the two states’ emerging strategic alliance. Similar apologies may be coming out of Tokyo to nations such as the Philippines or Vietnam, but Beijing will get no such treatment.
In the South China Sea, the US will publicly raise the profile of its military and diplomatic support for nations with maritime claims competing against China. The US has announced its intent to base more forces in the Philippines, and it has also declared its intent to hold more multilateral exercises with ASEAN nations, obviously to deter Chinese aggression. America will be successful in forging a common cause across Asia to prevent the spread of China’s navy, but a formal alliance of nations aimed at deterring China is unlikely.
However, China will not be intimidated. It will continue its strategy of building and developing artificial territory that it claims for its own. No country will resort to the use of force against China in defense of an uninhabited island, but inhabited islands will be actively defended. China may succeed in taking control of most of its desired area, but won’t prevent American naval vessels from patrolling throughout the South China Sea. Neither side will provoke a military conflict; the economic impact would be disastrous.
The United States will remain the world’s superpower throughout 2016 and NATO the most potent military coalition. When bundled together, the European, North American and Australian economies dwarf the rest of the world, and this is the foundation of Western power today. However, the political appeal of the West has been diminishing and will continue to decline; China has proven that economic growth can be achieved without implementing democracy and developing nations have taken notice. The West cannot rely on its own perceived political superiority or glorifying human rights to influence other nations. Economic strength and cultural appeal are the foundations of Western soft power.
Vibrant economies will also support hard power, financing Western military expeditions worldwide as the West continues its global counterterrorism campaign. America’s combat mission in Afghanistan will also continue unabated through this year and the next American president will decide its fate. Eastern European NATO members will be bolstered as NATO’s original nemesis continues to revive itself. Russia may be seething at the loss of a jet to Turkey, but it will not seriously entertain the idea of confronting NATO. With the economy reeling, Putin cannot afford any defeat in foreign affairs, much less one with such astronomical consequences.
Trade between Eastern and Western economies will hold steady, with Western demand keeping manufacturing alive in East Asia and providing a basis for the expansion of the services sector. China and India will continue to feed off this energy to grow and diversify their own economies. American growth and European steadiness will keep demand for goods high. Dollars and Euros will continue to circulate globally as the preferred currencies for trade, and Western financial institutions will remain the standard bearers of the economy. Alternative financiers like the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will see their influence grow, but the West will maintain a strong lead in available capital. China will counter the West by attempting to invest faster and more actively in infrastructure projects across Asia and Africa, but its own economic slowdown will constrain its capabilities.
Overall, Western hegemony may not remain as powerful as it has been, but the West’s economic and military strength will persist even as other states ascend into regional powers.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.