Foreign Policy: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017


The world is entering its most dangerous chapter in decades. The sharp uptick in war over recent years is outstripping our ability to cope with the consequences. From the global refugee crisis to the spread of terrorism, our collective failure to resolve conflict is giving birth to new threats and emergencies. Even in peaceful societies, the politics of fear is leading to dangerous polarization and demagoguery.

It is against this backdrop that Donald Trump was elected the next president of the United States — unquestionably the most important event of last year and one with far-reaching geopolitical implications for the future. Much has been said about the unknowns of Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. But one thing we do know is that uncertainty itself can be profoundly destabilizing, especially when it involves the most powerful actor on the global stage. Already, jittery allies from Europe to East Asia are parsing Trump’s tweets and casual bluster. Will he cut a deal with Russia over the heads of Europeans? Will he try to undo the Iran nuclear accord? Is he seriously proposing a new arms race?

Who knows? And that is precisely the problem.

The last 60 years have suffered their share of crises, from Vietnam to Rwanda to the Iraq War. But the vision of a cooperative international order that emerged after World War II, championed and led by the United States, has structured relations between major powers since the end of the Cold War.

That order was in flux even before Trump won the election. The retrenchment of Washington, for both good and ill, began during Barack Obama’s presidency. But Obama worked to shore up international institutions to fill the gap. Today, we can no longer assume that a United States shaped by “America first” will provide the bricks and mortar of the international system. U.S. hard power, when not accompanied and framed by its soft power, is more likely to be perceived as a threat rather than the reassurance that it has been for many.

In Europe, uncertainty over the new U.S. political posture is compounded by the messy aftermath of Brexit. Nationalist forces have gained strength, and upcoming elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands will test the future of the European project. The potential unraveling of the European Union is one of the greatest challenges we face today — a fact that is lost amid the many other alarming developments competing for attention. We cannot afford to lose Europe’s balancing voice in the world.

Exacerbated regional rivalries are also transforming the landscape, as is particularly evident in the competition between Iran and the Persian Gulf countries for influence in the Middle East. The resulting proxy wars have had devastating consequences from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.

Terrorism is just a tactic, and fighting a tactic cannot define a strategy. Jihadi groups exploit wars and state collapse to consolidate power, and they thrive on chaos.

Many world leaders claim that the way out of deepening divisions is to unite around the shared goal of fighting terrorism. But that is an illusion: Terrorism is just a tactic, and fighting a tactic cannot define a strategy. Jihadi groups exploit wars and state collapse to consolidate power, and they thrive on chaos. In the end, what the international system really needs is a strategy of conflict prevention that shores up, in an inclusive way, the states that are its building blocks. The international system needs more than the pretense of a common enemy to sustain itself.

With the advent of the Trump administration, transactional diplomacy, already on the rise, looks set to increase. Tactical bargaining is replacing long-term strategies and values-driven policies. A rapprochement between Russia and Turkey holds some promise for reducing the level of violence in Syria. However, Moscow and Ankara must eventually help forge a path toward more inclusive governance — or else they risk being sucked ever deeper into the Syrian quagmire. A stable Middle East is unlikely to emerge from the temporary consolidation of authoritarian regimes that ignore the demands of the majority of their people.

The EU, long a defender of values-based diplomacy, has struck bargains with Turkey, Afghanistan, and African states to stem the flow of migrants and refugees — with worrying global consequences. On the other hand, Europe could take advantage of any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations to reset arms control for both conventional and nuclear forces, which would be more opportune than opportunistic.

Beijing’s hardheaded approach in its relationship with other Asian countries and with Africa and Latin America shows what a world deprived of the implicit reassurance of the United States will look like.

Such transactional arrangements may look like a revival of realpolitik. But an international system guided by short-term deal-making is unlikely to be stable. Deals can be broken when they do not reflect longer-term strategies. Without a predictable order, widely accepted rules, and strong institutions, the space for mischief is greater. The world is increasingly fluid and multipolar, pushed and pulled by a diverse set of states and nonstate actors — by armed groups as well as by civil society. In a bottom-up world, major powers cannot single-handedly contain or control local conflicts, but they can manipulate or be drawn into them: Local conflicts can be the spark that lights much bigger fires.

Whether we like it or not, globalization is a fact. We are all connected. Syria’s war triggered a refugee crisis that contributed to Brexit, whose profound political and economic consequences will again ripple outward. Countries may wish to turn inward, but there is no peace and prosperity without more cooperative management of world affairs.

This list of 10 conflicts to watch in 2017 illustrates some of the broader trends but also explores ways to reverse the dangerous dynamics.

Syrian Abu Khaled looks at the rubble of his destroyed house in the rebel-held town of Douma on Dec. 30, 2016. (Photo credit: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images); Displaced Iraqis from Mosul's eastern neighbourhoods arrive in the Al-Quds neighborhood on January 3. (Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

1. Syria & Iraq

After nearly six years of fighting, an estimated 500,000 people killed, and some 12 million uprooted, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears likely to maintain power for now, but even with foreign backing his forces cannot end the war and regain total control. This was evident in the recent recapture of Palmyra by the Islamic State, just nine months after a Russian-backed military campaign had expelled the group. Assad’s strategy to cripple the non-jihadi opposition has worked to empower radical Islamist groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front). Non-jihadi rebels have been further weakened by the recent defeat in Aleppo; they remain fractious and undermined by their state backers’ divergent approaches.