Watch List 2018

Global Overview

For Europeans who have chafed at the embrace of U.S. hyper-power, resented being relegated to the part of bankroller-in-chief, and longed for a more assertive European role on the world stage, now would seem the moment. Disengaged from some areas, dangerously engaged in others, and disconcertingly engaged overall, the U.S. under President Donald Trump provides the European Union (EU) and its member states with a golden opportunity to step up and step in. The challenge is doing so without either gratuitously antagonising or needlessly deferring to Washington.

On a first set of issues – broad policy choices and matters of values – Europe’s response has offered early promise. Its reaffirmation of the Paris climate accord and the vigorous defence by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of a more tolerant, less nativist form of politics and a rules-based international order were the right form of push-back. Europe’s internal challenges, from economic woes to the difficulties of managing migration, are far from resolved. They require European leaders to balance foreign priorities with those at home. But 2017, in some ways and with some exceptions, was the year of the dog that didn’t bark: populists and anti-immigrants didn’t prevail in France, the Netherlands or Germany. The threat they pose remains, yet the wave many feared was only beginning to gather force with Brexit and Trump, for now at least, appears to have crested. This has created space for several European leaders to speak out in support of norms the U.S. appears in danger of neglecting.

On a second set of issues U.S. policies directly clash with Europe’s interest in stability and conflict resolution. This is most obviously the case with the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on which Trump’s ultimatum – agree with us to alter the agreement or I’ll withdraw from it – requires Europe to grapple with how much it is willing to fight back. The wise response would be to simultaneously encourage Washington to stick to the deal, reject any attempt to make Europe an accomplice to its breach, while preparing for a U.S. walkout. That means immunising as much as possible economic relations between Europe and Iran from the re-imposition of U.S. secondary sanctions. Brussels could, for example, revive blocking regulations (prohibiting companies from complying with such sanctions) and adopt other measures to safeguard Iran’s business ties with Europe.

A similar dynamic is at play in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Trump’s “I’ve-taken-Jerusalem-off-the-table” refrain, coupled with his threat to withhold funding from the Palestinian Authority should President Mahmoud Abbas ignore U.S. desiderata, are stripping Palestinians of whatever slender hope they retained in a negotiated settlement. That is reason enough for European governments – which already have moved to plug a separate gap left by the U.S. withholding its funds for the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees – to work with the Palestinians on devising novel ways of advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In the cases of both the JCPOA and Israel/Palestine, Europe’s objective ought to be simple: shore up bilateral relations so that Iran and the Palestinians, despite being spurned by Washington, resist the allure of alternate and more hazardous routes – away from the nuclear deal, in one instance, and toward violence, in the other. In the two instances, there may be only so much Europeans can do. But they should do it.

The third category is trickiest, for it entails Europe at times breaking not solely with the U.S., but with some of its own habits as well. Over the past several years, European foreign policy progressively has defined itself as an extension of domestic anxieties – mostly about terrorism and migration. That’s understandable. Political leaders can ill afford to come across as divorced from public opinion – however revved-up and exploited for partisan purposes its apprehensions. They must make public angst at least partly their own.

But carried too far, this runs the risk of producing a narrow and short-sighted approach. Indeed, it risks replicating in some places the U.S.’s policy flaws: too heavy a reliance on military force; unsavoury deals with autocratic leaders who pledge to counter terrorism or stem migration; a capricious human rights policy that spares allies while penalising foes; a diminished role for diplomacy; and the neglect of measures to address political or social factors that drive people to join violent groups or flee their homes.

Examples of what the EU and its member states can do to counter this trend are legion, and developed in some detail in the entries of this Watch List. But to mention a few: European leaders might use the EU’s position as Africa’s chief peace and security partner to work with its leaders and regional organisations to help nudge the continent’s long-serving incumbents toward peaceful transitions of power. They might more critically assess the performance of strongmen who (from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, to President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, or President Idriss Déby in Chad) promise aggressive counter-terrorism operations in the hope of external leniency toward their repressive behaviour at home.

Certainly, they should ensure that the African counter-terrorism force deploying across parts of the Sahel (the G5 Sahel joint force) – which is backed by European powers – comes hand-in-hand with local mediation efforts, lest it further militarise the region and empower non-state proxies whose rivalries aggravate intercommunal conflicts. More generally, they might see to it that deals cut on migration (say, with Libyan militias) and alliances forged for counter-terrorism purposes don’t end up entrenching the misrule that propels the very patterns – migration and terrorism – they aim to forestall.

In other areas, Europe could give diplomacy a shot in the arm where the U.S. appears to have abandoned it. European leaders could press Saudi Arabia and Iran to open a channel of communication, even as the U.S. appears to encourage escalation. They could use the leverage provided by European forces’ presence in Afghanistan to persuade Washington to pursue not military escalation alone, but a settlement with the Taliban that involves regional powers. They also should match their criticism of rivals’ abuses – from President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to the Taliban’s horrific attacks on civilians – with more forceful rebukes of those of its allies, members of the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen first and foremost.

Standing up to the U.S., stepping in where it opts out, devising policies with or without it: all of this undoubtedly can attract Washington’s ire. But the European Union and its member states ought to pay little heed. To forge a more independent and forceful European foreign policy focused on diplomacy, de-escalation and conflict prevention at a time of uncertainty and confusion in Washington is not to undermine the U.S., but to do it – and, more importantly, the rest of the world – a favour.

Africa

In 2018, Africa faces some all-too-familiar peace and security challenges: tense winner-take-all elections that risk provoking violence; authoritarian drift that erodes institutions and generates rebellions; and low-intensity insurgencies that create humanitarian crises. Meanwhile, the spat between Gulf powers – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on one side, and Qatar, on the other – threatens to destabilise the Horn of Africa. 2018 also promises to be an important year for Europe’s relations with Africa, particularly in the light of the Cotonou Agreement renegotiations.

Critical elections and democratic backsliding

Eighteen countries are expected to hold presidential, parliamentary or local elections in 2018. In many of these places, either politics is zero-sum, raising the stakes and risking violence around the polls; or power is heavily skewed toward the ruling party, often sowing the seeds of future conflict. Three elections to watch are in Cameroon, Zimbabwe – both covered in the entry below – and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cameroon’s contest is complicated by an insurrection in its Anglophone region and Boko Haram violence in the Far North. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s unexpected departure offers the chance to reverse the country’s economic crisis, but significant reforms are needed to ensure a level playing field, a credible vote and thus a government with a strong mandate to begin to repair the damage of his 37-year rule. In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila’s extension of his tenure in office – he should have left in December 2016 – has already provoked a political crisis; even getting to elections now scheduled for the end of 2018 will be hard, and the vote itself is likely to be contentious.

Democratic backsliding and authoritarian drift remain sources of instability. The Ugandan parliament’s December decision to remove the presidential age limit will allow President Yoweri Museveni to run for a sixth term in 2021; longstanding and seemingly mounting grievances against his continued rule are feeding popular discontent. One-person or one-party rule and the closure of political space in Chad and Ethiopia risks stoking similar problems. All three governments enjoy significant Western support, related to the role their security forces play in Western-backed military operations across the continent. But if these governments are perceived as reliable security partners

abroad, they increasingly deepen problems at home and behave in ways that foment rebellion.

Spillover from the Gulf

The Gul