James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Five Big Foreign Policy Questions for 2016

by James M. Lindsay
December 31, 2015

The New Year's Eve "16" numerals arrive on a truck in Times Square New York. (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters) The New Year's Eve "16" numerals arrive in Times Square. (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters)


On Tuesday, CFR.org posted an interview I did previewing the year ahead. My take in a nutshell: 2016 is shaping up to be a tumultuous year. The list of problems is long: a resurgence in terrorism, chaos in the Middle East, tensions in Asia, and sluggish global economic growth. All of this will be happening amidst what promises to be a raucous American presidential campaign that will likely generate more heat than light on the foreign policy challenges facing the United States.

So as we enter 2016, here are five big foreign policy questions I am pondering:

1. Are we on the verge of a global economic slowdown, and if so, what will be its consequences? China’s double-digit economic growth created boom times around the world as countries rushed to feed the Chinese economic juggernaut. But now Beijing says its growth rates have dipped below 7 percent, and they are perhaps substantially lower than that. Oil prices have plummeted, putting a big pinch on oil producers around the world. The U.S. Federal Reserve is trying to raise interest rates without stalling the weak U.S. economic recovery. With no major economy looking ready to reignite boom times, the global economic picture could get worse—potentially much worse. The political and geopolitical fallout could be immense. Will Beijing act more belligerently abroad to offset tough times at home? What about Russia? Will efforts by commodity producing nations to curtail government spending trigger political crises? Will increased economic hardship accelerate the already substantial movement of migrants from poorer countries to richer ones?

2. Will Europe turn the corner in 2016 or continue to fray? It’s been a rough several years for what Americans like to call the “Old World.” A crushing recession. Austerity plans that inflicted deep pain but produced a feeble recovery. Multiple debt crises that raised deep questions about the viability of the eurozone. A populist (and at times xenophobic) backlash against Brussels and the idea of an “ever closer union.” And, a refugee and migrant crisis that revealed bitter divisions both between countries and within them. Solutions to these problems look to be in short supply. If Europe doesn’t get its mojo back in 2016, will we be talking in 2017 about the unraveling of the European Union, one of the great accomplishments of the post-World War II era?

3. What will be the Kremlin’s next surprise? In 2014, it was the annexation of Crimea. In 2015, it was the intervention in Syria. Vladimir Putin loves to flex Russia’s (atrophied) muscles, likes to upset the status quo, and would love to split the United States from its friends and allies. Does he have a new move for 2016? If so, what is it and where will it be?

4. Does the White House–or anyone else–have a strategy for dealing with a newly energized Iran? The Iran nuclear deal was one of the most important developments of 2015. But its ultimate significance will turn less on what the P5+1 agreed to at Vienna and more on what they do now that the deal has been struck. Iran will receive as much as $100 billion as the sanctions against it are lifted. That will boost a struggling Iranian economy and make it easier for Tehran to meddle in its neighborhood and beyond. The White House hopes the nuclear deal will transform Iran’s relations with the West and possibly even transform Iran itself. But what mix of carrots and sticks will maximize the odds of seeing a transformed Iran, minimize the chances that Tehran can subvert its neighbors, and prevent the emergence in fifteen years of a nuclear-armed Iran?

5. What will the United States do if China escalates the island-building dispute in the South China Sea? China claims much of the South China Sea and is creating artificial islands to make that claim a reality. The United States takes no position on China’s broad maritime claims, but it decisively rejects China’s claim that the twelve-mile zone around these new islands constitutes Chinese territorial waters. To drive the point home, a U.S. navy destroyer sailed near one of the artificial islands in late October. Then in December, a U.S. B-52 bomber accidentally flew over another one. China lodged diplomatic protests in both instances, and has so far left it at that. But what if China contests, either by intent or accident, future military operations by the United States or a U.S. ally near one of the new islands? And even if Beijing continues to opt for diplomatic protests, can the United States or the countries in the region stand idly by while it, so to speak, changes the facts on the ground?

No, I don’t have answers to these questions. But if you do, or you just want to speculate on their answers, use the comment box below. And if you have different, or better, big foreign policy questions that you are asking, let everyone know what they are in the comment box as well.

Best wishes to all of you for a happy, safe, and prosperous 2016.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jerry Hoff

    It seems to me your list is too short. I can’t help but think that Central America and Central Africa rise to the level of the other problems.Gangs and terrorist groups want their own nations; what would we have then?

  • Posted by Rick Tasker

    1. Soft landing to a slightly lower global growth rate.
    2. Europe 2 steps forward, 1 step back as usual.
    3. Russia running out of nickels.
    4. White House wants to continue to engage Iran.
    5. China faces pressure over islands, will now slow

  • Posted by David Santoro

    Thanks for this piece. I’ll just take on questions 3, 4, and 5. From a US perspective, my sense is many of the answers to these problems have to do with improving alliance modernization and integration. Better coordination/cooperation/integration between the United States and its allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East will improve deterrence of Russia, China, and (even if it’s more complicated) Iran. Whatever each of these players decide to do, it’s critical that the US stays in sync with its allies. Work has been initiated to this end already, but much more is need.

  • Posted by Steven

    Happy (pessimistic) New Year Dr. Lindsay, unfortunately I agree with you and most likely anyone who reads or watches the news does as well. I’ll add I find it an irony as well as a tragedy that we wish each other a better and brighter new year yet wake up to a worse and darker 2016. In less then the first week of 2016 alone we have been flooded with unfortunate progress pertaining to your five points as well as other developments from around the world. On your points,

    1. China implementing a make shift bank holiday twice in one week definitely says something about the state of their system.

    2. On European matters I am as pessimistic as ever. Cologne Germany’s New Year? Brexit 2016? Individual with a meet cleaver at a Paris police station on Charlie Hebdo anniversary? Europe being relatively secure politically looks socially very insecure which makes me think of A.J.P Taylor’s European Question in a distinct 21st century way.

    3. Putin mutually designating Nato a threat to Russia, following Nato’s suit. Need I say more?

    4. I don’t think the White House has serious strategy for dealing with Iran nor the candidates competing for that house. Though I’m sure Saudi Arabia and her Sunni siblings do for Shias in their millenial+ sibling rivalry which has had very interesting and pessimistic progress in just 2016. Happy new year powder keg, I’ll go look for the sparklers.

    5. Some people believe in the Thucydides trap, others don’t. Diplomatically China and the U.S. call for restraint while militarily we’re both guilty being uninhibited. Really the question is who will be guilty of miscalcuating the other first and in my opinion it will be both. I just hope they use pencil vs pen on their tests.

    A side note from personal research, if reading this I reccomend researching Cambridge professor Boyle’s world crisis theory. He was wrong about the year (2014) but his general theory makes perfect sense both historically and currently, I give him the benefit of the doubt until 2020.

    I’ll close with my favorite history quote by R.G. Collingwood, “History never repeated itself but human nature remained eternally unaltered”.

    Happy New Year fellow humans!

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