#Ethiopia: Among countries listed by Foreign Policy magazine’s “10 Conflicts to watch in 2020.” “Perhaps nowhere are both promise and peril for the coming year starker than in Ethiopia, East #Africa’s most populous and influential state.”
Friends and foes alike no longer know where the United States stands. As Washington overpromises and underdelivers, regional powers are seeking solutions on their own—both through violence and diplomacy.
(foreignpolicy)–Local conflicts serve as mirrors for global trends. The ways they ignite, unfold, persist, and are resolved reflect shifts in great powers’ relations, the intensity of their competition, and the breadth of regional actors’ ambitions. They highlight issues with which the international system is obsessed and those toward which it is indifferent. Today these wars tell the story of a global system caught in the early swell of sweeping change—and of regional leaders both emboldened and frightened by the opportunities such a transition presents.
Only time will tell how much of the United States’ transactional unilateralism, contempt for traditional allies, and dalliance with traditional rivals will endure—and how much will vanish with Donald Trump’s presidency. Still, it would be hard to deny that something is afoot. The understandings and balance of power on which the global order had once been predicated—imperfect, unfair, and problematic as they were—are no longer operative. Washington is both eager to retain the benefits of its leadership and unwilling to shoulder the burdens of carrying it. As a consequence, it is guilty of the cardinal sin of any great power: allowing the gap between ends and means to grow. These days, neither friend nor foe knows quite where America stands.
The roles of other major powers are changing, too. China exhibits the patience of a nation
confident in its gathering influence, but in no hurry to fully exercise it.It chooses its
China exhibits the patience of a nation confident in its gathering influence, but in no hurry to fully exercise it.
battles, focusing on self-identified priorities: domestic control and suppression of potential dissent (as in Hong Kong, or the mass detention of Muslims in XInjiang); the South and East China Seas; and the brewing technological tug of war with the United States, in which my own colleague Michael Kovrig—unjustly detained in China for over a year—has become collateral damage. Elsewhere, its game is a long one.
Russia, in contrast, displays the impatience of a nation grateful for the power these unusual circumstances have brought and eager to assert it before time runs out. Moscow’s policy abroad is opportunistic—seeking to turn crises to its advantage—though today that is perhaps as much strategy as it needs. Portraying itself as a truer and more reliable partner than Western powers, it backs some allies with direct military support while sending in private contractors to Libya and sub-Saharan Africa to signal its growing influence.
To all of these powers, conflict prevention or resolution carries scant inherent value. They assess crises in terms of how they might advance or hurt their interests, how they could promote or undermine those of their rivals. Europe could be a counterweight, but at precisely the moment when it needs to step into the breach, it is struggling with domestic turbulence, discord among its leaders, and a singular preoccupation with terrorism and migration that often skews policy.
The consequences of these geopolitical trends can be deadly. Exaggerated faith in outside assistance can distort local actors’ calculations, pushing them toward uncompromising positions and encouraging them to court dangers against which they believe they are immune. In Libya, a crisis risks dangerous metastasis as Russia intervenes on behalf of a rebel general marching on the capital, the United States sends muddled messages, Turkey threatens to come to the government’s rescue, and Europe—a stone’s throw away—displays impotence amid internal rifts. In Venezuela, the government’s obstinacy, fueled by faith that Russia and China will cushion its economic downfall, clashes with the opposition’s lack of realism, powered by U.S. suggestions it will oust President Nicolás Maduro.
Syria—a conflict not on this list—has been a microcosm of all these trends: There, the United States combined a hegemon’s bombast with a bystander’s pose. Local actors (such as the Kurds) were emboldened by U.S. overpromising and then disappointed by U.S. underdelivery. Meanwhile, Russia stood firmly behind its brutal ally, while others in the neighborhood (namely, Turkey) sought to profit from the chaos.
The bad news might contain a sliver of good. As leaders understand the limits of allies’ backing, reality sinks in. Saudi Arabia, initially encouraged by the Trump administration’s apparent blank check, flexed its regional muscle until a series of brazen Iranian attacks and noticeable U.S. nonresponses showed the kingdom the extent of its exposure, driving it to seek a settlement in Yemen and, perhaps, de-escalation with Iran.
To many Americans, Ukraine evokes a sordid tale of quid pro quo and impeachment politics. But for its new president at the center of that storm, Volodymyr Zelensky, a priority is to end the conflict in that country’s east—an objective for which he appears to recognize the need for Kyiv to compromise.
Others might similarly readjust their views: the Afghan government and other anti-Taliban powerbrokers, accepting that U.S. troops won’t be around forever; Iran and the Syrian regime, seeing that Russia’s newfound Middle East swagger hardly protects them against Israeli strikes. These actors may not all be entirely on their own, but with their allies’ support only going so far, they might be brought back down to earth. There is virtue in realism.
There’s another trend that warrants attention: the phenomenon of mass protests across the globe. It is an equal-opportunity discontent, shaking countries governed by both the left and right, democracies and autocracies, rich and poor, from Latin America to Asia and Africa. Particularly striking are those in the Middle East—because many observers thought that the broken illusions and horrific bloodshed that came in the wake of the 2011 uprisings would dissuade another round.
Protesters have learned lessons, settling in for the long haul and, for the most part, avoiding violence that plays in the hands of those they contest. Political and military elites have learned, too, of course—resorting to various means to weather the storm. In Sudan, arguably one of this past year’s better news stories, protests led to long-serving autocrat Omar al-Bashir’s downfall and ushered in a transition that could yield a more democratic and peaceful order. In Algeria, meanwhile, leaders have merely played musical chairs. In too many other places, they have cracked down. Still, in almost all, the pervasive sense of economic injustice that brought people onto the streets remains. If governments new or old cannot address that, the world should expect more cities ablaze this coming year.
Protesters have learned lessons, settling in for the long haul and, for the most part, avoiding violence that plays in the hands of those they contest.