Foreign Policy

Top 10 Foreign Affairs Stories of 2015 That Will Matter in 2016

What you need to know about the year's biggest international hotspots, revolutions, and brewing conflicts.

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Libertarians are often accused of being "isolationists," but we know better. Far from choosing to hide behind YUGE walls in Fortress America, we'd rather substantially increase immigrationtear down barriers to trade and travel, and engage in cultural exchange (and not ahem…appropriation).

Stop this crazy thing.

We've rounded up ten of the year's most vital stories in the nebulous catch-all realm of foreign affairs that will likely influence America's policies, perceptions, and maybe even that election thing, in 2016.

January: Charlie Hebdo Massacre 

Terrorists armed with automatic weapons killed 11 people and injured 11 others in an attack on the offices of Paris' wildly irreverent satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Days later, world leaders converged on the City of Light, ostensibly in solidarity with the victims and their spirit of defiant free expression in the face of murderous religious barbarism.

The "Je Suis Charlie" meme went internationally viral almost immediately but was met with plenty of pushback from mostly "liberal" thinkers who had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks, or had even a passing knowledge of the French tradition of take-no-prisoners satire, or were aware that the editors of Charlie Hebdo were planning an anti-racism conference the very day they were massacred at their desks.

It's been almost a year and the arguments over who is allowed to "punch up" or "punch down" in art continue, as do the arguments about whether the world is too dangerous to tolerate free expression anymore. Secretary of State John Kerry even wondered aloud whether there was a certain "legitimacy" to the massacre, because after all, the cartoons offended some people. 

March: Netanyahu's Speech to Congress Makes Support for Israel a Partisan Issue

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted then-Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to speak before a joint session of Congress, without consulting the Obama administration, he was signaling to his right-wing base back home that he was the kind of hardass who would even stand up to his country's most stalwart ally and benefactor if he felt he had to.

Bibi was rewarded for his belligerence by squeaking out an electoral victory later that month, aided by a last minute get-out-the-vote plea to his supporters where he invoked the spectre of busloads full of Arabs heading to the polls and promised to never allow a Palestinian state on his watch.

Obama and Netanyahu made sure to keep up conciliatory appearances after the election, but the prime minister's breach of protocol was a thumb to the eye of the Democratic Party's man in charge, and the long-term repercussions could very well mean the end to the bipartisan rubber stamp of billions in annual military aid to Israel, as well as the US' unwavering support of Israeli policies at the UN Security Council. 

The recent rash of stabbings and revenge attacks in Israel and the West Bank has made the possibility of a third Palestinian intifada very real. If sustained violence were to reignite during the dog days of the American presidential election, it's unlikely that Hillary Clinton or any of the Republicans would rebuke Israel, but the seeds of discord have been planted among younger liberals who may not want to fund Israel's wars in the future. 

March: Japan Stands Up to China Over Disputed Territory

When Japan decided to engage in joint military exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, it sparked a sort of naval cold war between China and several other East Asian maritime nations over disputed resource-rich islands and shipping lanes. The US is obligated by its post-World War II security pact to defend Japan in case of an attack by another nation, and though Japan recently reported seeing armed Chinese vessels patrolling the region, at this point it seems like its more chest-puffing than a harbinger of war.

Geopolitical forecaster George Foreman was quoted by The Huffington Post, offering his prediction of what will come of this naval controversy in the near-term:

The disputes over the South China Sea will not lead to significant conflict in 2016. However, the Chinese government will continue to use this issue to convince its population that it is still a dominant player in the region, despite slowing growth … the U.S. will bring forces to bear as a demonstration against China's incursion but avoid engagement.

July: Iran Nuclear Agreement Reached

Love it, hate it, fear it, make ridiculous Neville Chamberlain comparisons…doesn't matter. The fact is the sanctions regime imposed on Iran was about to collapse and the P5+1 (the U.S., U.K., China, Russia, France, and Germany) reached a deal with the Islamic Republic that averted almost-certain war and imposes a comprehensive nuclear inspection regime.

Could Iran be taking the civilized world for a ride on its way to surreptitiously developing a nuclear weapon? Maybe. But if hard-line opponents had any alternative to the agreement that didn't involve dropping bunker-buster bombs on populated areas, we have yet to hear it. 

August: Russia Puts Boots in the Ground in Syria

When Russian troops first appeared in Syria, they weren't exactly taking the fight to ISIS. They spent most of their energy bombing and routing US-backed rebels fighting the Assad regime, Russia's client. But that changed, a bit, after ISIS blew up a Russian commuter plane over Egypt. Now, Russia's come out guns blazing for ISIS, but in the process may be committing war crimes by dropping cluster bombs among civilians. 

Turkey's recent shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet that strayed over the Syrian border for a few seconds complicates matters further, as Turkey is a member of NATO and if attacked by Russia could invoke the collective defense clause, which would basically trigger World War III. 

But fret not, the US State Department claims to have already brought "peace and security" to this morass of suffering and multi-national conflict!

September: Drowned Syrian Boy Makes World Notice Refugee Crisis

The image of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach might very well be the image of the year, one that immediately made the Syrian refugee crisis one of world's top priorities. 

But responses ran the gamut. President Obama has a plan to let in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, but Republicans want the whole process haltedGermany opened its doors wide open, Hungary sealed its border tight, and the strain on EU member nations to police their borders, which are currently opened to residents of EU countries, could very well lead to increased fragmentation within the union

October: Canada's New Prime Minister Calls for Legalization of Marijuana

You want some good news, here it is: the newly-elected prime minister of Canada immediately made good on his campaign promise to move for the legalization of marijuana. Once implemented, Canada would become the first of the G7 nations representing the world's largest economies to end its criminalization of pot once and for all. 

November: France's 9/11

Was France's 9/11 the beginning of World War ISIS? After European Muslims affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 people at 6 different locations over a couple of hours one tragic Friday night in Paris last month, the reactions were swift and paradigm-shifting.

France immediately declared a state of emergency, allowing for warrantless raids, data seizures, and the ability to close mosques or dissolve organizations deemed a threat to national security. The government launched airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria and sealed its borders. French police called for a ban on free wifi and the Tor Browser. And the backlash against Syrian refugees was swift, even though no evidence exists that the terrorists came to Europe through the refugee program

My Reason colleague Ed Krayewski wrote about why France and its allies should be wary of repeating the US' response to the 9/11 attacks, which like the Paris atrocities were designed to draw the West into an endless war in the Middle East:

In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force against the perpetrators of the attack and associated forces. Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. blamed for the 9/11 attacks, didn't have many associated forces at the time. Today, they have affiliates across Africa and the Middle East. And they are in the fight of their life because of ISIS, which poses a more existential threat to them than the US ever did because it threatens to, and has already, replaced the group as the voice of radical Islamism. The leader of Al-Qaeda has condemned the leader of ISIS as the illegitimate leader of a phony caliphate. And yet, despite this, Hillary Clinton argues that the 9/11 authorization of the use of military force applies to operations against ISIS, an organization that didn't exist on 9/11 and whose average fighter is between 16 and 25 years old, or no older than 11 when 9/11 happened, no matter what their opinion of it was then or now.

There's no evidence France's war on terror will play out any differently from America's. Today, most Afghans may not even be aware what 9/11 was. It will be a lot easier for ISIS to convince residents of Iraq and Syria watching French bombs drop that the actions represent a renewed Crusade than to convince them it's to prevent any more French and Belgian nationals from perpetrating terrorist attacks for which ISIS could claim responsibility.

November: Myanmar Holds First National Election After 50 Years of Military Rule

After spending the better part of two decades under house arrest imposed by the military dictatorship that ruled her country for half a century, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's party won Myanmar's national election in a landslide.

The BBC explains why cautious optimism, rather than unreserved jubilation, is warranted:

That's not to say that Myanmar has a full democracy. Not all the seats in the Hluttaw (parliament) were up for grabs.

The military-drafted constitution guarantees that unelected military representatives take up 25% of the seats in the Hluttaw and have a veto over constitutional change. This is what the generals call "disciplined democracy".

December: Venezuela's Socialists Get Trounced in Anyone-But-Them Vote

Jailing the leader of the opposition and banning most independent media outlets wasn't enough to keep Venezuela's Socialists from getting their electoral asses handed to them by a populace fed up with hyperinflation, empty supermarket shelves, and the mass emigration of the country's medical class.

Despite the election's results, which gave the opposition a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament, President Nicolas Marduro's outgoing allies made a last-ditch effort to extend the misery of the Chavista revolution by packing the Supreme Court with 13 new justices who, according to the Wall Street Journal, are expected to "block the opposition's initiatives, including its plans to free political prisoners and liberalize the economy."

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  1. Libertarian moment?

    1. “Je suis Charlie” degenerated into victim-blaming and calls for repeal of the First Amendment within a week. I seriously doubt the Charlie Hebdo shootings will have an impact on anything in 2016.

      1. Ditto. It became a vehicle for moral preening and social signalling, with zero actual affect on real world events.

        IOW, a perfect illustration of so many things that are wrong with the First World these days.

  2. It’s been almost a year and the arguments over who is allowed to “punch up” or “punch down” in art continue…

    I’m still not sure, between the staff and the attackers, who was punching up and who was punching down.

    1. I doubt there was any punching, more more “shooting” and “getting shot”.

      And when I am trying to sort out power differentials, I always default to the people getting shot as the ones with more power, right?

  3. What an odd article. Discussing how much these stories will influence, matter, etc – the very first one is a description about how nothing changed and no impact has really come about because of it…

    I guess the Israelis need to stand still and get stabbed more or millenials will….something.

    Iran has been quite loudly crowing how they are “taking the civilized world for a ride on its way to surreptitiously developing a nuclear weapon”. Some of that has even been posted on these here pages.

    France is advised to … do nothing, as anything they do is WRONG! Guess this is staying judge-y, rather than prescriptive-y.

    And the last two stories are important in the US because….? Never quite got around to explaining those.

  4. …the long-term repercussions could very well mean the end to the bipartisan rubber stamp of billions in annual military aid to Israel…

    I doubt anything of the sort.

  5. …the U.S. will bring forces to bear as a demonstration against China’s incursion but avoid engagement.

    Booooor. Ing.

  6. What’s to stop the new government from packing the courts in their favor when they come into power?

    1. Absolutely nothing. And the top 2 current candidates (along with the vast majority of other ones) make that a horrifying prospect.

  7. So I guess to Fischer, Libertarian means GO BERNIE GO!
    Let us count the ways:
    1) The Iran deal was the only option we had other than war (straw man).

    2) The normally gentle, but subjugated Palestinian Arabs are committing “revenge” killings against those evil Israelis. Revenge for what? Letting the Arabs keep the Temple Mount in 67? Forcibly removing ALL settlers from Gaza in 2005? Offering 98% of what Arafat wanted at Oslo? Warning people in Gaza before they drop bombs?

    3) “They spent most of their energy bombing and routing US-backed rebels fighting the Assad regime, Russia’s client” Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick. Who are these fucking mythical George Washingtons fighting against tyranny to create a constitutional republic?

    4) Justin Trudeau wants to legalize pot!! I guess it really is all about Mexican ass sex and pot.

    5) “(9/11) which like the Paris atrocities were designed to draw the West into an endless war in the Middle East”. Do you honestly believe that Osama Bin Laden planned and funded 9/11 for the express purpose of the US invading Afghanistan and staying there? That is just plain stupid.

    1. The Iran deal was the only option we had other than war (straw man).

      I was going to comment much the same. Usually people making this argument have the good sense to hint around that conclusion without actually directly saying it. I have yet to see much evidence that the sanctions regime was “falling apart” until the deal was begun. Of course, when it was clear that the sanctions regime was going away, most of the rest of the world decided it was an opportunity to begin doing business with Iran and jumped in before anyone else could. And even if it did “fall apart”, exactly how would the world look any different than it does right now if we decided not to go to war?

  8. And besides, it will always be Burma to me!

  9. This is just one long (unintentional) argument for why Reason needs to hire some better foreign policy writers.

  10. Who the fuck is Anthony L. Fisher?

  11. The Iranian Parliament has not passed the nuclear agreement, but a version of it with a bunch of pro-Iranian terms unilaterally added. They are also still calling for death to America.

    So, um, good job on the reset….?

    1. And they are comprehensively violating it, in the most public and humiliating ways possible.

      What a shitshow. I don’t know how a nuclear Iran will play out, but I’m pretty sure of two things:

      (a) Iran will have nuclear bomb and missiles to deliver it fairly soon.

      (b) This won’t make the ME or the world a better place.

  12. …and the long-term repercussions could very well mean the end to the bipartisan rubber stamp of billions in annual military aid to Israel, as well as the US’ unwavering support of Israeli policies at the UN Security Council.

    Ummm…no. By and large, we support Israel because there’s a pretty broad consensus that our interests and the Israelis’ interests are aligned. If you want to make the case that that isn’t so. Feel free to. But, to the extent people view that alignment of interests as a fact, they’re not going to allow a pique of Mr. Obama’s ego to take precedence over that.

    Also, bear in mind the whole “breach of protocol” on Netenyahu’s part followed a series of increasing demands and ultimatums from the administration to Israel as it pursued the Iran deal, including an indication from the administration that it would deny Israel overflight rights in Iraq (presumably enforced by American air power) in the event of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Oh, and the whole time, Mr. Obama was providing electoral support to Mr. Netenyahu’s opposition.

    1. “By and large, we support Israel because there’s a pretty broad consensus that our interests and the Israelis’ interests are aligned”

      We also “rubber stamp” billions in military aid to them because of the requirements of the Camp David Accords, just as we have done and currently do with Egypt*

      (*although we had an opportunity to scrap the agreement when Morsi was ousted in a coup – which is technically REQUIRED by the – but passed on it because… well, because Obama doesn’t like to actually make real decisions, so much as “being seen” making fake ones)

      another reason we’re not going to stop handing them billions in “military aid” is because that aid is entirely spent w/ US arms-suppliers. Its basically just backdoor handouts to companies described as “Aid”, and politicians from these arms-supplying states consider that spending a line-item to be defended to the death.

      1. we had an opportunity to scrap the agreement when Morsi was ousted in a coup – which is technically REQUIRED by the – but passed on it because

        Obama’s buddies the Muslim Brotherhood was set to take over, and why wouldn’t he do them a solid and keep the subsidies coming?

    2. US’ unwavering support of Israeli policies at the UN Security Council. The Security Council doesn’t cause Israel nearly the headaches that the General Assembly does. So this guy doesn’t even get his anti-Israel rhetoric right. And nowhere does he refer to the fact that Israel also supports US policy at the UN.

      Whether or not we should provide foreign aid is a legitimate question. But there are a whole shitload of countries we should cut off before Israel. Lets see, Egypt (2013 1.2 Billion in MILITARY aid, 1.6B total), Jordan (300M Military aid, 1.2B total) Lebanon (376M Total aid). Fuck we gave 150M of MILITARY aid to Somalia in 2013!! (380M total aid). We gave 1B in economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. We gave 737M to SYRIA in economic assistance. 686M to South Sudan in economic aid. That was money well spent.

      So enough with “paying for Israel’s wars”.

  13. “That’s not to say that Myanmar has a full democracy.”

    I knew they were in trouble the minute J. Peterman went back to NY. Fucking Elaine and that goddamn hat!

  14. Top 10 hot spots for 2016??

    All those places Hildebeast was courting!

  15. Nothing happened in Africa.

  16. Re Myanmar: more democracy does not necessarily mean more freedom. Often, democracy leads to less economic freedom.

  17. Well, one possible way of dealing with the Iran would be not to get rid of the sanctions (and especially the large sums of money they will get) until it’s proven that they’re actually living up to the deal. They haven’t signed, haven’t ratified it, and have several times violated its provisions, and Feckless Leader refuses to do anything about it. And no doubt you approve. After all, if Iran obliterates Israel with a surprise attack, it’s no skin off your nose.

  18. Chinese yuan officially became a world reserve currency (not Petrocurrency) on November 30, 2015

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