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.


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).

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."