By Oliver Stuenkel
1. Russia and the West: Towards long-term estrangement
Attempts to improve ties between Russia and the West will be hampered by the fact that the current state of affairs is not the product of short-term animosities or problem about a particular policy issue, but a more fundamental disagreement about the European security architecture and the distribution of power in Russia’s neighborhood in general. Unless Russia’s leader fears that his country could implode economically, chances for a meaningful reset are slim, and even in case of a Russian collapse a rapprochement would be far from guaranteed. Even if a peace deal is reached soon between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels, deep-seated distrust will remain for years to come. That will turn the BRICS countries into key allies for Moscow, indispensable for keeping Russia economically and diplomatically connected to the rest of the world.
2. The G7 unite
Facing a potent threat, both the European Union and NATO will emerge stronger and more unified. The situation is also likely to strengthen intra-Western coherence and resilience in general, symbolized by the G7 summit that will take place for the second time without Russian participation in 2015, in Elmau, Germany. There, Angela Merkel, a key actor in the West’s response to Russian foreign policy, will seek to strengthen macroeconomic policy coordination between its members, aside from proposing common responses on issues like global pandemics and energy security. Despite its incapacity to fix global challenges on its own, the forum’s continued existence and importance underlines that Western like-mindedness on some issues can still go a long way. If acting together, the G7 is still extremely influential, and remains a grouping to be reckoned with for years to come. At the same time, we are likely to see the institutionalization of the “political G20” — regular meetings of the G20 foreign ministers — a move that will, in principle, enhance emerging powers’ say on security matters.
3. Global China
A string of summits in the Asia-Pacific region in late 2014 provided a sense of what we can expect in the coming years and decades: Chinese foreign policy will be not only more assertive, but also more global, directly engaging in regions where it preferred to remain in the background until recently. Still last year, China had been the least influential member of the P5 in Middle Eastern affairs, yet it is now increasingly open about its desire to protect its economic interests in Iraq, where it is the largest foreign investor in the oil sector. Iraqi crude makes up almost 10% of Chinese overall oil imports, and China has invested almost U$ 15 billion in the country since 2007. Recently, China has begun to support the Iraqi government in air strikes against the Islamic State, although it does so outside of the US-led coalition. Also, it is yet unclear what exactly Chinese support looks like – is it weapons sales, on-the-ground training and/or advisory activity? China has also deployed 700 infantry soldiers to aid the UN mission in South Sudan, the origin of 5% of its crude imports. In the medium-term, a growing number of Chinese military bases around the world, and the regional influence this implies, will be a key tendency in global affairs.
4. The United States resurgent
While long-term predictions about China’s rise remain valid, the United States’ economic recovery will provide policy makers in Washington with additional assertiveness in international affairs. After his historic move to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba, Barack Obama’s desire to boost his foreign policy legacy will improve chances to reach a major nuclear deal with Iran and attempts to move ahead in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, even though the latter depends on many other factors and cannot be solved by the US President alone (US Congress could turn into the greatest obstacle). US activism will also be visible in the trade area, where the world’s largest economy has been pushing for major agreements with Europe and Asia. Together with prediction no. 3, this makes a “G2” scenario look ever more likely, in which major decisions are taken during bilateral summits between US and Chinese policy makers.
5. The BRICS and Russia: A delicate balancing act
The BRICS grouping is likely to enhance its often overlooked cooperation in numerous foreign policy areas, in addition to moving ahead with the New Development Bank (NDB). Increasingly anti-Western, Russia will introduce a series of measures during the summit discussions that are likely to generate strong criticism in the West, such as arguing for the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to replace the US government as the ICANN overseer. Many critics of this idea say that it would allow authoritarian regimes to challenge the open Internet. While China is supportive of the idea, Brazil is unlikely to go along, considering its leadership on the matter at the 2014 NetMundial in São Paulo. In several other areas, Russia may seek to politicize the BRICS meeting further and use it as an anti-Western platform, particularly if current sanctions are still in place next year. That strategy will cause resistance among the other members that have no interest in unnecessarily antagonizing Washington, DC. Despite all that, the BRICS Summit will remain a key element of the global governance landscape, contrary to the common practice in the United States and Europe to dismiss the grouping as odd or unimportant.
6. The Americas: All together now
The reestablishment of US-Cuban diplomatic relations not only affects the two countries involved, but may also change regional politics more generally. The specter of gradual normalization between Washington and Havana will improve the United States’ standing in the Western hemisphere, which increases the likelihood of a constructive Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama in 2015. That may include innovative drug policies that could help reduce crime and violence in Central America. There is room for optimism regarding an eventual end to the US trade embargo, which would be good news for the region. Political rights in Cuba, alas, still seem far off, even though the Cuban government will struggle once it can no longer rely on Venezuelan cash and a powerful common enemy in the North to generate public support.
7. Muddling through in Paris
In early December, the 190 parties to the UNFCCC will sit down in the French capital to try to reach an agreement on emission targets to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Since the 2009 disaster in Copenhagen, there is some reason for guarded optimism: The number of policy makers who regard climate change as a priority has grown, and during the recent COP-20 in Lima, developing countries have for the first time promised to submit national plans to reduce emissions (in Kyoto, only industrialized countries were obliged to do so). Yet the fundamental disagreement between rich and poor countries remains, making any ambitious deal unlikely. Rather, the result of the COP-21 in Paris is likely to oblige countries to design their own national emission plans and regularly check whether they are on track, but without agreeing on a mechanism to measure the success each country’s strategy – that would be more than negotiators achieved in Copenhagen, but hardly enough to prevent irreversible damage from rising greenhouse gases.
8. India up, Brazil down
India and Brazil may have a lot in common, but 2015 will begin with a telling difference between them. While Barack Obama will visit Delhi on the occasion of India’s Republic Day, it is Vice-President Joe Biden who will head to Brasília for Dilma Rousseff’s second inauguration ceremony. During his first six months in office, Narendra Modi has succeeded in showing that India is a power to be reckoned with in the international arena, strengthening ties with Japan, Bangladesh, Russia and China, but also with a high-profile visit and public speech in the United States. We can expect Modi to continue his battle to revamp the Indian economy and show that he is unwilling to accept Chinese leadership in Asia. Brazilian foreign policy, by contrast, fell victim to a President who cares little about diplomacy and who does not consider international affairs a useful element of her overall national strategy. Though facing a number of pressing questions (“What is the future of Mercosur? How to revive ties with the US? Does IBSA still matter?”) we are, sadly, unlikely to see a politically empowered Brazilian foreign minister speaking at international debates such as Bo’ao, Davos and Munich, engage in complex peace negotiations, or announce new ideas that contribute to dealing with global challenges.
9. More trouble in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan
One of Barack Obama’s greatest challenges next year will be not to get dragged back militarily into Afghanistan and Iraq. The Afghan Taleban is likely to continue to challenge the central government in Kabul, and neither Iraq nor Syria will have functional governments. In fact, civil wars or insurgencies in all four countries are likely to continue, and the international community will merely seek to keep those conflicts from spreading. Irrespective of whether the United States will send troops back into Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, it seems highly unlikely that any peaceful settlement agreeable to all sides can be found soon. Contrary to hopes by President Obama, both his first and second term will be dominated by dealing with conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, reducing US policy makers’ capacity to focus on the rise of China.
10. Election time in four important countries
A series of elections may change regional dynamics all over the world. The four most important ones will take place in Nigeria (presidential) in February and Mexico (congressional) in July (two countries where low oil prices may affect the economy), Argentina (October, presidential), where an opposition victory is likely to spell the end of kirchnerismo, and parliamentary elections in Venezuela, which could weaken President Maduro. Opposition victories in Argentina and Venezuela would change regional dynamics in South America, weakening Venezuela’s agenda-setting capacity, and raise questions about what a possible end of chavismo in power would mean for the region, possibly symbolizing the beginning of the end of a decade-long dominance of left and center-left leaders in South America.