2016 was not a quiet year on the international stage. As the calendar winds down, it’s worth taking a moment to assess what we have been through and where it leaves us. This will require some standard of judgment, i.e. what are the measures of success or failure? What do we want/require from the international system? There are, I think, two basic answers: (1) a core of order and stability and (2) a secure future for the values of Western civilization. The threats to both of these are real and profound.
We usually think of global order and stability in terms of an absence of conflict. By this standard 2016 was an obviously grim year, particularly in the broader Middle East. The regional epicenter was and is Syria, where an intractable civil war has drawn in a number of outside actors, most notably Russia. As the year ends, Moscow and Damascus are celebrating their “victory” in Aleppo as the Syrian army and the Russian air force crush the remaining resistance in the city. With this so-called victory the Assad dictatorship has won a destroyed and largely depopulated city — once the second largest in Syria. No doubt Assad will expect the international community to step in with large-scale aid to rebuild what the Syrian army and the Russians have destroyed. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any generous contributions from Moscow. Meanwhile, the Damascus regime still controls less than half the land area of Syria and what has become an existential war between Assad’s Alawite minority and the Sunni majority will grind on.
Central to the Syrian conflict is the toxic presence of militant jihadist movements, notably the Islamic State and al Qaida. U.S. forces (advisors on the ground and airpower in the skies) have been deeply engaged in a campaign to cripple IS by retaking its two urban strongholds, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The bloody, methodical offensive has been greatly complicated by Turkish hostility to America’s most effective allies on the ground — the Kurds. Even if the twin offensives finally succeed, as is likely, the jihadist threat will not vanish. Surviving militants will disperse across the Middle East and into Europe. Meanwhile, the Afghanistan war also grinds on with no end in sight.
In sum, much of the Middle East and its environs will remain a cesspool of conflict for the foreseeable future. By refusing to reach a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians, the Netanyahu government just makes things worse. The negative spillover from the Syrian carnage is most obvious in the massive refugee flows into Europe. The European Union, which along with the United States has been the bedrock source of global order, is under huge strain. The refugee influx combined with systemic economic problems has generated serious questions whether the EU can survive. The immediate challenge will come from the rise of anti-EU political movements in France, Germany and Italy. We have already seen the unexpected triumph of Brexit in Britain. And the United States, itself, has produced an incoming administration with more than a few similarities to the European extreme right.
In all this Russia has been a startlingly potent source of instability — manipulating the U.S. election, suborning European politicians and fueling the Syrian conflict. The irony is that Russia, itself, is in bad shape with a failing economy and a declining population. Moscow badly needs an intimate, cooperative relationship with the West, but Putin is animated solely by dreams of power. Meanwhile, another great power has its own dreams. China aspires to dominate Asia and its ongoing effort to seize control of the South China Sea is central to that aspiration. Respect for international law is central to any durable arrangement for international order and stability and China has treated established international law with contempt.
It all adds up to a grim picture and one that puts heavy burdens on the U.S. military — to shore up European (notably in the Baltics and Eastern Europe) resistance to Russian pressure and in the South China Sea as the only effective line of defense against Beijing’s aggression. Military power ultimately rests on economic capacity and here, contrary to what we heard in the election campaign, the United States is actually doing quite well.
All this leaves the other imperative — what exactly we’re defending. Is it just national security and strategic position, or is there some more — something essential? One answer is suggested by a human interest story on the first page of the New York Times a few days ago. It tells of a Syrian refugee family resettled in Canada. This family (parents and two children) had been through the horrors of war and was grateful to just be alive. But in Canada they found much more than survival; they found a warm embrace from the surrounding community that was at once amazing and mysterious. The father marveled that in Syria a man would not have shown such generosity to his own brother as that shown to his family by total strangers. In this environment, his preteen daughter blossomed from shy and withdrawn to extroverted and confident. She was quickly, and enthusiastically, becoming Canadian. The father found this vibrant transformation alarming. His daughter was expected to be submissive and quiet; his family was losing its cultural identity. We don’t know how this little drama will ultimately play out. But we can observe that one young Syrian girl has discovered why the West, and the civilization it represents, is worth defending.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.