What Was The International News Story of 2015?

Jonas Becker: China’s Island Building In The South China Sea

Program Editor, Procurement

It may not be one of the most publicized news stories of 2015, and it certainly does not have the emotional pull of the Paris attacks, but the biggest sleeper of this year was China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea. The Chinese navy has launched more ships than any other nation in the last three years. In the next five years, it will boast more aircraft carriers than India, more nuclear-capable submarines than Britain, and as many Aegis destroyers as every non-U.S. nation combined. In a brilliant, asymmetric maneuver to close the gap with the U.S. navy, the Chinese have decided on something more unorthodox to close the gap.

Starting in 2014, the Chinese navy decided that the best way of upsetting the naval balance in the South China Sea was to build its own islands. By the end of 2015, seven islands have been artificially created by dredging sediment from the ocean floor. So far, the Chinese have built pot facilities, military bases, and an airstrip, (with two more airstrips slated for construction) thereby challenging the claims of various regional actors to the disputed Spratly Islands.

This is significant, and something of a game changer. China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states that sub-surface structures, such as the reefs that China has dredged and reinforced, are not sovereign territory. Despite this, aircraft and ships that attempt to cross a 12-mile zone around the Chinese islands are aggressively warned away. This has led to escalating tensions with the U.S. and regional navies. By flouting established maritime law, a few Chinese islands are causing quite a splash.

Michael Lumbers: U.S. Retrenchment In The Middle East

Program Editor, Emerging Security

Upon assuming the presidency after almost a decade of draining, fruitless war in the Middle East, Barack Obama was determined that the U.S. avoid getting bogged down again in the region’s seemingly incessant quarreling. New Middle East adventures could not be sustained indefinitely by finite resources, would not be supported by war-weary popular sentiment, and would divert attention from the more dynamic Asia-Pacific. With the exception of Libya in 2011, Obama has largely held fast to a non-interventionist course in the Middle East.  In 2015, this policy was consolidated, even as it was subjected to intense strains at both home and abroad, and its consequences for security and politics in the Middle East and beyond came into sharper focus.

Defying the unstinting opposition of Republicans, the quiet, but firm lobbying of Persian Gulf allies, and an unprecedented Israeli public relations offensive, highlighted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic address to Congress, the Obama administration signed off on subjecting Iran’s nuclear program to verifiable constraints. This step was arguably a tacit admission that a U.S. military strike would fall short of dealing a decisive blow to Iran’s program and therefore did not warrant the several risks associated with it.

The fallout from the Iran nuclear deal will decisively impact Middle East security over the next few years, but it’s not yet clear how. It may head off a new conflagration in the Middle East and open Iran to moderating influences through expanded trade, in the process emboldening the country’s less conservative factions and setting the stage for an eventual rapprochement with the U.S. Alternatively, regional tensions may spike if Iran diverts a sizeable sum of sanctions relief to its regional proxies. America’s Gulf allies, disabused of the notion that the U.S. will always have their back, may assume more responsibility for their own defence and respond more assertively to Iranian thrusts than Washington would prefer.

Nowhere was Obama’s aversion to entanglement in the Middle East in 2015 more evident, or the costs of U.S. restraint (or inaction, to put it in less flattering terms) higher, than in Syria. Obama clung tenaciously to the broad outlines of the relatively modest anti-ISIS campaign he launched a year ago in the face of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, withering criticism from Republicans and unease among Democrats, and widespread public disapproval of the president’s handling of terrorism.

Much to his credit, Obama has a nuanced conception of American exceptionalism, informed by an intuitive understanding that U.S. intervention has at times created more problems than it’s solved. In Syria, however, he may have misapplied the searing lessons of Iraq and committed the opposite error of his immediate predecessor by exaggerating the obstacles to the use of U.S. power.

Absent America’s diplomatic and military heft, which may have coaxed Syria’s various warring parties to the negotiating table, the ensuing power vacuum has been filled by Russia, whose military intervention in late September heightens the chances of a Great Power standoff arising from a misunderstanding with Western actors operating in Syria, and has inadvertently given ISIS a base from which to coordinate or inspire the kind of attacks that have dominated headlines for the past two months. The prolonged fighting, meanwhile, has triggered a massive influx of refugees into an inward-looking Europe undergoing economic stress and a crisis of identity, which has given succor to populist parties throughout the region and increased xenophobic sentiment.

In short, the conflict that Obama initially assumed or hoped could be contained within Syria’s borders has expanded far beyond, with the potential for a region-wide blow-up, a shift in much of Europe’s political orientation, and increasingly bolder, destructive attacks against Western targets mounted by ISIS. As more Americans express concern that Obama’s caution has endangered American security, his successor, whether Democrat or Republican, will most likely campaign in 2016 on the idea that a more muscular foreign policy is required to restore U.S. leadership and will feel compelled to behave accordingly. The consequences of U.S. retrenchment in the Middle East have been wide-ranging, indeed.

Ian Goertz: ISIS—The Elephant In The International Relations Room

Program Editor, Canada’s NATO  

In my opinion, the international news story of 2015 was the spreading influence of ISIS. Many of the major stories of this year –the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks, Donald Trump’s ridiculous antics in his bid for the Republican nomination –are rooted in the crisis in Syria and Iraq.

The group has challenged the NATO/Russia relationship, created tensions between Turkey and its allies, and rebranded Islamic extremism. The traditional notion of a decentralized terror organization has been transformed into a centralized pseudo-state capable of so much more. ISIS has altered the perception of insurgency and war in the 21st century. The international community would be wise to remember the lessons. The group has been a talking point in every major election that has taken place in 2015, and is poised to continue this trend next year.

When one thinks back on 2015, the major headlines all relate to one story: the ongoing crisis caused by ISIS. 

Michael Oshell: Displaced Persons

Program Editor, International Business and Economics

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 60 million people are internally or internationally displaced. Representing the highest number of displaced people since the end of the World War II, the global refugee crisis is, and will remain in 2016, the biggest story in international politics. Among the array of displaced persons are international refugees, economic migrants, political asylum seekers, and people displaced within their own country. An increase of 1.5 million refugees to the UNHCR’s mandate has strained an already overtaxed system that is desperately needed to provide humanitarian relief to the mass of newly displaced persons.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Time’s Person of the Year for 2015, warns that “sealing oneself off is not a sensible option in the 21st century.” Individual nations cannot contain and manage a problem of this magnitude. Concerted efforts by international bodies like the European Union, Arab League, and United Nations are needed to address this situation. The influx of displaced persons in 2015 points to further insecurity across the globe in the coming years, as both local and global actors struggle to deal with a rapidly evolving crisis that will have enormous political, economic, social, and security implications.

Corinne Stancescu:  From Fear And Rage To Compassion And Understanding

Program Editor, Society, Culture, and International Relations

As our society becomes more interconnected and globalized, our fears similarly become more interconnected and globalized. In 2015, what this meant was a growing sense of fear of the other, in spite of the fact that we as a society have come to understand and appreciate the greater world around us better, either through social media or the Internet as a whole.

This fear of the other can be seen in the aftermath of such international events as the ongoing refugee crisis and terrorist attacks in Europe and America. These incidents have given rise to a climate opposite to what the advocates of globalization intended. Instead of bringing us together, these events have instilled a sense of vulnerability and a backlash against interaction with different cultures.

The hope is obvious: that instead of reacting with fear and rage to international developments in 2016, we turn to compassion and understanding.

Aishwarya Sahai: The Refugee Crisis

Program Editor, Expanding Community

Looking back, 2015 does look like a rather grim year. The headlines were dominated by the despicable actions of terrorist groups. Apart from its vicious brutality, from staged beheadings to inspiring attacks abroad, ISIS has destroyed many homes and families. The news story of 2015 that grew out of this trail of destruction was the refugee crisis, which has influenced the world far beyond Syrian borders.

As a result of this massive influx of refugees, the issues of space, responsibility, and security have come to the fore for many EU states. Who will take in the refugees? How can they be divided equally? Do they pose a security threat? Additionally, Canada dealt with its own moral dilemma during the Federal election campaign, as the governing Conservative Party argued for holding the line on refugees and the opposition Liberals calling for greater accommodation.

The world finds itself at a crossroad between prejudice/exclusion (as articulated by figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen) and inclusion (spearheaded by Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau). The one topic that should unite humanity – the climate change talks that just concluded in Paris –has taken a back seat while the world obsesses over internal questions of what is right, what is wrong, and what is necessary.

Hinna Hatif: The Iran Nuclear Deal

Program Editor, Women in Security

Iran made the headlines this year for its acceptance of a nuclear accord 13 years in the making. It limits the extent of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

This deal will likely impact Canada greatly. With the coming of sanctions relief, Iran will be pumping a lot of oil into the market, which means oil prices will go down. As Canada is among the top oil producers in the world, it has a big stake in any changes to the oil market. Plummeting oil prices means the Canadian economy will shrink.

Michael Kang: The Refugee Crisis

Research Analyst Intern

The European refugee crisis dominated headlines in 2015, as it touched on several dimensions of international relations, from national security to the Syrian civil war to human rights to the rise of right-wing, populist politics in the West.

A vast influx of refugees has put the very institutional integrity of the EU to the test.  Eastern European states have hesitated to accept their share of refugees, while others like Austria have threatened to reduce EU budget contributions, effectively reducing the larger budget share that Eastern European EU members receive. Another consequence of this crisis has been the rise of right-wing politics across Europe; political parties such as France’s National Front have climbed in public opinion polls or been returned to office, in the case of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, in part because of an anti-immigration platform.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the refugee crisis came to the fore, as concerns over national security increased. Immigration flows have called into question the screening process for asylum applicants and whether Frontex, the European border control agency, can deal with the growing number of cases. With border controls already being imposed, the future of the EU’s Schengen passport-free zone is also being discussed.

Moreover, the crisis has prompted Western governments to intensify efforts to end the Syrian conflict. Lastly, there is the human element to this issue: the challenge of finding housing, health care, and education for new arrivals, as well as the deaths of so many who made the perilous journey to Europe.

As no other news story did in 2015, the refugee crisis highlighted several fault lines in geopolitics and defined the world’s general state of affairs heading into 2016.

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