2015 was a very busy year with Cold War-era tensions resurfacing, nuclear weapons proving to still be a problem, civil wars running rampant, an economic crisis looming over the global economy, the end to one of the United States’ longest running wars, and the reluctant engagement with a war believed to be over. Much of the events that will occur in 2015 will be continuations of 2014. However, new issues and new angles to old problems will arise, ones the U.S. did not expect and some perhaps Washington’s leaders did foresee. Ultimately, the Obama administration will be forced to adopt some new policies and correct those that are faltering. One thing is certain, 2015 will prove to be a fascinating year for U.S. foreign policy.
President Barack Obama’s foreign policy barely survived the tumultuous year of 2014. It was a very busy year with Cold War-era tensions resurfacing, nuclear weapons proving to still be a problem, civil wars running rampant, an economic crisis looming over the global economy, the end to one of the United States’ longest running wars, and the reluctant engagement with a war believed to be over. Much of the events that will occur in 2015 will be continuations of 2014. However, new issues and new angles to old problems will arise, ones the U.S. did not expect and some perhaps Washington’s leaders did foresee. Ultimately, the Obama administration will be forced to adopt some new policies and correct those that are faltering. One thing is certain, 2015 will prove to be a fascinating year for U.S. foreign policy.
The United States and Russia have been at odds since Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, an eastern province of Ukraine with ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia. While the western part of the country wishes to become further integrated with the European Union, Russia still seeks to expand into Ukraine’s territory. Russia’s aggression stems from paranoia of the EU and NATO expanding into its former sphere of influence. US-Russian relations will see more of the same tension as Russia does not appear to be backing down any time soon. It is possible Russia will try to bully other former Soviet satellite neighbors that have close ties to the West, such as Poland or Finland, or those that prove to be less secure and more impressionable, such as Moldova.
December 31, 2014 marked the official end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, with all remaining troops scheduled to leave by the end of 2016. The United States’ role in Afghanistan, however, is far from over. U.S. and NATO troops remain only in training/advisory and counterterrorism capacities. There was also a resurgence of Taliban attacks. 2015 will witness a continued increase in these attacks, specifically aimed at Kabul. If the United States does not plan its strategy correctly, then all the time, money, and resources placed in Afghanistan since 2001 will be wasted as the country could spiral into a civil war reminiscent of the 1990s crisis that gave rise to the Taliban. The lesson for the United States in 2015 will be the constant reminder that the job is not yet complete.
Mr. Obama will need to address Pakistan’s continued duplicity as it pretends to be an ally in the Afghan war but also finances much of the Afghan Taliban. Afghanistan cannot become a stable country without defeating the Taliban, and the first step is confronting Pakistan. Another angle the U.S. will have to monitor closely is the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP. Recently, the militant group massacred students at a school in Peshawar. TTP, while connected to the Afghan Taliban, is a separate entity and also a dangerous group which could wreak havoc on US-Pakistan relations and the stability of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In June 2014, Islamic State announced its goal to create a caliphate across parts of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State has its roots in al Qaeda (as it was formerly al Qaeda in Iraq) and gained most of its strength and legitimacy as part of the Syrian opposition fighting Syrian president Bashar al Assad. President Obama will realize that air strikes alone are not enough; ground troops will be necessary. Mr. Obama will also come to terms with the fact that Assad must be removed from power and this is key to defeating Islamic State. The United States will provide more arms to more of the moderate Syrian rebels, and will step up cooperation and assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga. Instead of focusing mostly on Iraq, Mr. Obama will concentrate more attention to Syria as Islamic State is a formidable force in both countries.
In late 2014, Mr. Obama announced his decision to normalize relations with Cuba and re-open a diplomatic presence. Despite the criticism he has received, Mr. Obama made the right decision as poor Cuban-American relations stem from antiquated Cold War-era sentiments. Cuba will not become a democratic society or free market economy overnight, but it is moving in the right direction. 2015 will experience continued progress with some inevitable frustrations for the Obama administration. This coming year, however, will not be the year the counter-productive embargo will be lifted.
While the United States and its P5+1 allies failed to reach a finalized agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, significant progress has been made. The talks in November were extended until July so the parties involved could use the extra time to refocus their arguments domestically. 2015 will see yet another extension with impatience and dissatisfaction on both sides – the U.S. and its allies are going to realize that while the nuclear deal was attempted in good faith and is quite laudable, it is proving to be too idealistic. History does not bode well for the success of a nuclear deal with the Islamic republic.
The European Union is still mired in its economic crisis. When the financial crisis began in 2007-08, responsibility to rectify the problem fell on Germany, Europe’s strongest economy. Germany’s response was strict austerity, which has proven to be unpopular throughout the Union, bleeding into the political sphere. Right-wing eurosceptic, nationalist, and xenophobic parties gained considerable representation in the European Parliament, putting the future of the Union in jeopardy. British Prime Minister David Cameron even promised a referendum in 2017 to determine if the United Kingdom will remain a member. Similarly, in Greece, upcoming elections have posed concerns that Greece may have to leave the Eurozone if the socialist party Syriza wins. 2015 will see euroscepticism rise and the real possibility that two strategically important countries may indeed leave the European Union in the near future, spurring uncertainty and possible instability.
The Ukraine crisis has been dubbed the biggest security threat the United States faced due to its geopolitical implications. It began when the former Ukrainian president cancelled a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. The newly elected Ukrainian president signed the deal, signaling a preference for the EU. 2015 will see further integration with the EU and continued division throughout Ukraine, demonstrating the need for Ukraine to establish a better sense of national pride and possible further aggression from Russia.
Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group in Nigeria that has adopted Islamic State-inspired tactics, is most infamous for the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian girls in the spring. It is also known for its desire to impose strict Sharia law. While it seems that Boko haram poses more of a threat to Nigeria and the region, the world needs to keep an eye on this increasingly dangerous militant group. It has ties to al Qaeda and models some of its practices after Islamic State, so it is possible that its ambitions could become more global in scope. Its fatal attack in early January demonstrates just how powerful and perilous this group is and that the international community must take action.
Secretary of State John Kerry spent a significant amount of time at the beginning of his term attempting to negotiate a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for elections quickly, scheduled to take place in 2015. The United States could revive this attempt when a new Israeli government takes office, with the possible that a new government may be more agreeable to working with Palestinian leaders. The continued settlement building by Israelis in the West Bank and Hamas aggression towards Israel in the Gaza Strip are the most contentious issues, yet 2015 will see a renewed attempt at peace negotiations with hopefully a more productive outcome.
One of the biggest foreign policy challenges Mr. Obama will face in 2015 is a Republican-controlled congress. In other words, it will be difficult for the administration to successfully pursue some its policies as many lawmakers have become staunch critics of the Democratic president’s ideas. Senate Republicans are often the most critical of his foreign policy. Mr. Obama’s policies toward the Middle East and Ukraine prove to be the ones most lambasted, the most common being a lack of clarity on policy towards Syria. An opposing legislative branch may prove to be exceptionally tricky for Mr. Obama’s last two years in office, years that are often focused on foreign policy. Congress will have the ability to limit what the administration can do internationally and will not hesitate to oppose Mr. Obama’s policies. 2015 will be a year of fighting between Congress and the White House. It will be a source of consternation for both sides and will anger the American people as the government proves its inability to be internally unified.