The World’s Greatest Geopolitical Challenges

graphic: world map
March 20, 2015

GW Today asked Elliott School faculty members to weigh in on the most pressing issues across the globe.

The United States
Michael E. Brown, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs

The year ahead will be especially challenging, even tumultuous. Two of the most pressing challenges for the United States involve the self-proclaimed Islamic State that occupies large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory and continued Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. The Islamic State is a new kind of entity, drawing supporters and fighters from around the world. The Russian campaign of aggression involves some new forms of semi-surreptitious attack. Both will require the United States and its allies to develop multi-dimensional strategies and take strong, sustained actions. In both cases, U.S. and allied responses are still works in progress. More needs to be done.

At the same time, the United States and its negotiating partners (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) are coming up on their latest deadline to conclude negotiations with Tehran over Iran's nuclear program. The drop in oil prices has put added pressure on Iran, which depends on revenue from oil exports, but it is not clear that a deal will be reached. This will be a key issue to watch in 2015. Nuclear proliferation issues are important in and of themselves, but the Iranian case has additional regional and international implications. Read more.

The Middle East
Shana Marshall, associate director of the Institute for Middle East Studies

A major structural element underlying many regional challenges in the Middle East—from poverty to religious extremism—is corruption. One of the most oft-repeated slogans of religious opposition groups is that the introduction of religious law is the only way to deter the kind of corruption that keeps billions in poverty while enriching a small elite. Few in the region expect justice from their current legal system—certainly not when the Mubaraks and their associates are acquitted of graft—or when Gulf royals openly flout the law and suffer no consequences.

But corruption is more than prosecuting playboy princes for skimming commissions off arms deals. Government capacity—whether it’s measured in terms of judicial independence, military readiness, or the provision of basic infrastructure and services—is inextricably linked to corruption. When military command posts go to political cronies and ministry funds are siphoned off by contractors, officers, and politicians, soldiers are poorly trained, ill-equipped, and feel no loyalty to the system they’ve been tasked with protecting.

The same goes for poorly paid bureaucrats and border guards, who see cabinet officials with yachts and expensive villas. There is no incentive for these individuals to monitor repairs of the electricity grid or arrest smugglers and traffickers. And yet, we can point to these very phenomena: weak and sectarian armies, the persistent failure to deliver public goods and the smuggling of arms and foreign fighters, as key elements in many regional conflicts, including the rise of ISIS. Read more.

Eastern Europe
Henry Hale, associate professor of political science and international affairs 

Eastern Europe will face many geopolitical challenges in 2015. Perhaps first among them will be dealing with the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed insurgency in Ukraine, which has already widened its scope in January. This conflict not only threatens stability of the region, but also supplies of natural gas from Russia on which most Eastern European countries depend. 

This brings us to the second major geopolitical challenge, which is the economy. With the European Union in a stubborn recession, the events in Ukraine and Russia could further damage investor confidence in that part of the world, exacerbating economic problems there. Eastern European countries are also being called upon to join with other European countries in imposing sanctions on Russia that are sometimes controversial domestically, especially in countries where sympathies with Russia are fairly strong.

David Shinn, professorial lecturer and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso

In 2015, African countries are scheduled to hold eight parliamentary, six general, and six presidential elections. A few of them will have significant opposition and be relatively free and fair. Most will lack one or both of these features and several will involve efforts to ignore presidential term limits. Most African countries need to increase the political space allowed for political opponents. Togo’s president is seeking a third term on April 15. He and his father have ruled Togo for nearly five decades. One of the most important presidential elections in Africa this year will occur in Nigeria on March 28. While there is a strong opposition candidate, the election date has been postponed once and Nigeria’s opposition political parties have threatened to boycott the election if the Independent National Electoral Commission continues with its plan to use voter card reader machines, which the opposition says are prone to malfunction. The outcome of Nigeria’s election is a bellwether for the rest of Africa.

Another key challenge for Africa in 2015 is mitigating existing conflicts and reining in the spread of terrorist groups. Serious problems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur in Sudan date back a decade or more. More recent ethnic, regional, or religious wars rage in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Libya. While some progress has been made in weakening terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, other groups continue to thrive. Boko Haram has expanded its attacks from northern Nigeria into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is becoming active in Libya. Economic development will be difficult to achieve in these areas until these conflicts and terrorist groups are dealt with.

David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs and director of the China Policy Program

Three issues stand out with respect to the Asian region. The first is completing the negotiations and launching the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The second is building new momentum in U.S.-China relations. The third is how the region responds to China's new regional activism.

The TPP negotiations, which have dragged on for 12 years, are nearing completion. The Obama administration is dropping strong hints that the endgame is close and final agreements could be tied up in the first quarter of 2015. If so, then the TPP agreement must be submitted to the Senate for approval for the United States to participate in this unprecedented multilateral trade and financial services agreement (what some pundits have referred to as "NAFTA on Steroids").

With a Republican-controlled Senate, the agreement is expected to pass easily. TPP currently embraces 11 nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. These economies have a combined GDP of almost $21 trillion (about 30 percent of global GDP) and $4.4 trillion in exports of goods and services (about a fifth of total world exports).

Japan and South Korea are also involved in the negotiations. If they join—very likely later this year—TPP would cover 40 percent of world GDP and nearly a third of world exports. This arrangement has staggering positive potential and benefits for all members—and it will also set a very high bar of regulatory standards across a broad range of industries and sectors. Of course, the "elephant in the room" that is not a participant in the TPP negotiations is China. This is not by accident, as China's trade, investment, and other economic practices remain very far out of line with the standards envisioned by TPP member states. Hopefully, though, China will be incentivized to join and bring its own economy into compliance with TPP standards—which would be good for China, the Asia-Pacific region, and the rest of the world.” Read more.

Latin America
Robert Maguire, professor of practice of international affairs and director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program

Latin America and the Caribbean face several key, interrelated challenges in 2015. Economically, the continued decline in commodities prices will affect much of the region, including the larger economies such as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina, which are all heavily dependent on commodity exports and will see diminished growth as a result.

Venezuela, in particular, will be sharply challenged by declining oil prices amidst an already weak economy and unpopular government. Venezuela's economic and political distress could spill into the Caribbean and Central America, where many small, debt-strapped countries—particularly Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica—depend on subsidized Venezuelan oil. Politically, the presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina all will have to weather scandals for corruption and abuse of power.

Violence and drug trafficking will continue to be a major challenge for the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and Venezuela, where drug-related crimes are rampant and threaten the stability of the governments in those countries. Colombia will try to finally reach a negotiated conclusion to its decades-long war against the Marxist guerrilla group, the FARC.

This article article originally appeared in GWToday on March 16, 2015.