15 January 2016
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2016: Power, Weakness & Realism

Here are Julian Lindley-French's reflections on the year ahead.

The task of the strategist is not to predict but rather to consider how best to achieve desired outcomes given a range of load-bearing assumptions about relevant circumstances. However, for the sake of argument I will take a punt on 2016. One thing is clear; 2016 will as ever be about power, weakness and political realism.


According to the World Bank the global economy will grow by about 3% in 2016. However, it is a fragile economy subject to shock, the most notable of which could be a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two of the leading oil producers which would particularly impact China and Europe. For 2016 at least the new systemic fault-line between the state and the anti-state will mitigate but not stop the growing hyper-competition between liberal and illiberal great powers. There will be no decisive action or policy undertaken by the West in 2016 primarily because the US will be on hold for much of 2016, even as friction and tensions continues to grow in the international system.

However, 2016 will again see political realism re-emerge in a new West that will be more idea than place. With America otherwise engaged the key political figures in 2016 will be President Xi of China, Chancellor Merkel of Germany and the leaders of Europe’s outlier powers – Britain, Russia and Turkey – all three of whom in their own very distinctive ways are finding it hard to respond to liberal Germany’s liberal dominance of Central and Eastern Europe. With the International Organisation of Migration estimating some 60 million people to be on the move in 2015 mass uncontrolled migration will again be focussed on Europe, but by no means exclusive to it.

China and Russia:

At the grand strategic level the economic weakening of the world’s two leading illiberal powers, China and Russia, will see both regimes resort to more nationalism and militarism to maintain control. In spite of the World Bank’s suggestion that China grew by 7% in 2016 the true figure would appear closer to 3%. This marks a distinct contraction in China’s economy which was reflected in the 4 January suspension of the Shanghai Stock exchange which fell by over 7% in one day.

China will continue efforts to exclude the US from East Asia and by so doing continue its attempts to force all the states in the region to recognise Beijing’s regional hegemony. To that end Beijing announced that China had increased its defence budget by over 10% in 2015 and on 4 January said its aim was to surpass the US as the world’s pre-eminent military power, with military power projection at the centre of a new military-strategic concept.

Such ambitions will inevitably lead to deepening tensions across Asia-Pacific and intensify the military over-stretch of a United States that remains for the moment the only truly global power. In 2016 growing tensions between China and the US will also begin to define a new global bipolar power order focussed on Asia-Pacific, but which in time will force all states to make a strategic choice. To ease the pressure on the US and to counter China, Japan and South Korea will further boost their own defence forces.

Beijing will be particularly focused on Taiwan in 2016 given the 16 January elections for the 14th president of the Republic of China (ROC). Indeed, the People’s Republic of China sees the ‘reunification’ of the ROC with the mainland as an historic duty the securing of which will also demonstrate to the region and the world China’s ability to influence events at the expense of the United States and its regional allies.

According to the World Bank the collapse of the oil price will see Russia lose between 1% and 2% of its economy in 2016 making Moscow’s unpredictability predictably unpredictable. Although defence expenditure has declined President Putin’s drive to re-militarise the Russian state will continue as a ‘strong Russia’ is defined in military terms and remains central to the narrative of the Kremlin.

To reinforce that narrative Putin will seek to maintain domestic political momentum through the politics of nationalism and by consolidating his own power-personality cult. Specifically, President Putin will continue in his efforts to exclude the US from Europe and to keep the major European powers politically off-balance. The Machiavellian but strictly limited strategic alignment with China will also continue in 2016.

Russia will consolidate its hold over Ukraine-Crimea and seek to detach much of Eastern Ukraine from Kiev as part of his stated aim to recreate a buffer zone between Russia ‘proper’, NATO and the EU. Putin will continue to warn Finland about joining NATO, and will continue to employ ‘new generation warfare’ (destabilisation, disinformation and intimidation) against Estonia, Latvia, and Estonia, with a particular emphasis on cyber-destabilisation. Expect some move to further militarise Kaliningrad and the High North.

Strategic Bipolarism:

The new strategic bipolarism will also influence the choices available to regional actors. India and Pakistan will again face off in Jammu-Kashmir, as well as in Afghanistan where they will compete for influence over a failing Ghani regime in Kabul. However, the peace agreement between the two is likely to hold. That said, as China builds an exclusive zone of power in and around the South and East China Seas India will further strengthen its armed forces and continue to emerge in its own right as a major regional power. New Delhi will also move to again lead what might be best termed as the strategically non-aligned states, even as India implicitly but not explicitly moves towards the West.

United States, NATO and nuclear cheating

President Hillary Clinton will take office in January 2017 having been elected the 45th President of the United States on 8 November after a tight, divisive and disruptive general election in which she narrowly defeats Republican nominee Marco Rubio. With this return to dynastic succession in the US the British will understandably ask what all the fuss was about back in 1776. In 2016 Donald Trump will say one dumb thing too many exciting his right-wing base but alienating the centrist voter he will need to win both the Republican nomination and the general election. A lame duck President Obama will seek and fail to impose gun control and dogmatically stick to his ‘avoiding dumb wars’ legacy, exacerbating the sense of an America withdrawing from leadership.

NATO will hold the Warsaw Summit in July 2016 faced with an aggressive, instable Russia, a strategically dysfunctional Europe, an America yet to decide its new political direction, and against the backdrop of world-wide rearmament. At the Summit there will be much talk of Spearhead forces, strategic reassurance, and the need to build on the ‘commitments’ made at the 2014 Wales Summit to militarily strengthen NATO’s European pillar. However, in the absence of strong US leadership, and indeed another strategic shock, much will be talked about, but little decided.

The 2015 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will begin to look like one of those 1920s treaties that foreshadowed appeasement, so far were they from strategic and political reality. Indeed, with President Obama determined to protect his ‘legacy’ the White House will ignore Iran’s cheating on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the July 2015 nuclear agreement forbidding Tehran nuclear weapons. Tehran will continue to test a three-stage intercontinental missile and become bolder regionally as oil sanctions are removed and its relationship with China deepens.

In response Saudi Arabia will further invest in the Pakistani nuclear programme as a short cut to its own future nuclear capability. North Korea? Kim Jong-Un will continue to descend into dangerous fantasy and Pyongyang will continue efforts to weaponise its existing nuclear programme. Russia will also continue to test new short and intermediate range missiles that breach the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Syria & the Levant:

In the Middle East whilst there will be much talk of peace agreements the Syrian civil war will continue unabated. Indeed, the Syrian conflict will be further complicated in the collapse of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia which could well scupper the Vienna process in 2016. Worse, the Syrian conflict will continue to suck in and affect actors both in the region and beyond.

The anti-Assad ‘moderate’ opposition will continue to be split along ethnic and tribal lines. Russia and Iran will ensure that any agreement that suggests Assad goes will falter, and the Syrian conflict will continue to destabilise Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and push huge numbers of migrants towards Europe, aided and abetted by criminal smuggling gangs.

Sunni v Shia, and Islamic State:

There will be growing tensions between Sunni and Shia as the fourteen century old dispute over observance intensifies between powerful Middle Eastern states with contending strategic agendas. The January 2016 execution by Saudi Arabia of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and Riyadh’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats will deepen the tensions between Shia Iran and the emerging Saudi-led coalition of mainly Sunni Arab states. Indeed, a regional bipolar power contest will emerge across the Middle East organised by and around Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Israel an unlikely but de facto partner of the former.

Islamic State will continue to be pushed back in both northern Iraq and Syria as a better understanding of how IS functions will lead to more effective action against it. Indeed, the insertion on Western Special Forces as ‘trainers’ into the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga and other groups will help their military effectiveness. However, it will be a hard fight and there are several major rejoinders: first, that a growing Shia-Sunni split does not fracture the anti-IS coalition; second, that Turkey does not see a stronger Kurdish force as a greater threat than IS; and, third, that powerful Sunni tribes in Iraq can be persuaded to withdraw their support.

Even if IS is pushed back Islamism will continue to spread across the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and into parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, as IS falters in Syria and Iraq many of its fighters will move across North Africa towards Tunisia and Libya and back to Europe as part of the uncontrolled migration flows which will continue unabated.

European Union:

Two crises and two issues will be at the core of what is now an endless EU mega-crisis will dominate Europe in 2016; Brexit, mass uncontrolled migration, and the relationship between ever-closer-union and German power. Indeed, the 2016 Dutch and Slovakian presidencies of the EU will be dominated by both crises, and will reflect the search for a new political balance between political union, state sovereignty, Eurocracy, German leadership, and democracy.

Prime Minister David Cameron, ever the political gambler, will fail in his efforts to reform the EU even as he suggests he has succeeded in the wake of the February 2016 special European Council meeting. However, the British people will still likely vote to remain within an unreformed EU having been subjected to what can only be described as the propaganda of exaggerated fear by an ‘in’ campaign that will be allowed to massively outspend the ‘outers’.

However, the Brexit referendum will be a close run thing as it will likely take place in summer 2016 just at the height of renewed migration chaos in Europe. Given Cameron’s self-imposed deadline to hold the presidency before the end of 2017 the vote will need to take place before the April 2017 French presidential elections, the September 2017 German federal elections, and Britain’s EU presidency in the second-half of 2017. Indeed, it would be a tad embarrassing for the British to quit the EU in the middle of Britain’s EU presidency.

However, Brexit is not without strategic irony; given current projections by the World Bank, IMF and others if the British can survive their poor quality leaders (a big if) Britain is likely to re-emerge over the next decade or so to challenge Germany as Europe’s leading economic and military power. Can Britain best influence Europe from within the EU or without – that will be the simple question the referendum will decide. Whatever happens Cameron will be a political lame duck by the end of 2016.

Over the next year liberal, northern, western European states will bear much of the brunt of the ongoing mass influx. This will increase popular unease and frustration with political leaders as the fear of terrorism grows and the link between uncontrolled migration and terrorism becomes entrenched in the popular mind. Sadly, terrorist attacks will take place in 2016 that will see possibly hundreds of Europeans die and which will further undermine trust between leaders and led.

In 2016 an unchallenged Chancellor Merkel will continue to exorcise German history on the rest of Europe. Indeed, her leadership will demonstrate the dangers of grand coalitions in democracies. “Wir schaffen das” (“we can do this”) will remain her mantra as she justifies her open door policy to mass uncontrolled immigration in an attempt to assuage Germany’s Nazi past. However, another million plus people move towards Northern and Western Europe. According to a professor at the University of Munich some 70% are young men, of whom 63% are functionally illiterate in Arabic, and thus extremely hard to integrate into German society. Consequently, Berlin will face growing popular unrest in Germany and political opposition from states around Germany.

Critically, Merkel will seek to begin to ease the political impact on Germany of the migrant crisis prior to the 2017 federal elections. She will do this by threatening to withdraw EU structural funds from Central and Eastern European states (whereby ‘richer’ Western European taxpayers subsidise poorer Eastern and Southern European taxpayers) if they continue to refuse to accept more migrants. For a time she will likely have some limited success before those migrants sent to less wealthy European states simply up sticks again and move back west.


Turkey, or more precisely that other European President-for-Life Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, will emerge as a pivotal strategic player, due to Istanbul’s proximity to Islamic State and Syria and its control over ingress and egress from the Black Sea. 2016 will see Erdogan drive a particularly hard bargain with Chancellor Merkel; free movement for all Turks within the EU, or free movement of uncontrolled migrants to Greece. Turkey will also demonstrate to Russia that the use of its Black Seas Fleet in Sevastopol is entirely at the discretion of Istanbul. The fleet is the key to Russian military influence in South-Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The New West:

The good news? Out of the many, multiple crises now facing the West a new political realism will emerge. With the November 2016 election of a new US president an American-centric new West will slowly form that is more idea than place and which contains and engages China and Russia in equal measure. The new West will express itself first via mercantilist structures such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which will slowly morph into a kind of global New Deal.

TTIP and TTP will counter Chinese-led constructs such as the BRIC. Japan will emerge as America’s strongest strategic partner in Asia-Pacific, and London will again slowly emerge as America’s strongest strategic partner in Europe. In Europe a new political settlement will be found to again balance power within the EU. This will see Europeans finally begin to awake from the torpor of institutionalism to once again to consider their collective place in the world and the role of power, influence and realism in their security and defence.

Hold on to yer hats!

Julian Lindley-French
Tags: asia, 2016

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