2014 was such a grim year for foreign policy that I’d like to write a column predicting things will get better next year.
In truth, there’s scant reason to hope that the Islamic State will soon be destroyed, Russian President Vladimir Putin will see the light, or North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will agree to appear on “The Daily Show.” However, if one suspends disbelief, it’s possible to imagine how some of the grim conflicts of the past year could ease. So here are the hopeful signs to watch for (and why they probably won’t materialize) in 2015.
Can the Islamic State be rolled back? In 2014 the sectarian policies of Iraq’s Shiite former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, drove Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), which seized a third of the country.
One can imagine how the situation could be reversed in 2015. The new Shiite prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appears willing to reach out to Sunnis and help them shake off the Islamic State. He is trying to reform a corrupt army that collapsed as the jihadis advanced.
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But al-Abadi’s outreach is opposed by Iran. Moreover, Iraqi Sunnis won’t fight the Islamic State unless Baghdad gives them more military aid and political power, along with a bigger role in a reformed army.
Will Putin stop messing with his neighbors? Only Russia’s sinking economy – hit by falling oil prices and Western sanctions – has prevented Putin from seizing more Ukrainian turf to create a land bridge to occupied Crimea.
Watch to see if oil prices stay low. Putin would then have to release more billions in hard currency reserves to pay pensions and help Russian companies repay their foreign debts. That would create pressure for him to back off Ukraine to get sanctions lifted. But Putin’s dreams of re-creating the Russian empire may trump rational concerns.
Will Afghanistan fall to the Taliban after the exit of the last U.S. combat troops? There are a few kernels of good news on this front. Afghanistan’s new tandem government of President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah is a great improvement over the mercurial Hamid Karzai – if they can finally agree on a cabinet. Meantime, Taliban leaders appear to be embroiled in deadly quarrels with one another.
What’s important to watch is whether neighboring Pakistan has finally decided to stop its longtime backing of the Afghan Taliban as a means of outflanking Indian influence in Afghanistan.
There could be good news on several other fronts, although the odds are iffy. In 2015 we’ll learn whether it’s possible to negotiate a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Even if that occurs, advocates are far too optimistic that it will lead Iran to normalize relations with the West.
In Israel, a March election could produce a government less eager to settle or annex much of the West Bank, but it may be too late for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a deal for two states.
As for Kim Jong Un, watch to see if his Chinese allies finally tire of his antics and try to curb him in the new year.
And then there’s Cuba. The long-overdue U.S. recognition of its government was one of the most positive foreign policy stories of 2014. In 2015 watch to see if more people-to-people contact – and global exposure to Cuban art, music, sports and 1950s Chevys – creates pressure for gradual political change.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.