The Top 10 Questions About the World’s Biggest Problems

Will anyone ever outfox Putin? Why are we still using old solutions to solve the same old Middle East Problems? And where exactly are we going in Afghanistan?

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

I'm in Washington today to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The timing is fortuitous, because I'm pondering a number of big questions these days and I'll be interested to see what some of the nation's best scholars think about them. So for what they may be worth, here are my Top 10 Foreign Policy Puzzles:

I’m in Washington today to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. The timing is fortuitous, because I’m pondering a number of big questions these days and I’ll be interested to see what some of the nation’s best scholars think about them. So for what they may be worth, here are my Top 10 Foreign Policy Puzzles:

No. 1: Will there be a deal on Ukraine?

The crisis in Ukraine has been a colossal failure of analysis and of diplomacy, with plenty of blame to share on all aides. The main victims, alas, have been the unfortunate Ukrainian people. As I’ve written before, I think the United States and the West played a key role in causing the crisis, mostly by failing to anticipate that Russia was going to respond forcefully and vigorously to what its leaders regarded as a gradual attempt to incorporate Ukraine into the West. One need not approve of Russia’s response to recognize that the United States should have seen it coming and thought more carefully about our interests and objectives beforehand.

Since the collapse of the Yanukovych government, the United States and its allies have followed the usual playbook: ramping up sanctions and waiting for Moscow to cave and give us everything we want. Unfortunately, this view fails to recognize that Russia does have valid reasons to care about its border areas and still has cards to play. Sanctions are clearly hurting, but Putin probably anticipated them and has been willing to pay the price. In the meantime, sanctions aren’t helping the sputtering European economy (see below), and Ukraine itself is going from bad to worse.

So my question is: Will someone get serious about real diplomacy, and make Putin an offer he’s unlikely to refuse? Instead of building more bases in Eastern Europe, the United States and its allies should be working to craft a deal that guarantees Ukraine’s status as an independent and neutral buffer state. And that would mean making an iron-clad declaration that Ukraine will not be part of NATO. (Just because many Ukrainians want to join doesn’t mean NATO has to let them.) Recent proposals for a deal lack that essential ingredient and aren’t going to solve the crisis. A "Finlandized" Ukraine might not be an ideal outcome, but it is better than watching the country get destroyed. Putin may reject such a solution, of course, but surely it deserves a serious attempt before things get even worse.

No. 2: When will anyone in Israel or Palestine try something different?

The latest Gaza war was déjà vu all over again: more people were killed, vastly more damage was done to the imprisoned civilian population of Gaza, the IDF lost more than 60 soldiers (a total more than twice the number of civilian victims from Gazan rockets and mortars over the past five years), and the eventual cease-fire agreement changed nothing of significance. On the West Bank, the occupation grinds on, while Israeli politics drift rightward. Yet despite all these worrisome trends, nobody in a position of authority seems capable of rethinking their hardened positions: not Israel, not Hamas, and not the Palestinian Authority. And certainly not the United States, either. Until one of those actors adopts a different mind-set and/or a different approach, we can count on another reprise in a few months or years.

No. 3: Will Europe ever get its act together?

There was a brief flurry of optimism a year or so ago, as the eurozone achieved some modest economic growth and interest rate spreads eased, but the French economy is now in serious trouble and even Germany’s economy contracted during the last quarter. (As noted above, this may not have been the smartest moment to impose stiffer sanctions on Russia.) Scotland’s status in the U.K. is up for grabs, and so is England’s membership in the EU. Some European Jews are heading for Israel to escape fears of rising anti-Semitism, even as some Israelis are heading the other way. Remember when Euro-optimists used to crow about it becoming a different sort of world power, based on democracy, rule of law, and "civilian power"? Today, a better question is whether Europe can retain any sense of unity, regain its economic health, and avoid geopolitical irrelevance.

No. 4: Where will the borders be drawn in the greater Middle East?

There are good reasons why existing borders tend to endure, even when they don’t conform well to ethnic, cultural, or religious boundaries. One reason is simple prudence: Once you start redrawing the map, it is hard to know where the process will end, and so existing elites will have every incentive to preserve the present arrangements, however flawed they might be. Even so, it is hard to look at what is now happening in the Middle East and believe that the current borders aren’t going to look different some years from now. Libya might break up completely. The borders drawn by Sykes and Picot may end up on the ash heap of history, and be replaced by a rump Alawite state, a radical Sunni community in eastern Syria/western Iraq, and a genuinely independent Kurdistan. The Green Line separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank is increasingly meaningless too, but a future "Greater Israel" would catalyze a Palestinian struggle for civil rights. I don’t know if any of these things will happen or what the final end states will be, but trying to keep the pre-2009 Humpty Dumpty together is looking like a bad bet these days.

No. 5: Will a stable equilibrium emerge in East Asia?

China’s rise has shifted the balance of power in East Asia, and Beijing continues to press various territorial claims in the East China and South China seas. There have been desultory efforts to resolve these disputes but no serious progress. In the absence of multilateral agreement, these disputes are just trouble waiting to happen, especially given U.S. treaty commitments to various regional allies and to freedom of navigation more broadly. America’s "rebalance" to Asia was supposed to help address these issues, but Washington keeps getting distracted by more dramatic but ultimately less significant events elsewhere. My guess: East Asia will be even more contentious in 2016 than it is today, and these issues are going to loom large in the next president’s agenda.

No. 6: Will there be a deal over Iran’s nuclear program?

If Obama wants to leave office with at least one tangible achievement, securing a deal that caps Iran’s nuclear program and opens the door for a more constructive relationship with Tehran is his best bet. The good news: The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) has given Iran and the United States an additional reason to cooperate — at least tacitly — and both sides have clearly been negotiating in good faith. The bad news: There are still significant gaps between the two sides’ stated positions, in part because hard-liners on both sides retain too much influence but also because their core strategic objectives are at least partly at odds. Plus, events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine have undercut Obama’s clout and he’ll be more and more of a lame duck with each passing month. The clock is ticking, and the bad news is that opponents just have to run out the clock. Here’s hoping they fail, but I wish I could say that with a bit more optimism.

No. 7: Where is Afghanistan headed?

After more than a dozen years of effort, and billions of dollars spent, Afghan internal politics are as screwed up as ever. As I write this, for example, Afghan presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah has withdrawn from the post-election audit agreement brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, casting additional doubts on the country’s political future.

As the U.S. experience with Iraq demonstrates, intervening powers facing an open-ended, costly, and unpromising commitment have few good options. (Moral: When you screw things up really badly, bad choices are what you are left with.) Staying longer is no guarantee of success and just adds to the sunk costs. But getting out often creates chaotic situations whose consequences are depressing to behold and can be trouble in their own right.

So the big question here is simple: Given that the United States and its allies are going to leave, just how bad will things get? And if they do, will the United States resist pressures to re-engage? I suspect we will, but I’ve been wrong before.

No. 8: Will Obama’s climate change gambit work?

Facing resolute opposition from GOP mossbacks in the Senate, the Obama administration is reportedly pursuing a "global accord" on greenhouse gas emissions that would rely on voluntary compliance by other states and not require Senate ratification. The idea is appealing because the United States could meet its obligations through legislation that would require a simple majority (and not the 67 Senate votes required to ratify a formal treaty), and because getting the United States fully on board would supposedly encourage other major emitters to sign on too. But there are at least two big questions: a) would "voluntary compliance" and "naming and shaming" really work, and b) if the GOP and its climate-change deniers gain a majority in the Senate, what are the odds that any meaningful U.S. legislation gets passed at all?

If climate change does as much damage as many experts now fear, climate-change deniers will one day deserve their own wing in the Museum of Great Human Follies.

Or maybe a chapter in the sequel to this book.

No. 9: Will the United States, its allies, and other concerned countries come up with a better approach to "violent extremism" of the sort represented by al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and others?

Terrorism has been with us for a long time, but it has dominated discourse on national security policy for more than a decade. We are 20 years past the original emergence of al Qaeda, and 13 years past the 9/11 attacks, yet we have not been able to put the threat in perspective or devise an effective strategy for minimizing it even more. Killing terrorists with drones doesn’t seem to have worked, and may actually make the problem worse. Removing authoritarian tyrants like Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Qaddafi from power backfired badly, and sending lots of Western troops into Iraq and Afghanistan merely reinforced jihadi narratives about the infidel’s relentless interference. The United States and its allies are probably better at detecting and thwarting plots than they used to be, but there can never been a 100 percent reliable defense against either foreign extremists or deranged domestic radicals either. I’d just like to know when we will do something besides sending drones anywhere they can reach. Even more importantly, I’d like to know if U.S. leaders will ever put the danger in proper perspective, and stop treating every nasty radical group as the Greatest Threat We Have Ever Faced.

No. 10: Can Western democracies roll back the "surveillance state"?

As scholars like Jack Goldsmith and Geoffrey Stone have noted, the United States (and other democracies) has often compromised civil liberties and conducted aggressive censorship and surveillance efforts during national emergencies. In this sense, the panicked response that produced the Patriot Act and the NSA’s notorious excesses is disturbing but not surprising. But in the past, such measures got reversed once the danger was over, and in some cases — such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II — the United States eventually understood it had done wrong and tried to make amends.

My question: Can we be confident that a similar course correction will take place today? The national security state is bigger and more powerful than it was in earlier periods of U.S. history, and the capacity for government (and private!) surveillance is vastly greater. The perceived threat from nonstate actors like al Qaeda or worse is impossible to measure precisely, which makes it easy for threat-inflators to scare the public into endorsing measures that would make the Founding Fathers weep. Plus, trying to run an increasingly chaotic world requires governing elites to spend a lot of time spinning and inevitably tempts them into keeping lots and lots of secrets, to include telling the public exactly what they’re doing. Add all this together, and I think you understand why Barack Obama didn’t unwind the Bush-era practices, and in some cases made them worse. So my question remains: Even post-Snowden, is an increasingly secretive and intrusive national security state the "new normal"?

Notice that these issues run the gamut from political theory, area studies, and international relations to environmental politics, conflict studies, international political economy, and a few other subjects beyond those. The APSA meeting will be crawling with people who study these topics, and I hope I get a good answer to at least some of these questions while I’m there. If I do, I’ll let you know.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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