We don't know what geopolitical surprises will come our way in 2016. Governmental chancelleries and ministries of foreign affairs will first keep an eye on the crises that compelled their attention in 2015.
The acceleration of international dynamics is actually making the state of being driven by crises the “new normal.” Today, we are seldom confronted with individual crises, but with a crisis-ridden landscapes whose landmarks can be distinguished even as they form an intermeshed totality.
Syria, the refugee crisis, the fight against terror, relations with Russia, and the inner state of the European Union and the individual member countries are directly interconnected.
Concrete political events can never be predicted, and “stable trends” are only such until unexpected disruptions occur. Resilient reaction toward the unexpected, unplanned and mostly improbable begins with mental preparation.
Crises in every part of the world are highly relevant for a country as internationally networked as Germany. New tensions between China and its neighbors, for example, would also affect European interests.
But the way things play out would be determined by other protagonists. German and European decision makers will have to navigate primarily through the crisis landscape of their own more immediate geographical environment. So let us take a look at three regions – the Middle East, Russia and Europe itself – and at several conceivable if not necessarily probable challenges.
For the Middle East, almost all the plausible, negative scenarios have been thought through already. But the media have given insufficient attention to the possibility of a collapse of Palestinian governmental authority, the danger of widespread famine in Yemen and certain risks to the stability of Saudi Arabia – for example, in the case of unsuccessful military actions in Yemen and a continuation of low oil prices.
In any conceivable scenario, Syria will be a challenge for Europe as well. What has been least discussed up to now has been a possible breakthrough in negotiations: How would the European Union react if there were a fragile cease-fire and a division of political power that also included the perpetrators of violence, and it were called upon to offer political and economic support as well as possibly participating in an international monitoring force?
Understandably, Western governments are asking themselves what surprises they can expect from Russia in 2016.
We know from past years that the Russian leadership is serious when it defines “red lines,” but also that it acts in an opportunistic manner when, for instance, it seizes opportunities, is not averse to risk and tends to overreact. Maybe one should not so much ask “what Putin is planning” and think instead about what events could trigger opportunistic and risk-taking behavior on Russia's part.
Unrest in one of the Central Asian states with an authoritarian government? A flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijanian border conflicts? What if Russia were to intervene as a peacemaker? And what panicked reactions would also be conceivable from NATO countries?
Within the European Union, we could increasingly experience forms of "allegiance repudiation." The fear of electoral successes by far-right parties could increase a tendency of governments to emphasize their independence from Brussels even at the cost of European capacity to act, and simultaneously to criticize German dominance even while continuing to demand leadership from Berlin. This can already be seen with regard to border protection and the refugee issue.
But one can also imagine individual states abandoning Russian sanctions or increasingly loud demands being voiced for a loosening of the fiscal pact to cushion unplanned burdens such as the integration of refugees.
The problem would not be that Berlin fails with some of its proposals, but that there is no center moving the European Union through the increasingly complex crisis landscape surrounding it.
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