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Troops ride in a vehicle near central Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the site of an emerging conflict. Troops ride in a vehicle near central Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 2, 2018 (AP photo by Ludivine Laniepce). The country's emerging conflict is outpacing the government's response.

Who Will Intervene in the World’s Hot Spots?

Friday, Jan. 29, 2021

As conflicts and crises persist around the world, there is growing uncertainty about how—or if—they will be resolved. The international order is fraying, generating uncertainty about who will intervene and how these interventions might be funded.

There are interminable conflicts, like the situations in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, which have produced years of violence, countless thousands of deaths and even more refugees. Then there are the emerging hot spots, including northern Mozambique and the China-India frontier, and any number of potential flashpoints, like the Eastern Mediterranean. Even in situations where there is some tenuous hope of reconciliation, there is also uncertainty—such as Sudan, where a key rebel group declined to sign on to a peace deal the transitional government struck last year with other armed groups from the Darfur region.

At the same time, the nature of terrorism is also changing. After a period of recalibration following the loss of its caliphate in western Iraq and Syria and, more recently, the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State has once again become more active in the two countries, even as it shifts its attention to new theaters of operation, like the Sahel, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. In so doing, the group and its affiliates are taking advantage of dwindling international interest in mounting the kinds of counterinsurgency campaigns needed to meet these new challenges. And a recent spate of seemingly lone-wolf attacks in Europe show that the threat terrorism poses there has faded, but not disappeared.

These developments come at a time when Western powers have shown a flagging interest in conflict intervention, more broadly. The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, a region that has been battered by attacks from Islamist groups and fighting among local militias, is one of the few conflicts to rouse European efforts to restore stability—and prevent a potential surge of migrants. But even there, European leaders have stopped short of backing the kind of large-scale military engagement required to turn back the militant groups.

U.N. peacekeeping operations, which might traditionally have played a role in mitigating these conflicts, are in need of significant reforms. Sexual abuse scandals and a mounting reputation for becoming ensnared in difficult, unwieldy missions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan have curbed the global appetite for peacekeepers. Now funding constraints due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic could further jeopardize the U.N.’s peacekeeping capabilities. The resulting vacuum has introduced opportunities for regional organizations, including the African Union, to fill the gaps, both in terms of stemming conflict and responding to disasters. But it is not yet clear if they will.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of proliferating humanitarian emergencies due to conflict and natural disasters. Persistent fighting in eastern Congo hampered the response to the Ebola outbreak in the region and continues to slow humanitarian efforts. Meanwhile, Yemen is in the fourth year of a cholera outbreak that has already killed nearly 4,000 people. Refugee numbers are swelling, even as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are set to generate new crises, while further stretching the scant resources available for addressing the existing ones

WPR has covered the world’s conflicts and crises in detail and continues to examine key questions about how they will evolve. How will the conflict in Syria be resolved, and can more humanitarian crises be averted while the fighting lasts? Who will intervene to prevent emerging conflicts? As the effects of climate change accelerate, will the world address the humanitarian crises it causes? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Persistent Conflict and Crises

Across the globe, there are a handful of years-long conflicts that show no signs of drawing to a close. In some situations, like Syria, Libya and Yemen, that is because the fighting on a local level is a proxy for battles between other countries. Places like South Sudan and the Central African Republic were, until recent fragile peace agreements took hold, torn by rivalries among key domestic actors amid global disinterest. Now renewed fighting in CAR puts that country’s stability in jeopardy. And then there is Afghanistan, where the United States is seeking to extricate itself from its “forever war.”

Emerging Conflicts

Alongside persistent conflicts, new hot spots are emerging, whether on the India-China border, where clashes left dozens of soldiers dead over the summer, or more recently in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan and Armenia have engaged in the worst round of fighting since the end of their war in 1994. With the U.S. having backed away from its role as “global policeman,” the vacuum left behind combined with the increasingly competitive geopolitical arena has increased the potential for tensions in these hot spots to spark into conflict.

Terrorism

The United States and other Western nations have demonstrated a diminished appetite for continuing to fight transnational terrorist networks, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State, in distant lands. But the threat of violent extremism may be spreading, even as it evolves to become more independent of these transnational networks, as in the recent attacks in France.* And recent events in the U.S. demonstrate that the threat from domestic right-wing extremists has become more urgent.

Humanitarian Disasters and International Responses

The United States under former President Donald Trump undermined international cooperation efforts, which have been central to organizing and maintaining disaster and humanitarian responses. The Trump administration attempted to undercut U.N. agencies that help coordinate these efforts, leaving regional actors and international agencies scrambling for funding. The administration of incoming President Joe Biden is expected to reaffirm America’s traditional leadership role in these multilateral institutions. The move comes not a moment too soon, as the effects of climate change are going to become more severe, to say nothing of the coronavirus pandemic, which will make humanitarian assistance even more urgent in vulnerable countries.

Peacekeeping

After several high-profile failures of its peacekeeping missions in the 1990s, the U.N. set out to rethink and improve blue-helmet operations at the turn of the millennium. But they continue to be dogged by a number of critical problems, including the intransigence of local leaders and missions that are simultaneously bloated and underfunded. The U.N. launched the Action for Peacekeeping initiative in March 2018, in an effort to improve the effectiveness of its missions. But ongoing discussions as well as follow-through on the initiative’s proposals have been hampered by great-power tensions, particularly between the U.S. and Russia.


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WPR is increasing its focus on how U.S. foreign policy is likely to change under the Biden administration. While Biden would undoubtedly repudiate Trump’s approach, which was itself a radical break from U.S. foreign policy traditions, it’s unclear whether a restoration of the United States global role is even possible. What immediate challenges will the Biden administration confront? And how will he successfully pivot policy in key areas? This report is just a sampling of our coverage so far of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Download your FREE copy of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden to learn more today.

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As the Biden administration takes over, the world is experiencing a sort of whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. The Biden administration will repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.

The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Trumpism will remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around foreign policy for years to come.

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*Correction: A previous version of this article included the November 2020 attack in Vienna, Austria, as an example of a terrorist acting independently of transnational terror groups. The lone-wolf attacker carried out his shooting spree in the name of the Islamic State and had previously been convicted of trying to join the group in Syria. WPR regrets the error.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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