U.S. soldiers stand guard in Hasaka, northeast Syria, Jan. 27, 2022 (AP photo by Baderkhan Ahmad).

At its height half a decade ago, the Islamic State was among the most feared armed organizations in the world. The infamously brutal group had at one point captured and established governance of more than a third of Iraq and large swaths of Syria. But that shocking, sudden rise to infamy was followed by a steep, if slower, downfall. By January 2019, the Islamic State had lost nearly all of its territory in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. declared it defeated and media organizations began to pay only sporadic attention to its isolated attacks. By 2021, Google searches for the Islamic State, a […]

Workers are covered in oil after cleaning a spill at Cavero Beach in Ventanilla, a town near Callao, Peru, Jan. 21, 2022 (AP photo by Martin Mejia).

Half a century ago, MIT meteorology professor Edward Lawrenz famously posited that if a butterfly flaps its wings, it could ultimately trigger a tornado. The notion, which came to be known as the “butterfly effect,” aimed to illustrate how chain reactions in nature can be kicked off by unexpected events or phenomena, with unknowable consequences.  Lawrenz would have found a fine case study for his work this week in events that started with a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific and led to dramatic results—political, social and economic—far away in Peru. Ten days ago, a volcano at the bottom of […]

Workers assemble the Olympic Rings onto a tower, Beijing, China, Jan. 5, 2022 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

Beijing is in a frenzy to conclude its final preparations for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, as the countdown begins toward the Games scheduled to begin Feb. 4. With fewer than 10 days to go until the opening ceremony in Beijing, operations in steel mills and high-emission businesses across the capital, as well as in the neighboring province of Hebei, have been brought to a halt, in order to clear smog from the atmosphere and deliver clear blue skies for the gala affair. As the first host to rely completely on artificial snow for the Games, China has deployed machines to pump out […]

People wait in queues to receive cash at a money distribution organized by the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021 (AP photo by Bram Janssen).

International attention has been trained this week on Ukraine, where fears of an imminent outbreak of conflict have many observers worrying about the future of multilateralism in a period of strategic competition between the U.S., Russia and China. Yet an equally troubling bellwether for the future of multilateralism lies in the world’s collective failure to address the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.   Five months after the Taliban’s takeover, the international community appears no closer to an answer on how to manage its strategic interests in Afghanistan, from dealing with the Taliban to addressing the needs of millions of suffering Afghans. […]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are seen on the screen during an online opening session of the Asia-Europe Meeting, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 25, 2021 (photo by An Khoun Sam Aun for the Ministry of

Early last December, the European Union unveiled its Global Gateway, a plan to spend up to 300 billion euros, or $340 billion, over the next six years financing major infrastructure projects around the world, particularly those to develop clean energy and combat climate change. Although the Global Gateway does not have an explicit focus in terms of specific countries, it prioritizes developing regions such as Southeast Asia.   The investment plan is just the latest expression of Europe’s heightened interest in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region more generally. In the past year, several European countries have released Indo-Pacific strategy […]

A woman holds a photograph during a protest to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan, outside EU headquarters in Brussels, Aug. 18, 2021 (AP photo by Francisco Seco).

There was long a truism in political science that democratic states don’t go to war with one another, based on a century of statistical data. This prompted decades of U.S. foreign policy aimed at democracy promotion, culminating in the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem was that the prevalence of the term “democratic peace” led policymakers to overlook three key facts.  First, while stable democracies do tend to enjoy pacific relations with one another, emergent democracies often face great risk of civil or interstate war. Second, stable democracies are actually more likely to go to war against nondemocracies, meaning that the drive […]

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Kenyan Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya, Jan. 6, 2022 (AP photo by Gideon Maundu).

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a tour of Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros, continuing a tradition dating back three decades by which Chinese foreign ministers open the diplomatic year with a trip to Africa. The visit—which comes just over a month after the conclusion of the eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC, held late last year in Dakar, Senegal—illustrates how China’s engagement with African countries is evolving. Beijing is apparently ready to play a bigger role in mediating some of the region’s conflicts. Whether those efforts will pay off is an open question for both China and […]

United Nations peacekeepers from Rwanda wait to escort members of the U.N. Security Council as they arrive at the airport in Juba, South Sudan, Sept. 2, 2016 (AP photo by Justin Lynch).

The United Nations has no standing army, despite its initial plans to create one. Instead, when it launches a peace operation—the best established tool the international community has to address security threats—it relies on member states to voluntarily contribute personnel and troops. These U.N. deployments have grown in number and size throughout the 21st century, reaching a peak around 2014, when more than 100,000 military peacekeepers were stationed around the world. Today, four of the U.N.’s 12 peace operations—in South Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic—are staffed with more than 10,000 troops each. Along the […]

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in front of the Soviet U.N. delegation headquarters, New York City, Sept. 22, 1960 (AP photo).

In 1956, then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev executed a sharp but largely forgotten reorientation in his country’s foreign policy. During the long decades under Josef Stalin, with the exception of its support for communist China, Moscow had focused almost all of its energy abroad in buttressing client states in Eastern Europe. But with one major speech, Khrushchev announced that the era of investing only in Russia’s “near abroad” was finished.  Taking his cues from the 1955 Asian-African Bandung Conference in Indonesia that launched the Non-Aligned Movement, and anticipating the huge wave of newly sovereign countries that would commence with Ghana’s independence […]

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil, Nov. 14, 2019 (AP photo by Pavel Golovkin).

Amid the looming threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western nations continue to use a wide-ranging toolkit of policy options, including diplomacy and security assistance, to avert the risk of a full-blown war in Eastern Europe. The U.K. is supplying short-range anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Canada is deploying a unit of special operations forces. And a delegation of U.S. senators met Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, followed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken today.  But while Western countries have reacted vocally to the buildup of 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, China has mostly kept silent. Speaking in […]

An old and corroded Soviet tank on the beach of Socotra Island, Yemen, Oct. 22, 2021 (CTK photo by Ondrej Zaruba, via AP Images).

Ravaged by over seven years of war, Yemen continues to witness escalating violence as 2022 begins. Last week, pro-government forces fighting on behalf of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seized the energy-rich Shabwah province. After successfully pushing out fighters loyal to the Houthi movement from Shabwah, the loose coalition of pro-government forces continues its campaign in neighboring Marib province. Largely overshadowed by these rapid developments on the ground were reports of Houthi fighters seizing a UAE vessel traveling through the Red Sea. The pro-government coalition stated that the vessel […]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson steps out of 10 Downing Street to welcome the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tarik al-Said, in London, Dec. 16, 2021 (AP photo by Frank Augstein).

Novak Djokovic, Boris Johnson and Prince Andrew are in the spotlight this week, an unholy trinity dominating headlines around the world. Their stories are discrete and in many ways dissimilar, but all three have, in one way or another, let down the millions of people who looked to them for inspiration and guidance.  As I mentioned in my column last week, top-ranked tennis player and anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic caused a ruckus after he was allowed into Australia to compete in the Australian Open tennis tournament, despite not being double vaccinated, as is required for entry by the government. He then faced deportation after it […]

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration demanding the then-prime minister step down, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 31, 2021 (AP photo by FL Wong).

Two recent state-level elections in Malaysia have put the spotlight on the country’s volatile political landscape, ahead of national elections that many expect to be called this year. The scandal-tainted ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, came out strengthened from victories in both campaigns, while the opposition Pakatan Harapan’s disappointing performance presents it with new challenges in its efforts to return to power. But backroom deals and maneuvers by political elites in Kuala Lumpur are leaving many ordinary Malaysians frustrated and disillusioned with a political system that seems riddled by corruption and unresponsive to their needs.  Mahathir Mohamad, the […]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet with President Joe Biden in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021 (AP photo by Patrick Semansky).

There’s much that remains unknown about the violent turmoil that has engulfed Kazakhstan in recent days. But one clear fact has emerged from the mayhem: Vladimir Putin’s political doctrine has a new, now openly displayed centerpiece. On Monday, as the Russian president declared Kazakhstan’s crisis essentially resolved following a military intervention by Kremlin-led troops, he also announced the new policy. It amounts to a vow by Russia to protect autocratic rulers in former Soviet Republics when they face popular unrest. According to Putin, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization—a security alliance formed by a subset of post-Soviet states in 1992—had […]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, arrive to attend the Victory Day military parade, Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2019 (AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko).

More even than most crises, the events unfolding in Kazakhstan in recent days can be read in myriad ways. On one level, it clearly appears to have resulted in yet another opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to claw back control over domains lost by the Kremlin following the demise of the Soviet Union. Moscow has been able to accomplish this by falsely pretending the unrest that it helped put down in its Central Asian neighbor was yet another example of what it calls a “color revolution,” meaning an insidious destabilization plot supported by the West. On another level, the […]

A man is tested for COVID-19 in Beijing, China, Dec. 5, 2021 (AP photo by Andy Wong).

Around the world, strict restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic—including lockdowns, curfews, lengthy isolation periods and quarantine—are giving way to community mitigation measures and, more broadly, a relaxed, more pragmatic approach. But in Hong Kong and China, where authorities continue to favor a more ironclad response, there remains no end in sight to a “zero-COVID” strategy, two years on from the onset of the pandemic. China is now on high alert after detecting the first local outbreak of the omicron variant, weeks before the country is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The northern coastal city of Tianjin, […]

A portrait of former Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev is seen at the city hall building after clashes in the central square in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Jan. 10, 2022 (AP photo by Vasily Krestyaninov).

The unprecedented violence that rocked Almaty—Kazakhstan’s largest city—and several smaller regional urban centers last week were shocking to longtime observers of the country. Though the initial protests began as spontaneous demonstrations against a planned hike in fuel prices, they were quickly overtaken by violence against state offices and security forces that was apparently instigated by provocateurs.  Though much about the developments in the country remains uncertain due to an information blackout and the opacity of the inner workings of the regime, the events of the past week suggest that an elite power struggle has grafted itself onto the protests, pitting the […]

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