Strategic Survey 2014 has spelled out our approach to the analysis of strategic risk, and we have produced a set of drivers of strategic change for each region of the world. We believe that Strategic Survey helps to define the intellectual framework for what might be styled geopolitical due diligence : the effort to understand and prepare for how political change in any given country or region affects stability and the prospects for successful international engagement either by governments or the private sector.
At a time of such dramatic strategic change, in so many different parts of the world, international businesses have come to see geopolitical due diligence as a more urgent requirement. It is striking that the Bank of England Systemic Risk Survey published in mid-2014 recorded that 57% of the businesses that responded cited geopolitical risk as a principal challenge. In Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, strategically significant change is occurring or in the offing.
The regional orders in Europe and in Asia are under challenge, and the regional disorder in the Middle East is further intensifying. All sorts of regional powers are flexing their muscles and testing what appear to be expanding limits to their freedom of manoeuvre. Geopolitical uncertainty has been increased by a sense that challenges to the status quo can be made successfully and without riposte. Responses over the next several months to the concurrent immediate crises in Europe and the Middle East will potentially have long-term strategic consequences. Moving from crisis management to a long-term strategic approach will be difficult for both relevant local powers and outside forces.
Looking ahead, it is clear that the next twelve months will see important ‘strategic adjustment’ to the regional balances of power throughout the world, but most especially in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. In each region, there are major unanswered strategic questions that need satisfactorily to be resolved before a measure of stability is even possible, let alone secured. Each one of these problems has deep historical roots and is at the core of contemporary power struggles. Each would require intense diplomatic efforts to resolve, which are almost impossible to muster given the simultaneity of the crises.
The Middle East
The rise of ISIS and its establishment of a purported jihadi statelet will likely have enduring consequences for the Middle Eastern order. The Iraqi and Syrian battle spaces have essentially been merged and the effort to defeat ISIS has exposed many strategic and operational dilemmas faced by local, regional and international actors. New tactical convergences of interests clash with long-term strategic objectives.
Hence such questions as : Should the US coordinate in Iraq with Iran, to what extent and how overtly ? Should the Gulf states prioritise the fight against jihadis over their goal of overthrowing Assad ? How might Syrian rebels, disappointed by the lack of support against President Assad since 2011, respond to Western demands that they spearhead the fight against ISIS ? Can Iraq’s Kurds be supported without a strengthening of their aspiration for independence ?
ISIS is a hybrid organisation – part terrorist group, part insurgency, part light infantry operating across the Syrian–Iraqi border. It attracts disenfranchised Sunnis, vengeful former Ba’athists, hard-core Salafis and radicalised Westerners. Many Sunnis even see it as a lesser evil, and an alternative, to the repressive and exclusionary rules of Bashar al-Assad and Nuri al-Maliki.
It controls significant territory, has proven militarily agile and is able to fund its operations through oil smuggling, extortion, looting and other forms of predatory behaviour. Despite its spectacular acts of violence, including against Westerners, its short- and medium-term objectives appear to be local and transnational rather than global, although galvanised Western jihadis could pose a serious security threat on their return.
Regional states have struggled with the ISIS phenomena. It is partly their sectarian and competitive policies that created the terrain and space for the jihadi organisation to grow. Assad had allowed it to develop so as to weaken the mainstream rebellion and tarnish its image ; Iran’s sectarian policies have inflamed Sunni communities region-wide ; a number of Gulf states have been no doubt too casual in failing to prevent thousands of their radicalised youth from joining the movement ; Turkey has allowed jihadis to cross its border with Syria ; and some Syrian rebels have made opportunistic, tactical alliances with ISIS.
An Iraq-centric strategy against ISIS misses the transnational dimension of the phenomena. ISIS is containable in Iraq : it can still mount spectacular attacks and highlight the weakness of the Iraqi government and military, but the country’s geography and demographics complicate greater territorial and political gains.
In contrast, ISIS is emerging as a key force in Syria, able to attract resentful and dejected Syrians who have faced the brutality of the Assad regime since 2011. The movement uses Syria as its strategic depth and its base of Raqqa as its de facto capital.
Much will depend on the strategy adopted by the coalition the US is putting together. President Obama had encouraged the appointment of a new Iraqi prime minister before committing to a military response, in part to put local actors in charge of the ground response. Obama has set the degradation and destruction of ISIS as his objective, recognising however that this will be a long struggle. It is clear that in the current circumstances, the onus will be on local actors, especially in the Sunni communities across Iraq and Syria, to uproot ISIS.
Who does the fighting, and how the fighting happens on the ground, are still unanswered questions. While many forces on the ground are focused on toppling Assad, their interest in putting all their might against ISIS will be less than that of others outside the country. And it is still the case that many in the region remain unconvinced, again, that the US and others will be there for the long haul.
While the struggle against ISIS is the most immediate and dramatic, the proliferation of different models of Islamic insurgency will be the most persistent challenge to the current regional state system in the Middle East.
In Asia, 2015 is the date set for the establishment of the ASEAN Community, but the focus will be on how the cold bilateral relationship between China and Japan evolves within a more multipolar Asia. President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan have shown themselves to be strong leaders, each with a clear strategic purpose and a willingness to defend national interests as they define them with vigour. The election of Prime Minister Modi in India introduced into the Asian political dynamic a third Asian leader pledged both to renovate the national economy and thereby also increase his country’s standing in the world and the region.
That region was famously labelled the ‘Indo-Pacific’ by Shinzo Abe in a speech during his first term as prime minister, an appellation that naturally inclined many in the Indian political elite to look favourably on Japan and be supportive of its having a strong regional role. While Prime Minister Modi will look to build excellent relations with China, his administration will surely seek ‘all weather’ relations with Japan. The immediate Indian priority will be to establish a better strategic settlement in the neighbourhood, not least with Pakistan, but a medium-term goal will be for India to play a fuller role in Asian affairs, including by enhancing its relations with key Southeast Asian states such as Singapore and Vietnam.
A more extrovert India could eventually have an impact on the evolving regional balance of power and is likely to be courted by a number of players in Asia. In the next year, the approaches taken by these three individual leaders will create a new regional dynamic. Either that will lead to more regional big power posturing and competition, or to a sense that greater efforts should be made to channel diplomatic energies through a revived regional architecture, not least the East Asia Summit.
For the moment, the regional security architecture in Asia is not strong enough yet to mitigate great power tensions, which between China and Japan have become worryingly strident. The various maritime disputes in Asia continue to inspire several forms of political and military brinkmanship, and the region remains at risk of accidental conflict leading to more determined military encounters. North Korea remains belligerent and provocative at a time when there appear to be internal tensions within its leadership. In these circumstances, the East Asian question remains a looming geopolitical challenge : the need to develop genuinely settled relations between Japan and China is great, but the prospects seem dimmed by the increased nationalist sentiment of the relevant leaderships.
It is in Europe where there has been the greatest proportionate shock to the prevailing security order. The Russia–Ukraine conflict has spiralled into a politico-diplomatic tornado that threatens the basis of the post-Cold War settlement and invites talk of a new Cold War. There is a need in Europe to take strategic stock of the current tensions and to work towards a fresh sustainable order. In effect, a second post-Cold War settlement will somehow have to be crafted as a longer-term solution to the Ukrainian tragedy is found.
Good geopolitics also must take into account how the balance of strategic interests in any given geography affects the ability to advance any particular policy. Proportionately, Russia’s interests in Ukraine were always going to be greater and more intensely pursued that those of the European Union. It was unfortunate that the course of events in 2014 gave rise to the impression that Ukraine was a ‘prize’ to be won either by the West or by Russia. Such a geopolitical tug of war would always result in the strongest and most ruthless ‘pull’ coming from Russia. The annexation of Crimea and the promotion of instability in eastern Ukraine would not easily be reversed by a Western sanctions policy, no matter how smart.
For the Russian leadership, and indeed for many Russians generally, Ukraine was not so much part of the ‘near abroad’ but rather part of the ‘near at home’. The post-Cold War European settlement of the 1990s inspired in many Russians a ‘Versailles complex’, whereby many believed that the accession of Eastern European states to the EU and NATO constituted some sort of victor’s peace. No matter that all these countries that turned to the West wanted to, and often had to step over many hurdles to accede to Western institutions. However (just) tolerable this trend was, it was clearly unacceptable to Russia that Ukraine should become part of it. Hence the covert and often overt campaign mounted by Russia and the spiralling descent of Ukraine towards failed state status.
Western states are rightly alarmed by the way Russia has used force in Ukraine and developed a doctrine of support for Russian speakers abroad in whichever country they may live that appears inherently to threaten the internal stability of other states. The economic sanctions and diplomatic pressures on Russia, combined with military reassurance to NATO’s eastern states, are necessary measures in defence of the principles that defined the post-Cold War order. Yet it is hard to imagine that a sense of genuine stability will return without some longer-term solution to the ‘Ukraine question’. A new strategic settlement is needed that is discussed and negotiated with Russia. The alternative is long-term confrontation and a proliferation of frozen conflicts. We need strategic debate again on the future of the European security order.
The 2014 Strategic Survey covers every region in the world and provides a strong sense of the geostrategic and geo-economic trends that are shaping world affairs. Its purpose is to provide the facts and analysis that can inform geopolitical due diligence by the private sector and inspire strategic thinking by the analytical community and governments.
The events of 2014, particularly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, cry out for more strategic approaches in the coming year, not least on the Ukraine question, the proliferation of Islamic insurgencies and the East Asian political order. Our detailed analysis on Latin America and Africa, as well as on emerging themes such as hybrid forms of warfare and security and privacy in the cyber domain, mean that Strategic Survey is a comprehensive assessment of the issues that shape the current strategic order.