December 2, 2015 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads

Militant Islamist fighters on a tank in northern Raqqa province. REUTERS/Stringer

There is no shortage of bad news these days. New reports out of Libya show how the Islamic State has gained a critical foothold over the coastal city of Surt. Tensions between Russia and Turkey are at new highs after the downing of a Russian military jet. Meanwhile, Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis is calling into question both the future of the Schengen Agreement and the sustainability of the eurozone. These challenges come at a time when states seem less able to effectively confront the many complexities of our new world—but herein lies the good news. From individuals to transnational corporations to global cities, non-state actors are providing global solutions. One of this week’s top reads tells the story of how Unilever is spearheading efforts to promote environmental sustainability. Another shows how entrepreneurs are employing new technologies to unleash the potential of the elderly. Bottom line: these are complex and challenging times; solutions are out there—but they may come from unexpected sources. With that, here are some of my top reads for this week:

Why ISIL Will Fail on Its Own

Eli Berman and Jacob N. Shapiro/POLITICO

Should we think of ISIS as a well-resourced terrorist group or as a fledgling nation-state that sponsors terrorist attacks? The right definition can determine the right strategy. Containment can’t prevent terrorists from sponsoring terror attacks, but it can halt the territorial expansion of a nation-state and hasten its demise with military support. Berman and Shapiro analyze ISIS’ dwindling funding sources, population, and regime competence to conclude ISIS is a fledgling, but failing, state. They believe containment can allow the group’s motivating ideology to collapse on its own—similar to Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union and communism—and thus “more rapidly find its proper place in the dustbin of history.”

ISIS’ Grip on Libyan City Gives It a Fallback Option

David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard, and Eric Schmitt/The New York Times

The Libyan arm of ISIS raised its flag over Libya’s coastal city of Surt almost a year ago. The Islamic State’s government now runs the city from abroad, and there’s no easy way to dislodge the group’s hold on it. Experts believe the core of ISIS may try to use Surt as an alternative base for its jihadists to continue fighting after a potential collapse of its positions in Syria and Iraq.

‘How ISIS Spread in the Middle East’: The Response

David Ignatius/The Atlantic

David Ignatius describes key developments since his October explainer, How ISIS Spread in the Middle East. Namely, Russian intervention in Syria, a diplomatic summit with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, and Russia, and an intensified Turkish-Kurdish standoff. He agrees with comments arguing for support of Syrian Kurds and declaring safe zones for Syrian civilians, but says Sunnis ultimately hold the key to defeating the Islamic State.

Range of Frustrations Reached Boil as Turkey Shot down Russian Jet

Keith Bradsher/The New York Times

Bradsher highlights aspects of Turkey’s troubled history with Syria and Russia preceding its downing of Russia’s fighter jet. Turkey and Syria have a longstanding border dispute where the Russian plane was attacked, and Russia has voiced support for Syria's claim. Further, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party emphasized Turkish ethnic identity during the election, and Russia’s military support for Syria’s embattled government has included heavy bombings over Turkmen villages in Syria. In this context, Russia’s repeated violations of Turkey’s borders brought the situation to a head.

Saudi Arabia: The Wake-Up Call

Roula Khalaf, Lionel Barber, and Simeon Kerr/Financial Times

During the tumult of Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi Arabia positioned itself as one of the last bastions of stability compared with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. However, falling oil prices are forcing Saudi authorities to reevaluate their reliance on oil incomes and reform its fiscal and civic system. This task falls largely on deputy crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, next in line to succeed King Salman bin Abdulaziz. His past success repelling al-Qaeda showed his strategic prowess. Can he repeat his successes in the economic realm, fight a war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and handle social discontent associated with fiscal belt-tightening at the same time?

Europe Needs a Sense of Strategic Direction to Survive

Wolfgang Münchau/Financial Times

The proliferation of political emergencies has exposed weaknesses in the European Union’s construction. Crises of terror, debt, and refugees threaten two of the EU’s most visible projects: the free-border Schengen area and the euro currency. Through the two aren’t directly linked, author Münchau argues that the loss of the former can set a precedent for the collapse of the latter. Unless the EU can shake its habit of “fudging” through crises and decisively address threats to Schengen and the euro, it may be best to “ringfence the euro and let Schengen go if needs be,” he says.

Unilever Finds That Shrinking Its Footprint Is a Giant Task

David Gelles/The New York Times

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever, known for household brands like Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Dove soap, and Axe body spray, has an audacious ambition to cut the company’s environmental impact by half and double its sales. The company’s efforts expose the conceptual, logistical, financial, and cultural challenges involved in a sustainable conversion.

Demographic Destiny: What Will the World be like in 2050?

The Wall Street Journal

This indepth multimedia series explores the world’s future through demographic data. Central issues include how globalization and automation will shape the labor market; how women of the future will balance education, career, and family goals; the impact of China’s cultural preference for male children; whether Africa’s baby boom will thrust it into center stage; and how Japan’s greying population can age gracefully.

If you are interested in related content from the Council on Global Affairs please see:

The Real Risk is in Barring Syrian Refugees, Nonresident Senior Fellow Richard C. Longworth, Chicago Tribune

The Midwest Can't Afford to Close Its Doors to Refugees, Assistant Director of Immigration Sara McElmurry, Global Insight 

Commentary: Putin is in a Quaqmire in Syria – and Russians Deserve Better, Nonresident Senior Fellow Richard C. Longworth, Chicago Tribune

Slight Rise in US Public Concerns about Climate, Senior Fellow Dina Smeltz, Research Associate Craig Kafura, and Intern Riena Yu

Addressing Climate and Migration Pressures with Bolstered Food Security, Research Assistant Isabel DoCampo

And join us on the evening of December 8 for a panel discussion on Syria and the Global Refugee Crisis. The event will be live streamed starting at 6 p.m. CST.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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