December 16, 2015 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

If there were ever a year for complex and intractable global challenges, 2015 was it. The Syrian Civil War, the dangerous rise of ISIS, and the human refugee crisis. The Greek debt drama and the potential unraveling of the European Union. Economic turmoil in China and tensions in the South Seas beyond it. An aggressive and encroaching Russia. More violence and no progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These and other challenges made it critical for global leaders to step up, make hard choices, and craft wise policy. Fortunately, some were up to the task. German chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, played a crucial role in mitigating the Eurozone crisis and in responding to the influx of refugees from Syria—rightfully earning her title as “Person of the Year” by both the Financial Times and TIME magazine. Ms. Merkel indeed stood tall in 2015, though she was not alone. There was historic leadership shown by the many of the heads of state who reached a landmark agreement on climate change at the recent Paris summit. There was (and continues to be) some remarkable thought leadership at urban centers around the world that are designing sustainable cities—one of several global challenges that cities are addressing head-on. All of this is a cause for cautious optimism—in the new year and in the years ahead—that even in the darkest of times there can be light found through extraordinary leadership. With that, here are some of my top reads for this week:

Person of the Year: Angela Merkel

The Financial Times and TIME both named Angela Merkel “Person of the Year,” taking particular note of Merkel’s leadership in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. However, as The Wall Street Journal reports, her refugee-friendly stance has met significant backlash in some quarters. Still, her famously prudent leadership style, strong approach to global challenges, pragmatic solutions, and well-informed use of power will ensure her outsized role in determining the future of the European Union and global politics writ large.

2050 Demographic Destiny: Urban Planet

Robert Lee Hotz/The Wall Street Journal

Researchers, civic entrepreneurs, and city managers are expanding the emerging science of cities, hoping to create a sustainable design template for urban centers worldwide. With the United Nations predicting almost all of the world’s population growth in the next 30 years will take place in these urban centers, this interactive explores the explosive growth of cities and the complications—and innovations—found therein.

A Climate Deal, 6 Fateful Years in the Making

Coral Davenport/The New York Times

After the Copenhagen climate summit failed, many doubted whether the UN process could tackle climate change. But three things changed: a fundamental shift in the geopolitics of climate change—including unprecedented leadership and commitment from the United States and China; an evolution in the perception of global warming from a distant warning to a clear and present danger; and the crucial art of diplomacy practiced by French President François Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. These global forces have come together in driving a momentous deal to stem climate change.

US Seeks to Avoid Ground War Welcomed by Islamic State

Rukmini Callimachi/The New York Times

ISIS bases its ideology and recruitment on a prophecy that Islam will triumph after a battle in which Western armies invade Dabiq and al-Amaq in northern Syria. This could be partly contributing to President Obama’s hesitancy to send ground troops to Syria, even as some Republican candidates push for such an invasion, despite the prophecy, to thwart the potential of an Islamic state. Jean-Pierre Filiu, who wrote one of the primary scholarly texts exploring the scripture on which ISIS bases its ideology, says, “To break the dynamic, you have to debunk the prophecy. You need to do so via a military defeat...But it needs to be by local forces—by Sunni Arabs.” To date, the United States and its partners have not found a reliable Sunni Arab partner force.

Islamic State Aims to Provoke Backlash Against Muslims in West

Yaroslav Trofimov/The New York Times

In its formative stage, ISIS fueled an environment of sectarian strife and then claimed to be the only protector of Sunni Muslims. The strategy hasn’t changed: ISIS tries to bait Western societies into an indiscriminate backlash against Muslims, hoping this backlash will convince more Muslims that ISIS is the great Islamic hope. George W. Bush sought to stamp down polarization and instead embrace Muslims after 9/11, but it is now possible that renewed anti-immigrant and anti-Muslimism rhetoric across the United States and European Union could play into the hands of ISIS.

Arab-Israel Tension: Obstacles to Peace

John Reed/Financial Times

The steady stream of independent violent attacks between Palestinians and Israelis provide a bleak snapshot of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Many interpret it as a sign that both parties have lost faith in a peaceful two-state solution. Palestinian leadership voices support for such a solution, but has lost patience with US-led diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support as well, but ruled out agreeing to a Palestinian state during this year’s election in Israel. It seems clear that a one-state solution won’t work, but a two-state solution may only come about after “exhausting all mistakes and paying the price.”

The March of Europe’s Little Trumps

The Economist

Across Europe, right-wing populists and nationalists are gathering steam. Once marginalized parties such as the Sweden Democrats or the French National Front are at or near the tops of polls. (And despite coming in third in the French regional elections, Sylvie Kaufmann writes that the National Front is very real in her latest New York Times’ op-ed.) Anti-immigrant populism is newly powerful, but not new. Many groups date back to the 1990s, but have grown recently thanks to the Eurozone and refugee crises, which hit particular segments of voters especially hard. As these voters’ populist representation grows in parliaments, mainstream right- and left-wing parties increasingly must form coalitions just to govern.
 
 

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

For Our National Security, Global Food Security Must Be Central to Climate Change Agreements, Research Associate Marcus Glassman on Global Food for Thought  
 
More than a Life Raft, Kathleen Brown on Global Insight 

Nations Pledge at COP21, Global Cities Fellow Michael Tiboris on Global Insight
 
Jordan's Water Woes Are a Wellspring of Mideast Strife, Global Cities Fellow Michael Tiboris, The National Interest
 
Is There a Way to Solve the American Fight Over Climate Change?, Senior Fellow Dina Smeltz and Global Cities Fellow Michael Tiboris, Foreign Policy

Upcoming Events

01/28 –The Future of Food: Innovation, Technology, and Agriculture 
By 2050, the world will need to feed almost 10 billion people—but how? An expert panel discusses the innovations that will define the future of food.
 
02/23 – Europe: What Next?
University of Chicago professor Luigi Zingales explores the economic future for a continent strained by increased security concerns, the migrant crisis, a slowing economic recovery, and rising populism.
 

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