January 13, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads

Iranian protesters chant slogans as they hold pictures of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against the execution of Nimr in Saudi Arabia, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran January, 3, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

The world ushered in 2016 with a bang—or several. First, there was the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric and political dissident, followed by the sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, which set off a geopolitical firestorm throughout the Middle East. Among the many repercussions will be a more disoriented and chaotic response to the fight against ISIS; however, in one of this week’s reads, Jared Cohen, the founder of Google Ideas, says that progress can be made against ISIS by waging a “digital counter-insurgency.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin endorsed a new national security strategy that points to NATO as a prime threat. Note that this strategy comes at a time when Russia is bolstering its military, asserting itself on the world stage, and fending off accusations of systemic connections to organized crime, as recent articles in The New York Times report. Then there’s Europe, where a number of economic, social, and political crises have created a palpable sense of European decline. Finally, there’s the United States, where American leaders are doggedly trying to contain the various hotspots around the world, while simultaneously dealing with crises at home. Two of the selected pieces from this week focus on President Obama, his team, and his struggle to balance American values with security interests abroad.  

MIDDLE EAST
 

Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Sectarian Game

Toby Craig Jones/The New York Times

Saudi Arabia’s ruling royalty is deliberately stirring sectarian tensions between its Sunni population and Shiite-led Iran, says Toby Craig Jones in his New York Times op-ed. Their goal is to shore up internal support—including stifling Shiite dissidents at home—during a period of increasing domestic unease. Saudi rulers created this diversion in reaction to tanking oil prices, which fuel the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s economy, and calls for internal reform. Jones explains that this isn’t the first time they’ve used this trick. The problem is that any short-term stability bought by fabricating external conflicts causes harm in the long-term as the region destabilizes.

How a 'Digital Surge' Can Help Beat Islamic State

Jared Cohen/Los Angeles Times

What would a digital counterinsurgency look like? In his recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, Jared Cohen explains that a digital “surge” against ISIS may be able to prevent it from using digital tools to cause widespread devastation. Such efforts, he writes, could be effective because, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has a hierarchical structure that is potentially more vulnerable to digital attacks.

RUSSIA
 

Putin’s Year in Scandals

Masha Gessen/The New York Times

The Russian government and President Vladimir Putin himself were marred with scandal in 2015. At the highest rungs of government, connections to organized crime abound—from money laundering to murder. Masha Gessen provides The New York Times with an illuminating overview of Russian corruption.

Russia Rearms for a New Era

Catrin Einhorn, Hannah Fairfield, and Tim Wallace/The New York Times

Russia has bolstered its military and asserted itself on the world stage with a forcefulness not seen since the Cold War. In this special report, The New York Times illustrates Russia’s strategy for reclaiming influence: Ramping up bases in the Arctic; increasing the military budget; more large-scale military exercises; and confronting other countries’ airspace.

EUROPE
 

Europe’s Multiplicity of Crises is not Accidental

Wolfgang Munchau/Financial Times

What connects the various crises around Europe? According to Wolfgang Munchau, much of the problem is structural. Europe created a monetary union without shared economic institutions, fiscal policies, and legal systems; it created a passport-free travel zone without joint coast guard and border controls.

Why I Will Be Voting to Stay in Europe

William Hague/The Telegraph

Britain’s former Foreign Secretary William Hague humorously describes the multiple failings of the European Union—from its sprawling bureaucracy to its general unaccountability—but draws a line between advocating for change and advocating for Britain’s succession. “Even those of us who have poured scorn on the EU’s failings should assess dispassionately if it is in the true interests of our country to depart it.” However, despite its “clumsy bureaucracy and failed ideas,” Hague believes the EU performs a vital role in helping new democracies establish themselves across central Europe—a job that is yet unfinished. Further, he argues that a turbulent Middle East and volatile world economy demands a strongly unified bulwark—not a broken Europe full of uncontrolled rivals.

The Decline of Europe is a Global Concern

Tony Barber/Financial Times

Once dismissed out of hand, the possibility now exists that the European Union might slip into a glacial decline bereft of power and relevance. Tony Barber argues that this possibility should worry a deeper and wider group of stakeholders than simply those living in the 28-member bloc. Multiple challenges threaten a strong and unified EU—the currency crisis tore a rift between northern and southern Europeans, the migrant crisis is doing the same between old EU states and new ones, Britain threatens a referendum, and nationalist politics are gaining steam in many countries. Barber contends that an enfeebled union will undermine the trust of citizens in their rulers, weakening the ability of governments to act decisively around the world.

UNITED STATES
 

‘We Caved’

Michael Crowley/POLITICO

At the center of the Obama’s foreign policy is an excruciating struggle of how to balance American values with its cold-blooded security interests, writes Michael Crowley in POLITICO. Perhaps the purest example of this can be seen in Obama’s Egypt policy, where his aspirational rhetoric fell flat against the brutal realities taking hold across the Middle East.

Obama’s Obama

Glenn Thrush/POLITICO

President Obama has had more chiefs of staff than any other president. His latest—and likely his last—chief of staff, Denis McDonough, is the culmination of Obama’s quest to replicate the No Drama atmosphere of his first campaign. McDonough, writes Glenn Thrush, is “Obama’s Obama,” mirroring the president’s deepest priorities: discipline, loyalty, dogged efficiency and obsession over process.
 

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