January 21, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman after their meeting alongside the G20 summit at the Regnum Carya Resort in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

In a recent essay in The New York Times, former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns writes about one of the central challenges of the Obama administration’s foreign policy: balancing diplomatic engagement with deterrence. His essay centers on Iran, but this challenge can be seen across many fronts. Take Syria, where former Obama advisor Dennis Ross says the United States hesitated to do more than offer pronouncements—creating a destabilizing power vacuum throughout the Middle East. Or look at China, which the Financial Times reports is ramping up activity in the contested waters of the South China Sea, despite US resistance.

By no means is this balancing act easy. Often, it takes strong and committed allies—which, for the United States, seem hard to come by these days. Old allies such as Saudi Arabia appear to be adding gasoline to a sectarian conflict that has engulfed the Middle East. Europe, meanwhile, is consumed with a migrant crisis, slow economic growth, and rising nationalism, all of which put a strain on transatlantic cooperation. Nevertheless, finding this balance between diplomacy and deterrence will be essential to grappling with America’s most difficult foreign policy challenges today and in the future.

With that, here are some of this week’s recommended reads:

Talk to Tehran, but Talk Tough

Nicholas Burns/The New York Times

Despite congressional criticism of rapprochement with Iran in the United States, Nicholas Burns argues there are clear benefits for American security. However, the road to a more normal relationship will be rocky, with one key challenge being its split government. Iran’s reformist president Hassan Rouhani is amenable to progress, but real power still rests with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—a recluse distrustful of the United States. In order to realize the long-term benefits of the nuclear deal with Iran, the United States must continue to balance engagement with deterrence.

How Obama Created a Mideast Vacuum

Dennis Ross/POLITICO

In nearly every meeting on Syria, President Obama reacted to possible ways to affect the Syrian civil war by asking “tell me where this ends.” He was right to ask this question, says his former senior Iran advisor Dennis Ross. But he should have also asked the corollary: What happens if we don’t act? Ross believes a vacuum was created by Obama’s hesitancy to act—an overcorrection from the Iraq war. That vacuum was filled by Iran, Hezbollah, and Iran’s other Shia militia proxies; Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar; Russia; and ISIL. Unless the United States does more now to fill this vacuum, Ross contends, the situation will spin further out of control.

Beijing Steps up Building in Disputed Waters despite US Resistance

Demetri Sevastopulo/Financial Times

China is forging ahead with a plan to build runways in the South China Sea in direct opposition to the wishes of the United States. Satellite images of Subi Reef and Mischief Reef reveal that the two reefs will be a part of the new landing strip on a third reef called Fiery Cross. Those opposed fear that China will militarize the islands and advance their claims over disputed territories and shipping lanes. However, President Xi Jinping says that the islands were made for civilian use. While many raise red flags about China’s activity in the area, there are some experts who believe that the fears are overblown.

Young Prince in a Hurry

The Economist

Muhammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince who is the power behind the throne of his elderly father, King Salman, has a fast furious approach to wielding power. While his kingdom puts on airs of ostentatious luxury, he knows it faces serious trouble due to a failing economy and regional instability. He’s injecting new energy into government, taking gambles, and acting decisively. But critics note his transformation is indifferent to the democratic process and ignores demands for political liberalization and social justice reform.

The House of Saud's Sectarian Venom Spreads across Middle East

David Gardner/Financial Times

Saudi Arabia’s “execution spree” looks more defensive than powerful, says David Gardner in the Financial Times. In attempting to assert that the Arabian Peninsula is terra sancta for its brand of Sunni Islam, the kingdom opened a new front in the region with Iran-aligned Shias—one it will struggle to juggle with its pre-existing challenges of falling oil prices, an untried deputy crown prince, and dicey internal reforms.

Migrant Men and European Women

The Economist

The New Year’s Eve attack at a train station in Cologne, Germany, left more than 600 women robbed and sexually assaulted. Negative events such as this have raised questions from vocal critics as to whether or not European countries should be accepting asylum-seeking males. With the culture of migrants vastly different from that of Europeans, The Economist argues the responsibility now falls on Europe to educate refugees on European culture, while insisting migrants obey the law, to prevent acts of this nature from happening again.

Europe’s New Medieval Map

Robert Kaplan/The Wall Street Journal

What does turmoil look like on a map? According to Robert Kaplan it’s Europe during the middle ages, early modern era, or before the Industrial revolution. Europe, a continent with a tumultuous history has experienced a relatively peaceful couple of decades from 1950 to 2009. But since the start of the European Union’s debt crisis, it appears that things in Europe have reverted back to tumult. Europe is dealing with debt, an influx of migrants and refugees, and a more powerful Russia. With everything going on, the continent is once again splitting into two halves: Eastern Europe with the United States and Western Europe with Russia. Kaplan argues that “The continent’s map is becoming medieval again, if not yet in its boundaries then at least in its political attitudes and allegiances.”

Poland-EU: Stand-off in the East

Henry Foy and Duncan Robinson/Financial Times

The European Union is investigating Poland due to claims that recent laws passed by Poland’s Law and Justice Party violate democratic standards in the European Union. However, Beata Szydlo, the Prime Minister of Poland, is unconcerned. She says that Poland is sovereign, and therefore has the right to make sovereign decisions. Some argue the EU took formal action too quickly, arguing “now is not the moment for the EU to pick unnecessary fights.” Others believe Poland should fall in line: “They can shout at the beginning but they have to learn. They are part of the system.”

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