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Preview: - Backgrounders - Backgrounders

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Published: Tue, 16 May 2017 08:55:49 -0400

Last Build Date: Tue, 16 May 2017 08:55:49 -0400

Copyright: Copyright 2017 by the Council on Foreign Relations. All Rights Reserved.

China’s Big Bet on Soft Power

China is believed to spend billions of dollars to boost its international image, but it has yet to see a marked return on its investment in soft power.


The Group of Seven (G7)

Thu, 11 May 2017 10:00:00 -0400

The G7 serves as a forum for highly industrialized democracies to coordinate economic, security, and energy policy, but critics say that its membership is outdated, undermining its relevance to global governance.


U.S.-Saudi Relations

Thu, 11 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400

The U.S.-Saudi relationship, long bound by common interests in oil and security, has shown strains over what some analysts see as waning U.S. involvement in the Middle East and a more assertive Saudi foreign policy.


Who’s Who in Syria’s Civil War

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 11:11:00 -0400

Syria's civil war is being fought on multiple fronts by an array of combatants whose alliances, capabilities, and in some cases motives have been in flux. This Backgrounder profiles more than a dozen of the main warring sides.


The China–North Korea Relationship

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and arguably has the most leverage on Kim Jong-un’s regime. But while Beijing appears willing to condemn its neighbor’s nuclear developments, analysts say its cautious policies remain focused on stability.


How Powerful Is France’s President?

Tue, 25 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

The winner of the presidential election this spring will heavily influence how France approaches foreign and domestic issues, including its future with the European Union.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Mon, 24 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Russian aggression in Ukraine has breathed new life into the Cold War-era security alliance, prompting allies to reinforce defenses in Eastern Europe and expand cooperation with nonmembers.


Venezuela in Crisis

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

The sharp decline in oil prices in recent years has crippled Venezuela’s economy and left the Maduro government teetering on the brink, explains this Backgrounder.


China in Africa

Mon, 17 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

China has become Africa’s largest trade partner and has greatly expanded its economic ties to the continent but its growing activities there have raised questions about its noninterference policy. 


How Does the U.S. Spend Its Foreign Aid?

With President Donald J. Trump advocating for deep cuts to U.S. foreign aid, debate has renewed over the role of foreign assistance funds in boosting growth, promoting democracy, and saving lives.


The Impact of the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Iran has restricted its nuclear program and given international inspectors unprecedented access, but it has not seen the economy recovery expected in the aftermath of the agreement with international powers.


Africa’s ‘Leaders for Life’ Syndrome

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state, but civil society and regional blocs may be reversing the trend of extending presidential terms in some areas.


What Brexit Means

Wed, 29 Mar 2017 11:00:00 -0400

With the UK having voted to leave the European Union, uncertainty over the future of the bloc has intensified. Brexit supporters argue that the EU threatens sovereignty and stifles growth, while opponents counter that EU membership strengthens trade, investment, and the UK's standing in the world.


The U.S. Immigration Debate

Tue, 28 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Comprehensive immigration reform has eluded Congress for years, moving controversial policy decisions into the executive and judicial branches of government, explains this Backgrounder.


Democracy in Hong Kong

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Hong Kong has certain political and economic freedoms based on China’s “one country, two systems” principle, but the city’s political evolution is challenging its relationship with the mainland.


The Role of the U.S. Federal Reserve

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 11:00:00 -0400

The role of the Federal Reserve has transformed in the past decade, as it has deployed trillions of dollars to boost the U.S. economy while expanding its regulatory oversight of the nation’s financial system.


Can Trump Carry Out His Foreign Policy Promises?

Wed, 08 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0500

President Donald J. Trump has wide latitude to enact the sweeping changes to U.S. foreign policy that he has promised, but his executive authority is constrained by congressional legislation, treaty obligations, and bureaucratic processes.


U.S. Foreign Policy Powers: Congress and the President

The separation of powers has spawned a great deal of debate over the roles of the president and Congress in foreign affairs, as well as over the limits on their respective authorities, explains this Backgrounder.


How Trump Could Affect the National Debt

The U.S. national debt now exceeds $14 trillion, prompting calls for tax and spending reforms as President Donald J. Trump prepares his administration’s first budget proposal. 


The Role of the UN Secretary-General

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

The UN’s top leadership position has broad authority to steer the organization’s agenda but its impact has varied widely among office holders since 1946.


Media Censorship in China

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

China’s central government has cracked down on press freedom as the country expands its international influence, but in the internet age, many of its citizens hunger for a free flow of information.


Abenomics and the Japanese Economy

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 11:00:00 -0500

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has introduced an audacious set of economic policies designed to spur the country out of its decades-long deflationary slump. The results have so far been mixed.


What Are Economic Sanctions?

Wed, 08 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

For many foreign policymakers, economic sanctions have become the tool of choice to respond to major geopolitical challenges, from counterterrorism to conflict resolution.


How Does the U.S. Refugee System Work?

The United States has long accepted refugees from around the world, but President Donald J. Trump’s executive order on immigration has sparked debate over the national security implications of the U.S. refugee program.


U.S.-Cuba Relations

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 12:00:00 -0500

Relations between the two Cold War foes have warmed dramatically over the last several years, but some fear the détente may stall during the Trump administration, explains this Backgrounder.


The Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S. Trade Policy

Tue, 31 Jan 2017 10:57:00 -0500

President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has upended U.S. trade policy, intensifying debate over the effects of trade on employment, inequality, national sovereignty, and safety standards.


U.S. Corporate Tax Reform

Mon, 30 Jan 2017 11:00:00 -0500

President Donald J. Trump has vowed corporate tax reform in 2017, but Congress is deeply divided over the details, including how to reduce rates and subsidies, and whether to tax profits made abroad. 


NAFTA's Economic Impact

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 11:00:00 -0500

More than twenty years after its implementation, the North American Free Trade Agreement continues to spur debate over its impact on economic growth and jobs. 


The Rohingya Migrant Crisis

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Tens of thousands of Rohingya are fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. This Backgrounder explores the plight of the Muslim ethnic minority group and the deepening migration crisis in Southeast Asia.


Colombia's Civil Conflict

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

The Colombian government and FARC rebels have signed a historic peace agreement. This Backgrounder traces the origins of the country's civil conflict and the path to sustainable peace.


Foreign Investment and U.S. National Security

Wed, 14 Dec 2016 11:00:00 -0500

As a top destination for foreign investment, the United States seeks to strike a balance between national security and its commitment to open markets.


China-Taiwan Relations

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Differences over Taiwan’s status fuel tensions between the island and mainland, yet economic ties continue to deepen. This Backgrounder explores the cross-strait relationship.


The U.S.-Philippines Defense Alliance

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

The Philippines is one of the United States' oldest allies in Asia-Pacific. This Backgrounder explores the long-lasting defense ties between Manila and Washington.


Understanding the Libor Scandal

Wed, 12 Oct 2016 11:00:00 -0400

The manipulation of interbank lending rates by a host of global financial institutions could have significant repercussions for financial markets, consumer loans, and regulatory policy.


Can Malaria Be Eradicated?

Wed, 05 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

A leading killer among diseases is now targeted for eradication by the middle of this century. This Backgrounder examines the costly, challenging efforts to combat malaria.


Mercosur: South America's Fractious Trade Bloc

Wed, 05 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Political shifts and economic challenges in Latin America could either boost Latin America's largest trade bloc or lead to its obsolescence.


The U.S. Vice President and Foreign Policy

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Modern vice presidents can trace much of their political influence to the broad reforms that Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale made to the second-highest elected office in the late 1970s, explains this Backgrounder.


Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the Migrant Crisis

Fri, 16 Sep 2016 11:11:00 -0400

One of the leading sources of refugees in Europe is the impoverished east African nation of Eritrea. Many fleeing describe chronic human rights abuses in the country, as this Backgrounder explains.


The World Trade Organization (WTO)

Mon, 12 Sep 2016 11:00:00 -0400

The World Trade Organization's relevance as a forum for global trade talks faces growing doubts as countries increasingly turn to regional free trade agreements to advance their interests. This Backgrounder explains the origins of the WTO and the debate over its future.


The Role of the UN General Assembly

Tue, 06 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400

The seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly will be dominated by debates over the movements of refugees and migrants, antimicrobial resistance, and nuclear weapons.


ASEAN: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Thu, 01 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations brings disparate neighbors together to address economic, security, political, and social issues. This Backgrounder looks at how the group has evolved over nearly fifty years.


The Zika Virus

Thu, 11 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0400

The Zika virus, which has been found to cause severe birth defects, has spread across the Americas, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency.


The Islamic State

Wed, 10 Aug 2016 11:59:00 -0400

With Iraq weakened and a civil war raging in Syria, it’s unclear whether local forces and a U.S.-led international coalition can roll back the self-proclaimed Islamic State, explains this Backgrounder.


The Presidential Candidates: In Their Own Words

Mon, 25 Jul 2016 13:01:00 -0400

This regularly updated guide features transcripts from the Republican and Democratic presidential debates as well as select foreign policy speeches, op-eds, and interviews of the candidates.


Foreign Policy at the Conventions

Fri, 22 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Foreign policy issues regularly come to the fore at the national political conventions, especially during periods of global instability. Sometimes the events are marked by bitter disagreements within the parties, explains this Backgrounder.


The Economics of Hosting the Olympic Games

The costs of hosting the Olympics have skyrocketed in recent decades, while the economic benefits are far from clear. This has caused a shrinking of states interested in playing host and a search for options to lighten the burdens of staging the big event.


The U.S. Supreme Court and Obama’s Immigration Actions

Thu, 23 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to determine the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants and could influence how future presidents wield power, explains this Backgrounder.


Competition in the Indian Ocean

Thu, 19 May 2016 00:00:00 -0400

China and India increasingly vie for strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean, while also cooperating on some transnational security issues.  


Water Clouds on the Tibetan Plateau

Asia’s major rivers depend on water flows from the Himalayas, and regional demand continues to grow. This Backgrounder explores a looming water crisis.


Yemen in Crisis

Tue, 19 Apr 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Yemen’s mounting internal divisions and a Saudi military intervention have spawned an escalating political, military, and humanitarian crisis. The upheaval has intensified already high tensions in the Middle East.


Understanding Myanmar

Fri, 25 Mar 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Myanmar is undergoing significant political changes, but it still faces considerable economic and human rights hurdles.


The U.S. Presidential Nominating Process

Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Every four years, U.S. presidential candidates compete in a series of state contests to gain their party’s nomination. The political process is one of the most complex and expensive in the world.


Modernizing the U.S. Energy Grid

Tue, 26 Jan 2016 10:00:00 -0500

The growth of renewable energy and distributed generation is placing the aging U.S. energy grid under increasing pressure at a time when concerns over its reliability are on the rise. 


Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle

Tue, 19 Jan 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Violence and rampant crime have triggered the flow of asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States, which is seeking to help address the root causes, as this Backgrounder explains.


China's Environmental Crisis

Mon, 18 Jan 2016 00:00:00 -0500

China’s mounting environmental crisis is endangering the pace of its economic growth and threatening the legitimacy of the ruling party, explains this Backgrounder.


Ebola Virus

Fri, 15 Jan 2016 00:00:00 -0500

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed thousands and spurred efforts to improve responses to pandemics, explains this Backgrounder.


U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons

Tue, 12 Jan 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Why do mass shootings occur more frequently in the United States than other major democracies? This Backgrounder examines select countries.


Southern Asia's Nuclear Powers

Mon, 09 Nov 2015 00:00:00 -0500

China, India, and Pakistan have relatively small but growing nuclear arms programs. This nuclear competition is raising concern because of long-simmering tensions and a lack of efforts at minimizing the risk posed by these weapons.


Currency Crises in Emerging Markets

Wed, 28 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Projected capital outflows are placing pressure on the currencies of some of the world most dynamic emerging markets. This primer explains what to expect from a new currency crisis.


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Wed, 14 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Eurasia's Shanghai Cooperation Organization has expanded its agenda to include wide-reaching security and economic initiatives, but it remains to be seen if the bloc's members can develop and implement unified policy.


Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s sweeping new development agenda aims to “provide the overarching narrative” of sustainable growth for the next fifteen years, yet critics say the Sustainable Development goals are broad, unfocused, and unrealistic. 


The Russian Military

Mon, 28 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Military power has reemerged as an important component of Russian foreign policy, which some believe aims to reestablish Russian hegemony in the region.


Europe's Migration Crisis

Wed, 23 Sep 2015 12:00:00 -0400

An escalating migration crisis is testing the European Union's commitment to human rights and open borders.


The UN Security Council (UNSC)

Wed, 02 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400

The UN Security Council is the premier global body for maintaining international peace and security, but faces steady calls for reform to better meet twenty-first–century challenges.


Same-Sex Marriage: Global Comparisons

Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400

A growing number of countries are legalizing same-sex marriage amid a steady advance in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, but opposition remains strong in many countries, explains this Backgrounder.


The Chinese Communist Party

Thu, 27 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400

The Chinese Communist Party faces a host of pressing domestic and international policy issues as it transitions to a new generation of leaders.


Global Efforts to Eradicate Polio

Wed, 12 Aug 2015 14:14:11 -0400

Though polio had nearly been eradicated, the virus is on the rise amid an increase in violence against vaccine workers in conflict zones. This Backgrounder examines the challenges to eradicating the disease.


International Sanctions on Iran

Wed, 15 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400

U.S. and international sanctions have battered the Iranian economy and brought Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program. Lifting them is central to a deal but will be a complex process.


The Role of the European Central Bank

Thu, 09 Jul 2015 11:00:00 -0400

As Europe continues to weather economic stagnation and a succession of debt crises, the European Central Bank has responded with an aggressive set of monetary policies that have redefined the bank's original mandate.


Avian Influenza

Tue, 30 Jun 2015 00:00:00 -0400

A recent avian flu outbreak in the United States has forced agriculture officials to destroy tens of millions of birds and has cost hundreds of millions of dollars. This Backgrounder looks at public health and food safety concerns.


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

Fri, 19 Jun 2015 11:55:00 -0400

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has emerged as one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliates, strengthening amid political unrest in Yemen. This Backgrounder examines the group and U.S. counterterrorism operations.


Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking)

Wed, 10 Jun 2015 11:30:00 -0400

Hydraulic fracturing has unlocked huge reserves of shale gas and oil, transforming the energy outlook in the United States and the world, even as local opposition and falling world prices threaten the industry.


Religion in China

Wed, 10 Jun 2015 00:00:00 -0400

As religious observance in China grows, the Chinese Communist Party continues to use religious policy to assert its authority and increasingly to coopt state-sanctioned religious organizations to promote a stable society.


U.S. Aviation Infrastructure

The U.S. air travel system is the most heavily used in the world but it needs a much higher rate of investment to modernize and improve efficiency, explains this Backgrounder.


Building the New Silk Road

The United States and China have developed competing visions for reviving ancient trade routes connecting Asia and Europe. The U.S. diplomatic strategy focuses on Afghanistan, while China hopes to economically integrate Central and South Asia. India and Russia also have regional ambitions.


Peace Operations in Africa

Fri, 15 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400

More multinational peacekeeping forces are deployed in Africa than ever before. To be effective, operations must address questions about division of labor, funding, and capacity constraints, explains this Backgrounder.


Christianity in China

Thu, 07 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Tens of millions of Chinese now identify as Christians and the number has grown rapidly, posing challenges for a government that is officially atheist and wary of threats to its power.


Nicaragua's Grand Canal

Fri, 24 Apr 2015 11:20:00 -0400

Nicaragua’s proposed Grand Canal would be one of the world’s largest engineering projects. Its proponents say it could transform the country’s economy, while critics say it could be an environmental catastrophe.


The Organization of American States

Thu, 09 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400

As the world's oldest regional body, the Organization of American States has served as a platform for cooperation, but ideological polarization among its members and criticisms of the organization's institutional weakness have raised doubts about its ability to remain relevant.


Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Fri, 27 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Algerian and Western counterterrorism efforts, along with an African-led peacekeeping force in Mali, have shifted the North African al-Qaeda franchise's criminal and terrorist activities to remote areas of the Sahara and Sahel, explains this Backgrounder.



Fri, 13 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Some experts believe al-Shabab is at its weakest point in years following an African-led counterinsurgency campaign, but others warn of the group's resiliency in an unstable Somalia.


Boko Haram

Thu, 05 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0500

Nigeria's Islamist group Boko Haram has evolved from a local insurgency to a brutal militant group that the United States has designated a terrorist organization.


The Credit Rating Controversy

Thu, 19 Feb 2015 12:00:00 -0500

The three major credit rating agencies have been accused of contributing to the global financial crisis, drawing increased oversight from regulators in the United States and Europe. Nonetheless, investors continue to rely on the largely unchanged ratings services.


The Eurozone in Crisis

Wed, 11 Feb 2015 12:00:00 -0500

The eurozone, once seen as a crowning achievement in the decades-long path toward European integration, continues to struggle with the effects of its sovereign debt crises and their implications for the future of the common currency.


Space Exploration and U.S. Competitiveness

Fri, 05 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500

U.S. space exploration inspired a generation of students and innovators, but NASA's role has diminished, and the number of global space competitors is growing. This Backgrounder explores U.S. competitiveness in space.


The Arab League

Tue, 21 Oct 2014 00:00:00 -0400

Founded as a loose confederation of states in 1945, the Arab League has struggled to overcome dysfunction and disunity among its members. The Arab revolts of 2011 offer the League a new opportunity to pursue necessary reforms, increase legitimacy, and prove its relevance.


Transportation Infrastructure: Moving America

Tue, 14 Oct 2014 00:00:00 -0400

The U.S. transport system is badly in need of infrastructure investment, and the country could suffer competitively if the status quo persists.


The World Health Organization (WHO)

Tue, 07 Oct 2014 00:00:00 -0400

The World Health Organization has to overcome serious budget and leadership challenges to face future public health crises, explains this CFR Backgrounder.


U.S. Energy Exports

Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:28:22 -0400

Calls for lifting U.S. controlling on energy exports are mounting as production nears a forty-five-year high.


Governance in India: Infrastructure

Wed, 01 Oct 2014 00:00:00 -0400

After decades of underinvestment and mismanagement, India's infrastructure is posing a significant threat to its economic growth.


The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)

Thu, 04 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400

The Muslim separatist group, based in the Xinjiang province in northwest China, presents a heightening security challenge for Beijing.


Governance in India: Corruption

Thu, 04 Sep 2014 00:00:00 -0400

It remains unclear whether mounting public anger and flagging growth can catalyze India to address widespread official corruption.


The U.S. Child Migrant Influx

Mon, 01 Sep 2014 11:29:45 -0400

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, are arriving in the United States illegally, adding severe stress to an immigration system already in need of major overhaul.


Ukraine in Crisis

Mon, 25 Aug 2014 12:00:00 -0400

The crisis has spiraled into conflict that has killed thousands and continues to feed tensions between Russia and Western powers over Moscow's support for separatists.


Ballistic Missile Defense

Fri, 15 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400

U.S. missile defense in the twenty-first century is focused on emerging threats from North Korea and Iran, but critics say these systems are too costly and largely unproven.



Fri, 01 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0400

Hamas is the main Palestinian armed resistance group, but the Islamist movement has struggled with governance since assuming control of Gaza.


Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK)

Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400

The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an exiled Iranian resistance group, continues to stir controversy despite its removal from a U.S. terrorist list in 2012, explains this backgrounder.


Islam: Governing Under Sharia

Fri, 25 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400

Sharia, or Islamic law, is increasingly in the spotlight as its political and economic role expands in the Muslim world and even in the West.


The Taliban in Afghanistan

Fri, 04 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400

Though toppled from power in 2001, the Taliban regrouped to resist the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan. As international forces draw down, the insurgency remains resilient.


The U.S.-Japan Security Alliance

Tue, 01 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400

The U.S.-Japan alliance has been the cornerstone of Washington's security policy in East Asia, but rising threats from China, North Korea, and economic recovery in both countries have raised questions about the future of the rapport.