Sunday, November 23, 2014

The New Old Year

NEW YORK – Any look back at 2012 would necessarily focus on three parts of the world: the eurozone, with its seemingly endless financial uncertainties; the Middle East, with its many upheavals, including, but hardly limited to, the Muslim Brotherhood’s accession to power in Egypt and Syria’s savage civil war, which has already claimed more than 60,000 lives; and the Asia-Pacific region, with its rising nationalism and political tensions after decades of being defined almost exclusively by extraordinary economic growth amid considerable political calm.

But which issues will dominate 2013? In no small part, as the French are fond of saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Thus, we can safely predict ongoing difficulty throughout Europe, as the countries of the south, in particular, struggle to reduce public spending in order to align their fiscal policies with actual economic capacity.

What might be different this year is that France, rather than Greece and Spain, could well be at the center of the storm. This would pose fundamental, even existential questions for Germany, the other half of a tandem that has been at the heart of the European project since World War II. The likelihood that Europe as a whole will experience little, if any, economic growth will make matters all the more difficult for officials in governments, banks, and regional institutions.

Likewise, the Middle East remains in the early phase of a revolutionary transition. In a year, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi will almost certainly still be in power, but it is not so clear how he will use that power – and what Egypt will look like politically and economically as a result. Recent disagreements over the drafting of a new constitution reveal a deeply divided society and a government that appears to equate (and confuse) majority rule with democracy.

By contrast, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is likely to have been ousted before the year’s end. But, as we have seen elsewhere in the region, it will prove far more difficult to put something benign and effective in its place. Civil war along sectarian lines could well predominate, or fighting between the various anti-Assad opposition groups could erupt. There is also a real possibility of major upheavals in both Bahrain and Jordan.

Finally, the friction in the Asia-Pacific region is unlikely to diminish; in fact, it is far more likely to intensify. The chance of a military incident involving China and one of its neighbors – be it Japan, the Philippines, or Vietnam – cannot be ignored, and it remains to be seen whether the region’s diplomatic circuits can carry the load. New leadership in many of the region’s countries, including China, Japan, and South Korea, make the future even more uncertain.

What else can we expect in the 2013? One disappointing probability is that global efforts to fashion new arrangements to promote trade, slow the pace of climate change, or regulate cyberspace are likely to come to naught. Large-scale multilateralism, in which most of the world’s 193 United Nations-recognized countries meet to negotiate accords, has become too unwieldy. Instead, the most we can hope for are small accords among select governments or accords that tackle only a part of much larger problems.

The biggest challenge for the world may well be what to do about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has put into place much of what is needed to produce nuclear weapons. At the same time, sanctions that have been imposed by a substantial set of countries are taking a significant toll on the Iranian economy.

There are signs of a growing debate inside the country about whether to press ahead with nuclear weapons – and thus risk not only economic ruin, but also military attack – rather than to accept a diplomatic compromise. Such a pact would place limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and require that it open itself up to more international inspection than it has ever permitted.

The main question this year is thus likely to be whether an outcome can be negotiated that is enough for Iran but not too much for the United States, Israel, and others. What is certain, however, is that 2013 will be defined in a fundamental way by whether military action against Iran occurs or is averted.

One more country needs to be added to the list of “unpredictables”: the US. The question here is whether the American political system can meet the challenges that it faces, many of which it has aggravated. The US remains the greatest economic and military power in the world, but questions about its solvency have in turn cast doubt on its ability to act and lead in the world. Recent events in Washington have been less than reassuring. Global developments not just in the year ahead, but also during the next decade and beyond, will depend in large part on whether the US can better manage its domestic challenges and divisions.

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    1. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Debe esperarse que más adelante se incrementen los conflictos debido a un mayor poder económico de las sociedades emergentes. En Asia, vemos que al poder económico le sigue el poder militar inevitablemente y que este poder es una forma de prestigio que eleva la autoafirmación nacional. Este camino ha seguido Japón, antes, a mediados y después de la segunda guerra mundial. Y ahora lo hace China.

      En Oriente Próximo, la cosas están en Stand By, debido a la lucha de ideas que se está produciendo; entre los valores e instituciones liberales y las formas tradicionales de vivir de cada sociedad y que están estrechamente ligadas con la religión.

    2. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      The problem of Iran is greatly exaggerated. Iran could and can be contained. The cost of a military attack by the US would be enormous and the benefits small. At any future "final" decision point, an "attack" will never pencil out.

      In contrast, Pakistan, with its 50 nuclear weapons, is always under-exaggerated by the international foreign policy community. The struggle between its Supreme Court and its premier, the struggle between its intelligence service and everyone else, the armed confrontations going on with India in Kashmir, the threat of another Mumbai -- and on and on, should say to any rational observer that the threat to the world community from Pakistan is somewhere between 100 and 1000 times the threat posed by Iran.

      So I suspect that by the end of 2013, the confrontation with Iran will be a non-event. The larger problem is that in the Middle East and South Asia, the possibility for very large unfavorable events is simply excellent.

      I would say that the correct strategy for the US and the world community at large would be to "contain and divide" and not let conflicts conflate into something larger, which would be most likely "world changing."

    3. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      I think the doom mongering gets the situation wrong, the real trouble is in the US given the current debt figures. Europe seems pretty stable all drama aside, and tightens its ordo for the future.

    4. CommentedJoshua Ioji Konov

      The existing diversity in the European Union is not preventing it from economic growth, but the lack of economic structures to accommodate and expand business diversity (noise): the relying only on Productivity and Investment along the Transnationals to solve all economic issues the theory of trickle-down economics so much accepted by the EU as their guide line by which only by reduced public expenses and lowering corporate taxes plus reducing consumer and labor protection may bring investment and much expected economic growth, theory that does not perform at all. The wrong direction to where EU is heading has been well shown by the negative economic results... to improve it the direction must be changed...

    5. CommentedShane Beck

      Europe will probably delay things until the mid year German elections, but by the end of 2013, they will have to decide whether to cut the weaker members loose or integrate more fully, in effect running national economies from Brussels.
      The United States is a basket case. A dysfunctional political system, an aging baby boomer population that will fight to the death against any cuts to their welfare system, a national debt that is astronomical, the politicians will do what they have always done- kick the can down the road. The only question is how long will the Chinese bondholders let them? Probably as long as it is worthwhile to park their money in US treasury bonds, reduce their exposure to a US default or give them leverage with the US in Asian Pacific disputes over such issues such as the Spratlys and Senkaku Islands, or a combination of all three.
      The biggest issue in 2013 is the Chinese-Japanese relationship. The government sanctioned anti-Japanese sentiment in China has forced Japan to rethink it's economic relationship with China, increase its defence spending and seek closer diplomatic ties with nations such as the Phillipines and India.

    6. CommentedHamid Rizvi

      Frankly 2013 is going to remain a year of confusion and chaos. And sure the middle East will remain as turbulent as ever to include Israel. I am not sure of which political chaos you speak of in Asia, the run of the Mill Asian chaos is not Chaos this is how they get things done.

      The biggest challenge will not be Iran or its nuclear ambitions. The biggest challenge may come from China and Russia. However, the political and social instability in the US is going to rise and frankly continue to rise for years to come. I really think we will see an acceleration in reverse migration.

    7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Actually what I expect from 2013 that we stop thinking in terms of regions, nations, and individuals and start sensing a truly global, interconnected, common human network, wrestling with the same global problems, feeling any financial, economical, social, environmental influence, impulse cursing through the whole system from one end to the other affecting everybody.
      Humanity will finally start feeling like a school of fish caught in the same net, understanding that to escape they all have to work together, stop pulling in their individual or national direction and start working for the common goal, the well being of the whole system.
      Achieving such sensation is crucial for our future survival, as we exist exactly in such an interdependent system.