Welcome to 2013
Astute readers will note this post is about a week late. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, for a few reasons. First, I underestimated how long it was going to take - not a new phenomenon for the Dispatch. Secondly, though, is that after spending a year or so reading far more learned people than I, I feel it’s a bit naive for me to bill this post as anything larger than what I learned this year. So, with that in mind, I hope you enjoy my recap of 2012. I’ll cover some overall trends for 2012, and then make my predictions for the hot spots in 2013.
Trends from 2012
The Empire Strikes Back
In 2011, Popular Protests were the dominant theme. In 2012, the state reasserted itself. The Arab Spring ran aground in Syria and Bahrain, the Occupiers were rolled up by local police, and Anonymous was gutted by the loss of the LulzSec/AntiSec team after one of their leaders turned informant. Egypt spent the year torn between two of the oldest institutions in the country, and the Russian people re-elected Vladimir Putin to a 3rd term. The lesson from 2012 is that it takes more than street protests and the trappings of democracy to truly upend the state: State power structures run much deeper than they seem. The upshot is that populism is no longer a dirty word in politics - we may finally get to exorcise Reagan’s ghost.
Democracy is Hard
I mentioned Egypt and Russia above, but democratic difficulties were widespread this year. Beyond the rigged elections in Russia and the obvious power games in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya both struggled to solidify their post- Revolution states. I suspect difficulties in all four countries have to do with the fact that all are relatively young democracies - even Russia only shook off the Soviet system two decades ago, though their experience should give pause in considering the future of other three. I suspect a few years time (assuming the new governments survive) will see a much better political scene in these countries, but 2012 was a stark reminder just how hard it is to form a functioning government.
Coups are Up
The coups in Mali and Guinea Bissau, as well as the rebellions in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are extremely concerning. Mali was a direct effect of the Libyan revolution - a keen reminder that even “clean” military actions have unexpected consequences. Guinea Bissau has turned into a narco-state, with the military heavily supporting drug traffickers. The rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo threatens to unleash the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry again, a conflict which has lead to untold atrocities in the past. As to the Central African Republic - there’s not much new there, actually. Central and West Africa had a good few years - it’s disheartening to see these hot spots flare up again. Unfortunately, with the West retrenching abroad and the Chinese flooding the region with money, I don’t expect Africa to get much more stable in the new year.
Austerity’s Not Working
Finally, if there’s one absolute iron-clad lesson to take from 2012, it’s that austerity doesn’t lead to growth. After four years of austerity following a recession, Greece has shed nearly 15% of its GDP, and around 1 in 4 are unemployed. The big danger now is Golden Dawn, the fascist party, which is growing in popularity and political clout amid signs even the police are beginning to support them. Greece is not an outlier either: even Germany ended the year with practically zero growth. The US economy was also threatened by premature deficit reductions - the so-called “fiscal cliff,” averted at the last second by a horridly dysfunctional Congress. It’s a bizarre political world that, in the face of everything we’ve seen from Europe and the US, will still countenance serious conversations about austerity amidst recessions.
2013 Hot Spots
One thing I’ve learned this year is that predicting the timelines of world events is extremely difficult: events tend to move in punctuated equilibria, where a situation will look relatively stable for far longer than you’d expect before suddenly flipping. The situations mentioned below look unstable - their trends are not pointing towards any equilibrium I can see - but “muddling through” and “doing nothing” can be stable options for a surprisingly long time. Take the list below with a grain of salt, but these are the areas I’m watching.
The China Seas
I mentioned the South China Sea last year, and this year I’m adding the East China Sea, where the Senkaku Islands, a small outcropping of uninhabited rocks, is bringing China and Japan close to armed conflict. The real issue is the same as it was last year: an increasingly assertive China is attempting to re-establish itself, sparking fears among its neighbors of a new Chinese imperialism. In 2012, the Chinese clashed with the Philippines, the Japanese, and the Vietnamese in the Seas, and the US strategic “pivot” to the East is set to ratchet up the tension even further. The Senkaku Islands are likely to be a focal point: the long animosity between China and Japan, a newly-elected hawkish government in Japan, and the close military ties between the US and Japan are setting the stage for the first real military clash in the region. It’s unlikely to be the last, though: the rise of China is the biggest trend of the 21st century, and the Seas are sure to be hotly contested.
For the first time, the Pakistani army listed the Islamist rebellion in the northern tribal areas as their biggest threat this year. A spate of attacks across the country has finally convinced the army that the Taliban in the North, not India in the East, is where they need to focus - though a growing Islamist sentiment among the military troops has some observers worried that the army may not be able to reliably fight the tribes in the north. Pakistan has become the most dangerous nation on earth: a country with an unstable government, an army with wide autonomy and a history of taking over the government, an Islamist insurgency in the north that is growing increasingly aggressive, and a nuclear arsenal.
Some observers have called Sudan a failed state already, but pressure on Omar al-Bashir’s government is increasing after South Sudan split the country and took most of the oil. The many internal conflicts aside, the lack of oil money is starting to erode the Sudanese state, and a regime collapse is not out of the question this year.
The Debt Ceiling
The US will reach the debt ceiling again in February, and the GOP has already promised another bruising fight over increasing it. The last time they fought this battle, US debt got downgraded and the “resolution” created the Fiscal Cliff. President Obama has vowed not to allow a repeat of that catastrophe, but his options are limited, and I don’t think we’ll get to March without some sort of political circus.
The Future of the Dispatch
I’ve enjoyed writing the Dispatch this year, and I’ve learned quite a lot while doing so. It’s been great to have a focal point for my writing, something that’s forced me to actually focus my thinking and create (reasonably) regular output. I’ve learned quite a bit this year, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I’m still an amateur when talking about international relations: I’ve read quite a lot about different subjects, but I don’t have a real theoretical foundation in IR, and that’s handicapped my ability to really dig into several subjects on anything more than a surface level. I’m going to fix that this year - I’ll be spending a lot of free time studying IR theory and statistics, and I’m hoping it’ll help my writing going forward. The biggest drawback to the Dispatch in its current form, though, is that it takes a phenomenal amount of time to write, and I simply don’t have a lot of free time these days. So, in the interest of continuing to write the Dispatch while also fulfilling my other goals for the year, I intend to make the Dispatch less of an in-depth work and more of a quick primer. I’ll be putting longer-form works on my Notes blog, and I’m certainly hoping my other studies will help me make more use of the limited format. I enjoy writing the Dispatch, and I hope a shorter version will still be of some value.
Thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2013!