The 10 Issues to Watch in International Politics in 2010

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While it is difficult to know what exactly will happen in international politics in 2010,  we can predict what the key issues are that will shape global politics over the coming year- i.e., where to look for the important stuff. There is, of course, always the chance of unforeseen events.  Who would have predicted a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008? And who foresaw that severe post-election violence would shake Iran in 2009? Casting doubts about the utility of this exercise aside, I present my guesses about the ten issues to watch in international politics in 2010:

10. Presidential elections in Brazil

October 3, 2010: José Serra or Dilma Rousseff? The candidates have a lot in common: They largely agree on economic policy. They are both surprisingly uncharismatic, but quite competent and easy to underestimate. Ms. Rousseff, Lula'schosen heiress, is more likely to continue Lula's South-South diplomacy that aimed to position Brazil as the "Leader of the South". Serra, on the other hand, would realign Brazil more with the United States and Europe, yet maintaining ties to other emerging powers. Under Serra, Iran's Ahmadinejad will have to skip Brasília on his next visit to South America, and relations to Venezuela's Chavez are likely to turn sour. Neither Serra nor Rousseff will be able to achieve Lula's global stardom. Nonetheless, Brazil is a force to reckon with: Home to the world's largest carbon sink, the Amazon, Brazil's stance on climate change will be crucial, and only Brazil is able to salvage democracy in an increasingly divided South America.

9. Sino-Indian relations

The pecking order in Asia remains to be defined. While none of the big players (China, Japan, India and Russia) will be able to dominate, relations between China and India, the two most populous nations on the planet, deserve special attention. Both nations' economic future seems very bright, and in theory they should work together towards a stable and prosperous Asia. Yet, relations between the two nuclear powers have been rocky, and they include several armed conflicts, most importantly the War of 1962, when the Chinese invaded a disputed border territory, surprising peace-loving Nehru. India continues to provide asylum to China's nemesis, the Dalai Lama, and the border dispute in Arunchal Pradesh is far from resolved and keeps infuriating policy makers on both sides. The relations between China and India define the geopolitical climate in Asia.

8. The EU after Lisbon

Who is Herman van Rompuy? Few people really know. It is equally unknown what Europe's governments will allow him to do. Will he be able to shape the EU's foreign policy, or will he fulfil mere representative functions? One should not judge prematurely, but imagining van Rompuy at the G3 meeting with Obama and Jintao certainly seems unlikely. In any case, the EU's ability to influence others on the international stage will depend on its willingness to join forces, create a coherent foreign policy, and empower the first President of the European Council. 2010 will show if the Lisbon Treaty has strengthened the EU's still dismal international stature.

7. US-Chinese relations

One of the lessons Copenhagen has taught us is that unless the United States and China agree, we are stuck. We are heading towards multipolarity, but US-Chinese relations remain a key barometer in international relations. 2010 will be particularly interesting as the two face very distinct economic realities: China is set to continue its growth story, while the US is still recovering. Economic relations between the two are so important that one cannot live without the other- and this is one of the major reasons to be hopeful about cordial US-Chinese relations in 2010.

6. The US economy

Despite all the hype about a Post-American World (which is also a terrific book by Fareed Zakaria), the United States remains the most important economy by far. While the BRIC countries are on their way to decouple from the West, the United States ability to recover economically will determine how quickly the global economy can leave the most severe crisis since the Great Depression behind. The speed of economic recovery in 2010 will also undoubtedly impact whether President Obama can continue to govern with a majority in both houses.

5. Muslims in Europe

The Swiss' decision to ban the construction of minarets is by no means an outlier. Rather, it represents the struggle many European societies, such as Germany and France, face to reconcile the presence of Muslim immigrants with their national identities. The outcome of this struggle does not only matter for Europe. Rather, it helps define the way the West relates to the Muslim World on a global scale, as Europe is one of the regions where Christianity and Islam rub shoulders most frequently. A failure to successfully integrate Muslims in Europe will not only tarnish relations with Turkey, but also squander the great chance Europe has to invalidate Samuel Huntington's theory of a clash of civilizations.

4. The war in Afghanistan

If history is any guide, 2010 will be the bloodiest year of the Afghanistan War since the US-led invasion eight years ago. While the majority of the US population supports the surge, patience can be expected to be short-lived, and the generals face great pressure to deliver results. More casualties will enlarge the group of those who call for NATO to retreat from Central Asia. Several governments, such as in Germany and the United Kingdom, will face growing domestic pressure to let the US finish the job on its own. As Yemen has turned into the new safe haven for Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan may increasingly look like the wrong place to fight terrorism. The key question will be whether the higher US military presence can quell the insurgency, whether talking to the moderate Taliban will result in anything, and whether President Karzai can miraculously help stabilize the country.

3. Global Governance Reform

The rise of emerging powers such as China, Brazil and India amplifies our current global governance structure's lack of legitimacy and inadequacy to effectively deal with our most pressing problems. While the G8 seems outdated, it remains unclear whether the G20 will be able to take meaningful decisions. Copenhagen has vividly shown that we are in dire need of new forms of global governance. In addition, we face a growing array of problems, such as public health, international banking regulation, climate change and terrorism, that can impossibly be solved by a small number of established powers. After countless and often fruitless global summits in 2009, heads of government have to deliver in 2010. The G20 summit in Korea and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Mexico City offer opportunities to make up for the failures of 2009.

2. Domestic politics in Iran and Iranian foreign policy

Situated between three of the most unstable countries in the world, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran's strategic importance cannot be overestimated. Since the rigged elections in 2009, the government faces domestic politicalturmoil. 2010 is likely to be decisive in this context. There are roughly three options: First, the government regains control and crushes the protesters. Second, the government makes major concessions to the opposition and allows fresh elections. Finally, the country may enter a permanent and profound political crisis which may result in serious armed conflict, making the country's destiny highly unpredictable.  Iran's domestic politics are strongly intertwined with its foreign policy, and there is a danger that a domestically cornered Ahmadinjad turns more aggressive and less likely to engage with the West. Once Iran acquires nuclear arms, the future of the NPT will look uncertain. A military strike either by Israel or the United States is, while probably useless, likely to have dramatic consequences, and Iran, which has not attacked another country in modern history, may retaliate.

1. The civil war in Pakistan

Why is Pakistan in the top spot? The possibility of a failed state in Pakistan keeps foreign policy makers across the world awake at night, and they have every reason to do so. More than Iran, North Korea or even a Taliban-led Afghanistan, nuclear-armed radical Islamists in Islamabad would have the ability to significantly disrupt global political stability and plunge South Asia into chaos. Furthermore, terrorists could detonate nuclear bombs in India, Europe or the United States. While the Pakistani army seems to have made progress in the war against radical Islamists along the border with Afghanistan, it remains far from clear whether the current government can keep Pakistan, a country where Osama bin Laden remains more popular than Barack Obama, from imploding. Furthermore, the US army, already highly active on Pakistani soil with its drone attacks (pictured above), is on a slippery slope and may soon see itself pulled into Waziristan.

Read also:

China vs. India: Will the “contest of the 21st century” lead to war?

Responding to global development challenges: Views from Brazil and India

10 Issues to Watch in International Politics in 2012

India’s Afghanistan challenge

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