10 Issues to Watch in International Politics in 2012


10. Is Central America doomed?

After Mexico's President Calderon's crackdown against drug trafficking, resulting in unprecedented levels of violence in the country (about 50,000 deaths since 2006), organized crime is spreading South to countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala . In formerly peaceful countries such as Honduras, homicide rates have doubled over the past years, causing tourists and investors to flee in growing numbers. But drugs are not the only problem. Rather, weak and corrupt institutions across the region make provide a fertile ground for organized crime and ideologues who care little about democratic principles. With neither Mexico, the United States nor Brazil willing or able to project leadership in the region, there is a serious risk that Central America will be succumbed by chaos and despair.

9. Can India end its political deadlock? What does this mean for the future of democracy?

Even the most fervent pro-India advocates recently had to acknowledge that the government's incapacity to push through much-needed reforms is seriously hampering the South Asian giant's rise. With an uninspiring government and an opposition that prefers paralysis to progress, some begin to argue that unless India can reform its political system, it cannot tackle its most urgent challenges. This raises questions not only about India's ability to reduce inequality and poverty, but also about the balance of power in Asia, and about whether economic growth of Chinese dimensions and democracy are compatible. If China continues to outpace India, promoters of democratic principles around the world will have an ever harder time to make their case.

8. Can the BRICS work together?

When the BRICS countries will meet in India in April 2012, their summit declaration will be, as usual, the subject of extensive global scrutiny, particularly from Western analysts who seek to depict the BRICS as a useless outfit unable to agree on anything. Countless op-eds will stress the contrast between India’s and Brazil’s vibrant democracies and China’s and India’s authoritarian regimes, point out that India and China may start a war at any moment, and say that Russia is not an emerging power to begin with. There is no question that the BRICS alliance is highly diverse, and that the concept may very well fail to make its mark – yet the internal differences should not overshadow the unique opportunity emerging powers have to use the BRICS summits as a vehicle to turn into international agenda setters. If the BRICS were able to take a constructive position on any of the great challenges the world is facing today – such as nuclear proliferation, trade, the Middle East or climate change – they would immediately turn into the powerful voice in international affairs they long to be, seriously challenging the monopoly the West still holds in the global discourse.

7. Can Africa capitalize on its growth?

While Africa has long been the symbol of hopelessness and despair, economic growth over the past years has attracted investors from all over the world. As The Economist pointed out recently, Africa grew faster in the last decade than East Asia, and it is set to grow by 6% in 2012. The big question now is whether Africa can continue to prosper as demand for commodities is weakening and if it can industrialize. Also, it remains to be seen whether growth translates into lower levels of poverty, and whether democracy can take root across the region. Also, if the continent can continue its positive trajectory, its governments could soon turn tackle regional challenges (such as piracy in the Indian Ocean) more effectively.

6. Can India and China get along?

Whenever two rising powers sit next to each other, the chance for conflict greatly increases as their growing spheres of influence quickly overlap - one of the main reason why Europe's history is full of bloody wars. This unfortunate constellation now becomes increasingly visible in Asia, where a rising China and a rising India begin to claim influence over the same regions. After India and Vietnam agreed to jointly explore oil in the South China Sea, an aggressive op-ed in The Global Times (a Chinese newspaper) accused India of "poking its nose where it does not belong." China is busy creating alliances with India's neighbors, while India has - to China's dismay - begun to strengthen ties with Japan, Australia, and the United States. While trade between India and China is growing, this alone may not be enough to prevent an escalation - as World War I made abundantly clear. Similar to today's China and India, Imperial Germany felt "encircled" - a word analysts from both China and India use with growing frequency.

5. Can democracy take root in the Middle East?

The year 2011 has seen an unprecedented series of uprisings across the Middle East that led to the ouster of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Those who envisioned a seamless transition to perfect democracy were of course disappointed, but as Stephen Walt correctly pointed out in a recent post, "if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success." How democratic will Egypt become after its recent elections? What about Libya and Tunisia? 2012 will provide answers, certainly providing ammunition for both optimists and pessimists.

4. Can China's Communist Party maintain political stability amidst the economic slowdown?

8% growth is often mentioned as a magic figure by China specialists who argue that anything less will cause China's political order to break down. The Communist Party has been able to cling to power because it is seen as a responsible manager of the economy, and the Chinese today are better off than at any point in history. In 2012, growth may fall below 8%. As a precautionary measure during the Arab Spring, the Chinese government has decided to pursue more repressive policies, which led to the worst political crackdown since the protets on Tiananmen Square. Unrest in China could have serious political consequences in the region, and the resulting economic turmoil would be strongly felt by economies in Africa and South America that increasingly depend on Chinese demand.

3. Will the United States or Israel attack Iran?

In a shocking example of war-mongering, Matthew Kroenig recently argued in a Foreign Affairs article that attacking Iran was the "least bad option", saying that a nuclear Iran would be much worse for the United States and the world than an attack. As Juan Cole frequently points out in his terrific blog on Middle Eastern affairs, a military strike against Iran could have disastrous consequences for the region, and Iran is a much more potent opponent than Iraq or Afghanistan. More importantly still, the case for war is not a solid one, and similarities to the debate about the Iraq War are striking, as Walt points out here. Despite all this, over the past months, there has been a notable shift in the way U.S. analysts in D.C. talk about Iran and the possibility of a strike. As Walt writes, "Kroenig is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies - ever."

2. Can the US economy recover?

The U.S. economy remains the world's largest, 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 2012 will also undoubtedly impact whether President Obama can convince voters to reelect him. With the European economy likely to be in tatters for most of 2012, a U.S. comeback would be of particular importance for the West to retake the initiative and focus on global challenges rather than dealing with internal challenges.

1. Will the European Union survive?

The possibility of a breakup of the European Union has been looming for months, and such a scenario would send shockwaves around the world, affecting projects of regional integration that have traditionally identified the EU as a model, as I have argued in a recent blog post. Since the EU's creation, Europe, long a source of tension and war, turned into a pole of peace and stability. The end of the EU as we know it could not only plunge the continent into disarray at a level unknown to the generation born after 1945, but also drastically reduce Europe's importance in geopolitical affairs, depriving the international community of a crucial actor.


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