It is tempting to breathe a sigh of relief that 2011 is almost behind us. In many ways, it will be remembered for the things that did not happen, the catastrophes that were avoided. The U.S. economy did not slide back into recession; in fact it is even showing some signs of life. Greece avoided defaulting on its debt and the Eurozone didn’t collapse. North Korea did not precipitate a war. Iran did not develop a nuclear weapon. The last U.S. troops uneventfully slipped quietly across the Iraq border. Gaddafi was overthrown with the relatively minimal use of NATO’s military power.
Next year may not be as good to the world. In fact, it has the potential to experience a political “perfect storm.” There is the usual concatenation of political, economic and security issues that threaten to blow the international system apart. More significant, the new year will see an unusual, even unprecedented, degree of change and turmoil in governments and political institutions around the world. The combination of political instability and intensifying international crises is a true witches’ brew.
2012 is an election year in the United States. It is quite obvious that the gridlock which has dominated national politics since the 2010 Congressional elections will, if anything, only get worse. All important political decisions are being kicked down the road until after next year’s elections. Unfortunately, in view of the intensifying polarization of the electorate, it is entirely possible that the next election cycle will continue the current pattern of divided government.
Europe’s political future is, if anything, even more uncertain than that of the U.S. The European Union crisis is not simply economic, but political and constitutional. The former cannot be solved without addressing the latter two. However, there is no compelling evidence that the members of the EU are willing or able to make the necessary changes. With the exception of Great Britain, there are virtually no strong governments in Europe. Italy and Greece are being run by newly installed technocratic caretakers. Spain just replaced the Socialists with the more conservative People’s Party. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s coalition has been steadily losing popular support. If current polls are any indication, the results of France’s national elections, scheduled for next spring, will be the ouster of President Nicolas Sarkozy. To what part of the continent should the world look for strong leadership in 2012 on any issue?
While it can barely keep up the pretense of democratic governance, for the last twelve years under president and then prime minister Vladimir Putin, Russia at least could claim it was politically stable. This may no longer be the case. Putin’s United Russia party took a shellacking in recent parliamentary elections. Along with public demonstrations in response to clear election fraud are signs that Putin’s power is eroding and with it, political peace in Russia. How many times in the past have Russian leaders used the specter of foreign enemies to improve their domestic political situation?
2012 will see a carefully planned leadership transition in China that has been planned for more than five years. A new president will replace Hu Jintao and a new premier will take over for Wen Jiabao. This could mean that the leadership in Beijing will be even more cautious than usual. However, as The Economist pointed out in a recent article, the retirement of President Hu and Prime Minister Wen makes way for the rise of a new political force in China, the privileged offspring of aging senior officials and former associates of the original leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. These “princelings” as they are often referred to, may be much more aggressive both in seeking power domestically and asserting China’s international position.
Then there is the sudden death of North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. What is there to say about that country’s new leader except that he reminds one of Flounder, the character from the movie Animal House? And floundering is what the leadership in Pyongyang may well experience for years to come, assuming that the struggle for power in that benighted but nuclear-armed country does not bring the entire government down.
The Arab Spring produced a political whirlwind that swept new government into power in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In 2012 the world will find out if the largely Islamist-dominated governments in these countries can even take up the reins of power. Whether those now in power can tolerate the messy business of democratic politics remains to be seen. Iraq did not last a week on its own without a political crisis that may fracture the country.
I could go on and on, pointing to a new, weak prime minister in Japan (the sixth in five years), an incipient civil war in Syria and upcoming elections in Taiwan. Add to these examples the prospects of the demise of ailing leaders such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez or King Abdullah and 2012 is likely to be a difficult and dangerous year.
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