We have already looked back at 2011, now it's time to take a peek at the year ahead. Below are 10 issues that I will be following as the year unfolds. Please note that the list is ordered alphabetically, not in terms of priority or importance.
1. China and its neighbors: Over the past year, China's neighbors have begun to express and demonstrate alarm over the prospect of a dominant China bullying them into unwanted actions. In some cases, Asian countries, like Myanmar, have started to stand up to Chinese pressure and influence. In other cases, we have seen countries, such as Japan and South Korea and Australia, step up their balancing against China. And at the same time, the Obama administration has steadily increased its political, diplomatic, military, and economic ties to non-Chinese countries in Asia. How will these moves impact China? Will all of this moderate China's foreign policies toward its neighbors? Or will China emerge more steadfast and assertive in attempting to carve out a sphere of influence in the region?
2. Egypt: The revolutionaries did a good job of breaking the Mubarak government and dismantling the entire political system, but they have struggled immensely during the political transition to (I hope) full-fledged civilian rule. The military still holds considerable power and is unwilling to see it upstaged by other political actors; it also doesn't want its commercial and business interests infringed upon by a democratic government. Sparking concern in Egypt and abroad, the military has dealt harshly with continued protests and criticisms of its heavy-handed rule. Meantime, the parliamentary elections have allowed for the rise of the Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Salafis. For now, the revolutionaries have been squeezed out of the political picture. Can the revolutionaries get their act together, becoming a more potent political force in Egypt? Will they become more organized? Will they find a credible political leader capable of galvanizing supporters and forcefully articulating the ideas and arguments of more progressive forces?
3. Elections/transitions in power: There are lots of interesting and important elections scheduled for 2012. Here is just a small sample of them: Russian presidential elections in March, Egyptian presidential elections in March, parliamentary elections in Myanmar this April, presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories this April, French presidential elections in April, and U.S. Congressional and presidential elections in November. Additionally, in China is about to embark on major political changes in 2012. According to Fareed Zakaria: "About 70% of the country’s senior leadership— the top 200 or so members of the Central Committee—will be replaced by autumn. The new leaders—Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang—are the first generation that was not personally blessed and selected by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China."
4. Iran: On various issues, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Amadinejad battled for power throughout 2011. It is clear that Khamenei did a decent job of clipping the wings of Amadinejad and his allies, and he and the hardline clerics are now ascendant, just as we would expect based on the structure of Iran's political system. How will this political drama play out in the year ahead? And how will this impact Iranian foreign policy?
5. North Korea: Undoubtedly, the country's immediate trajectory will be shaped by the political transition to the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un, the son of the recently deceased Kim Jong Il. Given that Kim the younger is so green and likely lacks well-established and durable ties to North Korea's political and military elite, there's no guarantee that this transition will go as planned or very smoothly. For example, will Kim Jong Un be able to consolidate power effectively? How much power will he hold? Will he share power, as been suggested, with another institution or person(s)? Will the military encroach on his turf? If so, how will China, a major supporter of Kim, respond? Furthermore, will North Korea lash out militarily at other countries like South Korea? Or will the change in leadership lead the country to cultivate better relations with its neighbors? Or perhaps it's just more of the same? More uncertainty, more unpredictability, and more erratic behavior from a repressive
6. The Nuclear issue: There has been little progress in resolving the outstanding issues related to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. The West, China, and Russia, among others, have a long way to go. Will North Korea head back to the negotiating table this year? Or does its political transition table that issue for quite a while? Iran is negotiating a return to talks, with speculation that they will be held in Turkey sometime soon. Will these be sincere talks? Or just something to buy the political-clerical regime more time to make advancements in its nuclear capabilities? Will talks soothe the drumbeats of war from American and Israeli hawks? If not, how will Obama react? Will he get sucked along with the crowd and ramp up military activities against Iran? Or will he resist the lure of war? But that only begs more questions: What's Obama's redline here? If Iran does go nuclear, what does the U.S. do in response? Is he willing to support Israeli military action against Iran?
7. Pakistan: Pakistan is facing a rocky period right now, facing trouble from a host of different directions. It is dealing coping with an insurgency from the Pakistani Taliban, a poor economy, frosty relations with the U.S., and an internal power struggle. The government is feuding with the military and the courts, the Supreme Court in particular. Clearly, the Pakistani government is weak and fragile, which limits its ability to deal effectively with consequential issues like international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and India-Pakistan relations. What if the Pakistani government can't withstand all of the pressures it faces? What kind of government will rise to power? And how does this impact Pakistan?
8. Syria: Taking their cues from Arab Spring countries in the Middle East, anti-government and pro-democracy protesters have tried to break Bashar al-Assad's brutal grip on power. Unfortunately, Assad isn't going anywhere, at least for the foreseeable future. He has faced down the protesters with military force, resulting in over four thousand deaths so far. But the state-sponsored violence has done a couple of things. First, it's caused the opposition to unite and organize. In fact, the opposition now has an armed wing filled with military defectors, and they have carried out violent acts against government and military installations. Of course, this only raises the specter of civil war, which could destabilize the entire region. And second, the international community, including the Arab League, is concerned about the endless human rights violations. It will be interesting to see how countries and international institutions respond to Syria if the violence continued unabated and the death and casualty toll skyrockets. There are already murmurs of support for various types of international intervention. While this scenario isn't probable, it's one that's possible.
9. The Theme for 2012: 2011 was the year of democracy protests and the protester in particular. What does 2012 have in store? At this point, I could make a million different guesses, but there's no point in doing that. Right now, it's sufficient to say that I have my eye open for the next big thing in world politics. I hope it's something that enhances the mission of world peace and cooperation.
10. World Economy: There are many trouble spots in the world economy. The American economy is still sluggish. The Europeans still haven't come close to remedying its economic troubles. And most ominously, China's economy is slowing down. Remember, just as China can't afford to have struggling economies in the EU and the U.S., the EU and the U.S. can't have the Chinese economy go significantly downhill. With that in mind, how will China's economy perform in 2012? And how will that impact the economies in the West? And if the big three struggle, where will economic growth come from? Moreover, if the world economy continues to flag, with income inequalities rising and middle and lower class anger mounting, will 2012 be another year of mass protests, anti-government activities, and unrest?