Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Most Important Events in 2011

Check my Jakarta Globe's article for the Indonesian perspective (in English).

1. EURO Crash

Watching how European leaders work together to salvage the Euro is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. While there were many criticisms levied on Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson for wrong headed policies in dealing with the mortgage and liquidity crisis of 2008, nobody could accuse them of taking their time in dealing with the situation.

In fact, the slowness of European leaders to do anything at all, in combination with the resistance of Southern Europe to take any meaningful reform, not to mention the entrenched interests of the labor unions, etc., brings into question the entire European Union project.

Instead of having a festival of liberte, egalite, and fraternite, the marching orders were issued from Berlin and Paris. Still, regardless of the photo-op, both Berlin and Paris pursued different priorities, exacerbating the crisis. In the end, their loose unity likely stemmed from their mutual dislike of Silvio Berlusconi and George Papandreou.

2. China's High Speed Rail Crash

Speaking of a train wreck, the city of Wenzhou rose to international infamy thanks to the deadly rail accident and the Chinese government's bumbling rescue efforts, followed by a disastrous press conference that would have made the Three Stooges proud.

While the Chinese citizens were fuming, investors outside took notice, especially since the disaster came on the heels of the Muddy Waters' allegations that Chinese companies might have cooked their books.

Why is this incident so important? In short, this could be a stark symbol of China's coming economic crash. After all, there are growing questions and concerns about the long-term sustainability of China's economic growth. And it's becoming increasingly evident that the Chinese economy has been long built on a shaky foundation of Beijing's heavy-handed policies, corruption, and incompetence--the very things at the heart of the rail crash.

3. America Deadlocked

With the election coming soon in 2012, none of the politicians in Washington were willing to give others the credit of getting anything done. They also constantly pandered to their bases in order to keep them enthusiastic and mobilized, willing to vote in numbers for 2012. Result: bad policies, and a U.S. credit downgrade. 

Angry Twitter, Washington Way

Expect more partisan sniping and posturing in 2012, even though everyone will run as "a uniter, not divider."

4. Arab Spring

The popular unrest in the Middle East has managed to topple three dictators already (Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, and Qaddafi of Libya), showed the door to two dictators (Ali Abdullah-Saleh of Yemen and Bashar al-Assad of Syria), forced reforms in two countries (Morocco and Jordan), and causing a major foreign intervention (Bahrain).

While the tally is impressive, the long-term and region-wide effects remain uncertain. All of these cases are far from settled, and keep in mind that there many obstacles that must be cleared before democracy can take root. As Walter Russell Mead noted in his great blog, with the rise of militias and other retrograde elements, Arab liberals have been pushed to the edge, leading to an Arab Winter.

At the same time, this social movement is supposedly inspired anarchist movements that spread throughout the world, from the Great Robbery of London that I skewered in my older blog post, to the anarchist Occupy movement, whose demands aside of taxing the rich remain unclear.

Lastly, the Arab Spring clearly demonstrated that al-Qaeda was on the wrong side of history. It showed the wrongheadedness of al-Qaeda's ideology as well as its lack of support throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, "AQ played no role in the uprisings. The organization was merely an observer to seismic shifts in the region." Al-Qaeda leadership was so flummoxed by the Arab Spring that it struggled immensely to respond to the shifting domestic political landscape in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and so on.

5. Myanmar halting the construction of Irrawaddy Dam

Neil Armstrong once said something about one small step for a man that made one great leap for mankind when he landed on the moon (causing some Balinese to wage a protest, as people were not supposed to blemish the face of the Moon Goddess).

Myanmar's small step in halting the construction of Irrawaddy Dam caused a major foreign policy breakthrough. Yes, it solidified Myanmar's bid to be the next Chairman of ASEAN in 2014. But more importantly, it helped to thaw its relationship with the U.S., which in turn provided momentum to its nascent reform efforts, and demonstrated that the civilian government wasn't afraid to publicly stand up to its Chinese neighbors. The latter is especially important, because it signals to members in the region that they can and should resist Chinese pressure and influence when necessary. As long as China tries to flex its muscles and spread its wings, this will be one in a long line of moves by Asian countries to thwart Beijing from encroaching on their turf.

By now, I'm sure you noticed that I didn't mention the killing of Osama bin Laden. In my view, in the larger picture, the demise of bin Laden is simply the final nail in a long downfall for al-Qaeda. For quite some time before OBL's death, al-Qaeda was no longer a powerful or significant player on the world stage. It was hemmed in politically, financially, strategically, and operationally by the U.S. and its allies in their so-called war against terrorism. It's leadership ranks had been decimated. It's ideology had been discredited and was unpopular. Really, al-Qaeda had an inflated sense of prestige, largely because of 9/11, but was in pathetic shape.

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