By John J. Metzler
BENNINGTON, Vermont — It’s that time to consult the snow globe and try to peer ahead at some of the key stories, crises, and opportunities which await the world as we prepare for a new year. Indeed 2013 has been marred by new levels of violence, humanitarian disasters, and a perceptible lack of leadership from the U.S. on the foreign policy front. So what are we looking at in the year ahead?
Sadly the Middle East remains in the forefront of senseless and often sectarian violence. Syria’s civil war continues unabated, both as a nexus of competing proxy forces, Islamic fundamentalist fighters, and the widening humanitarian disaster befalling the civilian population. Though the Obama Administration nearly blundered into an active military role in this fight, the seething hatreds and sectarian divides will not be solved by Washington but by the Syrians themselves.
The upcoming UN sponsored Syria peace conference in Switzerland allows for this.
In his Christmas message from the Vatican, Pope Francis pleaded for all sides in this conflict to allow humanitarian access to civilians. He stated “Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance. “He also called for peace in Iraq, where 37 Christians were killed in Christmas day violence.
Indeed in our world of hypersensitivity and feigned caring, few people seem to notice the plight of ancient Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, or Egypt.
Afghanistan poses a unique challenge both for the U.S. and neighboring Pakistan. At the end of 2014, and after a thirteen year conflict, American troops will be out of the war torn nation. Ties between Kabul and Washington are strained. Will elections in the post Karzai era allow for a small contingent of U.S. and NATO troops to stay on or shall the Kabul government fend for itself against the rising tide of the Taliban? After an immense commitment of blood and treasure, was the Afghan war worth it?
Turning to Egypt once a close American friend in the region, today there’s a new geopolitical dynamic. While the Muslim Brotherhood rule was happily toppled by an alliance of the Egyptian military and secular middle classes, neither the current government nor the ousted regime supporters view the U.S. as reliable. Over the past three years since the fall of President Mubarak, Obama’s policy toward Egypt has been muddled. The consequences for both regional stability and neighboring Israel are perilous. Washington’s policy has produced a fiasco on the Nile.
In Africa the news is sadly mixed. The French helped topple an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency in Mali which had threatened to turn the country into a “Taliban style” fiefdom. But in the meantime new fighting in the Central African Republic and South Sudan has threatened to being new levels of ethnic violence to a region which is numb with horror. South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, confronts the UN with the word’s latest civil war.
In Asia we see a resilience in the Philippines which was slammed by Typhoon Haiyan in November. In the Leyte islands and the city of Tacloban (near where General MacArthur waded ashore in his return to the Philippines in 1944), more than 6,000 were killed and millions dislocated. They need our help.
Both China and Japan are still involved in the political face off over the Daioyutai/Senkaku islands, tiny specks of land with huge geopolitical implications for both Asian giants. Thought logic would argue both countries are just posturing, one must not underestimate the smoldering historic animosities between Beijing and Tokyo. Equally the simmering nuclear in North Korea has not passed.
In Europe, Ukraine’s political crisis will continue as the country looks to Western Europe or to Russia. Naturally Moscow has played hardball with this former Soviet republic but at the same time the opportunity of closer ties with the democratic European Union may eventually prove stronger.
With the approach of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the host country Russia is on best behavior, releasing imprisoned dissidents and stressing soft power. Meantime Brazil will host the Football World Cup in June and will hopefully excel.
As this column has long stated, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, remains seminal reading. The thesis is basically that clashes between countries will not occur along purely ideological divides as in the Cold War, but along religious and civilizational fault lines as we witness throughout Africa, South Asia, and even Europe if we view the Balkan conflicts or contemporary Ukraine.
In many of these cases a vacuum of clear U.S. policy or misjudged reactions have allowed for lost opportunities or lessened influence.
Yet on a lighter note, we wish our readers Health, Hope, and Happiness in the New Year.
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John J. Metzler is a UN correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Transatlantic Divide USA/Euroland Rift? (2010)