Democracy Lab

The Dicey Democrat

How a pillar of the old regime in Burma is working to prove his democratic credentials.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Burma's former capital, Rangoon, where he met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's reformist president, Thein Sein. These two people -- the former political prisoner and the former member of the military junta that put her in jail -- are now regarded as the twin engines of the liberalization process now under way in the country.

Less well-noticed was Obama's meeting with another politician: Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Burma's parliament. Like President Thein Sein, the speaker is another ex-general, and has spent nearly his entire political career as a member of the same regime that harshly suppressed the pro-democracy movement. (Indeed, his wife and son currently remain on a U.S. sanctions list targeting the regime for its past human rights abuses, a fact that was presumably known to Obama at the time of their meeting.) At the same time, like Aung San Suu Kyi, Shwe Mann now speaks frequently of his enthusiasm for an open society -- assuring a visiting Hillary Clinton at one point, for example, that he and his colleagues had been watching old episodes of The West Wing as a crash course in democratic governance.

But it's probably not Shwe Mann's knowledge of prime-time TV that motivated Obama to seek out his company. The U.S. president's trip to Southeast Asia this week is part of the current diplomatic campaign known as the "pivot," the effort to re-weight Washington's foreign policy toward Asia. The ultimate aim of the new strategy is to balance against the rising influence of China, which has made substantial inroads into Southeast Asia over the past few years -- and especially in Burma, a country that lies at a geopolitical crossroads between India and China and also boasts rich natural resources coveted by its neighbors.

For the Americans, that means not only restoring old alliances but also courting new friends -- and Shwe Mann is clearly viewed by the White House and the State Department as the sort of figure worthy of long-term investment. As a prominent ally of the reformist camp who nonetheless maintains close ties with leading army officers and business tycoons, the parliamentary leader has already staked a claim to a prominent role; many expect that he is likely to challenge the 67-year-old Thein Sein (who is known to be in poor health) for the top job sooner rather than later. And while Aung San Suu Kyi (also 67) remains the darling of those who wish Burma a bright and democratic future, it is the figures like Shwe Mann -- veterans of the old dictatorship who support the transition to democracy thanks to the material and political advantages they hope to gain from it -- who are likely to go on playing an outsized part in government regardless of the outcome.

Over the past two years Shwe Mann (65) has shown his mettle as a defender of the president's reforms. As the man who essentially runs the national parliament in Burma's remote jungle capital of Naypyidaw, Shwe Mann has pushed through several dramatic legislative reforms and has even been known to criticize Thein Sein for his allegedly "sluggish" approach to liberalization. The speaker has turned parliament into a lively and popular institution, surprising many who were skeptical about its freedom to act. All this -- along with his obvious vigor and good health -- has convinced many that Shwe Mann is the most likely candidate to succeed the current president in the next general election in 2015. It's that prospect, says Jim Della-Giacoma, a Southeast Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), that probably persuaded Obama to start building bridges. "Under many different scenarios either based on short, medium, or long-term thinking, Shwe Mann is going to be a key player in Burma," says Della-Giacoma. "He is someone for the U.S. to engage now and cultivate for the future if, in the interests of supporting democracy, the U.S. sees its own common cause in bringing the national parliament to life as a legitimate democratic institution."

Shwe Mann has been praised for reaching out to political activist groups and encouraging reconciliation after years of oppression by the regime of which he was once a part. This past summer, he held a symbolic meeting with leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, a civic organization representing the students who orchestrated a 1988 uprising that was brutally suppressed by government troops at a cost of 3,000 deaths (almost all them unarmed protestors). Most of the group's leading figures have spent the last twenty years languishing in prison cells across the country. Following the meeting, Ko Ko Gyi, a leading member of the group and prominent activist, gave the speaker a rave review. "In my opinion, he wishes to have a better country and is able to balance the government with the parliament," Ko Ko Gyi told me. "He has the courage and abilities to solve current difficulties as well as desires to see the emergence of a more democratic country."

In parliament Shwe Mann has built close relationships with several opposition MPs who until recently were being persecuted for their democratic inclinations. "There is an element of sincerity in these political relationships," says Rangoon political analyst and opposition sympathizer Khin Zaw Win. "As a result many opposition MPs regard Shwe Mann very highly." Those who have met him describe a quiet, collected, and relaxed man with an easy smile and good listening skills. (Shwe Mann declined FP's requests for an interview.) "He promotes debate and has tried to make the parliament accountable to the people and sticks to the constitution," one MP told me under condition of anonymity, citing his wariness of the still-dominant military. "Thein Sein is a consensus-builder who does not want to offend anyone, while Shwe Mann is more ambitious and perhaps more willing to take calculated risks for the good of the country."

And yet, at the same time, there are still worries that Shwe Mann is not quite as clean as he might want Obama to believe. A former member of Burmese military intelligence said that he and his colleagues consider Shwe Mann to be "more dangerous" than anyone in power. "He is very cunning and ambitious," said another former intelligence officer. "We have yet to see the real side of Shwe Mann. He has the ability to divide and rule and destroy the whole reform process." One U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks in March 2007 bore the title, "Shwe Mann, Burma's Dictator-in-Waiting."

Such concerns are fueled by Shwe Mann's past career. He rose to the top of the Burmese military establishment by seeking a close relationship with former junta leader and dictator Than Shwe, who has a long-standing reputation for brutality. One senior military defector described Shwe Mann to me as a "Than Shwe rat" whose priorities are protecting his former patron from the International Criminal Court and securing his financial interests: "It was Than Shwe who got him to where he is today, so he is indebted to him."

Like Than Shwe, Shwe Mann attended the prestigious military academy that was responsible for grooming many of the regime's top brass. Soon after that he came perilously close to being discharged from the army for medical reasons, but was spared that shame by a highly-placed former academy classmate who got him a job as the director of a military school. Than Shwe, who became commander-in-chief of the Burmese military in 1992, saw a promising apprentice in Shwe Mann and made him one of his deputies. Like many other generals at the time, Shwe Mann also used family ties to expedite his ascent. His wife went to work as a teacher and nanny for Than Shwe's favorite grandson in an attempt to get on the good side of Burma's most powerful man.

It worked. According to another 2007 U.S. State Department cable, "when Than Shwe wants something done, ... Shwe Mann usually conveys his orders to the army and enforces his will." In 1997, Than Shwe shocked the county by firing all of his closest cabinet ministers. Shwe Mann benefited from the shakeup. He leapfrogged from a relatively junior rank to chief of staff, the third most powerful position in the army, and remained there until 2010, when Than Shwe officially retired.

Many inside Burma remain skeptical about Shwe Mann due to his role in the former regime. "I will never trust him," one young activist from Rangoon told me, who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from government retaliation. "He has been responsible for the killing and oppressing of our people for decades." Shwe Mann comes from a generation of battle-hardened generals who were sent to wage war against the various ethnic armies. He received a special commendation for his efforts fighting against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), one of the many rebel groups campaigning for greater autonomy within the country.

Commenting on his military experience against the Karen, one of the U.S. diplomatic cables accused him of human rights abuses: "Like most Burmese field commanders, Shwe Mann utilized forced civilian porters, including women and children, on a massive scale during operations against Karen insurgents." One of the 2007 U.S. diplomatic cables suggests that although Shwe Mann "is thought to be more open-minded, by all accounts he willingly participated in the brutal repression of September's pro-democracy protests" -- a reference to the Buddhist-monk-led demonstrations of that year that came to be known as the Saffron Revolution.

Another red flag for the international community is Shwe Mann's alleged involvement with the North Korean military. According to a leaked U.N. report seen by Reuters, Shwe Mann traveled to North Korea in November 2008 and signed a military agreement with Pyongyang. According to the U.N. report, which has yet to be made public, the agreement between the two countries potentially violates U.N. sanctions. The report also cites sources who claim that Shwe Mann visited a North Korean factory where ballistic missiles are manufactured. (An official itinerary of the visit obtained by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile news organization, also includes a reference to a missile factory visit.)

In December 2011, shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first visit to Burma, a Burmese newspaper published an interview with Shwe Mann in which he acknowledged his trip to North Korea, saying that the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation: "We studied their air defense system, weapons factories, aircrafts and ships. Their armed forces are quite strong so we just agreed to cooperate with them if necessary." While Shwe Mann has vehemently denied any nuclear cooperation with North Korea, the U.N. report states that in May 2011 a North Korean ship suspected of attempting to transport missiles or other weapons to Burma was forced to turn around by U.S. naval forces before it reached its destination. The report also states that another North Korean ship on a similar mission in June 2009 turned around after becoming aware it was being traced.

Although Shwe Mann might not have a squeaky clean past, the United States will no doubt be quick to forget his shortcomings. While Aung San Suu Kyi might be Obama's preferred choice as a partner, there's no guarantee that she will be able to gain real political power any time soon. The present constitution actually bars Suu Kyi from taking part in the next election, and the rest of her party, the National League for Democracy, is likely to face greater competition if Shwe Mann follows through on his plans to transform the USDP into a full-fledged political party committed to reform. For the moment, the United States still has to rely on the former generals-cum-reformists like Shwe Mann -- people who wield real power under the current Burmese political system -- to steer the country in the direction Washington would like to see.

Despite the dark tones in his background, diplomats and some political observers in Rangoon insist that Shwe Mann has long shown moderate tendencies. "He really wanted to reform the country but we feel he was often held back by Than Shwe," one experienced European diplomat told me. Now that Than Shwe, his former patron, appears to have withdrawn from the political arena, Shwe Mann may have finally gained the space to emancipate his inner liberal. "He is using his old power to transform parliament and right the wrongs of the past," one opposition MP told me (again insisting on anonymity for fear of retribution). On several occasions the speaker has even chosen to directly challenge the president. The first public incident involved a disagreement over the introduction of a minimum wage for government workers. Thein Sein opposed the idea, citing inflation and a high government deficit. Shwe Mann moved ahead on the legislation nonetheless, building overwhelming support from legislators. A version of the bill passed in the end, though notably watered down.

Aung San Suu Kyi also appears to credit Shwe Mann's will to reform. Those around the opposition leader say that she and Shwe Mann, who both sit on a parliamentary committed devoted to promoting the rule of law, agree on a number of issues and have formulated a strategy to push forward with liberalization. "Democracy will live sustainably with peace and stability only when there is rule of law," Shwe Mann told fellow parliamentarians in a speech last month. "The three rely on each other. Therefore, everyone has to obey the country's existing laws and regulations to develop rule of law."

But this high-minded talk meets with a decidedly cynical reception from informed observers, who say that the parliamentary leader doesn't necessarily practice what he preaches. "We all know how corrupt he and his sons have been," one ethnic opposition politician told me. In this context, he says, Shwe Mann's frequent public sallies against sleaze come off as "obnoxious."

The U.S. Treasury Department appears to have shared those suspicions. In 2008, the Treasury's U.S. Office of Assets Control announced that it was imposing financial sanctions on Shwe Mann's wife, Khin Lay Thet, and one of his sons, Aung Thet Mann, the director of a company also targeted by the same measure. The Treasury action singled out Aung Thet Man's close links to Zay Ta, one of Burma's biggest oligarchs. "Tay Za has used his business relationship with Aung Thet Mann to win favorable business contracts from the Burmese junta," the Treasury statement noted.

Shwe Mann's other son is married to the daughter of yet another leading business tycoon named Khin Shwe, who was placed on the sanctions list in 2007. "He also considered very corrupt due to the activities of his sons and resented by some generals senior to him in the army," alleged another WikiLeaks cable. (As a senior member of the regime, Shwe Mann was himself targeted by U.S. financial sanctions until September 20, when he and Thein Sein were both taken off the list.)

Of course, it's not out of the question for a high-ranking member of a dictatorial regime to change his ways. Many of those who served as senior figures in Burma's military dictatorship have now swung their support (at least in public) to President Thein Sein's course -- presumably under the assumption that they will be able to keep the wealth and connections they accumulated under the old regime while benefiting from the lifting of their country's pariah status. It's certainly true that the old rulers' move towards openness has not always been dictated by noble, altruistic motives. Last December, shortly before his meeting with Clinton, Shwe Mann admitted his anxiety to Burmese generals: "We do not want to end up like the Arab dictators. One day they were very powerful. The next day they died ignoble deaths."

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The World in 2013

Ten predictions for a year of brewing conflict.

Three major forces will loom behind the headlines in 2013, driving events in the new year: the crisis of the Western political order, rising sectarian strife in the Middle East, and worries about American withdrawal from the world.

The most immediate challenge is the crisis of the Western democratic model, caused by the inability of the United States and Europe to deal with their respective fiscal and financial issues. The problems are economic, but the weaknesses are fundamentally political. A continued failure to act will result in the weakening of the West's global stature in every dimension of national strength -- its ability to prosper, to summon and guide international action, and to advance core national interests.

The immediate issue for the United States is to keep from falling off its "fiscal cliff" -- the combination of scheduled tax increases and automatic spending cuts designed to be so painful that they would force Congress to agree on a package of spending cuts, revenue increases, and entitlement reforms. So far, however, the threat of fiscal crisis has failed to elicit the necessary compromise.

In Europe, the economic issues are far more severe -- but there, too, it has been impossible to summon the necessary political will until the euro teeters on the brink of collapse. It's a dangerous way to live: At each stage, when the markets crack the whip loudly enough, governments respond. But at each stage, the price of the necessary fix rises. Steps that could have resolved the crisis at one point are inadequate months later.

For decades, the United States and Europe have been the two centers of global governance. They have the experience in international problem solving and the will to act. All of these assets, however, rest on the success of their own governance. Once their model is no longer a success, the world will look elsewhere for leadership. At least for the foreseeable future, however, it will not find any substitutes.

The Middle East, meanwhile, will continue to demand the attention of the international community. From Morocco to Iran, the region is still consumed with the political upheavals of the Arab Awakening: Islamists are moving from the familiar role of opposition to the far harder job of governing, religious movements are being transformed into political parties, and secular groups are struggling to organize effective parties. But in the coming year and beyond, it seems likely that sectarian strife will become the defining thread of events across the region.

Through decades of otherwise ineffective rule, the Middle East's dictators did manage to keep divisions between Sunnis and Shiites under control. The enforced peace came apart first in Iraq, where the U.S. invasion triggered a sectarian civil war. Iraq today looks like a country about to splinter into Kurdish and perhaps later into separate Shiite and Sunni pieces, partly due to Iranian influence. Iran's mullahs are also playing a major role in Syria, where the minority Shiite rulers in Damascus are fighting for what they fear may be their very existence in a largely Sunni country. Sunni and Shiite governments across the region ship arms and money to like-minded groups, choosing sides in the country's sectarian civil war.

Sectarian bloodletting is not only limited to Syria. Only miles from Damascus, Lebanon -- always a sectarian tinderbox -- tries desperately to hold on to its uneasy peace. In Bahrain, the Sunni government has brutally repressed a Shiite-led uprising. It is much easier to see this trend spreading even further across the region than to imagine events that would reverse it.

Worries about American withdrawal from the world will also have a growing influence on global affairs in 2013 and beyond. The fears are triggered in part by the scheduled pullout of most American forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The policies of Afghanistan's neighbors -- notably Pakistan, Iran, India, and the Central Asian "stans" -- are already being reshaped to preserve their influence in the aftermath.

At the same time, the explosive growth in production of American unconventional gas and oil resources has raised the specter of drastically reduced American dependence on -- and therefore interest in -- the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East. Finally, America's budget deficits and the need for spending cuts suggest to some that the United States will play a smaller role abroad in the years ahead.

Whether America's slow retreat from global affairs is welcomed or feared, and whether or not it actually comes to pass, it will likely trigger actions and adjustments in anticipation. How these might influence global events or American interests is by no means clear. However, here is my best estimate of the events that will define the year to come.

A Critical Time in Asia

Both China and the United States, protagonists in the most important bilateral relationship in the world, have just passed through tense leadership changes -- but there the similarity ends. Some key players in President Barack Obama's team will change, but the central thrust of his policies is largely set and he can move promptly to address the many issues that were put on hold during the prolonged U.S. political season.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, faces an array of immediate challenges. He must build consensus among the new generation of leaders around a new set of policies appropriate for China's growing global stature. Beijing's outgoing leadership could afford to allow growth to slow and politico-economic problems to accumulate after years of stellar economic growth -- Xi cannot. He will have to accelerate the rebalancing of the Chinese economy and at the same time address the growing restiveness of a new, 300-million strong middle class. These needed policy shifts will often be in tension.

Nor can the new Chinese government afford to look weak abroad. An increasingly informed populace, angry over widespread corruption and personal enrichment by an elite few, is easily susceptible to nationalist appeals. The public, and many in ruling circles, believes a number of conspiracy theories about U.S. intentions -- for instance, that it is trying to encircle China, that it pushed Japan to act in the East China Sea, that it is trying to make trouble over Taiwan. The majority of Chinese are expecting a more assertive, higher-profile foreign policy.

The coming year, then, will call for great care on both sides. Washington and Beijing will have to separate rhetoric and mutual suspicions from actual changes in policy. A simmering conflict in the East China Sea will have to be managed through and beyond Japan's elections. The United States will have to undo the damage wrought by its "pivot" to Asia, which has only enhanced Chinese suspicions that Washington's goal is to contain Beijing. It will take a long time to convince China that the actual U.S. goal is to rebalance its attention from the Middle East toward East Asia, given that the United States has diverse economic, political, and security interests there.

Above all, both China and the United States have to take the first difficult steps toward defining a new kind of great power relationship in which China is less subordinate and more of a responsible, burden-carrying international leader.

The Long Arab Awakening

Poorly chosen words can do lasting damage. The pivot to Asia was one. The "Arab Spring," which led many to expect that the upheavals in the Middle East would lead to swift democratic change and resolution, is another. Unlike the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, these are genuine internal revolutions that will take decades to play out. The challenge for outsiders, especially the United States, is to develop the necessary strategic patience to distinguish between inevitable ups and downs and long-term trends, while also helping new governments deliver the economic progress they will need to survive.

Egypt's complex political evolution will continue to play out in 2013. On balance, events there have been encouraging -- the discipline of governing has exerted a moderating influence on the Muslim Brotherhood, the military has relinquished a desire to rule, the country has stuck by its peace treaty with Israel, and political violence is the exception not the rule. In Libya, the government will continue to struggle to take back its rightful monopoly on the use of force from well-armed militias. It will find itself aided by swelling oil revenues but terribly hampered by the country's complete lack of functioning institutions after 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi's misrule.

Governments in countries where unrest still festers below the surface -- Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf emirates, and Morocco -- will continue to stall, hoping that the greater legitimacy they enjoy as monarchies will enable them to avoid major protests and hold on to power. Syria, Iraq, and Iran are the focal points of major change in the year ahead.

The Syrian Stalemate

After more than a year of fighting, the conflict in Syria has become a military stalemate. Neither side can make decisive gains. The Gulf countries' injections of arms to the opposition cannot offset the regime's tanks and fighter jets. Bashar al-Assad remains president but no longer rules the country. Notwithstanding the severe impact of international sanctions, he can survive indefinitely on little money by suspending the government's normal services and encouraging his military and militia to supplement their salaries by looting.

The somewhat encouraging news is that an international consensus is emerging around the need for a political compromise between elements of the regime -- excluding Assad -- and a coalesced opposition encompassing those outside the country and those still inside fighting, from all sectarian communities. In November, the opposition took an important step toward unifying by forging a new umbrella coalition -- but whether it can stay together, and whether it will accept less than a complete end to the present regime, is uncertain at best.

If it can, and if outside powers (minus Russia and China) can also stay unified, 2013 could well see an end to the killing -- and the beginning of what will be a long, difficult political transition in Syria.

Nuclear Showdown in Iran

2012 saw conflicting trends in Iran. The Obama administration won an important international success in the severest sanctions ever imposed on Iran, which caused the value of the Iranian rial to plummet and inflation and unemployment to skyrocket.

For the first time in the long nuclear standoff, Iran is paying a price for its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But Tehran isn't waving a white flag yet: Even as its standing in the region was weakened by the Arab uprisings, it nevertheless expanded its uranium enrichment program beyond the level needed for civilian reactors. And Israel continued to push for a war it could begin alone but could not finish, even as the politics of the U.S. election season made serious nuclear negotiations impossible.

Moreover, without ever explaining why, both American presidential candidates flatly insisted that containment of a nuclear Iran was impossible and unacceptable. Happily, however, an important area of ambiguity has been preserved around the difference between actual weaponization by Iran and an undefined "nuclear capability." This gray area could eventually be where an agreement is found. Meanwhile, Iran delayed a showdown this summer by diverting some of its growing stockpile of enriched uranium to civilian purposes, easing Israel's insistence on the need for an early attack.

The question is what will happen now. In Israel, much is in flux. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to re-evaluate his options in light of Obama's reelection and the public opposition to war by many of Israel's top military and intelligence leaders. Though his political opposition is weak, elections scheduled for January could also force adjustments in Israeli policy.

Tehran's position will largely be determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has made no secret of his disbelief in compromise. The single most important external determinant will be whether the U.S. and European governments will accept Iran's right to enrich uranium up to the low level needed for civilian purposes. If so, it may be possible to negotiate sufficiently tough safeguards, inspections, and limits on the size of a low-enriched uranium stockpile to insure that Tehran does not cheat. If not, any form of agreement is likely impossible.

Even if negotiations fail in 2013, Iran still has ways to make a military strike unlikely by choosing to mark time in its weapons program -- limiting the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and avoiding steps toward weaponization.

Life or Death for a Two-State Solution

Perhaps a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is already dead. Many believe so. But even if there is still hope, it will not last much longer -- certainly not long enough for a protracted peace process. Moreover, with the changes the Arab Awakening has brought about, an Israeli-Palestinian accord is no longer enough: A regional, Arab-Israeli agreement is clearly needed.

Such an agreement would require a monumental effort on the part of the United States. The question is whether the Obama administration will choose to devote so much precious political capital to this potentially historic but so-elusive goal. That's a question only President Obama can answer, but after November's hostilities in Gaza, the odds of him making such a choice seem very long indeed.

Can Iraq Hang Together?

Within hours of the departure of the last U.S. troops a year ago, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accused the country's Sunni vice president of treason -- an early indicator of the deepening sectarian fissures in the country. Since then, Iraq's political fabric has become steadily more threadbare. In the north, an unexpected -- some call it nearly miraculous -- rapprochement between Kurdistan and Turkey has transformed the relationship from active conflict to political warmth. Investment by major foreign oil companies has subsequently poured in, at the expense of Baghdad's rights. The economic divides are deepening: Today, Kurdistan gets 22 hours per day of electricity from its electricity grid, while Baghdad struggles with only four.

The good news out of Kurdistan only emphasizes the stagnation in the rest of the country. Iraq's Shiites receive most of the few services that Baghdad's divided and feckless government is able to provide, leaving the country's Sunni population increasingly angry and resorting to violence.

Elections in the early months of 2013 may indicate whether Iraq will be able to hold itself together. What unfolds in Syria will also heavily influence Iraqi Sunnis' decisions about how far to push their dissatisfaction. The chances of Iraq becoming a stable, unified country -- 10 years after the U.S. invasion, and with more than a trillion dollars spent -- are not encouraging.

Ending America's Longest War

In 2011, Obama announced that most U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan at the close of 2014. By then, his administration anticipated, Afghan security forces would be strong enough to secure the country and a political agreement involving the Taliban would be in the offing.

What a difference two years makes. Even when the plan was announced the security situation was discouraging, and it has only grown worse. International casualties had reached their highest point in nine years of war in 2010. They climbed higher in 2011 and higher still in 2012 as shootings of U.S. and NATO troops by individual Afghan police and army members became a grim feature of the war. After several false starts, a successful negotiation with the Taliban seems increasingly remote. Afghanistan's neighbors are positioning themselves for what seems likely to be a period of even greater instability after international forces depart.

If it hopes to leave a stable Afghan government behind when it departs, the United States and its international partners will have to broaden their efforts to build political reconciliation that encompasses Afghan groups far beyond the Taliban. Whether they will choose to do so is not yet clear. Even less clear is whether, with declining leverage as their troops leave the country, they will be able to push for a fair presidential election when President Hamid Karzai's term ends in 2014. An obviously corrupt outcome in that election could prove a devastating setback.

Pakistan represents a surprising bright spot over the past year. It now seems likely that Pakistani elections next year will see the first peaceful end to a period of civilian rule in Pakistan's history -- a notable milestone. Violence or a military coup looks increasingly unlikely. At the same time, Pakistan's obsession with its adversary, India, has significantly lessened. Trade across the border has increased markedly, visa restrictions have been loosened, and there is talk of renewed efforts to settle long-standing Indo-Pakistani territorial disputes. A sickening attack by Taliban militants in October on Malala, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who campaigned for women's education, brought the country together as never before. It is impossible to say whether this unity will last, but the attack has dramatically reinforced the reality that the country's internal problems mean more to Pakistan's security than does the threat from India.

If these trends endure, real change could be on the horizon in one of the world's most dangerous countries. In the best case, they could ease Islamabad's fear of being caught between unfriendly governments in New Delhi and Kabul enough to allow Pakistan to play a more constructive -- or at least a less destructive -- role in shaping Afghanistan's future.

Strange Interlude in Russia

Large street protests in Moscow at the close of 2011 suggested a political turning point in Russia. But the movement weakened rather than spread, and only three months later Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was overwhelmingly reelected to the top post of president -- albeit with badly damaged legitimacy. Since then, he has gathered greater power into his own hands, labeled those who did not support him as "decadent" and unpatriotic, and branded Russian non-governmental organizations that receive financial support from abroad as "foreign agents." Internationally, he has executed his own pivot toward Asia, huffily turning away from the West.

In all likelihood, decisive change in Russia will be a long, slow evolution that will not occur in 2013, or perhaps for years thereafter. Yet Russia is not the same as it once was. An urban elite and a well-informed middle class, which is freer and more prosperous than ever, are too aware of the regime's failings. A more assertive foreign policy appears to be part of Putin's answer to his domestic problems -- even when it works against Russia's own interests, as stubborn support for the regime in Syria does.

The most critical near-term decision will be whether the United States and Russia can find a way to cooperate on the missile defense systems each is planning to build. Missile defense cooperation is a game changer for the Russian relationship with the West and for the future of nuclear arms control -- for good if it happens, for ill if it does not.

A Superstorm Reminder

Will Hurricane Sandy, an immense hybrid of winter storm and tropical hurricane, at last allow all Americans to see climate change as an urgent threat? While climatologists do not know whether this unusual type of storm is caused by a warming climate, its high death toll, along with economic costs that may exceed $50 billion, could be enough to convince more Americans to take a clear-eyed look at the increasing number of extreme weather events in recent years.

The only economically sensible and effective way to address this enormous global challenge is by putting a price on carbon and then freeing markets -- rather than government -- to innovate and choose among fuels and technologies. Sandy will not, in itself, be enough to spark this change. But together with the weather disasters that will certainly follow, it may provide a significant push.

U.S. recognition that climate change is a real and urgent threat to the nation's and the planet's well-being is the key to some form of effective international accord. While neither that recognition nor a global agreement will happen in 2013, both will come eventually as the threat becomes overwhelmingly obvious. The longer we wait, unfortunately, the higher the cost will be.

As the United States embarks on the production of unconventional oil and gas resources, the need to price carbon will only become more compelling. In addition to sparking a U.S. economic recovery, these new resources could lower the price of gas and perhaps later of oil -- aiding a eurozone recovery, roiling the fossil fuel markets, introducing greater price volatility and, over time, dramatically shifting global geopolitical alignments as newly oil-rich North America becomes far less dependent on Middle Eastern energy sources.

It's the Economy, Stupid

No "foreign policy" issue in 2013 will matter as much to the global economic, political, and security outlook as whether the United States and Europe are able to deal with their economic crises.

If America's political parties can agree on a way to climb down from the fiscal cliff, the resolution of the acute economic uncertainty that has gripped the country for the past 18 months would unleash private sector investment, spark an economic recovery, and give new weight to the country's international role. Such a compromise might help resolve the United States' present, crippling political polarization.

In purely economic terms, an agreement is certainly achievable. Whether political conditions will allow it depends on whether the Republican Party, having failed to make Obama a one-term president, now judges either that an agreement is in its interest or that the country's economic need is paramount. If so, and if the Democratic Party is also in the mood to compromise, the economic benefits will be very great.

For Europe, the world's largest economic entity and a critical leader of a liberal and peaceful world order, the challenge is to summon sustained economic discipline and political will. Progress has been made: Governments have convinced themselves, if not the markets, that they will do whatever it takes to save the euro. Thanks largely to the efforts of two Italians -- Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister installed to put Italy's house in order, and Mario Draghi, the new head of the European Central Bank -- concrete steps have been taken that prove a rescue is possible. But painful structural reforms will have to be endured for many years -- a tall order for any single democracy, let alone for many sharing each other's pain.

In effect, the euro crisis morphed in 2012 from a life-threatening emergency to a chronic disease that will be with us for years to come. The challenge for 2013 is to maintain the harsh treatment, avoid setbacks, and continue to inch toward restored growth.

Between a half-dozen unfolding and potential crises in the Middle East, the no-longer-avoidable economic and political challenge confronting the United States and Europe, and a shaky U.S.-China relationship to be navigated past fresh shoals, 2013 looks to be a year of defining importance in international affairs.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GettyImages