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.