Voice

The world's 10 most dangerous countries

Yesterday, I spent a little time ruminating as to whether Pakistan was really the most dangerous country in the world. And I promised to consider today which countries were, in fact, should worry us the most.

To begin with, let's consider criteria and that means we need to ask "dangerous to whom?" There are plenty of local actors who are the nearest, greatest threats to the neighbors. So, let's limit ourselves to actors who can cause the greatest disruption through their actions to the most people over the next decade or so.

Here are my top 10:

10.  Venezuela

Ok, Chávez won't start any world wars. But think of his disruptive reach around the hemisphere, his support for the FARC, and his cultivation of ties to Russia, China and the Middle East and its clear this is the one guy who is most likely to disrupt lives in Latin America for the foreseeable future.

9.  Iraq and Saudi Arabia (Tie)

The final chapter has not been written in Iraq. Saddam may not have posed the threat Bush ascribed to him, but the fragmentation of this country (particularly in Kurdistan) could be massively destabilizing in the region and create real problems with Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The Saudis support terror, their succession picture is murky, they are likely to be one of the first to respond to Iranian nukes with a program of their own, and they pull key levers in OPEC. Hard not to include them, too.

8.  The European Union

Europe should be a force for stability in the world. But an EU without an effective foreign policy mechanism, without the ability to shoulder its share of the military burden associated with keeping the world safe, with a faltering Euro and with too many new members is a big void where the world needs strength. Sometimes the greatest threat comes from those who could take action to preserve stability but who do not.

7.  Nigeria and Congo (Tie)

Nigeria is the biggest country on a continent that is increasingly important to the world for oil and other resources. It is a major player in the global energy scene. And it faces multiple threats both internally and from a truly scary neighborhood. Congo is the site of the world's most deadly conflict of the past decade and both a metaphor and hub for the kind of regional fracturing that make instability in Africa one of the things most worrying to U.S. and European military commanders.

6.  Israel and Palestine (Tie)

This is a dangerous place, for sure. Hostile or ill-considered moves by either party can trigger regional instability that would impact global energy markets and draw the attention of every major world power. The only reason this festering wound is ranked so low: everyone is so accustomed to it that it is more likely than not to have very narrow consequences even if it heats to a boil for extended periods. 

5.  Iran    

Iran could be an important regional force for stability. But for the near term that looks pretty unlikely. Meanwhile, if the Iranian nuclear program triggers a regional arms race that may not mean state-on-state thermonuclear disaster (deterrence probably still works for most states) but it vastly increases the likelihood that some nuke ends up in the hands of some non-state (or allegedly non-state) actor. 

4. Russia

See the preceding article. I rank them behind Pakistan because the odds are better that their desire to be part of the world system ultimately suppresses the country's more dangerous impulses. And because they are likely for the near term to be more dangerous as a diplomatic and political disruptor and as a regional mischief maker than as a direct military threat to anyone outside their immediate neighborhood. If I'm in that neighborhood though, I'm uncomfortable. And on top of all that, the most recent picture of a bare-chested Putin on horseback has me worried. 

3. Pakistan

Pakistan is just barely a functioning state in the pieces of the country where the government has some control. As for the rest of the place? There are pieces that never bought into the idea of the Pakistani nation. So take that, add nukes, add the impact on India and Afghanistan, add al Qaeda and the Taliban, add the country as a petri dish and a symbol for radical Islam and it's still the place with the biggest potential to blow up into something very messy for the world in the next several years.

2. China

I do not believe China is a military threat to the U.S. or to anyone now or at any time in the near future. Rather they are on top of this list for the same reason that the number one country is: the most dangerous countries are the ones with the most power. They flex their muscle ... economic, political, or military... and they have the biggest impact. Or, as in the case of China, if they don't ... if they remain the reluctant great power ... and don't assume a role in the international system proportionate to their power, it will throw the system out of balance. (For example: if Iran's nuclear program is a threat and China could make a difference in containing it but doesn't ... they become a contributor to the threat.) Further, they've got internal struggles that could have them focused inward for a long time ... some, with the Uighurs say, that could have them caught up in a struggle with the Islamic world that could  next spread into Central Asia (a development that worries me a great deal.)

1. The United States

I generally believe the U.S. is a force for good in the world and I am inclined to believe that is the objective of the current administration. But there is no denying that the one country who has most aggressively reached out to touch the world militarily in the past decade is the Untied States. Further, and more importantly, following the logic in the EU and China mentions above...no one has more power than the United States. That means no one can do more damage with a mistake or even with inaction. Also: as in the case of China and the EU, our economic missteps punish the planet and there is very little evidence to suggest we've taken the steps we need to avoid another meltdown of the 2008-2009 variety. Ask yourself: What has harmed more people on the planet, terrorist brutality or Wall Street venality?

DANIL SEMYONOV/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Heeeeere's Barack!: On sidekicks, new stars, and Tony Blair in a plaid sports coat...

Last night, Conan O'Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today's New York Times as the "top second banana." O'Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.

Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.

Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can't afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don't have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one's enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.

Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada. 

But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it's clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.

The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.

The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama's United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush's (or Carter's for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.

Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy ("you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star") to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. 

Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet's to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are...but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.

This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn't play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad...although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy...as in everything that happens on any stage...the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.    

In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.

It's sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images