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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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