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Top ten global events of the past decade

This is the time of year when pundits (and party-goers) get asked to offer predictions for the New Year. I'm going to resist the temptation, because as Yogi Berra warned, "prediction is really hard, especially about the future." He was right.

In 1849, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "war is on its last legs, and universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism." In 1911, British scholar G.P. Gooch wrote that "even a successful conflict between states can bring no material gain. We can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel, and when the peacemakers shall be called the children of God." And we all know about the famous forecast that humanity had reached the "end of history," or the claim that globalization would eventually force other states to copy America's farsighted combination of markets, financial innovation, and "rule of law" if they wanted to enjoy economic prosperity. Yeah, right. 

But it's not just these optimistic forecasts that turn out to be off-base; fortunately, some pretty pessimistic predictions did not pan out either. In 1950, a smart guy named Albert Einstein warned that "unless we are able, in the near future, to abolish the mutual fear of military aggression, we are doomed." In 1961, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow predicted that "The nuclear arms race is accelerating: within at the most ten years, some of these bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can. That is the certainty." The late Herman Kahn, another physicist and self-proclaimed futurologist, offered a similar forecast at about the same time, declaring that "unless we have more serious and sober thought we are not going to reach the year 2000 -- or even 1965 -- without a cataclysm."  

These failed forecasts might lead you to conclude that you simply shouldn't listen to predictions by physicists, but even a good realist like Hans Morgenthau got it badly wrong at times. In 1979, Morgenthau predicted that "the world is moving ineluctably toward a third world war -- a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long." All I can say is that I'm glad he was wrong.

For a longer list of failed predictions about war and peace, check out the appendix to John Mueller's Quiet Cataclysm, which was my source for the quotations offered above. I'm not saying that scholars, pundits, and prognosticators don't get it right from time to time, but trying to offer specific predictions for the next year or so strikes me as a harmless but not very serious exercise. Social scientists can forecast certain broad trends, and our theories can certainly identify recurring tendencies that can help us anticipate broad features of the emerging strategic landscape. But the combination of human imagination, agency, contingency, and unanticipated consequences generally plays havoc with efforts at crystal ball-gazing. 

Case in point: at a New Year's Eve party two years ago, I predicted that at least one country would leave the eurozone within the next year. I was clearly wrong about the specifics, but not about the general problems that the euro would face. Which merely goes to show that you can be broadly right but still be precisely wrong.

In any case, I'm not going to offer any predictions this year (at least not until I've had a glass or two of champagne). Instead, I'm taking the social scientist's normal cop-out and will look in the rearview mirror instead. And instead of just gazing back at 2010, here's my Top Ten Global Events of the past decade, in no particular order of importance:

1. January 2001: The inauguration of President Gore (oops, I mean Bush). The contested U.S. presidential election in 2000 proved even more momentous than we realized at the time, because it brought George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a gaggle of neoconservatives to power. I'm not saying Al Gore would have made a great foreign-policy president, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than Bush and Co. All in all, a hell of a way to start a decade.

2. 9/11. No surprise here, of course. 9/11 altered the course of U.S. foreign policy as dramatically as Pearl Harbor in 1941, and mostly for the worse, and because the United States is so powerful, its response to 9/11 had far-reaching implications all over the world. As horrific as that day was, the real damage came in the form of self-inflicted wounds (such as the invasion of Iraq) that proved even more costly than al Qaeda's original attack.

3. The Beijing Olympics. I pick this as a symbol of China's emergence as a major player in global politics, which is of course precisely what the Chinese government intended. One could also argue that it marked the end of China's self-effacing strategy of a "peaceful rise," and the beginning of a more self-assertive approach to advancing Chinese national interests. In other words, they're starting to act a lot like the great powers of the past, which implies increased great-power security competition in the decades ahead.

4. The Crash Heard 'Round the World. When the history of the 21st century is written, the financial meltdown that began in 2007 is bound to receive plenty of scrutiny. Unless, the same institutions whose greedy machinations helped produce it -- and who are still largely in place -- manage to generate something even worse in the years to come.

5. The Lula Presidency in Brazil: Under President Lula da Silva, Brazil has achieved budget surpluses, vigorous economic growth, and greater international stature. Brazil even got included in a new acronym (BRICs), coined to describe a set of emerging powers. Not bad for a leader who didn't learn to read until he was ten, and who never attended college.

6. The triumph of the AKP in Turkey. In addition to guiding a rapid and effective liberalization of the Turkish economy, the AKP government has revolutionized Turkish foreign policy and helped make Ankara a diplomatic force to be reckoned with. Whether their concrete achievements will match their ambitions remains to be seen, and certain domestic developments remain worrisome, but Turkey's reemergence from its Kemalist rigidity is a regional event with global implications.

7. The Middle East "Peace Process" Hits Bottom. In the 1990s, many of us believed that lasting peace in the Middle East was within sight, and just needed the right nudge from the United States (and perhaps the EU). In the past decade, alas, we have witnessed a second intifada, the failure of Israeli "unilateralism," senseless wars in Lebanon and Gaza, a rightward turn in Israel accompanied by the continued expansion of illegal settlements, polarization within the Palestinian community and the Muslim world more broadly, and repeated failures of U.S. peace efforts. Many people now question whether "two states for two peoples" is even achievable, and the long-term consequences -- whatever happens -- are bound to be far-reaching and probably depressing.

8. The Shrinking of Arctic Sea Ice. This event makes my list for two reasons. First, it is a sign of climate change that even skeptics may have trouble dismissing, and this issue will be a major item on the global agenda for years to come. Second, the shrinking of arctic ice is opening up shipping routes in the polar area and could transform the strategic geography of the region in a number of significant ways.   

9. Mother Nature Strikes Back. Whether it was earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, or a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the past decade brought us vivid reminders of the power of nature, the precariousness of human existence, and the willingness of humans to (sometimes) put aside national differences and help those in need.

10. The Rise of the Blogosphere. Blogging began in the 1990s, but its emergence as a major medium of communication and commentary took place in the past decade. Online news sites have become more popular and influential, and the globalization of information is reshaping the political world in countless ways. And by the way: thanks for reading!

There are an infinite number of other events one could point to -- the ongoing conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, Somali piracy, Iran's election of 2009, the graying (fraying?) of the EU, Obama's election, the consolidation of state power in Putin's Russia, etc. -- so I invite you all to contribute your own suggestions. What do YOU think were the most significant events of the past ten years? And once you've offered your suggestion, go find a friend and raise a glass to 2011.

Happy New Year!

Stephen M. Walt

Helping our enemies work together

The news that various Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups are coordinating their activities more extensively is neither surprising nor encouraging. This outcome is exactly what balance of power theory (or if you prefer, balance of threat theory) would predict: as the United States increases its military presence and escalates the level of violence, its various opponents put aside their differences for the moment in order to deal with the more imminent danger.

This pattern of behavior has a long-tradition in Afghan internal politics, as my former student Fotini Christia showed in a terrific Ph.D. thesis a few years back. It's also a phenomenon we've seen in earlier foreign interventions. The various mujaheddin warlords put aside their various quarrels in order to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, just as China, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam set aside their mutual fears and rivalries when the United States was fighting in Indochina.

Once the Soviets withdrew, of course, divisions within Afghan society re-emerged and made the place nearly ungovernable before the emergence of the Taliban. Something similar happened in Indochina: as soon as the United States withdrew from Vietnam, rivalries between the various communist nations and the Khmer Rouge eventually led to a Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea and a short border war between China and Vietnam. It was our presence that held them together and our departure that allowed long-standing resentments to burst forth anew.

The obvious lesson is that there is little danger of some sort of powerful jihadi monolith emerging in Central Asia. It is our war effort there that is leading these groups to make common cause with each other, and the longer the war goes on, the more we can expect them to cooperate. Because our strategic interests in Central Asia are very limited (i.e., we just don't want people organizing attacks on American soil from there) our real objective should be to reduce the U.S. presence, play "divide-and-conquer," and let the natural centrifugal tendencies in this region reassert themselves. That's not necessarily the "heroic" play (which is why our commanders aren't embracing it), but wouldn't it make more sense than giving a set of un-natural allies more reason to work together?

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images