What would the world look like a year from now?
As always towards the end of the year, the question has been debated for the past weeks in political circles, business boardrooms, and military planning councils.
Let us fix three criteria and then try to see what the world, measured by them, might look like at the end of 2007.
The first criterion is security, a concern that has topped the international agenda for the past five years. There was a time after the end of the Cold War that most nations regarded security as a given rather than an aspiration. As 2006 draws to a close, however, more and more nations feel insecure for many different reasons. Sharing that confidence, the business world focused more on the threat of losing markets, to new competitors, than on actual physical threat to its interests, indeed its very existence.
In 2006 a staggering 57 nations lived with medium to high security alerts, against a wide range of terrorist threats. The figure included virtually all Western democracies, most of the Arab states, and a dozen Asian countries.
This new form of terrorist threat is substantially different from the classical one that focused on specific political and military targets. New terrorism aims at killing as many people as possible at random, at times through suicide operations.
It is almost certain that, by this criterion at least, the world be as unsafe, if not more so, next year than at this year’s end.
So far, the conventional wisdom has been to urge more attention to the political grievances that are supposed to be at the root of this new phenomenon. The truth, however, is that terrorism is not always necessarily connected with any particular grievance. At its deadliest, it could be the expression of an ideal, if not an actual ideology. The Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Germany in the 1970s had no particular grievances that they could not have expressed through peaceful means in their democratic societies. They did not want anything in particular the granting of which would persuade them to end their killings. They wanted everything.
Their successors, the Islamist terrorists of the new century go even further because they want everything and more. The Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction would have been content with seizing political control and imposing a dictatorship of the proletariat, whatever that meant. The Islamists, however, look beyond mere political power. They want to control every aspect of the lives of every individual, including what one eats, wears and does in the privacy of one’s home.
To treat this new terrorism as a purely political phenomenon is intellectually dishonest and potentially suicidal for the afflicted societies.
The most effective means of dealing with this new terrorism is to treat it as a new form of warfare, with the body of the suicide-bomber as a new weapon. Like all other forms of warfare and all other weapons, this new terrorism and the suicide-bombers it deploys are impressive, disconcerting and effective beyond their real impact because no way has yet been found to cope with them effectively.
The most dramatic example of the effect that this new terrorism can achieve can be seen in Iraq. This new terrorism has caused many thousands of deaths without winning any battles or securing any territory. Nor has it been able to stop the political process it has vowed to sabotage. And, yet, this new terrorism has succeeded in persuading a majority of the Americans and Europeans, and many Arabs, that Iraq is already lost to groups that do not represent even five per cent of the Iraqi population. The only people who know that this form of terrorism cannot win are the Iraqis who represent its principal victims.
There are, however, signs that some of the countries targeted by this new kind of terrorism are beginning to develop the methods needed to defeat it. Egypt and Algeria have already achieved success while Saudi Arabia is well on the way to join them on that account. Pakistan has moved onto the offensive against new threat while the Philippines and Indonesia have managed to break the principal terrorist groups that threatened their security.
In 2007, therefore, we should look for more successes against terrorism, including the development of new methods and weapons.
The second threat to security comes from nuclear proliferation. With North Korea declaring itself a nuclear power and the Islamic Republic of Iran seeking the scientific and industrial wherewithal needed to make atomic weapons, proliferation is no longer a hypothetical threat. At least eight countries are now known to have embarked upon preliminary probes to develop nuclear capacities of their own, largely in response to the perceived threat from Iran.
Thus, measures from preventing a nuclear free-for-all are likely to dominate the international agenda in the new year.
The second criterion is regional stability. In Latin America new chinks have appeared in the status quo as shaped after the end of the Cod War. No one knows what Cuba may look like once Fidel Castro is finally laid to rest, possibly in 2007. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez’s latest election victory may have the paradoxical effect of forcing his opponents to challenge his increasingly authoritarian rule through non-institutional means. In Bolivia only one thing is certain: President Evo Morales is dancing around a powder keg with a lit match. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s return to power has already persuaded the anti-Sandinist groups to start rearming while the new president is also setting up his own militia.
Africa includes even more potential black holes that could affect regional stability next year.
But the impact of instability in Latin America and Black Africa will be minimal beyond the affected regions.
The same cannot be said of the Middle East, still arguably the world’s most important source of energy. The low intensity wars that have been going on in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003 are certain to continue for at least another year, and may even be amplified. The region as a whole, however, has already taken both wars into account, and shown that it can live with them as an irritant rather than an existential threat. The question for 2007 is whether or not that perception changes, one way or another.
The new imponderable danger in the region is that of a war waged over Iran’s attempts at dominating the Middle East. Such a war was waged by proxy in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories last summer and autumn. It also led to a shift of power in Syria in favour of those who seek an alliance with Iran and others who urged switching to the American side.
The proxy war could heat up in a number of ways including civil war among the Palestinians, a new civil war in Lebanon, an Israeli attack on Syria and American military strikes against Iranian targets.
The storm-bearing clouds that have been gathering since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2005 are unlikely to dissipate on their own. Any thunderclap and lightening strike could unleash one mighty storm needed to clear the air.
The third criterion concerns the effectiveness of diplomacy and international political organisations in dealing with rising tension in the Middle East and beyond. If both prove ineffective, war could reassert itself as the inevitable continuation of politics by other means.