A year that began with a major surprise, the popular uprising in Egypt in January, and then in February with another, the popular uprising against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya that lasted for most of the year, put the global community, and in particular the major global powers on alert that arrangements which they had made with various powers in the Middle East and its environs might not have the stability that had been expected. That there are still outbursts of popular dissent in Egypt against the military regime now in control of the country, must reinforce the sense of uncertainty which those powers have had for the whole year about an area which is the repository of major energy resources needed by many of them.
The year has ended with another surprise – the death of Kim Jong Il in North Korea and the natural uncertainty that accompanies it with the apparent ascent to leadership of his 28-year old son Kim Jong Un. There had been some sense, certainly among the Western powers, that China in particular had been taking a more intense interest in ensuring that Kim Jong Il’s nuclear weapons ambitions were kept under some degree of control. China’s objective has been that they could not become an overwhelming diplomatic irritant not only to the Western powers, but to a Japan sworn to a non-nuclear military future under the post-Second World War settlement. Western experts on North Korea will now be busy at work in the new year, trying to discern the extent to which Kim Jong Un is really more a place-holder than in charge of the political-military system that controls the country; and whether there is truth in reports that Kim Jong Il’s sister and brother-in-law will be the effective rulers of the state. South Korea, not at all happy with Kim Jong Il’s behaviour over the last year when, among other acts, his forces made forays across its border and bombarded one of the South’s islands, will be anxiously watching the behaviour of whoever is controlling its neighbour.
But the events in the Korean peninsula were only a minor aspect of the West and Japan’s concerns with the Asian sub-continent. President Obama has been under constant pressure this year – the antecedent of a presidential election year – to get some movement from China on more appropriate conditions for trade and investment between the two nations, a closer observance of the WTO treaty, and a more empathetic approach to assisting in jump-starting the American economy through closer adherence to rules relating to manipulation of the Chinese currency. The Chinese have been insisting that for the most part, the problem with the American economy lies in misconceived domestic policies, and an unwillingness to accept that there is a natural change in the balance of economic power between the West and the East, led, naturally, by the dynamism of the Chinese economy.
The Americans, too, have been perturbed by the extent to which Chinese investment in both Africa and Latin America has gained pace, this leading particularly, to an increasing rebalancing of the statuses of countries like Brazil in the management of the global economy, and a lessening reliance of those countries too, on Western investment for economic growth. The difficulties which the US has had in drawing the so-called emerging economies into acceptance of its own views on further global trade reform, and in automatic acceptance of US views on events in the Middle East, whether on Libya or on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is reflective of this rebalancing supported by China. And in that regard, the US has been increasingly concerned with the diplomacy of Turkey, a longtime NATO ally, as it has sought to remodel its relations with the Middle Eastern states, intercede between the Western powers and Iran, and demonstrate that its long-awaited acceptance by the European Union of a close integration with that area, is beginning to try its patience and need no longer be the centerpiece of Turkish international diplomacy.
In a sense, the NATO intervention in Libya has shaken the world as much as any other event. What the non-Western world will have seen in recent years was a gradual rapprochement led by the European Union in particular, between what we can call the NATO powers and that country. Certainly an assumption of European leaders like Blair, Sarkozy and Berlusconi was that they were successful in causing an amelioration of relations between Libya and the West, based on Gaddafi’s willingness to accept Western investment in Libyan oil and natural gas and long-term guarantees of the continuity of those products. This economic diplomacy was in part dependent on Gaddafi’s change of approach after Reagan’s bombing of Libya directed at his elimination, and his willingness to agree on a settlement with the United Kingdom and reparations for victims‘ families over the Lockerbie plane bombing incident. That rapprochement literally led to kisses all round between Gaddafi and the relevant leaders, and a feeling on both sides that a permanent normalization was being established.
The Libyan people, however, had another view, and their surprising uprising following those in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere, that frightened the Middle Eastern supporting states of the West, led to a NATO intervention, supported at the United Nations by the now frightened states of the Arab League. The intervention was based on the widely accepted view that there is a case for so-called humanitarian intervention based on an international responsibility to protect the lives of innocent citizens from abuse and murder by their political leaderships. With Russia and China hesitant on the sidelines, the NATO powers have, in effect, refined the newly legitimated (by a majority of states in the UN) rationale for intervention, in countries where autocrats have gone beyond the pale and have no allies willing to protect them diplomatically.
What Sarkozy (desperately falling in national opinion polls on the eve of a general election) and Berlusconi (then falling too, but in a country with heavy investments in, and energy dependence on, Libya) were able to achieve, however, NATO had been unwilling to attempt in a Sudan where heavy Chinese investment has precluded support for UN action in that country, except to assure the division of Sudan into two separate states – a support of the secession principle once strongly resisted by the states of the African Union. The practice of intervention – the Libyan one being preceded by France’s singular dry-run in the Ivory Coast – has now gained a successful 21st century model, pending, of course, the ability of the Libyan people and their present rulers to ensure continuing geographic unity and stability of the current Libyan state. This is unfinished, and uncertain, business.
One area of success this year, at least for now, and fulfilment of predicted assurances as made by President Obama has, of course, been the withdrawal, last week, of United States troops from Iraq. For the President, fulfilling his promise almost on the eve of another presidential election, there is still unfinished, inherited, work to be done in Afghanistan, however, where, with a weak Pakistan government increasingly erratic (at least to the Americans) in its behaviour towards the Taliban, much uncertainty remains about the possibility of some kind of negotiated settlement and withdrawal of US forces.
But with some successes, at least as perceived by the NATO powers in the geopolitical sphere, the real surprise to them this year, must be the prolongation of economic difficulty and recession in both the US and Europe, with uncertainty, and much dispute within both the US and the EU about the probabilities for success of the policies now being tried. With Ireland as really the first EU state to get into severe debt, there was some hope that the rapid agreement of the Irish government (even at the price of its own demise) could be a model for other states falling into severe debt situations. But the Eurozone’s difficulties now leave a wide sphere of uncertainty open as recession continues to deepen; and even a reluctant Britain is in a state of deepening austerity that seems bound to shake the confidence of the Conservative-Liberal government in the coming year.