Bob McMahon and I typically use our weekly podcast to discuss major foreign policy issues likely to be in the news in the coming week. In honor of the approaching New Year, we decided to change things up and examine the issues likely to dominate world politics in 2013. We discussed a sluggish global economy; the fiscal crisis in the United States; power struggles in the Middle East; the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan; sovereignty disputes in east Asia; and the battle over Internet freedom. Paul Stares, director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action (CPA), joined our conversation to talk about CPA’s newly released Preventive Priorities Survey, which assesses the likelihood and consequences of potential conflicts in 2013.
Global economic growth slowed in 2012, averaging only slightly more than 2 percent. Most economic forecasts predict that global growth is likely to stay sluggish in 2013. Economic troubles aren’t evident just in the mature economies of Europe (which is back in recession) or the United States (which is experiencing an anemic economic recovery).
- Economic troubles are also evident in many of the emerging economies that only two years ago were crowing because they had avoided the financial crash of 2008-2009. The risk in 2013 is that these economic troubles could be mutually reinforcing, thereby making current economic projections look optimistic in retrospect.
- One issue that could strain the struggling global economy is the approaching fiscal cliff in the United States. The White House and the U.S. House of Representatives still have time to cut a deal to avert the cliff. But if they don’t, the result would be to put considerable downward pressure, to borrow the bloodless language of economists, on the U.S. economy, and in turn the global economy. And even if Washington avoids going over the fiscal cliff, it is unlikely to solve its fiscal problems entirely.
- Turmoil continues to rock the Middle East. Syria will likely dominate the headlines early in 2013 as its civil war intensifies and fears grow that the Assad government will use chemical weapons in a last ditch effort to hold onto power or that jihadists will capture those chemical weapons. Egypt continues to struggle to craft a new political order and to jump start its economy. And Iran is pressing ahead with its nuclear program, raising the prospect that sometime in 2013 it will breach the red lines that the United States and Israel have drawn.
- Two things are clear about Afghanistan in 2013. The number of NATO troops will continue to decline, and the Taliban will continue to fight. The Obama administration is discussing how fast the U.S. troop drawdown will proceed, how large the residual force will be at the end of 2014, and what precisely those troops will do. In all, it is hard to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future.
- Territorial disputes in east Asia have the potential to explode in 2013. Profits and patriotism are fueling the tensions. How the lines are drawn in the East China and South China seas will determine who benefits from exploiting potentially vast offshore oil and mineral deposits. Meanwhile, nationalism makes it difficult for Asian leaders, many of whom will be new to the job in 2013, to concede claims to regional rivals. U.S. diplomats have the tough task of reassuring America’s allies that the United States stands with them, but doing so in a way that doesn’t encourage them to act recklessly. Moral hazards are never easy.
- Tensions are growing not just in the physical world, but also in the virtual world. Internet users, and especially social media users, have grown accustomed to using the Internet to say what they think. Many authoritarian countries find that freedom threatening and have sought to assert greater control over the Internet and even to use technology to identify and punish their critics.The United States, Canada, and many European countries take the opposite side in the Internet freedom debate, which is why they rejected a proposed treaty earlier this month governing international communications. That dispute isn’t going away.
- Bob’s Figure of the Year is 37 percent. My Figure of the Year is Mohammed Morsi. As always, you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out why.
Of course, December is the time for “best of” and “top ten” lists. My CFR colleagues have been busy compiling theirs. Isobel Coleman names five development innovations to watch in 2013. Robert Danin identifies the ten most significant events in the Middle East in 2012. Michael Levi lists the five most influential energy and climate studies of 2012. Adam Segal has five trends to watch for in Chinese cybersecurity in 2013.
Outside of CFR, Time has the top ten everything of 2012. Yahoo picks the topnews stories of 2012. Booz Allen identifies what it sees as the top ten cyber security trends for financial services. The Institute for Human Rights and Business has its top ten business and human rights issues. The New York Times Book Review names the top ten books of 2012. Slate has the best movies of 2012 and the Atlantic lists 2012′s greatest moments in sports. Lonely Planet has its top ten travel destinations for 2013, only two of which I have visited. I need to get out more.
Bob and I are taking a break next week from podcast duties. We will be back in January. In the meantime, we wish you and yours a safe and happy holidays.