The year 2012 saw the rise of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, a tragic civil war in Syria, and a more forceful presence by the Gulf States. China showed off its first aircraft carrier, first bullet train, and first genetically modified sheep. South Sudan celebrated its first birthday, South Africa launched 4G mobile service, and Somalia hosted its first Tedx Event. Despite daily pictures suggesting that half of Europe is unemployed or on fire, the continent managed to win a Nobel Prize, which brings the official tally to Gandhi: 0, European Union: 1.
2012 produced quite a few events, both notable and subtle, that stuck with us and that we believe will bring about changes in the coming year. What follows is not a “predictions for 2013” list. Instead, our list provides insight into where we are going and where we have been in international affairs. We are not policy alchemists, but the contributors to this series are writing from experience, interest, and learning that goes beyond what happened in the past year. Below are a few of the hot spots, situations, and policy shifts that we will be watching in 2013.
In the last few years, the US has seen a proliferation of hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—prompting a flurry of debate over the process’ energy, economic, and environmental implications. In 2013, the conversation about this controversial oil and gas drilling technique will turn outward to consider its impact on the global energy market and how it could affect US foreign policy priorities.
A recent US Department of Energy report supports increased natural gas exports, but the Obama administration has not indicated how strong of a position it would take in the fracking debate. The International Energy Agency predicts that fracking will propel US oil production beyond that of Saudi Arabia and Russia by 2017 and carry the US to energy independence by 2040. To meet rising global energy demand, governments outside of North America are eager to employ fracking but face mounting barriers. In China, officials fear the water-intensive process will worsen water shortages, while in much of Europe the method is currently considered too expensive and controversial to pursue.
The unique role of the US in fracking for energy production could shift the geopolitical landscape, undermining the OPEC cartel and altering the significance of US-Mideast relations. With Sen. John Kerry slated to be the next Secretary of State, the US will have a strong environmentalist at the intersection of its domestic and foreign policy, possibly putting a check on the country’s burgeoning power in fossil fuel production and export. For example, the pending decision over the Keystone XL pipeline—running from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast—will set the tone for our energy future. Regardless of the direction that the US pursues, global demand is expected to rise by more than one-third over the next 25 years as emerging markets crave more energy, reinforcing the incentives for additional producers to enter the market through fracking.
Few countries have seen as much upheaval and abrupt change in the last year as Mali. Mali has transitioned from a stable, democratic country that most people had never heard of to one that was mentioned during the 2012 presidential debates for its collapse into a failed state. Following a military coup, Mali has witnessed the proliferation of Libyan-armed Tuareg rebels, militant Islamic groups, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM, by amassing supplies, weapons, and money (mostly through hostage ransoms), has been building a base in northern Mali for the past decade. Taking advantage of Mali’s recent instability, AQIM and two other prominent Islamist groups now control a region in northern Mali larger than France. These groups have imposed brutal Sharia law, destroyed cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu, and caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee to neighboring Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger.
The world is starting to take notice, and in December, the United Nations Security Council approved an African-led military force to intervene. However, the resolution stipulated that the European Union would be required to train Mali’s army, which has been accused of committing human rights violations, before taking any military action. As if the task were not already difficult enough, the fragile Malian government is again in disarray after the resignation of interim Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra’s was “facilitated” by Captain Amadou Sanago (also responsible for March’s coup) in December.
A few weeks ago it seemed unlikely that military invention would occur before September given the training requirements outlined in the UN resolution. While the Malian government welcomed the resolution, which was backed primarily by France, South Africa, India, and other African states, the US voiced misgivings about resorting to force so soon. Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, reportedly questioned the African coalition and the Malian army’s ability to effectively battle the rebels in inhospitable desert territory. The Obama administration also argued that the current focus should instead be on restoring a democratic government. The US cited the December ousting of Prime Minister Diarra as additional reason to focus on government stability, while France argued it was proof that military action was needed to restore order in its former colony.
Earlier this month all anticipated timelines were undermined when Islamic militants, comprised of AQIM and other Islamist jihadist groups, started unexpectedly advancing south towards Mali’s capital, Bamako. The Malian army crumbled in their path, with hundreds thought to have defected. In response, France began airstrikes to drive the Islamists back. French and Malian ground troops have since advanced north, reclaiming towns previously taken by the Islamists, including the key city of Gao. A number of West African countries have also begun providing additional troops. The US—which has not openly opposed military action in Mali—has begun transporting French troops and refueling planes, but it would like to see the involvement of Algeria. The Algerian government was initially opposed to France’s military intervention but may now be more interested in supporting France in light of the attack on the Ain Amenas gas complex two weeks ago.
The way forward is far from clear. France has already realized that it faces a formidable opponent in the well-armed and well-organized Islamist forces. While French and Malian troops have made significant advances so far, the region is a long way from being stable and secure. In order to make further progress, France will have to provide significant support to the Malian and West African troops, many of who do not have experience in this type of intense operation. Further, prolonged stability is impossible as long as Mali’s government remains under the control of the military. The current crisis and France’s dilemma over how involved to get is a startling reminder to the US that it must work to solidify its own anti-terrorism policy in the region and must do so quickly: northern Mali is now Al Qaeda’s largest territory and the situation is disturbingly similar to that in Afghanistan fifteen years ago.
Between Some Rocks and a Hard Place: South Korea, Japan, and World Security
One of the big stories over the last year was the Senkaku/Diaoyu “island disputes,” when China made headlines by repeatedly and vocally laying claim to a series of rocky islands purchased by the Japanese government. This was not new for China, which has had similar disputes with Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Somewhat less attention-grabbing, however, was a longstanding dispute between South Korea and Japan over two islets inhabited by two Korean sexagenarians… and about thirty Korean police officers.
The Dokdo/Takeshima Islands (or the Liancourt Rocks as they are more formally known) dispute is notable because—unlike the case of China—Korea and Japan are officially allies, have shared economic interests, and share an interest in security and intelligence regarding North Korea. The dispute over the islands is based on long-standing historical grievances and, much to the dismay of US officials, has derailed an intelligence sharing agreement last summer. However, this is about more than colonial legacies or citing history to prove ownership. Fishing rights and natural gas deposits around the islets present very real economic consequences for both parties.
The Korea-Japan rift runs deep, with the most recent scars left from Japan’s annexation and brutal rule of the Korean peninsula from the early 1900s through the end of World War II. In this island dispute, both sides have presented ancient documents to prove their rightful claim, which has led to claims by Korea that Japan is whitewashing history in both its textbooks and the “Dokdo is Korean” signs it has placed in the Seoul Metro. What is particularly troubling is that the conflict is being exacerbated at a time when North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, is trying to establish himself through reforms and trademark North Korean fear mongering.
While it would be ideal if South Korea and Japan could mend ties in the name of some higher ideal of cooperation, the way in which their relationship adapts to changes in Pyongyang will be worth watching. North Korea’s successful rocket launch in December, signs of policy adjustments in agriculture to create something close to a profit incentive, rumors about increasing trade, and recent threats against South Korea and the US suggest that active engagement will be needed in the coming year. High-level meetings between the two newly elected conservative administrations in South Korea and Japan are promising, but both sides need to overcome domestic pressure and a backlog of issues. Historical grievances may very well get in the way of diplomatic and strategic cooperation to the detriment of citizens on both sides of the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The issue may end up being a domestic political loss for both conservative leaders, but it could lead to substantive and much needed cooperation on the international stage.