from The Water's Edge

World Outlook in 2013

December 28, 2012

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Politics and Government just posted a conversation I had with Bernard Gwertzman about the world outlook in 2013. We discussed three sets of issues: turmoil in the greater Middle East (Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan); rising tensions in East Asia (territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas and the U.S. “pivot”; and turbulence in the global economy (prompted in part by the impending “fiscal cliff” in the United States).  But those three subjects hardly exhaust the list of issues that could dominate the news in the coming year. Here are five other stories I will be watching in 2013.

1.  Nigeria on the Brink. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 170 million citizens. (That’s nearly twice as many people as the next most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia, which has an estimated 90 million citizens.)  A member of OPEC, Nigeria is the world’s tenth largest oil producer and the seventh largest oil exporter. That could be the start of a real success story.  But instead, as my colleague John Campbell shows graphically with his interactive Nigeria Security Tracker, Nigeria is experiencing an alarming growth in political violence. The radical Islamist movement Boko Haram is a big reason why, but it is hardly alone. Government soldiers, local police, warring ethnic groups, and a new generation of Niger Delta militants are also to blame. Things could get much worse in Nigeria in 2013, putting the country’s shaky democracy to the test.

2. Mexico under New Leadership. Enrique Peña Nieto assumed the Mexican presidency back on December 1, marking the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the office it owned for most of the twentieth century. Peña Nieto has vowed to boost Mexico’s economic growth and to curb the violence that has killed nearly 60,000 Mexicans over the past six years. Pessimists worry that he will succeed only in returning Mexico to the corrupt ways that the last generation of PRI leaders used to hold onto the Mexican presidency for three-quarters of a century. Americans should hope that the pessimists are wrong and that Peña Nieto succeeds in making Mexico more prosperous and peaceful. As my colleague Shannon O’Neil likes to point out, the fates of Mexico and the United States are far more intertwined than most Americans realize. If you want to know just how entwined the two countries are, buy and read Shannon’s book, Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead, when it comes out in April. You will be glad that you did.

3. The Fracking of Ohio. Technology is amazing. Five years ago the energy debate in the United States lamented the growing dependence of the United States on foreign oil and gas, and bemoaned the vulnerabilities that this was creating for the country. Today, thanks to hydraulic fracking and other technological advances, the United States is experiencing a natural gas boom and it is poised to become the world’s largest oil producer in five years and a net oil exporter in eighteen. That has generated questions that policymakers hadn’t been expecting to answer, such as: Should the United States encourage the export of natural gas? Will energy independence mean that the United States can ignore what happens in the Middle East? Is the natural gas boom good news for efforts to combat climate change? Should we worry that there are earthquakes in Ohio? My colleague Michael Levi has a great book coming out in April, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, that examines these and other critical questions about the American energy boom. Mark my words—The Power Surge will become a must read.

4. Cyber Insecurity. We depend upon our electronic gadgets for virtually everything we do. And that makes us vulnerable. Just how vulnerable is unclear, but the potential real world consequences are immense. Here are some questions to consider: When do cyber attacks constitute acts of war? How should governments deal with the so-called attribution problem, the fact that it can be difficult if not impossible to determine where a cyber attack originated? Can the United States and China have candid and productive discussions about cyber security given that they are both vulnerable to cyber attacks, or are the two countries destined to mistrust what each other says and does? Should U.S. firms do business with Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE, or will that leave them open to economic espionage? My colleague Adam Segal tells me that these are just a few of the challenges unleashed by the Pandora’s Box that is cyber insecurity.

5. The Battle for the Internet. The United States, Great Britain, Japan, and a dozen other countries walked out of the World Conference on International Communications (WCIT) in Dubai earlier this month. Why? To signal their emphatic opposition to a draft treaty that would have brought the Internet under the auspices of the existing system for managing global telecommunications challenges, the International Telecommunication Union. (The ITU handles technical challenges such as making sure that national telephone systems can speak to one another.) The United States and its allies saw the draft treaty as a backdoor way to allow governments to control what can and can’t be said on the Internet, which of course is precisely why China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates pushed it. But the division that torpedoed the talks in Dubai isn’t going away. While Western societies see freedom of speech and the free flow of information as the natural order of things, China and other authoritarian governments see speech and information as something to be curbed and controlled. They will be working hard in 2013, and on many fronts, to see that their vision of the Internet wins out.

These are the five issues on my list of stories to watch in 2013. What’s on yours?

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