One of the phenomenon of the crises of 2011 has been the fact that they have not been contained to one or a few countries. It suggests that there is the feeling (and reality) of “contagion” where the problems of one nation infect their neighbors through porous borders poorly designed that run through cultures and peoples that have the same problems with both “nations” along the border. It therefore appears as if our current state of world crisis is what could be termed an epidemic of uprising and rebellion, and we ought to pay close attention to how it is has spread and increased international tensions.
It is difficult to determine when this mood of crisis began, for despite the fact that 2011 has seen these crises proliferate all around the world (indeed there are more than dozen posts of mine dealing with various aspects of these problems), most of them have deep-seated roots and connect with other crises in complicated ways. Let us therefore seek to divide the crises into a roughly geographical collection, recognizing that the action of major world powers has crossed these regional borders and that some nations (the United States, China, Europe, Iran) are involved in many of these crises simultaneously.
One of the earlier crises that attracted the attention of this blog was the ongoing border crises between North and South Korea, as North Korea sought to ensure the peaceful succession of a young pudgy dictator through a glorious foreign conflict with the United States. After finding out that the South Koreans had the support of the United States and were prepared to fight to the bitter end to wipe out North Korea in the case of a war, North Korea has pulled back from its gambit, and has so far not started an active shooting war, even with the US currently distracted by the nearby Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster crisis.
For various personal reasons a similar succession crisis between the yellows (royalists and aristocrats) and reds (commoners) in Thailand in the face of an ailing king and a volatile internal state has piqued my personal interest . A succession crisis combined with border problems with Cambodia over Angkor-era ruins clumsily divided between France and Thailand during the age of colonialism and Burma (Myanmar) over independent-minded hill tribes seems like just the ticket for an interesting 2011 or 2012 in Southeast Asia. The fact that Thailand’s crisis mirrors the 2010 crisis between so-called “traditionalists” and “progressives,” means that for whatever reason the world has a lot of divides right now which increases tension all over the place.
Interestingly enough, China has a dangerous succession crisis itself approaching, as China prepares to transition to the next generation of Communist leaders in 2012, and those leaders-in-waiting, many of whom are the pampered and privileged children of revolutionary-generation leaders, have the pressure of showing that they can act tough and maintain their legitimacy of control . This pressure to act tough, in the face of a world where the legitimacy of order and authority seems to be under general assault simultaneously, along with the glorification of those leaders of China’s isolationist and horribly destructive Cultural Revolution by their children (who will be taking power and influence in the shift of generations) means that China itself could be a force of instability in a world that needs no more massive crises.
In contrast to East Asia, Europe offers few massive border crises. The most serious dangers recently have been the threat of economic instability moving from a few troubled nations, like Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, and Portugal, into the Euro-zone as a whole. Other than that, the most severe crisis so far in recent months has been the lack of internal government in Belgium in the face of devolution pressures between the Flemish and Walloons. Other nations face similar devolution pressures, like Italy, Spain, and Great Britain, but none of those crises appear to be hot, at least not yet. However, Italy’s current leadership crsis in a fiercely divided nation involved in a foreign conflict (see Libya) could have intriguing implications if the crisis heats up beyond its current tawdry underage sex scandal level. Other nations with serious and active border problems (like Cyprus and Moldova) are sufficiently close to the margins that they have not attracted the concern of the world in a year that has a lot to focus on already.
North America contains at least two notable and active border crises. One of them, already discussed in this blog, has been the simmering conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over their riverine border. Despite the fact that neither of the nations is an international power by any means, the crisis is noteworthy because Costa Rica is a pacifist and democratic nation which has attracted a large amount of American expatriates, and the crisis has undermined the commitment of Costa Rica to nonviolent action. In a world that needs precious little excuse to fight, the loss of confidence in diplomacy with the absence of military force to back it up threatens to make Central America a more violent place, and brings with it the possibility of a dangerous border war there.
More seriously, my inbox has been filling up over the past week with Stratfor analyses about the drug war in Mexico. Earlier this year some friends of mine in Monterrey (in Mexico’s Nuevo Leon state) were endangered by violence in that wealthy enclave. The drug war, by replacing more skilled leaders with trigger happy and violent replacements, has made Mexico’s northern region a hotbed of complicated struggle between the Mexican military, various fighting drug families (one of whom, the Sinoloa Federation, appears to be “winning”), and a United States civil and military effort that appears both mired in corruption (a large amount of Federal border agents along the Mexican border appear to be corrupt, and bribed by drug lords) and threatened by internal political tensions about illegal immigration across an increasingly dangerous border.
Africa, especially North Africa, has provided a great deal of internal and external border crises during 2011. Somaliland’s battle for international recognition has been extensively covered in this blog, and the impending addition of a new nation to the world in South Sudan has increased concerns about internal divisions leading to successful devolution and the loss of power and prestige for dictatorial and abusive central authorities, which abound in the world. South Sudan’s promise to immediately recognize Somaliland only increases the concerns that mismatched nations face serious threats to their power and control in a climate that increasingly opposes the usual repression-based means of pushing down minorities (or sometimes, as is the case in Syria, majorities).
One of the crises of 2011 appears to be largely resolved, at least for the time being, given that Ivory Coast’s legitimate and elected leader has succeeded in enforcing his victory by ballots in election through military force in a hostile southern region Abraham Lincoln-style. While the resolution of that civil war in the Cote d’Ivoire only shows that democracy throughout sub-Saharan Africa is fragile and that the peaceful succession of authority is a perennial problem throughout the world, at least some issues can be resolved so that others may be dealt with.
It is North Africa that so far has seen the biggest contagion. In particular the relatively peaceful and relatively rapid overthrows of dictators past their sell-by date in Tunisia and Egypt has led to a longer and more contentious conflict in Libya that has threatened to divide Libya along its trifold division between Cyrenaica (centered in Bengazi), Tripoli, and the Turareg Fezzan. The back-and-forth conflict between the rebels and wacky Gaddafi’s dictatorship has now involved the United States, Canada, and European powers (England, France, and Italy most notably) and has also threatened a border war between Tunisia and Libya over border refugees. Additionally, the border situation with Egypt remains contentious, and Chad (to the south) has longstanding problems with Libya over Gaddafi’s aggressive foreign wars in that nation.
It is, however, the Middle East that appears to have the most intractable foreign conflicts. The fall of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt with at least tacit American approval appears to have angered the Saudis, who feel that their likewise illegitimate and authoritarian rule is threatened by a multitude of crises all around. Yemen’s dictator is on his way out, having agreed in principle to a peaceful surrender of power and a comfortable (if boring) life of exile. Jordan itself still faces the need to reform its monarchy, despite the fact that Jordan’s Arab monarchy is the most popular and least repressive in the region by far (not a high standard to meet, I know). Bahrain’s crisis and the threat of internal instability in Saudi Arabia from its Shiite minority have shown how “contagion” has crossed the borders as many nations face similar ethnic and cultural divides that can easily cross from one nation to the next.
Among the more long-term problems is that of Lebanon. Lebanon, despite its small size, is a crazy-quilt “nation” with a Shiite majority and powerful Marionite and Druze minorities. The fact that Lebanon has traditionally been dominated by Syria and the fact that Iranian-supported terrorist group Hezbollah is running the new government of Lebanon provides a very dangerous and combustible element to international relations with Israel.
Syria itself offers one of the most dangerous elements in the world today, though. Syria’s government has long been among the most repressive in a repressive region, largely because Syria’s leadership springs from a very small minority of Allawites (10%) in a nation with a notable Kurdish (10%) minority and a large majority of Sunni Arabs. Any Syrian democracy would be dominated by the Sunnis, but the Allawites, with their control of the military and security and political apparatus, appear to be unwilling to concede any of their authority to the people, and the tension is leading to bloody repression and the threat of international involvement through sanctions (and who knows what else in time, should matters continue to worsen). Again, Iran is putting its support behind their Shiite brethren, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to support a Sunni populace to expand the Sunni realm, which means that this crisis is likely to continue.
Let us not forget as well that Syria’s problems are now also contagious, creating a border crisis with Turkey. Both Syria and Turkey feature a restive and independence-minded Kurdish minority. Turkey itself has a long-simmering divide between a Kemalist and secularist western section that desires integration with Europe and an Islamist eastern portion that sees its identity with the Sunni Arab Middle East. The Kurds desire their independence from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, so clearly that problem is “contagious” across borders as well. I’m surprised that the Kurdish question seems to have died down now but it may heat up shortly to add yet more heat to the fires that threaten to burn down the palaces of the powerful.
If you are examining the common elements of present crises, there are at least a few elements that appear over and over again. For one, there appear to be numerous succession crises over the transfer of power from generation to generation, or from party to party. Numerous important borders are porous and disputed between nations, and numerous border-inhabiting peoples desire to be free and therefore serve as a source of conflict between and within nations. The combination of external contagion from revolution with internal cultural and political divides means that the crises of 2011 are not likely to end anytime soon. Without legitimate governments, responsible and moral peoples, and fair and just social systems, all of which appears to be beyond the capabilities of mankind, it appears as if peace is as elusive a dream as ever, so long as it depends upon the wisdom and power of mortal, fallible man.