Around the world, 1.6 billion people are affected by ongoing conflict. Although the international community has been successful at reducing overall levels of violence, regional hotspots continue to flare at enormous human and economic cost. Which conflicts will give cause for greatest concern in 2013 and what should leaders do to address them?
The Outlook on the Global Agenda brought together Javier Solana, President, Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics of ESADE and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution, and Ian Bremmer, President, Eurasia Group. Wadah Khanfar, Co-Founder, Al Sharq Forum, moderated the discussion.
Javier Solana: I think that we continue to look at the problems of the world today from a Western-centric viewpoint, and that we do not understand the past so well – and I distinguish between history and memory. History is the history of a country; memory is what we recall of what we have done before in these countries in a shorter period of time. If you take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we easily lose our memory of what we have done since, for instance, the Madrid Conference, Oslo, etc. All that has disappeared from the scene, it is not used and we start everything from scratch; that is really a very important mistake.
Also, in the past we looked at conflicts mentally from a hard security point of view. Now the reality has changed. In today’s conflicts, you don’t see tanks, you see special forces and something very dangerous to my mind, drones. The risk is that we have started playing with these things without thinking of the consequences.
Ian Bremmer: It’s very clear that we have a state-centric approach to conflicts. States are engaged mostly in conflict management at a global scale and so they want other things to look like states – this is an Afghanistan problem, this is an Africa problem, it’s a Middle East problem. With colonization we created things that looked like states but weren’t states; with conflict resolution we try to fix them in ways that make them look like states when they are not states. And this is only going to become more of a challenge over time. Meanwhile, where conflict is coming from is changing – it’s increasingly not security conflict, it’s economic conflict.
I think Asia is by far the biggest challenge. But the US is focusing on Asia as primarily a defence challenge when it is primarily an economic challenge. China is not a global or even much of a regional military threat – it is an enormous challenge from an economic perspective. And that is not the way it’s being addressed.
Ian Bremmer: There are three big geopolitical conflicts out there now that are really altering the balance. Number one is the Arab Spring/Winter, however you want to define it, and instability in that part of the world. Number two is the eurozone crisis. And number three is the rise of China. Of these, by far the most important and dangerous from my perspective is the third – it is the one that impacts the entire world; it actually dwarfs the other two in terms of size of challenge.
Javier Solana: My greatest concern is a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear stand-off – a potential flashpoint of existential proportions – but the rise of China is a fundamental issue for a number of reasons. Look at the energy structure in the world at the moment, with the US increasingly autonomous. Now, if you were Chinese, thinking ahead you might say, “my goodness, the problems of the Middle East are going to be my problems”. Why? Because eventually the US may be less interested in the Middle East – not completely uninterested with Israel and lines of communication such as the Suez Canal – but you might think that China will need to have more interest in what is going on in the Middle East than before. Meanwhile, Syria’s civil war remains hugely disturbing on humanitarian, security and political levels. War is not being played out within country borders alone, while support for each side comes from allies both near and far. The blockage of the P5 is a serious and lamentable factor in this regard.
Javier Solana: Another thing that is very important in the context of the Middle East is to define what we’re going to have after the Arab Spring. Maybe we are going to have a Muslim Brotherhood region, and if that is the case we had better prepare to understand the consequences of that. Such an outcome would require tremendous change in an important actor – the US – who, because of Israel, won’t abandon the region completely. I also think that the European Union should try to construct a clearer policy here.
I think that we continue to look at the problems of the world from a Western-centric viewpoint, and that we do not understand the past so well – and I distinguish between history and memory.
Ian Bremmer: The world order today is characterized very much by an absence of leadership. The Chinese are certainly going to play a greater role in the Middle East, but they are not doing it yet. Look at Sudan: very clearly if anyone has an interest in Sudan, it’s China. What has China done to try to defend its interest in Sudan? Radically less than the Europeans or the Americans would have done historically if they were playing that role. So right now, for world leadership, the US isn’t doing it, the Europeans aren’t doing it, they’re busy. The Japanese of course aren’t doing it. The Chinese and Russians are very limited. So, who’s doing it?
Leaders mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Even if initiatives are piecemeal and sub-global, they are still steps in the right direction. Leaders must recognize that when global action isn’t possible – or possible fast enough – it’s important to prioritize the next best thing.
Javier Solana: I think that, as a leader, President Obama has the opportunity to do a lot of good during his second term – a strong leader in the US could foster a new situation. With Iran, for example, I have not been optimistic on negotiations because often you don’t know who you’re talking to. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible, and I think that the US needs to make a bilateral approach.
Ian Bremmer: The best thing that Obama can do is to try to get the American house sufficiently in order so that the average American starts being interested in the US playing a global role again. If that doesn’t happen, the average American will increasingly think of the international environment as somewhere hostile to their country’s interests.
Ian Bremmer: All this is related to what leaders can actually do. You have three areas of the world that are going to be experiencing very significant geopolitical conflict, but only one of them has institutions which I believe are up to the task – though those institutions need to change – and that’s Europe. Are the institutions up to the task in the Middle East? No. Then you go to Asia where not only are the regional institutions not strong enough, but the interests of the actors are fundamentally different. The US wants to work in multilateral institutions with its friends – let’s get ASEAN together and take a view. The Japanese say, “We’ve got problems in the East China Sea, let’s go to the International Court of Justice”. Meanwhile, the Chinese only want bilateral negotiations because they are bigger than every other country bilaterally and they get the outcomes they want. You’ve got a radically changing geopolitical environment in Asia, and I think that the single conflict that is most problematic for 2013 in the world is probably that between China and Japan.
China is not a global or even much of a regional military threat; it is an enormous challenge from an economic perspective. And that is not the way it is being addressed.
Javier Solana: I quite agree with you. The world has changed and this is a reality that we have to take into consideration, and we’ve neglected it. I think some efforts have been made – the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ARF, is better today than it used to be and they have some useful discussions. We really have to construct strategic trust. And with a big, emerging country like China, that is not easy. China wants bilateral relations, and it’s not going to be easily changed from that approach.
Ian Bremmer: And we haven’t even talked about cyber. What’s the likelihood that a major cyberattack could really disrupt a small economy or medium-sized economy? I think we are all worried that that’s out there – and we don’t know how to assess it. What is the possibility that China will have a WikiLeaks scandal of its own, and that you’ll have hundreds of thousands of documents that could cause an enormous crackdown and militarization of the Chinese government? The potential for such black swans in 2013 is probably greater than before.
Insights revealed during a session on regional hotspots during the Summit on the Global Agenda 2012:3
- International regimes and institutions put in place in the last century have become dated and need to evolve to adapt to a new reality. History shows that points of such disconnect between global institutions and power realities can lead to large-scale conflict.
- An inability to redress the disparity between rich and poor, to improve the lives of the “bottom billion”, will be a source of conflict in many regions of the world.
- Youth unemployment in the Arab world is unravelling social cohesion and eroding social peace.
- The new Millennium Development Goals must take into account the impact of peace and good governance on nations’ sustainable development.
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For more information on the Summit, please visit www.weforum.org/events/summit-global-agenda-2012