Balkan nations have often been at the center of European history. A century after the spread of World War I, the Balkans are still a major geopolitical fault line for Europe, and the events of 1990s have raised questions about the future of this part of the continent.
The region is likely to live in peace for many years, but tensions are still glowing under the ashes. The Balkans needs a strategy to prevent the future wars. The European Union could be the horizon for most of the independent Balkan Republics that arose from the rubble of Yugoslavia. Croatia has recently joined the EU and Serbia will be the next in line. For Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina things are more difficult and the opportunity to join depends more on them than on the EU.
Kosovo, indeed, is only formally independent because the United Nations mission in Kosovo has still a basic role in the country. But the process for Bosnia and Herzegovina raises a series of issues to be addressed by the EU about its identity and ability to curb the eventual accession procedure.
Ultimately, the question is if the EU will be able to keep the Balkans at peace, whether it can implement the acquis communitaire in these countries or not. Thus far, given the years of peace fueled by a desire to join Europe, the Balkans are evidence of EU attractiveness, if not effectiveness.
US President Barack Obama’s second term is coming to an end and the parties are preparing for the 2016 presidential race of. Democrats and Republicans are trying to organize their respective electoral machines for the primaries to be held at the end of the year.
On the Democratic side two possible candidates are still playing coy about their decisions. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former academic at Harvard, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Warren tends to appeal to highly educated people further on the left, whereas the former First Lady draws her support from more centrist middle class.
Conversely, Republicans already have three possible candidates. The first is Jeb Bush, who would be the third of the family to run in a presidential race; Mitt Romney, the defeated candidate of 2012; and Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, considered an outsider. There are many differences among the three: Romney, as was clear in 2012, lacks charisma, but he is solid; Jeb Bush has the name, but that name may be tarnished; and Christie, who is a feisty northeasterner, is perhaps too feisty.
Domestic issues for the campaign will center on immigration and middle-class wages. In the foreign policy arena they will deal with the threat of Islamic terrorism all over the world, Russia’s aggressive moves with its neighbors, and falling oil prices. It will certainly be an interesting – and long – campaign.
The European Union is often blamed for the deep economic crisis many European countries are facing. Bureaucracy, slow decision-making, a fetish for austerity, and lack of democratic legitimacy are just the most glaring reasons for all the euroskeptiscism, a new political doctrine born in recent years, which has gradually been winning favor with public opinion throughout Europe.Following this ideology many parties arose in countries like France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany. In particular, the French National Front and the Italian Northern League have strong ties and work together to disparage the euro as a single currency and try to change the EU in a way that brings it closer to its citizens. In Great Britain, instead, the UK Independent Party has fought to quit the Union altogether and to pursue a nationalist politics. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany Party could be seen as moderate compared to its counterparts from other European countries.However, these parties should not be seen a single, international movement. They have different views on many topics and this weakens their battle within the European institutions. So rather than sweeping across Europe in coherent wave, their swell would more likely result in the progressive disintegration of the European project.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was held November 8 to November 10, a couple of days before the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. It poses a series of questions that are worth analyzing in more depth.
First of all, the role of the United States. After the many foreign policy failures of President Barack Obama, followed by the Republican victory in the midterm elections, it seems Obama’s star was declining. Some would even add that America’s star as a leading power is declining in tandem with Obama’s. But before the summit was over, the US and China struck a landmark deal on climate change.
Second, relations between the US and Russia. After the Ukrainian crisis the two powers that faced off in the Cold War for more than 40 years seem to have started down a path similar to what had begun after the Second World War. The sanctions imposed by US and the European Union on Russia are cooling Russian-American relations and the challenge at APEC was to convince as many partners as possible to stand on one side rather than the other. But less than a week later Russia and China announced bilateral military cooperation and joint naval exercises to be held in 2015, due to concern over US attempts to bolster its military political influence in the Asia-Pacific.
Third, the China-Japan relations. The Abe-Xi handshake could be seen as a mere diplomatic formality, but in the view of many analysts it meant something else. Although the meaning was not entirely clear, one could only imagine it represented the positive first step towards a normalization.
Last but not least, economic issues. APEC is essentially an economic and financial summit, and leaders go there to find new investments to bring home, as Russia explicitly declared during the summit.
All these issues contribute to form a complex puzzle for international relations in Asia-Pacific relations. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether leaders will be able to overcome their divisions.
The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now called the Islamic State, or IS) has clearly posed a threat to the West and the equilibrium it created in the Middle East. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is not only a loose network of jihadist groups. IS has proclaimed itself a state and has the power to spread all over the Middle East. For Western countries this is particularly worrisome because of the weakness of Iraq and Afghanistan, two states where the United States-led policy of nation-building has failed.
In this light, to directly confront IS it would be necessary to remove the threat to the stability of the region and also to grant security to citizens of other religions. In the past weeks the US has taken many steps to build up consensus for a new military intervention in the Middle East, but problems have emerged. The role of regional actors is a key issue to be effective in the fight against IS.
The four most important actors in the region (Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran) have different postures and some of them, like Egypt and Turkey, remain ambivalent and skeptical about the creation of a new coalition. On the other side, Saudi Arabia is strongly pushing to create an international force and Iran affirms the need to have an effective strategy to defeat IS. For Iran, in particular, things seem difficult – especially because a new coalition would include all the old enemies of the Islamic Republic. The point is: will these actors be able to overcome their mutual distrust? It does not seem likely. But the common interest in removing a terrible threat to their security could bring them together.
A new set of faces are set to grace the highest rungs of the European Union’s bureaucracy. The election of May 2014 for the renewal of the European Parliament saw a strong showing for euroskeptic parties, so some delicate political maneuvering was required to maintain a strong central bloc between the two main parties: the Socialist and the European Popular Party (EPP). This is a new opportunity for the old continent to show that it is able to solve its problems without any external aid. It is also an occasion to change the international behavior of the Union and make it more effective with respect to many international crises – such as Ukraine, Syria and Iraq – which would require a stronger Europe rather than the rather flaccid one we have grown accustomed to.
Women and men called to fill European top posts should be able to build consensus when it comes to particular issues, trying to promote integration and they need to be oriented toward a more a problem-solving approach. The economic crisis and the international disorder flaring up have shown that the world needs a stronger Europe, and this outcome can be only reached with the right people.
Are those chosen for the four key position at the top of the EU the right people at the right moment? The answer is difficult for now to answer, but one might imagine that they will try not to repeat past mistakes. Ultimately, the struggle will be between national interest and the interest of the Union. Whichever prevails will also mark the future of the Union.
Sports have often played a role in international relations. It is a chance for countries to display power and prowess. But sports events all too often translate into crises or tension in the political arena. During the Cold War, both the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles suffered boycotts by the hosts’ respective Cold War adversaries.
The FIFA World Cup, while less prone to geopolitical machinations, nevertheless has its own superpowers and is regularly an outlet for displays of unbridled nationalism. In this light soccer has proved to be one of the favorite fields in which politics and athleticism reflect the performance of a country. The Brazilian World Cup of 2014 has shown that there are many similarities between the way one country acts on the international scene and the way it plays on the pitch. The contradictory Brazil, which was able to go undefeated until the semi-final, also revealed the contradictions between wealth and poverty visible in the country. The defeated Argentina, which is on the brink of a new economic crisis, and the powerful Germany, which has risen again from the tumult and burden of unification to once again claim its traditional place as a soccer superpower.
Finally, there is the ever-present Netherlands. Often among the first four national teams in the world and a great country in the north of Europe. What the pitch shows us is that soccer, as von Clausewitz might have put it, is the continuation of politics by other means.
When the United States withdrew its troops in 2011, Iraq descended progressively into sectarian strife that has degenerated into all-out civil war. Islamist groups – particularly Sunnis who feel spurned by the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki – have been fighting to affirm their leverage over tribes and cities. The quick advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the major Islamic groups in Iraq and Syria, has created a dilemma for the West and the regional powers of the Middle East: Should they intervene to keep ISIS from tearing Iraq apart?
Any such intervention would pose a number of problems. First and foremost, instability. In the opinion of Toby Dodge, author of Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism, the root causes of the ISIS offensive are to be found in the policies of Maliki, which have emarginated large parts of the population. Another issue is the ultimate aim of the intervention. Such an action presupposes a state-building project that at the moment is hard to envisage.
These intractable difficulties might be seen as a recipe for stalemate. As such, Iraq may become a battleground for regional hegemony among its neighboring powers. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran are all vying to exercise leverage in the region. Now they have a great opportunity to implement their strategic plans – if they have any – throughout the Middle East.
Since the Maidan Revolution , most of Ukraine has tried to get the country back on track. The Donbas region, however – stronghold of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych – has taken up arms, making demands that range from more autonomy to becoming part of Russia. New “autonomous people’s republic” sprang up and on May 11 a dubious referendum was held in support of autonomy.
The Donets Basin, or Donbas, covers the easternmost regions of Ukraine, situated along the Donets River. Its principle cities are Donetsk and Luhansk.
For centuries the fertile land was inhabited by Cossacks, peasants and, before them, by various nomadic and marauding tribes. In 1721, vast coalfields were found, which started an industrial boom as the Donbas became colonized by Russia. The population grew significantly when the city of Donetsk was founded in 1869 by Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and several coal mines. Today the region is Ukraine’s most densely populated, as well as the one with the highest concentration of ethnic Russians.
Such demographics were determined by an influx of workers from all over the Russian Empire. They came to work in the coal mines, which led to the urbanization of what had been a rich agricultural land. During Soviet times, collectivization devastated the peasantry. Some historians estimate that in many eastern regions, more than half of the rural population was starved to death in Stalin’s artificial famine of 1932-33. Those numbers were replaced with migrants from parts of the Soviet Union not as inherently hostile to communism, which explains why to this day the Donbas still retains a Soviet identity. In fact, during many of the recent protests, hammer-and-sickle flags as well as portraits of Stalin were on prominent display.
Despite the insurgency, which most believe is choreographed by Moscow, a Pew Research poll indicated that 70% of the population in eastern Ukraine prefer to remain in a unified country.
Included among those who support unity are the country’s most powerful oligarchs. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, is from Donetsk. For years he helped finance Yanukovych’s political ambitions. Now with the ex-President in exile, Akhmetov has had to take a stand. The media-shy billionaire declared support for a unified Ukraine and also called on the employees of his Metalinvest steel plant in the port city of Mariupol to clear away the barricades erected by pro-Russian insurgents. Whether independent or annexed to Russia, Akhmetov explained, the Donbas “will end up subject to huge sanctions, we will be able to neither sell nor produce. This means a suspension in production, this means unemployment, this means poverty.”
In response, the separatist leaders called for nationalization of all the oligarch’s businesses.
The Ukrainian crisis has begun to isolate Russia from the international community. As Moscow ratchets up its threat of military force against Kiev, Western countries realize that the only retaliation they are capable of is economic. But the Europeans especially are sensitive to the fact that economic sanctions may have a boomerang effect on their own economies. So far, NATO has suspended the participation of Russia in several meetings and halted the cooperation it had begun with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States has already imposed targeted individual sanctions on some individuals linked to Vladimir Putin. Yuri Kovalchuk, for example, was sanctioned because as chairman of Rossiya Bank, one of the biggest in Russia, he is considered to be “Putin’s banker.” Gennady Timchenko and Vladimir Yakunin are also thought to be very close to Putin and his coterie of ex-KGB officers. And yet, many other people were not sanctioned. Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest man, has thus far managed to escape sanctions. The idea of targeting Russia’s oligarchs is grounded in the hopes that they have influence over policy makers. In other words, if the West can threaten those who make the Russian economy move, they can indirectly pressure Putin, who fears that economic hardships within Russia will erode his popularity and raise the specter of anti-authoritarian protests within Russia itself.
The Ukrainian crisis clearly shows that in Europe there is still a Soviet space to cope with. As George Friedman of Stratfor put it, this “little cold war” over Ukraine could turn itself in a deeper confrontation between the European Union and Russia on geopolitical issues. In geopolitical terms, the expansion of the EU and NATO up to the Baltic Sea is a problem for Russia, which is seeking to recover its lost sphere of influence.
EU members Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are located on a narrow wedge of land between Russia and the EU. The stance of the three Baltic states towards the crisis is similar. They clearly condemn the referendum held on March 16 in favor of the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federal Republic and want the EU to impose sanctions on Russia.
In contrast to those states, Belarus, lead by President Aleksandr Lukashenko, is in the Eurasian Economic Union and as such, is expected to maintain its strong ties with Moscow.
Following Putin’s declaration, that he is ready to protect Russian populations no matter where they are, the Baltic states fear facing up to Russian claims over their territory: in Latvia and Estonia at least a quarter of the population are ethnically Russian.
The year 2013 it is likely to be remembered for the spread of “selfies”: pictures we take of ourselves and then share on social networks. Even the snapshot taken and tweeted by the Dutch Minister of Defense Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, in which she posed with three other European women with the title of defense minister, went viral. It is the sign of a great shift. In the past women have often led in fields traditionally dominated by men. Now Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy have decided that the time for a women leading the Defense Ministry has come. And with it the opportunity to change perspective over security, one of the international community’s most pressing issues. How will this affect the EU and NATO’s military strategy? Will a lack of testosterone lead to a wave of passivism? If history is any indication, women at the reins of military power are as likely to use it as their male counterparts (Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher are just a few examples). In any case, Europe does not seem to be in a bellicose frame of mind.
One of the major challenges facing developed nations today is immigration. Globalization and regional experiments in doing away with borders (such as in the European Union), has made it easier for people to travel. The most pressing issue concerns illegal immigration and the international laws regulating the right of asylum. Current legislation in Europe and the United States does not seem to have achieved the promised goals. So, a rethinking of immigration strategies and of the rules governing the entrance of foreign people are incumbent.
So far, five ministers of the interior (or their equivalent) have taken a clear-cut position against illegal immigration that is worth a closer look. The European states facing the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy, are urging the EU to take action and guarantee the borders. Others, like the United Kingdom, are blaming the EU for the increase in the illegal immigration. In the US, however, the new Secretary for Homeland Security is seeking to reform the current strategy. Yet despite the desire to reform the laws, there is still disagreement as to the specifics of any policy.
Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced many critical situations throughout the years: from civil war to famine. As it stands today the weakest and poorest continent in the world is still quite far from the goal of universal prosperity – not only in terms of economic wealth but also in terms of respect for human rights and the achievement of a high level of social security. Almost a month ago Nelson Mandela died. The example of one of the most inspiring African leaders seems an impossible act to follow by many of his African colleagues. There are still critical situations all over the continent, and in recent years four of these have cause the most concern. Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic and Mali have only recently experienced war and famine. For the first two, the situation is improving. The Somali government is effective on his territory, even if there are many challenges like Islamic terrorism and warlords who have taken control over part of the territory. In Côte d’Ivoire, after last year’s civil war, the new government is working hard to boost the country’s economic performance. The Central African Republic and Mali are still in trouble. In the past months the Central African rebels took control of the capital Bangui with a coup and many clashes between the government backers and the rebels have broken out. Mali has the problem of the northern Tuareg, who are fighting to split the country.The connecting thread of this entire situation is the fact they remain critical and should be a concern for the entire international community because the potential for humanitarian disaster remains acute.
The spread of Communism throughout Eastern Europe after the end of Second World War left many footprints on the states that experienced more or less direct control coming from Moscow. States subject to the rule of the Communist Party were affected by a low growth rate and low levels of personal freedoms. Nevertheless, the communist parties have evolved in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and still survive in Eastern Europe. In the last few years many of them have also gotten some renewed electoral support – something that was unthinkable only a couple of years ago. What could this mean? First of all, it is necessary to make clear that the electoral support of these communist parties is still rather negligible. Only in the Czech Republic do they have about 15%, granting them seats in parliament. In other major cases, percentages are growing but these parties remain irrelevant in the wider political scene of their country. The case of Hungary is emblematic. The ruling government passed a law to ban communist parties in the country and forced the Hungarian Communists to change their name in order to keep participating in the political debate. So any Communist Renaissance to speak of is still a rather inchoate phenomenon. Nevertheless, what is now a statistical trend may, in the event of further disillusionment with capitalism, lead to a return to power of these parties. Stranger things have happened Eastern Europe.
According to most analyses, the economic crisis has revealed the existence of two Europes: northern Europe, which is generally speaking more efficient and disciplined; and southern Europe, prodigal and politically unstable. But is this generalization true? Obviously, it is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, there are some elements of truth that can be found in this superficial division of the European states. Within the eurozone, for example, northern states are the ones with better economic performance – even in the case of the Ireland. The terrible economic crisis which blasted the banking sector has already passed, even though their sovereign debt is higher than 127% of GDP. Outside of the eurozone, the case of Iceland is also worth mentioning because it can be considered a typical example of northern efficiency. The little country went bankrupt in 2008. After a bailout plan and measures to help families and consumers, the country is on its way toward a complete recovery. On the contrary, Portugal and Greece, two of Europe’s southern states, are still experiencing troubles due to high levels of sovereign debt and a stagnant economy. Both are led by coalition governments and undergoing a bailout process that severely restricts their ability to make decisions. Both are in recession and both are politically unstable countries. What will the future of this two-speed Europe be? It’s hard to say, but conventional wisdom would suggest incentivizing structural reforms to narrow the gap.
As the international community digested its outrage over the August 21 sarin gas attacks in Syria, various intelligence services scrambled to figure out who did it. The United States immediately revealed its suspicions – based on satellite surveillance and communications intercepts (very likely furnished by the Israelis) – and Secretary of State John Kerry publically outlined the conclusions published in a declassified document: Bashar al-Assad was the culprit. The French followed suit, publishing their own assessment in a declassified report put together by their own intelligence services. Russia, on the other hand, which earlier in the year had diffused their own intelligence report, were pointing the finger at the rebels. Throughout all the back-and-forth, China has stood by, not making waves, supporting Russia, and gaining advantages where they can.
As these most recent crises illustrate, the activities of intelligence services are proving to be an integral element in diplomacy, which has seen a resurgence since US President Barack Obama threatened a limited military strike to deter and degrade Syria’s the Assad regime.
Now with the internet spreading information more quickly than the traditional press, intelligences services must take into account the effect of disinformation. And apart from the diplomatic ballet revolving around the Syria crisis, concerns for cyber-security have radically changed governments’ approaches to intelligence gathering.
The Nordic model has been challenged during the recession, but it has nevertheless proven to be adaptable and resilient. Although Scandinavian countries have had to come to terms with budget cuts, their commitment to comprehensive welfare is still strong.
According to a recent feature in the British weekly The Economist the Nordic model will be the next “supermodel” for societies and their economies. “If you had to be reborn anywhere in the world as a person with average talents and income, you would want to be a Viking,” the magazine claimed. But what exactly is the “Nordic model”? In brief: it is an economic model that combines high level of welfare and social protection with high rate of GDP. This model has been applied by the Scandinavian states since their independence, and was facilitated their relatively small size and homogenous populations. But is it a winning model? Evidence seems to confirm that it is indeed. Even if there is no lack of problems, this model has shown its positive qualities compared with the other Europeans countries. During the period of the economic crisis, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland have had performed well when compare to the slowdown in the rest of Europe. The real question, however, must be: is this model that is valid for all? The response might not be so positive. The other face of this model is the high rate of taxation these countries impose on their citizens. In addition, the high level of social protection is possible largely because the Nordic countries are so small, and their systems will hardly be exportable to other countries.
In the end, the so called “Nordic model” is one of the most important examples that economic growth can be achieved even if with high taxation and comprehensive welfare – as long as the state budget has no problems.
The shale gas and oil industry will have huge repercussions on world oil consumption. As a result, this will force OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) to lower prices. At the last OPEC meeting in Vienna on May 31, members discussed the problem of shale oil and the required steps to reduce its impact on OPEC exports. Two main positions emerged form the debate: one fostered by poorer OPEC countries (the African exporters: Nigeria, Algeria and Angola) aimed at reducing production from 30 million barrels per day to a lower threshold in order to achieve an increase in oil prices; the other position was supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who want to maintain the status quo with the barrel at an average of $100. In the middle there is Venezuela. The position of the Latin American state was in favor of maintaining the minimum price, fixed at the current average: $100 per barrel. It doesn’t matter if this result could be achieved by reducing or increasing oil production: for Caracas the key point is the minimum price.
The clash during the meeting was quite heated. African members strongly opposed the Saudi Arabian view, even if it eventually passed as the official OPEC line. This is to say that the organization decided not to lower the daily production below the threshold of 30 million barrels per day. But the point was missed: what will be the impact of shale oil? OPEC was unable to give an answer to this question, wasting time by debating over what the ideal price should be.
The election of Pope Francis was something of a devolution in the Roman Curia. His humble personality conquered the hearts of the faithful with the spontaneity of his gestures. But is it enough to govern the Universal Church? One can argue that it is not. Most likely the figure of Pope Francis would not have been considered had the Vatican not been steeped in the darkness of scandals. In this sense, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio signaled a turning point. Nothing will be the same.
It is in this light that we must consider the choice of Pope Francis calling on eight wise men to reform the Roman Curia. For decades, maybe centuries, the Roman Curia was the center of plots and scandals, but the key point is that the Curia was no longer able to govern the Universal Church. Pope Francis is perfectly aware of the limits of the Vatican structure. This is the reason why he called on eight men to reform the Pastor Bonus constitution that came out from Vatican Council II. Some observers view this as a little Vatican Council III – in other words, it will have a deep impact on the Curia and its tenure on power.
So who are these wise men entitled to reform the Curia? They are all cardinals and only one of them comes from Italy: Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the President of the Vatican Governatorate. The other seven members of the group come from all over the world: Cardinal Oswald Gracias from India; Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa from Chile; Cardinal Reinhard Marx from Germany; Cardinal Laurent Monsegwo Pasinya from Congo; Cardinal Sean O’Malley from the United States; Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga from Honduras and cardinal George Pell from Australia. Their task is not easy, but the future of Catholic Church depends on it.
Latin America is assuming a fundamental role in global politics. The growing number of inhabitants and the surprising performances of several nations’ economies are only two of the features of its current rise. Despite this, social problems, such as endemic violence and widespread poverty are the major challenges South American countries will face in the near future. The point is that the Latin America is a geopolitical reality with huge importance. Two Latin American countries are in the G-20, one of which, Brazil is also in the BRICS.
They are partners of the West in the global scene, but they are also acquiring their own dimension. The recent election of an Argentine pope – the first non-European in over a thousand years – can be read as an indication of Latin America’s growing importance.
On the domestic side, states like Brazil and Chile seem to be working very well. Brazil will be hosting the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro will host the Summer Olympics in 2016. But Brazil also has the problem of chronic poverty in its cities and in the north of the country. Still, it is an emergent economy that offers many opportunities to the world. Chile in the past few years has experienced a very remarkable economic performance that reduced the poverty rate, notwithstanding the earthquake in 2010. For their part, Mexico and Argentina have many problems that compromise their development. Mexico has security problems like drug trafficking and narco-gang warfare added to the longstanding problem illegal emigration towards the United States, which has complicated its relations with regional partners. Argentina is again experiencing budgetary difficulties echoing those of the 2001, when the state had defaulted. Problems aside, one can expect that Latin America will be an active theater of global competition in the coming years.
There are not many historical precedents for a pope resigning. The last one was in 1415, when Gregory the XII abdicated, thus ending the Papal Schism in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1294 Pope Celestine V, a pious monk before being elected pope, stepped down voluntarily after only five months of dismal administration. The Church eventually made Celestine V a saint (although no subsequent pope would take the name), but Dante sentenced him to the antechamber of hell along with the lukewarm and morally slothful for having “made of cowardice the great refusal.” So Benedict XVI’s decision is without question a momentous historic event. For the first time in the modern era the Church will manage a complicated succession, with the imposing figure of Joseph Ratzinger looming over the new pope that will emerge from the upcoming conclave.
In this confusing time, the influence of some cardinals could be crucial to reviving the fortunes of the Roman Catholic Church, either by electing an open and modern pope, or simply a pontiff with enough administrative acumen and leadership capacity to bring some spiritual discipline back to the ranks of the wayward Curia. Ratzinger’s resignation will also have political implications, which will have to be reckoned with. It will no doubt disrupt the balance of power among rival cardinals who have been vying for power behind the scenes and, more recently, even in public leaks of information. For this reason the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is very active in establishing the necessary consent to the election of a friendly pope – or friendly to his faction. Although Bertone is disliked by many Roman cardinals, his influence is undeniable and will weigh in the conclave. But Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Bertone’s predecessor and arch-rival, could exert considerable influence as the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man in charge of organizing the conclave. Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, will also have a significant impact on the conclave. As the cardinals go into the conclave the question of whether or not an Italian returns to the papacy, after a German and the Polish John Paul II. Or perhaps it’s time for a non-European pope, or even a black pope?
Another war is raging in Africa’s Sahel region, aggravating the problems of the world’s poorest continent. The situation is very complex. There many Islamist groups in full control of areas where the various governments have little or no control. Such is the case of Mali, where the northern part, Azawad, is under control of the Azawad National Liberation Movement. The Islamist rebels have gone about systematically destroying pre-Islamic cultural treasures as well as the tombs of Sufi saints deemed un-Islamic. The magnificent city of Timbuktu and its characteristic mosques has been the focal point of international alarm as the rebels have vowed to destroy all the city’s mausoleums. The recent French intervention, with air strikes and as many as 2,500 troops on the ground, is seen by many analysts as a potential quagmire that could lead to a “new Afghanistan.” No solution seems in sight for Mali, because of the permanence of deep ethnic differences. Ethnicity has an important role in Nigeria, too, but the major threat to Nigerian stability is the emergence of the Boko Haram, a fiercely anti-Western Islamist group responsible for numerous attacks on Christians. While the group is not known to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, there is nevertheless a strong al-Qaeda presence in Somalia and in Algeria. In Somalia, al-Qaeda has strong ties with the Yemeni branch of the network and this could strengthen cooperation among terrorist groups. In Algeria the stability of the government has curbed the emergence of terrorism, but it has recently experienced terroristic spillover from Mali and Libya. Unfortunately, the inability of the army doesn’t allow for a final solution to this problem. In general, African countries suffer lack of political stability due to different ethnicity and borders designed to satisfy colonial power interests. Nowadays, terrorism can be tackled only by improving international cooperation, especially on political issues.
In 2012 many deputy leaders took over from leaders in whose shadows they had been waiting for a long time. Yet wielding power is quite different from acting behind the scenes as a counselor to the president or king. In the majority of cases transition is peaceful and the successor is able to change the path of his or her predecessor through new policies, correcting previous mistakes. In other cases, the successor continues the politics of his or her predecessor with few changes or none at all. In general, deputy leaders are a resource for presidents and prime ministers and monarchs. Choosing a good one – usually defined as one who maintains stability and in some cases improves an already functioning structure – could help the government to do its best to solve problems and to enhance reforms. This has been the case of Cuba since Fidel Castro’s illness put him on the sidelines. Even though the Castro brothers more or less share the same ideological framework, Raul has been able to reform the country by trying to accept the rule of globalization, thus lowering the impact of poverty on the people. However, it is unlikely that the same will happen in Venezuela. The Deputy President Nicolas Maduro, who has temporarily succeeded Hugo Chavez while he undergoes yet another operation for his cancer, does not seem to want to reshape the Bolivarian approach of the president. Unlike the situation in Venezuela, the first woman ruling in Malawi, Joyce Banda, has made a great effort to reaffirm the right to stand before the international community and that of the African people, as she liberalizes her country and tries to fix the inequality that has become entrenched over the years. The case of Saudi Arabia reflects a desire for continuity. The Crown Prince Salman bin-Abdulaziz is more pragmatic than his predecessor, but there is no evidence that he plans to change anything in the kingdom. In many cases, succession is not a change in and of itself.
Central bankers and international financial institutions have been the core of the decision- and policy-making during the economic crisis which spread in 2008. The European mess has found in this institution a way out even if, at times, they contributed to aggravating various national crises (e.g. Greece). By taking control of the political economy in the eurozone, central bankers, especially the European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi and Germany’s Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, favor a deep analysis of the causes of the speculative attacks and they have tried to pass through the storm by limiting damages. The clash between the two most influential monetary decision-makers in the eurozone – particularly the harshness of Weidmann – has had several negative effects on southern Europe. The spread between Italian and German treasury bonds had widened to 500 basis points in August 2011, which led to the substitution of Silvio Berlusconi, then Italy’s Prime Minister, with Mario Monti. The role of economic, monetary and financial institutions in tackling the crisis is huge and discretionary. In the United States, the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke seems to be the one who still believes in the power of quantitative easing. In fact, he is about to launch the third QE of his mandate. Many economists don’t agree with him and his policies but he doesn’t seem to mind. On the contrary, the hot water in which Europe is swimming could be solved with an increased role of the International Monetary Fund as mediator among European nations. The path to walk remains long and full of pitfalls, and only with new tools (issuing eurobonds might be one) can the Europe turn a corner on its most recent history.
Africa has long been the poorest continent in the world. Its often brutal colonial past is a heavy legacy. Many people still suffer famine, especially in the Horn of Africa. Civil war has been a perennial scourge in the region, and the chaos that comes in the wake of such wars has led to everything from radical Islamic groups to pirates on the high seas.
But a closer look at this part of the continent reveals that something is changing. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are on the way to new (or almost new) governments willing to bring democracy and prosperity. It will not be an easy task, especially in a time of crisis. However, Africa has the resources to free itself from its perennial dependence on richer countries. Even in the case of a stronger economy, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s, the problem of ethnicity still has a huge impact on the political behavior of many African States. The four states listed here all have to manage uprisings and clashes, because the most common feature of the modern African state is the multi-ethnicity that all too often generates conflicts. Other matters of concern stem from the neighborhood policies of these countries, especially the tensions between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite different views about how to manage rebellions, two states that were in conflict with each other until only a couple of years ago – Ethiopia and Eritrea – now have the opportunity to cooperate. But the overriding hope in this part of the world is that new governments will able to end poverty for their people and help them to be really free. It is an ambitious task that can only be achieved with hard work. Along with the Arab Spring, the rest of Africa seems to beginning a new path towards a better future.
For centuries monarchs have decided the fate of Europe, but now it seems they are under the axe of the continent-wide social and political crisis. Yet with Europe’s national leaders falling by the wayside on an almost monthly basis, and the EU proving itself to be a debating society incapable of taking decisive actions, the monarchs have the opportunity to rise to the occasion as symbolic, if not substantial, leaders. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, has been struggling against the economic crisis that has reduced the Buckingham Palace budget and forced the government to fire thousands of public employees. But the recent Diamond Jubilee pageantry gave her subjects a fleeting boost of morale. The problem for King Juan Carlos I of Spain is one of reigning over a failing state. Unfortunately, while it was failing, he happened to be taking potshots at elephants on another continent. In Belgium the symbol of national unity got caught on the wrong foot as the “capital of Europe” experienced a protracted political stalemate, with the specter of a split into two, forcing King Albert II to intervene. Yet in two countries, the Netherlands and Sweden, the monarchs have presided over relative stability. If what many are calling a crisis in democracy worsens in Europe, these two countries may encourage their republican neighbors to reconsider.
In the midst of the world’s financial crisis, a new “old” way of doing business through finance has grown in prominence. Islamic finance – which has existed since the eighth century in rudimentary form and was adapted to modern finance in the late 20th century – was already gaining attention before the 2008 economic crisis. But since then, it has been championed as an almost providential remedy for a money system that has strayed irredeemably. The main difference between Western and Islamic finance is that the latter is based on the values of sharia law, which itself is based on the Quran. For example, usury, or interest on loans, is forbidden. As such, so are bonds. Moreover, every operation needs to have a social outcome. This means that most speculative actions are also forbidden, and an investor has to strive for desirable social effects. Obviously, there are legalistic loopholes and instruments designed to get around what would seem like draconian strictures. For example, in an Islamic mortgage, instead of loaning the buyer money to purchase a house or car, a bank could buy the item itself from the seller, and resell it to the buyer at a profit, while allowing the buyer to pay the bank in installments. However, the bank’s profit cannot be made explicit and there are no additional penalties for late payment. Putting aside such structural manipulation, what is important to the spirit of sharia compliant banking is that the lender and borrower share the profit, loss and risk.
This spirit of Islamic finance is considered by some a model with which to address some critical issues that have emerged since the financial crisis. Other ethical proscriptions involve investing in haram (sinful) goods and services, such as alcohol, pork and gambling. Boosted by the Gulf monarchies’ sovereign investment funds, which have increased dealings in Islamic finance, there has been a shift of economic power eastward. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman are at the forefront of this resurgent concept of finance and have experienced a noteworthy development rate in just a few years. According to exponents of Islamic finance, new rules, are needed to restore the role of financial markets and avoid a new wave of economic turmoil. Islamic finance, they feel, could be a starting point for a new approach to doing business, following the example of some Muslim countries. Indeed, even old-school investment banks like Goldman Sachs have committed significant resources to establishing sharia compliant products and now engage Sharia Supervisory Boards to advise them on a more ethical way of making money.
The economic and political crisis spreading across Europe is also affecting the weakest part of the continent: the Balkans. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of Yugoslavia the various ethnic groups living in Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia were caught between the aspiration for democratic societies and an ethnic clash fueled by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
He envisaged a Yugoslav future as a “Greater Serbia.” The Slovenian declaration of independence, followed by the one issued by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, contributed to pushing Milosevic into using force to assure Serbian sovereignty over the Balkans. In 1991, the Serbian army overran the parts of Croatia where Serbs lived and laid siege Dubrovnik. It was the beginning of the Balkan War. For almost a decade the region was torn by a war of “ethnic cleansing.” After the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the towns of Sbrebrenica and Tuzla in 1995, the conflict seemed to move toward to a solution when NATO got involved and Croatian forces defeated Serbs in the Krajina region. In September of that year Milosevic, Tudjman and their Bosnian counterpart Alija Izetbegovic agreed on a proposed division: the Dayton Agreement. The compromise left unsettled the issue of Serbia’s Albanian minority in Kosovo and tensions simmered until 1999, when after several atrocities perpetrated by Serbian government forces in Kosovo NATO launched a series of air strikes that caused Milosevic to surrender. Eventually, he was toppled by his own people and given over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Albania experienced a different situation. It was not directly involved in Balkan War but its economy collapsed in 1997. The economic mess led to political instability and the government of Sali Berisha was forced to resign. Fatos Nano, the new Albanian head of government, couldn’t manage to calm the widespread upheaval in the country and was forced to resign after few months. Nano’s resignation reopened the way for the return of Berisha who was able to boost the economy and put down revolts. The Balkan War effectively shattered Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s chances of enjoying normal economic well-being, and the countries’ weak state apparatus only exacerbated matters. Twelve years since the end of the war, the challenges ahead for the ex-Yugoslav states are formidable: they need to secure their democratic regimes and boost their economies before being able to join the European Union.
In time of doubt, when many long-ruling leaders are falling by the way, there are others who remain firmly in charge. They have done everything in their power to remain at the helm. Such is the case of King Abdullah II of Jordan and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran. Both leader have used their considerable power to calm down riots in Jordan and to successfully win the electoral struggle in Iran. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was facing not only a political struggle, but also a personal one. His fight with cancer has not stopped his intended run for reelection in October 2012. Vladimir Putin, too, ran for reelection. While no other candidate posed a serious threat, allowing him to win his third term as Russian Federation President without any problems, the restive crowds protesting in the squares of Moscow gave those eager for his ouster a ray of hope. Each of these eminent political figures has been in charge for at least a decade (Khamenei for over two decades) and they have left a mark on their country. Now the question is whether they will be able to confront the challenges of the 21st century? The structure of their power seems to suggest they are not. But a leader does not reign for so long without the ability to adapt himself and the structure in which he works.
The experience of women and men who made contemporary Europe or contributed to changing the world might teach something important to leaders. Helmut Kohl has warned Angela Merkel about her skepticism with regard to helping Greece; Valéry Giscard d’Estaing complains about the abortion of French “grandeur” in Europe; Mikhail Gorbachev is worried about Vladimir Putin’s new term as Russian Federation president; and last but non least, George H. W. Bush wants to extract Barack Obama from the White House in order to insert a Republican. Are they past or present leaders? Their considerable participation (or evocation) in the public debates of their country, may be a sign that current political players are losing credibility as leaders.
In the next ten years the Pacific Ocean and the rim states will be the economic center of the world and, perhaps, of politics as well. The shift of wealth from the West to Asia suggests as much. The Asian tigers are too close to the Pacific and it is not by chance that President Barack Obama has strengthened ties with Australia, declaring the United States a Pacific power. Japanese leverage on the Pacific is blurred by a low economic growth rate and a huge public expenditure. The Fukushima disaster has contributed to Tokyo’s loss of power. In spite of the difficulties, Japan has started to recover. Moreover, the region faces directly onto the Pacific Ocean, where there are many security concerns. The most important is the succession in North Korea and the future of the nuclear issue managed by Kim Jong-un. The death of his father Kim Jong-il was worrying for the US, which has a strong ally in South Korea. What is unclear in the area is the role of Australia. Over the course of the coming decades, the Pacific region will be one of the most important areas in the world. For the world powers it is important to improve ties with rim countries and to maintain leverage on economic and political affairs.
The year 2012 will be one of presidential elections, with four of the world’s most influential leaders on the campaign trail. In the midst of a global economic crisis, Vladimir Putin, Nicholas Sarkozy, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Barack Obama will all be judged by their people – especially on economic issues. On the one hand, high unemployment rates and weak growth make reelection difficult for Obama and Sarkozy. Putin and Erdogan, on the other hand, have to confront the challenge of modernization and development. With the exception of Putin in Russia, reelection for the other three candidates is not a sure thing. Paradoxically, Putin is the only candidate to be contested in mass protests. It remains to be seen whether the protests will erode the near certainty of his election. Changes at helm of these countries (the US, France and Turkey) will undoubtedly shape their international role. For these reasons,
the international community will be watching closely to see if anyone has the right recipes for emerging out of the crisis.