International events these days are confusing, to say the least. Everything seems muddled and uncertain; positive events are tangled with negative events; the structures of world order have either dissolved or appear increasingly irrelevant. Where are we going? Can anything be said with reasonable certainty about the international order in the coming year and further into the future?
The answer is yes. But we have to place the cacophony of current events in the context of deeper, underlying trends affecting world order and human development. Some of these are undeniably positive. The threat of nuclear Armageddon has all but vanished. America and Russia no longer wage proxy wars in far corners of the world. Barriers to international trade are tumbling, and throughout the former Soviet Bloc and the developing world, national economic managers are laying the foundations for free markets. Democratic institutions are taking root in much of Eastern Europe. A truly miraculous transformation has occurred in South Africa, while the weary combatants in the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Angola have turned from war to negotiation.
Yet, there are ominous trends, too. The United States seems unwilling or unable to play its proper role as a great power. Many of the international organizations needed to fill the void left by the United States are enfeebled. Belligerent nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms have captured people’s minds in Eastern Europe and North Africa. Ecological and population stresses tear at the social fabric of poor societies. These positive and negative trends intersect in complex ways in different parts of the world. As a guide to sorting them out, here are six questions to keep in mind this coming year and beyond:
WILL THE UNITED STATES INCREASINGLY
ISOLATE ITSELF FROM THE WORLD?
Since the early days of the republic, U.S. foreign policy has oscillated between isolationism and engagement—a tension that persists today. Some commentators, especially on the political right, want the United States to withdraw within its borders, reduce its commitment to international organizations and peacekeeping, and retain only minimal commitments to the defence of Europe. Others argue for a continued strong presence on
Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon is director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Toronto.
the international stage. These people, in turn, fall into two camps: some want the United States to act as a traditional great power and use its military and economic capability, when necessary, to sustain global order; others believe it should facilitate the development of the international institutions and laws needed to solve global problems.
President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team believes the United States should be actively engaged with the world, not as a traditional great power, but as a facilitator. Sometimes this policy has worked well. The Clinton administration has had notable successes with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the United Nations’ population conference in Cairo. At other times, though, this “soft” engagement has brought embarrassment and stoked the fires of isolationism. The photographs of Somali thugs dragging the body of an American serviceman through the streets of Mogadishu in October, 1993, had a deep effect on Americans. “Why should we bother helping such people?” many asked.
Domestic political crises have also gravely wounded Clinton. Whitewater, the failure of health-care reform, the Republican successes in November’s congressional elections, and a persistent sense of economic insecurity are causing Americans to look inward. The President is seen as a weak leader, and he has not presented a clear vision of why the United States should be engaged with the rest of the world. During the next year, look for congressional Republicans to launch a broad attack on many of the pillars of engagement, including the American foreign aid budget and support for the United Nations. Isolationism will gain strength.
WILL RUSSIA BECOME MORE HOSTILE
TO THE WEST?
Since the bombardment of the White House in Moscow in October, 1993, Russia has simmered. The election to parliament of a raft of nationalist and Communist politicians was counterbalanced, somewhat, by President Boris Yeltsin’s success in obtaining popular approval of a new constitution. Yet Yeltsin seems more capable of decisive action in times of crisis than during the slogging, day-to-day work of economic and political reform. While his government has moved ahead with privatization, it is still issuing huge credits to state industries that produce things people won’t buy. These credits drive high inflation, causing brutal hardship for poor, old and sick people. Organized crime has
O U T L O O K
1 9 9 5
WILL THERE BE A WIDER BALKAN WAR?
penetrated practically every pocket of Russian society.
Russians feel humiliated and despondent. They have lost their empire and their great-power status; their economy is in an appalling mess; and the social-safety net—the one good thing they could count on during the Communist years—is disintegrating.
This is fertile ground for extreme nationalists. Yet they have been surprisingly ineffectual in parliament, largely because of the buffoonery of their leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and because their actions have been blocked by a large group of pro-reform legislators.
Yeltsin and his foreign policy team are increasingly hostile towards the West. Russia has refused to join the U.S.-sponsored “Partnership for Peace” that is supposed to provide z Eastern European nations with a way | station to membership in NATO, and at § the recent meeting of the Conference § on Security and Co-operation in Europe, Yeltsin spoke darkly of slippage towards a “cold peace” between the great powers. Political and economic reform in Russia will take a long time, and nationalists will have ample opportunities to engage in incendiary politics—especially if breakaway movements contribute to more crises like the one in Chechnya. Even if reformers hold on to power, they will shift their foreign policies to the right to protect themselves from nationalist attacks. Driven by these internal politics, relations between Russia and the West will continue to cool.
The West’s policies in Bosnia have been an utter failure. It is difficult to overstate the harm this has done to the credibility of NATO, the European Union and the United Nations. While an early, decisive military intervention against the Serbs—at a time when Russia was willing to go along with Western policies in the Balkans— would probably have stopped the crisis cold, we now have a war that could still drag in an ever-expanding circle of countries.
The presence of UN peacekeepers in Bosnia promotes the war. The United Nations is unwilling to undertake decisive air action against the Serbs because the peacekeepers are vulnerable to Serb ground attack. And the partial shield provided by the peacekeepers encourages the Bosnian government to persist in hopeless attempts to regain lost territory. The Americans, British and French are involved in an endless, disgraceful squabble over the utility of the peacekeepers, the value of air attacks and the advisability of lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian government. Policies change from one week to the next.
If the peacekeepers are withdrawn, a massive military operation—perhaps involving more than 20,000 U.S. troops—will be needed to provide cover. Serbs will take advantage of the vacuum left behind to finish off several Muslim enclaves. It is not out of the question that outraged Islamic governments, around the world, will send their own troops to protect the Bosnian Muslims.
Watch the Bihac pocket. If the Serbs seize this UN “safe zone” in northwestern Bosnia, the Croatian government may openly enter the conflict on the side of Bosnia, which could reignite the war between the rump state of Yugoslavia and Croatia. Also, watch Macedonia to the south. This fragile country is covetously eyed by several neighbors, while the stability of its internal politics has been threatened by Greek economic pressure and an angry Albanian minority. Should Albania and Macedonia start a war, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and even Turkey could become involved, too.
WILL THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN
PEACE PROCESS CONTINUE?
The peace process is in deep trouble. Further progress requires that Palestinians hold elections in the occupied territories. For this to happen, the Israelis must withdraw their troops from Palestinian towns. But Israelis fear that withdrawal would leave Jewish settlements vulnerable to attacks by the extremist Hamas movement. Recent attacks on Israelis by Hamas terrorists have weakened support within Israel for the peace process. Sentiment is building for an exclusionary policy, whereby Palestinian areas would be largely sealed off from Israel. Within Gaza, the authority of the Palestinian leadership is leaking away. Yasser Arafat is now widely despised, and Hamas can easily mobilize thousands of followers in the streets. Arafat’s indecisive and autocratic leadership has kept Palestinians from seeing any real fruits of peace.
Gaza has one of the highest population densities and growth rates in the world; its population will double within 20 years. It is also experiencing a water crisis as its aquifers are overdrawn. Some municipal wells now produce water too salty to drink, and hundreds of new, unrestricted wells have been drilled since the
Israelis left. These ecological and population pressures will make political solutions harder to achieve, so quick action is needed now to end the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
WILL CHINA’S BUBBLE BURST?
Many analysts have been distracted by the phenomenal economic expansion in China’s coastal areas. They have projected these trends onto the rest of the country and have neglected the dangers posed by a weakened central government, and resource scarcities and population pressures in the countryside. The costs of misreading the Chinese situation could be very high. China has more than a fifth of the world’s population, a huge military with growing power-projection capability, and unsettled relations with some of its neighbors. The effects of Chinese civil unrest, mass violence and state disintegration could spread far beyond its borders.
The Chinese population is growing at a rate of more than 15 million per year. The wealth differential between rich and poor regions in China is increasing rapidly. Tens of millions of people are migrating from the country’s interior and northern regions, where water and fuel wood are desperately scarce and the land often badly damaged, to the booming coastal cities. Coastal areas must continue their rapid growth to absorb this surplus labor. But the Chinese leadership is having great difficulty maintaining control over the process. Economic liberalization helps mobilize the population by dissolving long-standing social relations, which weakens the Communist party’s ability to micro-manage Chinese society. The party has also been weakened by deep internal disagreements over the rate and degree of liberalization, and by worker discontent throughout the country.
In the next year, China’s “paramount leader,” Deng Xiaoping, who is 90 and in failing health, will almost certainly die. Cracks within the government will not appear immediately, as the military remains strong and united under elderly officers who served with Mao Tse-tung on the legendary Long March in the 1930s. Longterm stability is likely only if China begins serious democratization soon. Even after Deng dies, though, central authorities will probably refuse to recognize their loosening grip on the society, and this will eventually prompt secessionist movements in the Muslim lands to the west, Tibet in the southwest, and perhaps Sichuan.
WILL THE UN WIN BACK ITS CREDIBILITY?
little noticed by the world, the United Nations is closing down its operation in Somalia. Warlords in Mogadishu are already jockeying to seize the equipment and facilities the United Nations leaves behind. If Somalia again descends into fratricidal chaos, one could reasonably ask if the UN operation there was worth the resources and lives invested in it.
Whatever the answer, no one can doubt that the United Nation’s credibility has been harmed by its ineffectiveness in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda. The world body and its agencies are chronically underfunded; some, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, must go cap in hand to rich countries for support of emergency operations. Nonetheless, the United Nations has achieved notable successes. Last September’s population conference in Cairo brought progress on reducing human fertility rates, and the United Nations has overseen a democratic transition in Cambodia and the end of civil war in Mozambique.
It is currently fashionable to believe that governments can’t do anything right and should therefore be reduced in size. By this logic, less government is better government But global political and economic affairs are becoming ever more complex. Populations are growing. The gap between the poorest and the richest people on the planet is widening. Knowledge, goods, diseases, financial instruments, pollution and crime know no boundaries. Migrants and refugees are on the move in unprecedented numbers. To deal with these converging and urgent pressures, capable international government is essential. The United Nations may be unruly, cumbersome and irresolute, but it is the only international government we have. We must do what we can to reform it to better serve humanity’s needs. □
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