What To Watch For In 2010

Last week I talked about a few stories from 2009 that didn’t receive the attention that perhaps they should have. This week I’ll take a look forward and discuss a few of the events likely to shape global politics in 2010.  

The fabled street protests of late 2004 that came to be called the “Orange Revolution” were suppose to have established Ukraine as the democratic light of the old Soviet bloc. Instead they sparked years of bitter political infighting between the two principle figures of the Revolution - President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The governmental paralysis that followed gave Ukraine rising unemployment, a contracting economy and a currency teetering on the brink of insolvency. No wonder former President Viktor Yanukovych, the man whose attempts at vote-rigging sparked off the Orange Revolution in the first place, publicly stated last week that he felt democracy was “not worth” the social upheaval. The problem is that a significant number of Ukrainians seem to agree with him (a recent Pew Research poll found only about a third of Ukrainians now believe the swit  ch to capitalism was a good idea), Yanukovych is currently the leading in the polls heading into the presidential elections scheduled two weeks from now.

His opponent in the run-off election that will almost surely follow on February 7th is likely to be Tymoshenko herself. Her supporters believe she could be Ukraine’s savior, while her growing legion of critics fear she could be another autocrat in the making. The reason this election will have an impact far outside of Ukraine is because either candidate will almost surely deviate from the unabashedly pro-Western course charted by Yushchenko, who has aggressively pushed for both Ukraine’s speedy entry into the European Union and NATO. Yanukovych’s power base is among Ukraine’s sizable Russian minority concentrated in the eastern half of the country. For her part, Tymoshenko is seen as a “realist” who has downplayed the importance of EU membership and largely ignored the NATO issue of late (not to mention that Tymoshenko is also originally from the heavily-Russian east). Some analysts think that a President Tymoshenko may feel that she’ll get a better deal from Moscow than Brussels and tack Ukraine back towards the Russian orbit. Either way relations between Ukraine and Europe/the United States are likely to change in a big way after February.

US-Japan Relations
Since shortly after the end of the Second World War, America’s most steadfast ally in Asia has been Japan, and for almost all of that time the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled Japan. But last August, Japanese voters turned the Liberal Democrats out after nearly a half-century of rule, replacing them with a coalition government led by Yukio Hatoyama and the Democratic Party of Japan. Not coincidentally, US-Japan relations have been on a downswing since the election.

Much of the souring in relations has been over the massive US military instillation on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The base itself has long been a source of tension on the island, in an effort to ease relations with the Okinawans, the United States planned to move the complex to a less-populated part of the island and to transfer some of the forces stationed on Okinawa to Guam. But Prime Minister Hatoyama has so far refused to sign off on the deal, perhaps in part due to pressure from one of his coalition partners, the Social Democrats, who do not want any US military presence in Japan at all. The base dispute has left US officials increasingly frustrated by Hatoyama, and wondering if he’s a reliable ally in the first place at a time when the United States is worried about China’s growing influence on the Asian Rim and concerned about the ever-unpredictable regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.

The Ever-Expanding War on Terror
America’s politicians and cable news channels were shocked to learn over the Christmas holiday that al-Qaeda is actually operating in places other than Afghanistan/Pakistan, thanks to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise – American intelligence agencies have been warning about al-Qaeda threats from sites scattered around the world for some time now. My first post on The Mantle discussed the possibility of al-Qaeda using Somalia as a base of operations, while in May I also talked about al-Qaeda activities in Eritrea and the aforementioned Yemen.

The point of this isn’t to blow my own horn, but rather to point at the reality of the “2.0 version” of al-Qaeda; they’ve become an amorphous organization, one that relies more on cyberspace for its organization and recruitment and one that will seek out and use failed or failing states around the world for their purposes as-needed. To them it doesn’t matter whether these temporary bases are in the Persian Gulf, Horn of Africa, Central or Southeast Asia, so long as the government is weak or non-existent, allowing them to operate freely.

Unfortunately the preferred American approach to combating al-Qaeda has been to stage a massive military intervention in a country that seems to factor little into their current plans. The mission in Afghanistan has the benefit of being big, showy and giving the appearance of proactive American engagement, through it is doing little to diminish the actual threat posed by al-Qaeda and their fellow travelers. The question for 2010 will be if the American position on dealing with al-Qaeda changes and if US forces start to actively engage them in the ad-hoc bases they’ve established around the world. As I said in my Somalia post, this is a decision that will be driven at least in part by politics, especially if the Afghan mission continues to bog down and President Obama feels pressure to appear like he’s actively dealing with the al-Qaeda threat.

Israeli officials spent much of 2009 warning that Iran was only “a year away” from reaching a “point of no return” in their pursuit of an atomic weapon. “One year away” would be 2010, where we find ourselves now. This begs the question on whether or not Israel (with perhaps assistance from America) will make good on the threat of military action this year. So far the United States is hoping that a new round of sanctions can convince Iran to give up their pursuit of the bomb. The Obama Administration has made a point of implying they’ve gotten the Russian support for a sanctions regime. Personally, I think the Russians are hanging back and will let the Chinese veto any proposed sanctions in the United Nations, which given Iran’s reserves and China’s need for oil, is likely – the upside for the Russians is that they can then claim to be on the United States’ side while not risking their profitable trade relationships with Iran.

Meanwhile Iran’s pro-democracy forces and Western observers hope that the “Green Revolution” of ongoing protests will lead to an overthrow of President Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs. But the security analysis firm Stratfor makes a compelling argument that the Green Movement actually has far less popular support than Western observers hope and that it is highly unlikely to bring about any substantive change in the Iranian regime.

Of course 2010, like most years, will be shaped by events few can foresee or expect, but these are a collection of areas worth keeping an eye on during the next twelve months.

Yemen, Ukraine, Terrorism, Japan, Iran, Barack Obama, Africa