26 December 2005
By Gwynne Dyer
First, the good news. In October, a comprehensive three-year study led by Andrew Mack, former director of the Strategic Planning Unit in the office of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, concluded that there have been major declines in armed conflicts, genocides, human rights abuses, military coups and international crises worldwide. The survey, commissioned by Britain, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and conducted by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, revealed a drop of over 40 percent in the number of armed conflicts since 1992 — and for the biggest conflicts, involving more than 1,000 battle-deaths per year, the drop was 80 percent.
The international media by their very nature will always offer us an image of global chaos, but in fact the Americas, Europe and Asia were almost entirely at peace during 2005, Colombia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Nepal and the southern Philippines being the major exceptions. The Middle East was also at peace, except for the American war in Iraq, and even sub-Saharan Africa, home to over half the world’s remaining wars, saw some major improvements during the year.
The peace agreement in Sudan in February ended the continent’s longest and worst civil war, and the death of southern leader John Garang in a helicopter crash only weeks afterwards did not upset the deal. By the end of the year millions of southern refugees were making their way home, and even the separate and more recent conflict in Darfur in western Sudan, which has killed some 200,000 people and made up to two million homeless, was abating in intensity. On the opposite side of the continent, the November election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa’s first woman president proved that the long civil war in Liberia was finally over. The integration of rebel (Hutu) forces and the regular (Tutsi) army in Burundi, together with the election of a Hutu president, suggested that the even longer civil war in that country might also be finished.
Africa is still the poorest continent, and the most turbulent one. Ethiopia’s first free election ended in violence in May, the threat of another border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea grew throughout the year, and the attempt to recreate some sort of central government in Somalia after fourteen years of anarchy was falling apart at year’s end. Ivory Coast, cut in half in 2002 after a failed coup led to a civil war, made only halting progress towards reconciliation, and sporadic outbreaks of violence continued to interrupt the peace-building process in eastern Congo.
But southern Africa was entirely at peace, so much so that the Mozambicans began discussing whether they should remove the outline of an AK-47 rifle from their national flag. Almost every southern African country was not only democratic but also making significant economic progress, Zimbabwe under the ageing dictator Robert Mugabe being the horrible exception.
A dark cloud lying over the future of the continent’s one industrialised country, South Africa, was lifted when Deputy President Jacob Zuma was driven from office on charges of corruption and rape. Zuma, the standard-bearer for the ruling African National Congress’s more populist elements, might have derailed the whole delicate project for gradually transferring wealth and power to the non-white majority without panicking local whites and foreign investors if he had succeeded President Thabo Mbeki, but he now seems permanently out of the running.
The only other region of the world that rivalled Africa in political turbulence was the Middle East — and if you count the guerilla war unleashed by the US invasion of Iraq as a genuinely regional event, then the Middle East even gave Africa a run for its money in the past year in terms of military casualties. But almost all the killing was confined to the cauldron of Iraq; elsewhere, the upheavals were mainly political.
The biggest changes by far were in Israel and Palestine, where a series of radical shifts altered the whole political landscape. The death of Yasser Arafat in late 2004 brought Mahmoud Abbas, a much cannier and more presentable leader, to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority last January, but a new Palestinian parliamentary election was repeatedly postponed (it is now scheduled for 9 January) because of fears that the Hamas party, which rejects territorial compromise with Israel in return for peace, would win a majority in the new parliament. This did not much matter so long as Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government was determined to impose a unilateral peace on the Palestinians, but now the balance of forces has become much more fluid and unpredictable.
Right down to August, when Sharon forced the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip against strong opposition from within his own Likud Party, his strategy seemed to be working. The Gaza withdrawal guaranteed that he would face no serious pressure from the United States for further concessions for at least a year or two, and meanwhile the “security fence” that would define the new de facto border between Israel and the occupied territories continued to snake its way across the West Bank. But then his own Likud Party hard-liners mounted a serious assault on his leadership, pushing his long-standing rival Binyamin Netanyahu as his replacement, and his Labour Party ally, Shimon Peres, was overthrown as leader of his own party by Amir Peretz.
Peretz, a trade-union leader who favours direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the existing borders, promptly broke the coalition with Likud, whereupon Peres quit the Labour Party entirely. Faced with the prospect of being pushed out by Netanyahu, Sharon also quit Likud, taking more than half its members of parliament with him, and together he and Peres founded the new Kadima (“Forward”) Party. Israel will now go to the polls shortly after the Palestinians do, and the possibility exists that it could elect a Labour government led by Peretz that is ready to open genuine peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas. But the possibility also exists that Hamas and other Islamist radicals will launch another suicide-bombing campaign in Israel designed to drive Israelis into the arms of Likud and/or Kadima, and thus avert the threat of a durable compromise peace.
The other potentially epochal event in the region was the opening of talks for Turkey’s membership in the European Union on 3 October. It may be a decade or more before these talks conclude, but if they are successful, they will begin heal a wound that has divided the old classical world around the Mediterranean ever since half of it fell under Muslim rule a millennium ago. Despite the setback to the EU in late May and early June, when France and the Netherlands voted against a new European constitution, thus dooming that project for the foreseeable future, the larger project of European unification continues. In the view of some idealists on both sides of the historic divide, it even begins to morph into a project for the reconstruction of the broader, older civilisation from which both Islam and “Christendom” are descended.
Developments elsewhere in the region were less dramatic. There were Egyptian elections in the autumn that brought the country perhaps ten percent closer to genuine democracy, but with no guarantee that it will ever cover the rest of the distance. In Iran’s presidential election in June, over half the population refused to vote for the heavily vetted list of candidates presented to it by the conservative religious authorities, and a simplistic nationalist and religious radical, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, managed to win the presidency with the votes of just one-third of the electors. The death in August of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd changed nothing, since his brother and heir Abdullah has already been running the kingdom ever since Fahd’s stroke ten years ago. The assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in February (probably by Syrian intelligence operatives) triggered a non-violent democratic movement in Lebanon and forced a Syrian military withdrawal from the country, but the elections in May-June just restored the old Lebanese system of alliances and coalitions between different confessional groups. And then there was Iraq.
The “turning points” in Iraq came thick and fast, from elections in January to a new government in May (after four months of negotiations), a new constitution in August, a referendum on the constitution in October, and new elections in December, but no corners were actually turned. At the end of the year, the resistance was as strong or stronger than it had been at the start, American military dead had passed the 2,000 mark, the US-backed Iraqi army and police were still largely unable or unwilling to fight on their own, and the possibility that the Iraqi state might actually break up, throwing all the existing borders of the region into question, had ceased to be mere fantasy. But the impact of the Iraq conflict on the rest of the region has so far been surprisingly limited: heightened anti-American sentiment, some terrorist bombs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and an upsurge in recruiting for Islamist extremist organisations. The impact in the United States has been considerably greater.
“We will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory,” said President George W. Bush in a speech last month, and he will doubtless continue to tough it out, because admitting that invading Iraq was a ghastly mistake would have huge political consequences for him and his party. However, American public opinion, long insulated from the reality of failure in Iraq by uncritical media coverage of the war, began to lose faith in the administration when confronted with its arrogant and incompetent response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in September: by December, Mr Bush’s rating in opinion polls had reached an all-time low. With three years of his second mandate still to run, he does not yet face overwhelming political or popular pressure to change course on Iraq — but he is at risk of becoming a premature “lame duck”, seen as an electoral handicap by his own party and therefore unable to command obedience in Congress.
The most remarkable result of the Bush administration’s obsession with remaking the Middle East has been Washington’s astonishing failure to pay attention to Latin America — a failure all the more remarkable attention when the US president is a Texan who speaks fluent Spanish. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, once a pet Republican project, has withered as more and more Latin American countries elect left-wing parties that are profoundly hostile to it, but apart from half-hearted support for a coup that tried to overthrow Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez two years ago, Washington has not once acted to block or remove these governments.
Well over half the population of Latin America is already ruled by leftist governments whose relations with official Washington are very cool — up from only ten percent when Mr Bush first took office, and the proportion might reach two-thirds during this coming year if the Mexican election also swings that country to the left. The Bush administration is so good at alienating old friends and allies that even the Canadian election campaign was taking on a distinctly anti-American flavour at year’s end.
Europe had a relatively uneventful year, apart from the rejection of the new EU constitution in the spring referendums. There were bombs in London underground trains and buses in July, but apart from that Europe remained almost as free from the alleged terrorist threat as the United States itself. Germany finally got a new government in November, almost two months after the election that ended the reign of Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats, but the outcome was so finely balanced that the new cabinet was almost half Socialists: the new chancellor, Christian Democratic Party leader Angela Merkel, will not be able to diverge very far from Schroeder’s cautious policies. The poorest parts of Paris, and subsequently of other French cities, erupted in riots in November that were widely misrepresented as an uprising by the country’s disadvantaged Muslim minority, but were actually an incoherent, apolitical revolt by all the country’s neglected and discarded minorities, including the bottom end of the old white working class. (The riots in Australia in December, on the other hand, really were about race and religion.)
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi managed to cobble together a new coalition when his existing government fell in April, but he is unlikely to stay in office past next year’s elections. British prime minister Tony Blair scrambled back into office in a spring election with a majority cut in half because of popular discontent with Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, but the Irish Republican Army’s decision to destroy its entire arsenal in September, putting a definitive end to the armed campaign in Northern Ireland that it suspended eleven years ago, wasa success for Blair’s patient diplomacy. It stood in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s continuing failure to reach a lasting ceasefire with ETA, the severely weakened military wing of the Basque separatist movement (which paralysed Madrid in early December with five small bombs on roads around the city).
Further east, Polish voters switched horses in September, rejecting a government led by former Communists in favour of parties descended from Solidarity and closely linked to the Catholic church. Croatia was finally allowed to become a formal candidate for EU membership in October, in return for giving information to the Hague tribunal that led to the arrest of Croatia’s most-wanted war crimes suspect, General Ante Gotovina, in December. And in the post-Soviet Muslim republics of Central Asia, the mostly non-violent and more or less democratic revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March did not cause a domino effect: Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov got away with shooting down at least 500 of his own citizens in October, Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliev cruised back into office in a highly dubious election in November, and Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev won around 90 percent of the votes in an early December election.
The premier media event of the year was undoubtedly the death of Pope John Paul II in March and the selection of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in April, but it is unlikely that there will be any substantial changes of Catholic doctrine or policy as a result. The year’s most important international event was unquestionably the coming into effect of the Kyoto accord on climate change in February, following Russia’s decision to ratify it late in 2004. The Montreal review conference on the Kyoto deal in November, though it failed to agree on further measures to control greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, managed to keep the door open for continued negotiations on this agenda despite the wrecking attempts of the US government. And the great new global anxiety, driven by growing numbers of cases of bird-to-human transmission of avian influenza viruses in south-east Asia, was the possibility of an influenza pandemic as lethal as the one that killed 50-100 million people in 1918-19. It may not strike in 2006 or even 2007, but most experts are convinced that something very nasty is on the way.
And so, finally, to Asia, home to half the human race. Bhutan became a world leader by becoming the first nation to ban smoking everywhere outside private homes, the ruling Burmese generals abruptly moved the country’s capital from Rangoon to a sleepy up-country town called Pyinmana (which has now been fortified within an inch of its life, presumably as a further precaution to protect them from angry mobs), and China revalued the yuan — by a very small amount. King Gyanendra of Nepal seized absolute power in March in a royal coup that simply eased the task of the Maoist guerillas who are gaining control over more and more of the Himalayan kingdom, and in the same month Hong Kong got a new chief executive chosen by Beijing, Donald Tsang, without the tedious formality of a vote. But the most shocking event was the devastating earthquake that struck northern Pakistan. The shock was not that it killed more people than last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami (though it did), but that the international aid was so much less and so much slower to arrive. Now many of the roads are blocked by snow, and unknown numbers of ‘quake survivors are dying of exposure and malnutrition every day in cut-off mountain villages where few buildings remain standing.
Afghanistan held an election of sorts in September, but it mainly served to confirm the power of the regional warlords who took over from the Taliban in most places after the US-led invasion in 2001. Suicide bombers demanding an Islamic state struck in traditionally tolerant Bangladesh in November. Sri Lanka’s long civil war seemed likely to re-ignite after an election in that same month in which Mahinda Rajapakse, a candidate who vows never to recognise the Tamil minority’s demand for an autonomous region in the north and north-east, won the presidency by the narrowest of margins. (Rajapakse would almost certainly have lost the election if people living in areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers had not been forced to boycott it, which suggests that the Tigers want to end the ceasefire but put the blame on the other side.) And in July Thailand declared a state of emergency in its three Muslim-majority southern provinces, where bungled responses from Bangkok have inflated local grievances into a growing insurgency.
On the positive side, the long-running crisis over North Korea’s alleged nuclear weapons came to an apparently satisfactory conclusion in November, when Kim Jong-Il’s regime finally got what it had been after all along: a US commitment not to invade the starveling Stalinist dictatorship, and some foreign aid. But it had always been a fairly implausible crisis anyway, as North Korea had no conceivable use for nuclear weapons except to deter an American attack, which had never been part of the Bush administration’s plans despite all the heated rhetoric. And it’s doubtful that North Korea has ever built any operational nuclear weapons despite its claims to the contrary.
April saw anti-Japanese riots all over China, in state-encouraged protests against new Japanese textbooks that minimise the crimes committed by Japan when it invaded China in 1937-45. Junichiro Koizumi’s centre-right government in Tokyo, nothing daunted by this demonstration of Chinese displeasure, went right ahead with strengthening its military alliance with the United States (and extending a Japanese military guarantee to Taiwan as well). None of this did Koizumi any harm with the voters, and he won a national election in September by a landslide. Subsequently, he backed new constitutional amendments that would enable Japan to send military forces overseas to fight alongside its allies.
The one truly worrisome development of the year, not just for Asia but for the whole world, was the ten-year military agreement between the United States and India that was signed in Washington in July. While not a formal military alliance that commits the two countries to fight together against any foe, it has all the hallmarks of an alliance intended to “contain” China. Indeed, it looks like the capstone in a series of such alliances and agreements between the US and Asian countries that now virtually encircle China to the east, south and west. That is certainly how it will be viewed in Beijing, and the concern is that the Chinese will respond to this perception of being surrounded and threatened by racing to build up their own military forces, thereby confirming their neighbours’ anxieties and setting up a positive feedback loop. This is, in fact, the way most arms races get started, and the last thing Asia and the world need in the early twenty-first century is a Cold War between China on one side, and the US, India and Japan on the other.
But don’t despair. This is just a possibility so far, not a reality.
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