A few quick thoughts on the top ten geo-political events I'll be watching in 2012, not necessarily presented in order!
1-Syria/Arab Spring: The house that Al-Asad built will not last the year, the regime is determined to stay its course. A military led-coup becomes a stronger possibility towards mid-2012 resulting in an “Egypt” style transition – which leaves a very tenuous peace behind. Western & allied Arab states already involved clandestinely with opposition inside Syria, increasing body counts and violent repression brings open intervention closer. Look for Turkey as first to recognize opposition as legitimate government, followed by Gulf donor states, and the EU/US. In the wider region, North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf a trend that began with sustaining US relations with Lebanon, despite a Hizballah-led government, will continue. Finally the US/West will recognize the legitimacy of Islamist political governments which may be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas. This will be the way ahead for Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, etc. Furthermore this policy change will not be because US/Western governments want to change how they deal with such groups but because they must – the people have spoken.
2-Venezuela: President Hugo Chavez dies without implementation for a strong succession of his policies. Democratic opposition, aided heavily by Columbia and the US, take power following a tense political stand-off that sees the satellites of Ecuador and Nicaragua lessening their rhetoric. A transition power struggle could be violent but short-lived. However, anti-US/Western sentiments remain popular in South America due to the worldwide recession and the continued closing of political space in most countries. Brazil remains a notable exception, however, Brazilian confidence results in a continued “BRICS” attempt to provide an alternative third way to US/EU-led models.
3-US Elections: President Obama wins re-election by a narrower majority than in 2008. Foreign policy remains relatively unchanged and counterterrorism remains a high priority. Reinvesting in South American and Pacific alliances continues to move forward. US administration will grow emboldened diplomatically due to successful (viewed by the US electorate) drawdown of the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. This could result in movement for frozen conflicts such as Israel – Palestine in the new administrations out years.
4-Persian Gulf: Political protests continue to gain momentum throughout the Gulf, continued at first by Shi’a minorities but increasingly joined by disenfranchised ethnic/tribal groups, and civil-society protestors. Iranian regional foreign policy becomes more muscular; energized by US withdrawal from Iraq and internal Iranian political pressures. US commitment to Gulf allies remains strong but comes under increasing strain due to repression of dissent. Saudi internal politics, increasing Chinese influence, and decreased American dependence on Saudi exports all work together to neutralize the Kingdom’s public rhetoric against Iran. Beginning in 2012 the US will continually decrease the percentage of petroleum imports from the Gulf. Iraqi political developments continue improving slowly, despite sometimes violent unrest. The abrupt realization the Americans are gone, and that they the Iraqis themselves have to compromise, prevents a return to 2005-8 levels of conflict.
5-China: The Chinese government becomes increasingly stymied by a muscular and aggressive US foreign policy in the Western Pacific that capitalizes upon regional fears of Chinese hegemony. Taiwan continues to play the role of a red-herring, as does the South China Sea, and North Korea. The real story will be expansion of China’s markets into Eastern Russia. A region rich in natural resources and lightly populated 2012 will see these factors driving increased Chinese economic immigration and commercial exploitation. The stage begins setting for long-term future direct annexation or de facto take-over by China by mid-21st Century.
6-US Recovery: Consumer confidence remains weak, but rising durable goods orders and declining unemployment steadily drive the US economy out of recession. While full recovery is still likely 2-3 years away the US recovery will re-energize world markets; particularly in the EU and Japan. Unfortunately domestic US politics delay a faster recovery as needed congressional legislation on financial oversight and removing toxic assets from banks adversely affects credit availability in the market. Look for strengthening exports in aviation, high-technology, and energy sectors.
7-Eurozone: Political and economic unrest in Greece directly impacts Western Balkan attempts at integration. While an extreme fringe minority continues a loud call for expulsion of Greece, and Greek-nationalists talk of default to regain control of the economic situation, this will not happen. Germany forces the EU to take stronger control of national economies to bind them closer fiscally, costing the current Merkel coalition government political standing but solidifies Germany role as financial leader of the EU. Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Poland all risk further intervention and imposition of austerity measures in order to meet EU standards. The EU continues developing a more-integrated security mechanism and perhaps the UK begins serious debate on joining the Eurozone.
8-North Korea: While many in the West continue to see North Korea as a Chinese proxy the real truth is the Hermit Kingdom is beholden to no-one. While a period of quiet follows into mid-2012 as regime power brokers maneuver behind the new Supreme Leader pressure will build for him to exert his aggressiveness to control an increasingly politically powerful and self-aware military. Higher profile events in other parts of the world perhaps provide opportunity for North Korea to make mischief in relations to South Korea and the US. A limited military attack such as those seen in 2010/2011remains possible. Watch for China to stop just short of condemning North Korean actions in public.
9-Afghanistan/Pakistan: The US-led coalition begins the transition away from major combat to advising and assisting Afghan security forces. This allows for a quicker withdrawal of large conventional US military units to be replaced by specialized advisors from the tactical and strategic level. Counter-terrorism operations from Afghanistan into Pakistan continue until Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zwahiri are killed or captured; an increased likelihood for both in 2012. By the end of 2012 Afghan government and Taliban peace talks have established an amnesty program. The delicate US-Pakistani relationship remains strained to breaking throughout 2012, especially after Omar/Zwahiri are killed or captured on Pakistani soil. Unmanned drone attacks along the border decrease through early 2012 but increase in intensity as US forces begin transitioning out of the theater of operations. A congressionally mandated hold on US military funding and assistance remains in place through the year. Pakistani politics could provide either a military coup or Imran Khan led (more)democratic regime – this year.
10-Russia: Protests continue but sporadically. Medvedev and Putin make a show of elections that ultimately result in a return to the presidency by Putin. A Russian government which feels unfairly criticized by the West seeks to use its vast energy resources as a diplomatic stick via the various pipelines supplying Western Europe such as the South Stream. Flashpoints will be NATO use of Central Asian bases, UNSC Sanctions – particularly anything relating to Iran/Syria/Serbia. A German-led EU (strongly supported by Austria and Italy) establishes a political rapprochement with Russia on issues such as Ukraine in NATO/EU, Kosovo, and human rights in Russia due to increased dependence upon gas imports. The UK will remain and outlier to this part of the relationship.