2012's Unknown Unknowns

Friday, January 6, 2012

By Ed Hancox

Like baseball great Yogi Berra, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had his own struggles with the English language, one of his best malapropisms was the coining of the term “unknown unknowns.” Rumsfeld was trying to make a valid point about the uncertain security situation at the time in Iraq – that there were unexpected contingencies that simply could not be prepared for; unfortunately for him (but perhaps fortunately for us), that thought came out as “unknown unknowns.”

As the calendar turns to 2012, we are confronted by our own set of unknown unknowns in the realm of global affairs. If you thought that 2011 was a tumultuous year, wait until you see what 2012 has in store: The effects of last year's Arab Spring uprisings are still roiling across the region; Syria seems engaged in an undeclared civil war; in North Korea it's not clear whether the “Great Successor” will be able to successfully take the reins of power; the European Debt Crisis remains unresolved; Iran remains belligerent; Vladimir Putin looks set to steal an election; and speaking of elections, there's one in the United States as well that could usher in a vast change in political philosophy. But these are the big ticket items, the ones that everyone basically knows, and worries about, already. Behind them are a whole other cadre of issues lurking in the background, but with the potential to provoke a regional, if not global, crisis. So, without further adieu, here's a quick look at the Unknown Unknowns of 2012.

Civil War in Nigeria. For Nigeria's Christian community, Christmas was rung in tragically with a series of suicide bombings both in the capital, Abuja, and in the Jos region of central Nigeria that killed at least 40 people. Claiming responsibility was Boko Harum, a militant Islamic group growing in statute and an adherent to the al-Qaeda model of global jihad.  Among the goals of Boko Harum, which loosely translates as “Western Education is Forbidden,” is to place Nigeria under sharia law, despite the fact that roughly half the country's 160 million citizens are Christians. Jos, and several other states located in central Nigeria, have long been the site of tension between the nation's Christian and Muslim communities. Bridging the divide between these two communities in Africa's most populous nation was one of the key initiatives for President Goodluck Jonathan, though sadly his efforts have yielded few results so far. One ranking member of Boko Harum even claimed that some of their main backers are in fact members of Pres. Jonathan’s ruling People's Democratic Party. Following the church bombings, members of the Christian community in Jos spoke of the need to “defend themselves” and how there could now never be peace with their Muslim neighbors - exactly the type of rhetoric that has proceeded too many of Africa's bloody civil wars.

China's New Masters. It's not just the United States facing a possibly game-changing election this fall; China will have its own vote (sort of) this autumn when the Communist Party selects a new leadership during its 18th Party Congress. More than two-thirds of the current Chinese leadership is expected to be replaced. And this new cadre of leaders will be faced with a series of tough challenges including a possible slowing of China's booming economy, just as their emerging middle class is getting use to a lifestyle filled with creature comforts; growing social unrest in localities like Wukan, which just overthrew its local Communist leadership over charges of gross corruption and abuse of office,  simmering ethnic tensions in Tibet, Xinjiang and most recently among Chinese Muslims in the Ningxia region; and tension with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the South China Sea that have led to several uncomfortable encounters between their respective militaries in recent months. How the new leaders choose to react to these challenges – attempts at accommodation versus a hard-line response – will set the tone for China's future in the near term.

Sudan War, Round II. The birth of the world's newest country, South Sudan, was the cause for wild celebrations in their nascent capital city, Juba last July. South Sudan was the result of a referendum, which itself was part of an agreement ending a bloody, decades-long civil war in Sudan. At the time, it seemed strange that Sudan would let its oil-rich southern third go; perhaps it was. Since July tensions between the two countries has been increasing with a number of border skirmishes occurring, the north accused of staging bombing raids on refugee camps in the now independent South and with new separatist movements starting in provinces traditionally allied with the South, but that wound up on the Sudan side of the border when the two countries split. To make matters worse for South Sudan, all of the existing infrastructure pumps their oil - their only resource - north to Sudan for export, meaning that Sudan can bring South Sudan's economy to a crashing halt anytime they want. All in all, the likelihood of a restart in hostilities seems to be becoming more and more of a possibility.

Falklands War, Round II.  Speaking of sequels, Great Britain and Argentina could head for a rematch of their 1981 conflict over the barren, windswept rocks known as the Falklands (or Las Malvinas to the Argentineans). Recent prospecting for deep-sea reserves of oil in their territorial zone came up dry, meaning that the islands, where sheep outnumber people, have little intrinsic value except as a symbol of nationalist fervor to the Argentineans. President Cristina Kirchner has seen fit to play the Malvinas card heavily during these past few months, and has gotten a measure of support from her South American neighbors in striking a rhetorical blow against a former colonial power. Such nationalist displays are not uncommon; other Argentine leaders have long used the Malvinas issue to whip up domestic support in the past. But there are three reasons why things could turn out differently this time. First, Kirchner was recently diagnosed with cancer, which changes her domestic equation – more forceful rhetoric over the islands could be just the thing she needs if her domestic support wanes. Second, Prince William, the likely savior of the House of Windsor, is scheduled to be deployed to the Falklands as part of his military service – it is unlikely that the Brits would want the Prince to go into an uncertain security situation, but by the same token, it's also unlikely that they would want to scrub the Prince's deployment in the face of some bellicose talk from Argentina. And finally, this summer will see London play host to the Olympics – and it's worth noting that the previous summer games were used as cover for the launching of the brief Russian-Georgian War. Does this mean the same thing will happen in 2012? No, but we can't just assume that this latest flare up over the Falklands will simply die down either.

Great Game On In Central Asia.  With the United States maintaining Afghanistan as a key facet of its foreign policy picture, moving supplies and personnel in and out of this landlocked Central Asian nation remains a logistical nightmare. But with the US-Pakistan relationship at an historic low and US-Russian relations on a downward path, more and more reliance is falling on the Northern Supply Route that hopscotches across Turkey, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia as the way to keep US troops fed and supplied. Key to that route is Uzbekistan, but their leader, Islam Karimov, is accused of the same kind of gross human rights violations that once condemned Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi; a real black-eye for the United States. Look then for the US to try to build ties with one of Uzbekistan's neighbors as a substitute for the Uzbek link in the route. The United States already as a presence in Kyrgyzstan at Manas Air Base, though that country's leader wants the US out in 2014, once the US lease on the airfield expires. Whether this is a legitimate desire or merely a bargaining position remains to be seen. Attention is likely to turn to Uzbekistan's other neighbor, Tajikistan, which recently hosted a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  At the same time, Russia has been trying to get both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to join in their plan for a Eurasian Union, while China too has been asserting their influence, especially in Tajikistan, meaning Central Asia is sure to be the site of some complex political maneuvering during the coming year.

 

Follow Ed on Twitter @EdwardHancox

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When not writing about international affairs, Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.