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Global Conflicts

The more things change, they stay the same

Four permanent UN Security Council members face possible leadership handovers in 2012. Instead of change, writes John Hulsman for DW's Transatlantic Voices column, these transitions will lead to political inertia.

A globe

Global governance will see few surprises in 2012

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a political consulting firm. A life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is the author of The Godfather Doctrine and a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.             

Most grown-up foreign affairs analysts (that is those who do not think the UN runs the world) accept that global governance only works when a majority of the planet's great powers - based on specific shared interests - come together to right the world's ills. As most problems are transnational in character and as power remains firmly ensconced at the nation-state level, it is only when these powers decide to work together that we truly get anywhere.

John C. Hulsman

John C. Hulsman

As such, the coming year of leadership transitions, where power will or may shift hands in four of the five Security Council's permanent membership, is a year where stasis is about the best thing one can hope for.

Given we live in a world of daunting and intractable problems, where the Iran nuclear crisis, eurozone crisis, and future of the Arab Spring will all come to a head, this is not saying much. But given these transitions, looking for bold new policy initiatives out of the world's great powers will be like waiting for Godot.

The general reasons for the malaise

Generic countries in transition - whatever the political nature of the system - are unlikely to unveil bold and risky new foreign policy initiatives; by definition times of transition are times of inward looking. In democratic (or quasi-democratic) states like the US, France, and Russia, domestic facts on the ground make staying the course prudent.

If the incumbent wins (in these cases Presidents Obama, Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Putin), he wishes to leave no hostages to fortune, making as few bold foreign policy promises as possible, to maximize his room for maneuver once re-election is assured.

If the incumbent is democratically unseated - as domestic issues almost always determine political outcomes rather than foreign affairs - the new leader is unlikely to have concocted a fully-formed foreign policy, and will proceed along the lines of his vanquished foe, at least until he finds his own feet, installs his own team in the relevant foreign affairs ministries, and allows them time to learn their briefs.

This is also true in the case of authoritarian China, where a new government (probably led by Xi Jinping) will be nervously looking over its shoulder at the legion of eminence grises who used to run the place. This universal truth means that for most of 2012, the four great powers (the US, Russia, China, and France) will be on autopilot. The problem with this is that the world and its crises wait for no man, and no country. 

Specific political cultures don't help here, either

Looking at the specifics of the great power four does not give one room for optimism, either. In the case of a US just beginning to pull itself out of the greatest threat to the global economy since the Great Depression, President Obama has operated his foreign policy like a Bad Bank; he has been winding up the costly calamities of the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, while making no new risky commitments of his own.

From the administration's refusal to countenance new IMF funds to help a stricken Europe, through its largely passive role in watching the Arab Spring develop (think Syria), this is a White House whose mantra is the ancient Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

An economically besieged France is unable to play a grandiose Gaullist role, even if it wished to. Polls suggest that Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande remains ahead of President Sarkozy if the two emerge as the second-round candidates for the Elysee Palace.

Over the euro crisis such an outcome could prove tumultuous, as Hollande has made it clear he wishes to revisit the just-agreed-upon austerity treaty Sarkozy (as the increasingly junior partner) made in tandem with Chancellor Merkel; it is certainly true that a growth strategy has been crucially neglected.

But beyond this domestic issue, while France is hawkish over increased Iranian sanctions, it has little else to offer, whoever wins the presidency. As for the Arab Spring, beyond the usual impotent declarations that the Syrian government should stop murdering its people, do not look for a downgraded France to lead the charge here.

Russia won't come around on Iran

A Putin government trying to change the subject to the creation of middle class jobs (from that of stealing elections) interest-wise wants the Iran crisis to go on and on; as a major oil and gas exporter this can greatly help jumpstart Russia's one-note petroleum economy. It will not in practice go along with the west squeezing Iran.

The Kremlin will also show continuing support for old ally Syria (its last real friend in the Middle East) whatever the butchery, gumming up efforts for a joint international response to the near-civil war there.

China's entire strategic culture is based on Deng Xiaoping's dictum to make as little noise as possible internationally as the country continues on its meteoric economic rise. The largest consumer of Iranian oil and gas (and a major direct investor in Iran's oil fields) shows no sign of wanting to write off this tie as a significant strategic and economic loss.

The Arab Spring is viewed with alarm, as are all quasi-democratic revolts, as they cut a little too close to the bone. Over bailing out Europe, Beijing sensibly enough wonders why if relatively rich countries cannot help themselves, they insist on asking a relatively poor (in per capita terms) country such as China to save them.

While this mountain of factors will not cause blanket foreign policy paralysis at the great power level, they do constitute the general 'drag' that makes effective global governance over the game changing issues of 2012 highly unlikely. Put it this way: as head of a foreign policy political risk firm, I expect to have plenty of work in the year ahead!

Editors: Michael Knigge, Rob Mudge

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