The World in 2005

Hidden in plain sight

As Americans, we have a natural tendency to believe that world events over the next few years will unfold from September 11. But in truth much of the world will evolve without regard to September 11. Civil wars will continue, diseases will break out, and local economic crises will run their course. The challenge is to anticipate how these other processes will intersect with the war on terrorism.

We saw an example of such intersection after the start of the air campaign in Afghanistan, when anti-Americanism among Muslims in northern Nigeria sparked a pogrom that left hundreds of local Christians dead or wounded. Intercommunal riots have been on the increase in Nigeria for years—the result, in part, of rising numbers of young males and the destabilizing effects of democratization, which have strengthened the forces of religious mobilization. The collision of these factors with America's anti-terror campaign ignited the recent violence.

What other existing trends are likely to collide with the war on terrorism—and how?

In the Middle East the war on terrorism could have the unintended consequence of disturbing regional politics to a degree unknown since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Remember that the war has been launched at a time when secular-nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are so vulnerable that only the sons of dictators are trusted to succeed the dictators. Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are all facing, at best, Mexican-style political and economic disorder, without Mexico's advantage of a long border with a First World country to which it can export millions of jobless workers and from which it can import billions of investment dollars. Because of economic and cultural transformation tied to urbanization, the next generation of Arab autocrats will, like their Mexican counterparts today, not be permitted to rule as autocratically as their predecessors. Yet none of these countries is capable of sustainable parliamentary democracy, not even to the limited degree that Mexico has achieved.

Aggravating the kind of political and economic turbulence that has been a feature of Mexican society for more than a decade will be bulges in the number of youths across the Middle East, the most severe occurring in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Gaza, and the West Bank. In Egypt, too, the percentage of males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine—the age group that traditionally stirs up unrest—will be dangerously high through 2020. Meanwhile, the amount of available water per capita will diminish by nearly half in many parts of the Middle East over the next twenty years. These inescapable realities will only become more troublesome if there is any sort of global economic downturn.

In Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak's banal authoritarianism represents the Egyptian equivalent of the Soviet Union's Brezhnev-Chernenko era. There is no Mikhail Gorbachev on the horizon. Saudi Arabia, despite its oil wealth, will prove even less governable than Egypt. It lacks the organizing geography of a great river valley, where most of the population lives within easy reach of central control. In stretches of Saudi Arabia, such as Nejd, the regime has already essentially lost its legitimacy. The experience of neighboring Yemen, with its brazen highwaymen and rampant kidnappings, may be what Saudi Arabia can look forward to—and that's the optimistic view.

Nominally pro-American regimes in the Arab heartland are not the only ones in a state of calcification. So is the anti-American regime in Iran. There the population of 66 million is refreshingly pro-American, owing to real-life experience with an Islamic revolution that has bankrupted the middle class and destroyed both the aura and the legitimacy of the clergy. In Iraq the level of repression is comparable to that in the Soviet Union under Stalin and in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu. Once Saddam Hussein's regime is brought down, the reaction among the populace may be no less enthusiastic than it was in Afghanistan when the United States dismantled the Taliban regime.

The Middle East, then, may be poised for a flip-flop, with the United States having embassies a few years hence in Tehran and Baghdad but not in Cairo, and with U.S. forces withdrawing from bases in an increasingly volatile Saudi Arabia.

Although the American-led anti-terror campaign may stoke the flames of fundamentalism in some places, including Egypt, the new century will ultimately see the implosion of political Islam. Because there is "no Islamic way to fix a car," as the saying goes, Islamic regimes offer only the sterile repression of the Taliban or the incompetent economic management of the ayatollahs. The rise of militant Islam in Pakistan, if it continues, will not create a new anti-American force so much as it will further weaken the state itself. Pakistani Islamists, divided by ethnicity and subdivided by clan, lack a unifying, Khomeini-like figure.

From the archives:

"A Modest Proposal From the Brigadier" (March 2002)
What one prominent Pakistani thinks his country should do with its atomic weapons. By Peter Landesman

Indeed, the most dangerous underlying trend in the Subcontinent is the weakening of central authority. This, in turn, intensifies bellicosity between Pakistan and India, because foreign policy represents the last arena in which the state can exert its traditional primacy. The fate of the war on terrorism will hinge to no small degree on the ability of the Bush Administration to manage the India-Pakistan rivalry. Pakistani intervention in the affairs of Afghanistan lay behind the radicalization of Afghanistan's politics in the first place. That intervention was driven by the need to create a rear wall of militant Islamic states to stand against predominantly Hindu India.

This brings us to Central Asia, which straddles the former Soviet Union and China. In the 1990s, even as the world witnessed ethnic warfare in the Caucasus and political chaos in Russia itself, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia were quiet, their populations kept under tight control by ex-communist bosses such as Islam Karimov, in Uzbekistan, and Saparmurad Niyazov, in Turkmenistan. Because Central Asia experienced little of Gorbachev's glasnost or perestroika, it had too few reformed communists to provide the basis of a secular opposition. Therefore the only serious opposition to the region's stultifying autocracies has been Islamic. As that Islamic opposition grows in Central Asia, so will Russia's paranoia—and so will its incentive to cooperate with the United States against terrorism.

From the archives:

"China's Wild West" (September 1999)
In the terrible desert and desolate massif of Xinjiang, the Beijing government faces a volatile mixture of ethnic groups, some of whom are hostile to all that is Chinese. By Jeffrey Tayler

The same holds true for China, where further modernization, before leading to stable democracy, will heighten ethnic conflict between the Han Chinese and the Muslim Turkic Uighurs in the western part of the country (historically known as East Turkistan). Among the reasons the Chinese cooperated with our effort to topple the Taliban was that Uighur radicals were to be found in al Qaeda training camps.

The rising threat of militant Islam in the Asian steppes could usher in a new "concert of powers" that, while not ending competition among the United States, Russia, and China, will provide a framework for cooperation. Stability in Afghanistan can be achieved only by commanders and warlords, each fearful of the other, cutting deals that serve one another's self-interest; a modicum of order in a disorderly world can be had only on the basis of a similarly wary cooperation.

In Africa the rising tide of young males will be even more extreme than in the Middle East. The top ten "youth-bulge" countries are all in sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas the 1990s saw the implosion of small states (Somalia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone), the next decade, judging by recent political violence that has devolved into gang warlordism in a number of African cities, could see the implosion of larger entities such as Côte d'Ivoire and Kenya. Nigeria is already crumbling, although too slowly to generate headlines. The loss of central authority may be part of a long-term transition that will ultimately yield positive results. But in the short term it will provide new opportunities and havens for global terrorist groups, which thrive in weakly governed realms.

As al Qaeda's 1998 bombing of the American missions in Kenya and Tanzania demonstrated, the safety of U.S. embassies in Africa has become increasingly difficult to guarantee. The years ahead could witness more embassy downsizings in Africa, together with commando raids on terrorist hideouts. Humanitarian crises in Africa will worsen in the near future, even as the United States pays less attention to the continent, because of other foreign-policy concerns and because America's diminished affluence will temper national idealism. If NATO does not begin to work through the United Nations to organize a global constabulary force for select humanitarian interventions, the application of American power against terrorists will run the risk of seeming narrowly self-serving—undermining America's reputation and thus its ability to be a benevolent global power.

Finally, in Latin America, as in so many other places, the teeming urban underclasses remain poor and politically disenfranchised. They are supporters-in-waiting for populist authoritarianism, as witnessed in Venezuela, under General Hugo Chavez. The United States is riding a tiger there: Venezuela is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States. Given global interconnection and the fragility of so many regimes, the possibilities for unintended consequences to foreign action are legion. The near future may see catastrophic chain reactions: a terrorist attack in one place may prompt a military attack someplace else, which sets off riots in yet another place, leading to a coup in a pivotal country elsewhere.

From the 1950s through the 1980s the existence of the Cold War justified media coverage of far-off countries in little-known parts of the world. The war on terror will do the same. It will provide a template for foreign news. But in the shadows will lurk a philosophical tension: A world that is closer and more dangerous than ever necessitates a heightened pragmatism in U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, global elites in this interconnected world will demand a heightened idealism from President Bush if he is to have legitimacy in their eyes. Presidential rhetoric may get nobler even as American policies become more ruthless. Closing the distance between the two—through a global constabulary force and similar measures—will constitute the principal challenge for American foreign policy.