The three 2012 themes that matter most

By Ian Bremmer
December 27, 2012

2012 – the year of the primary, the election, the Diamond Jubilee, the superstorm, the flying dictator, the escaped dissident, the embassy attack, the empty chair, the tech protest, the Olympics, and dozens of other stories already forgotten. It was a busy year and a terribly volatile one, too. Which of these stories will actually matter five years from now? By my count, three:

1)     China rising

2)     The Middle East in turmoil

3)     Europe muddling along

They’re the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2012.

The Good: For the sake of our listless global economy, thank goodness for China’s rise. The country’s Commerce Minister is promising that China will hit its GDP growth target of 7.5 percent for the year. (In the first three quarters of 2012, it grew 7.7 percent.) China’s ability to power through the financial crisis provided global markets with much-needed energy, and its momentum, despite the crisis in the Eurozone, a key trade partner, has helped limit the damage. If it wasn’t for the resilience of the world’s second-largest economy, we’d all be a lot worse off.

The Bad: In 2012, almost every key story in the Middle East has gotten more complicated and more dangerous. Syria, Israel, Gaza, Iran, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt. Israel has become increasingly isolated within the region, facing Palestinian rockets, a nuclear-driven Iran, and the prime minister of a former ally dubbing it ‘a terrorist state’. Egypt’s president pulled off a power play, and the Syrian nightmare deepened. Iraqis struggled to build a new society in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, and (supposedly allied) Afghans killed a record number of U.S. troops before they could reach the exits. When the Arab Spring first began to take shape, many observers hoped it would be just that – a rebirth. But you can’t spin it now. It’s bad and getting worse.

The Ugly: Europe was a mess in 2012. Reform of the euro area is moving in the right direction, but the halting progress that European leaders made in crafting a new eurozone could not avert record unemployment rates and a return to recession. The term ‘Grexit’ was coined in response to the persistent threat of Greece leaving the euro. Widespread protests against tough austerity measures, the rise of nationalist political parties, and huge governance and implementation challenges have compounded the problems of a continent still groping for credible, lasting solutions. In 2012, we’ve seen moderate progress — and a whole lot of ugly.

What do these three trends mean for the next five years?

In the Middle East, the various emerging conflicts are too expensive, too intractable, and too risky for outsiders to try to manage. Regional powers will have to manage these problems on their own. The bad will remain bad.

But for China and Europe, the ugly will slowly become good, and the good is about to get ugly.

The Europeans are on track to build a new eurozone, one that addresses many of its original design flaws. That means new banking and credit rules, new roles for old institutions, and a new understanding among governments – if not citizens – that Europe needs more unity. In five years, European integration will become something ‘good’ – for international politics and the global economy.

China, meanwhile, will turn ugly, at least for its neighbors – and for the West. China’s new leadership is more of the same. Political and economic reform remain elusive goals. China’s economic growth is slated to continue, but with that growth will come foreign policy disputes as America shifts resources to build new political and commercial ties with those most anxious about China’s expansion.

China’s rise, the Middle East’s turmoil, and Europe’s stumbles are all largely independent events. Despite a globalized world, governments are focused overwhelmingly on domestic challenges these days. That doesn’t mean regional problems can’t cause global headaches. Expect that to be the case for the next five years, as well.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: REUTERS/Jason Lee | REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah | REUTERS/Sebastien Pirlet

2 comments

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“China’s ability to power through the financial crisis provided global markets with much-needed energy…”

This is backwards. The truth is that the western economies would have been much more vigorous if China had not stolen their jobs by under-pricing its yuan currency to gain an unfair advantage in world trade.

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive

In the overall you got it pretty much “right”. I’d have flipped your “Bad” and Ugly”, but I’m not you! But then you become downright contradictory in looking forward.

If China, the “good”, is about to turn “ugly” toward it’s neighbors and the west, I fail to see precisely how it will “slowly turn good”. Yes, Europe is “ugly” because it makes a face when swallowing the bitter medicine necessary if it’s economies are to return to health. But it “got it down and kept it down” and there is every reason to believe that it’s prospects will now get better as a direct result.

“In the Middle East, the various emerging conflicts are too expensive, too intractable, and too risky for outsiders to try to manage. Regional powers will have to manage these problems on their own.” Spot on! When one has pirañas, it’s best to keep fingers out of the bowl.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive