Friday, January 4, 2013

The Global Atlas 2012 Wrap-Up

As 2012 draws to a close and 2013 begins, The Global Atlas reflects on world events over the past year that will shape the year to come. Some we have written on, others we have not, but the picture that emerges is that 2012 was a year of gradual transformation as a result of the cataclysmic events of 2011. It remains to be seen if the changes wrought in the world will be for better or for worse.

1.     Latin America

Protests in Mexico over the presidential election results
Though Latin America may have appeared in the headlines less than any other region this year, The US’s southern neighbors have been very active in the political and economic realms. 2012 saw the rise of Arab Awakening-esque moments in Mexico that continue to threaten the government’s already tenuous grasp on stability. Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, has been signaling that his longtime isolationist Caribbean nation is open to talks with perpetual enemy America. Meanwhile, two bastions of anti-U.S. power in the region, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, are currently enduring battles with their health that could render them politically unviable in 2013.

Colombian FARC rebels declared a unilateral truce, but the Colombian government has yet to do the same and continues to launch attacks against the rebels, on January 1 claiming at least 13 lives in a single bombing. Talks are ongoing in Cuba, but the country remains at a deadlock about how to proceed against FARC. Usual economic darling Brazil saw a disappointing 1 percent rise in GDP, compared to 7.5 percent just two years ago in 2010, largely due to the devaluation of the real that will help exports in the long run but is currently wreaking havoc with investment.

Things may be looking bleak in some countries, but in Chile the economy remained robust through the financial crisis, growing at an estimated rate of 5.7 percent. While the nation is still struggling with the aftermath of dictator Augusto Pinochet, it has the one of the world’s fastest growing economies and has largely managed to dodge some of the effects of the global recession. Growing middle classes in almost every country offer new markets for modern goods and services. Such new markets are essential if the other regions of the world want to overcome the fiscal and economic mess many find themselves in now. Latin America may not have solicited the attention it deserved in 2012, but if no news is good news, then the U.S. should be looking to the south as trading partners rather than fragile, aid-receiving countries to ignore.

2.     Europe

The London Olympics

In Europe, the Eurozone crisis continued to dominate the headlines, with Greece requiring another bailout and France and Germany unable to come to a consensus on how to best remedy the situation. As Colin wrote earlier this year, a lack of political coordination in concert with economic integration has led to a breakdown in the entire EU system. Leaders are left with harsh choices: perpetuate debt and division by continuing on the current path, or anger domestic populations with strict austerity measures, which may not even be enough to avoid economic insolvency throughout the region. As the world’s largest economic entity, a failure in the EU to solve the current economic and political problems would be even more disastrous than the US financial crisis of 2009. The longer European countries wait to take action, the more intractable their problems become, and the more painful a solution will be.

In Eastern Europe, Russia had a false start for political reform with protests that began in 2011 but that fizzled out in time for Vladimir Putin’s reelection to the presidency in March. Putin himself has noticeably distanced himself further from the West, most recently signing off on a law that renders all US-Russia adoptions illegal, seemingly in response to the US Magnitsky Act that bans human rights violators from visiting the US. In the coming year the challenge for both parties will be to find enough common ground to come to an agreement on nuclear weapons, international travel for citizens of both countries, and the adoption bill. In other Eastern European countries, corruption, debt, and transparency remained central obstacles to development.

A bright spot of news from Europe came in the form of the London Summer Olympics this year. For a few weeks, the world put confrontations on hold as countries came together symbolically, a task they seem to find impossible in reality.

3.     Sub-Saharan Africa

Labor protests in South Africa

From the Sahel to the Cape of Good Hope, Southern Africa experienced many developments and setbacks this year. Fighting grew worse in war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, exacerbated by forces allegedly sent by Rwanda and Uganda, a charge that both countries’ leadership firmly deny. South Africa experienced violent and tragic labor protests that resulted in at least 34 deaths when police opened fire on protestors. In a country that has been touted as an investment opportunity to outsiders, such violent strikes reveal a need for labor reform unless South Africa’s government wishes to continue to scare away investors.

Further north, Sudan and South Sudan came to a few agreements in the process of their protracted separation. The resumption of oil production and exports was the biggest step forward for the two nations, although the agreement may be short-lived and violence is always a possibility. Extreme Islamism also touched the region when militants took over Northern Mali in March.

The conflicts in both the Sudan and South Africa point to another issue facing Africa: the temporary economic upswing caused by the exploitation of natural resources will be temporary unless more investment is made in human security. The current benefits seen by countries with resources to mine and export will quickly be exhausted unless governments are willing to fund long-term projects in human and infrastructure development. Advanced economies cannot take hold in Africa without such investments, and Africa’s peoples will no longer see the benefits of economic growth but rather the harsh and sometimes violent repercussions of retraction.

4.     The Middle East and North Africa

Hamas military head Ahmed Jabari, who was assassinated by Israel

The most tumultuous region in the world was in no danger of losing its title as the Syrian civil war drew on, Israel and Palestine engaged in another war, US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was assassinated in Libya, and Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi reignited protests. Syria, which we will dedicate a few special articles to in the future, remains the largest concern worldwide. Although the Syrian opposition was able to gain international recognition from important power players including the United States, the world was unwilling to step in militarily, with efforts at a Security Council resolution stymied by China and Russia. Even if President Bashar al-Asad is overthrown, serious questions remain over what a post-Asad Syria will look like, especially considering the extremists within the Syrian opposition. The rebellion’s continuation has only led to a humanitarian disaster and raised chances for regional war.

Israel received the most attention from us here at the Global Atlas, whether it was in regards to the demographic shifts threatening Israel’s domestic stability or the conflict with Gaza that shook an already tenuous period of relative peace. While the facts on the ground did not change much due to the weeklong conflict, many viewed it as a staging ground for a larger war yet to come. In the West Bank, PLO President Abbas succeeded in his bid for UN Non-Member Observer status, a diplomatic step forward for Palestinian statehood. In 2013 it will remain to be seen if the PLO and Hamas will be able to come together with Israel to work towards a two-state solution and further the peace process, or if said process is already too damaged to be resuscitated.

5.     Asia

The US was not alone in 2012 in its “Pivot To Asia.” Central, south, and east Asian countries saw rising prominence and the region’s two largest economies, India and China, marched on in their stratospheric economic growth. In East Asia, North Korea did not shift from its international pariah status as the successor to Kim Jong Il, his son Kim Jong Un, perpetuated his father’s policies of isolationism, nuclear provocation, and a failure to revive a stagnant economy. Meanwhile, Japan, China, and South Korea (as well as Taiwan) engaged each other in territorial disputes over several groups of islands, the most famous of which is the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. The arguments over ownership of seemingly inconsequential rocks reflect the growing tide of nationalism in East Asian nations that culminated with the election of far-right Japanese PM Abe in December.

Chinese relations with the US were also strained as both presidential candidates attempted to look “tough on China” in their campaigns. Pres. Obama filed complaints with the WTO about China’s trade policies and Mitt Romney threatened to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. He was unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency, but the current rhetoric paints China as an aggressor rather than the partner it could be.

In south Asia, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan experienced troubles of their own. While India and Pakistan’s tumultuous relationship appeared relatively peaceful, India has recently been rocked by protests over the gang rape and murder of a college students with citizens calling for greater protection of women. Pakistan experienced its own protests on behalf of one of its female citizens Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban. Malala survived the attack to become a symbol of Pakistani resistance to extremism. Earlier in the year, a blasphemy case revealed the opposite side of the issue with extremists rallying around the arrest of a young girl accused of desecrating the Qur’an. With US withdrawal from Afghanistan set for 2014, the coming year will center on preparations by the country’s different factions as well as its neighbors for the instability most are sure will follow.


In the coming year, the world faces many problems both large and small. While each country must manage the microcosm of its domestic politics and economy, sweeping issues like the global economy, development, climate change, and political extremism must be dealt with as well. Here's to a 2013 of less violence and turmoil; the world could surely use a year filled with good news after 2012.

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