Friday, January 27, 2012

2011 Round-Up, Part II: The Year's Biggest Security Stories

With the end of 2011, many news outlets have proffered their lists of the year's biggest stories.

The list from the Wired Danger Room includes the killing of Osama bin Laden and other setbacks to al-Qaida; the "Arab Spring" in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and the international intervention there); the "end" of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq - while a substantial force of private contractors remains behind and the covert, "shadow" side of the War on Terror intensifies; and the revelation of startling anti-Muslim ignorance and bigotry in FBI training materials.

As these stories demonstrate, the list is rather focused on the War on Terror and the Middle East, but it also includes problems with high-tech aircraft programs (the grounding of the F-22 fleet, the beleaguered F-35 program), the revelations of previously secret programs (like the stealth helicopter used in the operation against bin Laden, and Pentagon research into crowdsourcing), the activities of Mexican drug cartels, and the U.S. armed forces' reaction to the massive budget cuts facing them in the coming years.

Still, there is much that the quick recaps of those items misses. The discussion of the Arab Spring is far from complete without mention of events in states besides the three North African nations that got so much press – like Bahrain (which responded with a brutal crackdown, in which it was backed by Saudi and UAE forces, events which were underreported, and which Western governments generally shied away from criticizing) and Yemen (where events have also turned bloody), which are not even mentioned in the Danger Room round-up. Additionally, the U.S. is not the only country recently forced to make sharp cuts in defense spending by its economic difficulties. (In relative terms, Britain's cuts seem far more dramatic, and are not irrelevant to the U.S. given the import of British participation in American-led interventions in the past two decades.)

One might add that during 2011 China reached two milestones in the modernization (repeat, modernization, not build-up) of its forces – its testing of a fifth-generation fighter, the J-20, and the maiden voyage of its first aircraft carrier. (The significance of these events – which represent only an early stage in the development of both those capabilities - has been grossly exaggerated by scare-mongers, but I can't help feeling that an overview of the year would not be complete without mention of them.)

Offering a more global view (in contrast with the strongly American outlook of the Danger Room), as well as greater attention to less "traditional" (but arguably more important) issues is the list of The New Security Beat's most-viewed posts. Six of the top ten explicitly discuss demographics in some way (among other things, the role it played in the revolution in Tunisia, the implications for food security, and the revelation of a new, higher UN estimate about where population growth will go in the 21st century), two deal with water security issues, and one with the interaction between the two ("Peter Gleick: Population Dynamics Key to Sustainable Water Solutions"). There is also an attempt at developing a big picture ("In Search of A New Security Narrative").

However, the items presented by The New Security Beat is less news-y and more analytical than the Danger Room, so that while the pieces discussed above certainly demand attention, they do not quite function as a comprehensive round-up of the year's events. Indeed, two of the biggest stories in energy and environmental security during 2011 are not mentioned in it – the Fukushima nuclear disaster (the most dramatic nuclear energy incident in a generation, which will profoundly affect our handling of this energy source) and the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference (the agreement produced by which represents a step further than we have gone before, but even on paper is short on both the commitment and ambition needed to tackle the problem, while in real life carbon emissions continue to shoot up).

At the same time, there is the matter of the world's financial system, which remains deeply troubled as one G-7 member after another sees its credit rating suffer (the U.S. got downgraded in August), and the Eurozone crisis tediously drags on and on and on – simply some of the more conspicuous signs of the continuation of the 2008 economic crisis. It would be simplistic to set this problem above the others – economic security is hardly extricable from the kinds described above – but it seems to me the area of greatest short-term vulnerability. Unfortunately, as recent events show, nothing significant has been done about any aspect of this (not trade imbalances, or income inequality, or stagnant consumption, or the destabilizing overfinancialization of the world economy). Indeed, the problem hardly seems to have been acknowledged – precisely because such acknowledgment flies in the face of the neoliberalism that remains the orthodoxy, even as it has been shown to be bankrupt again and again, and the fact seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

2011 Round-Up, Part I: The Best of this Blog
Reliving British Decline?
Niall Ferguson on Decline
An "East of Suez" Moment?
Keeping the Hype in Check IV: China's Sub Fleet
"Twenty Years After the Cold War: A Strategic Survey": A Short Version
Twenty Years After the Fall
Keeping the Hype in Check III: China as Global Military Power
Keeping the Hype in Check II: The ASBM
Revolution and Rebellion in the Postmodern World
Keeping the Hype in Check I: The Chengdu J-20

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