It seems fitting to begin this first post of 2013 with a look back at 2012--in this case, that year's biggest international security stories.
Here I am sticking with security as construed in traditional, physical, state-centered terms rather than less conventional matters of economic, energy, food or environmental security.1 This is not to dispute that these other dimensions of life create the context of means and motive in which states pursue traditional security. However, the way changes in these areas tend to develop - slowly and complexly and often ambiguously--makes them difficult to track precisely, let alone identify points of transition which can be meaningfully isolated in a list of Big Developments.2 It might be noted, too, that this has been a year in which the familiar troubles (from climatic disruption and related food price spikes to the eurozone fiscal crisis) worsened in the familiar ways without meaningful response from any major actor--non-stories rather than stories in the strictest sense, even as the problems continued to wreak havoc. (Two partial exceptions seem worth noting here, however. Under the "problem" column, the unambiguous slowdown of Chinese, Indian and Brazilian economic growth, with all that spells for the more than usually vulnerable global economy; in the "solutions" column, the Doha climate conference, the results of which I have found underwhelming, but which some more optimistic observers think at least laid important groundwork for more substantive progress later.)
In discussing traditional security I am also setting aside the kind of headline-grabbers about such things as appointments to particular offices and the personal pecadilloes of specific high-ranking officials (like the appointment of Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense, or the melodrama of the "the Petraeus affair") that made up Foreign Policy's list of the top stories.3 I suppose I see that sort of thing as simply happening on a not particularly illuminating level of analysis, while also happening to be rather Beltway-centric, and often simply gossipy, in contrast with the more comprehensive and globally-oriented round-up I mean to present here.
Skimming the Headlines
As always, 2012 saw a great deal of continuity, especially in those issues that have tended to command American headlines. The United States continued to combat al-Qaida through military means as well as intelligence and police efforts, with the long-controversial use of military detention, rendition and "enhanced interrogation" remaining unchanged, and the drone war expanded, particularly in countries where internal conflicts are ongoing--Yemen, Somalia and northwestern Pakistan. Over the border American troops remain engaged in a decreasingly popular (and it seems at times, forgotten) war in Afghanistan, while U.S. special forces also made a quiet return to a still conflict-ridden Iraq after the withdrawal of American forces from the country completed in the preceding year.
The North Korean nuclear program still absorbed a significant share of the attention of the major powers, as did the country's ballistic missile-and-space program (which saw space launches in April and December, the second of these successful), while relations among the longer-established nuclear powers had their accustomed rancor. Russia went on opposing American plans to build missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe (extending to threats of preemptive military action), deploy aircraft and ships far from home to demonstrate its reach (one Russian sub reportedly operating undetected by the U.S. Navy for a whole month in the Gulf of Mexico), and once again announce ambitious plans for military reform and modernization. The nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan also goes on, in the main an object of speculation among analysts rather than open statements or significant revelations (the odd missile test apart).
As these nations all milk their military capacities for their prestige value, Europe's larger military powers are continuing to grapple with the implications of the 2008 financial crisis for their defense budgets.
Less noticed, but not to be overlooked, several already ongoing insurgencies and other internal conflicts of varying intensities, notably those in Colombia, Senegal, Nigeria, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, continued through 2012 without signs of resolution.
Other situations have seen somewhat more dramatic developments, however.
The UN General Assembly voted to recognize Palestinian statehood in November as its conflict with Israel went on (at times, well beyond its borders, Israel's bombing a site in Sudan that year in what some regard as a related incident). The longstanding dispute regarding Iran's nuclear program, like North Korea's, continued to absorb diplomatic efforts, and unlike North Korea's, to lead to military incidents between U.S. and Iranian forces, Iranian aircraft firing on a U.S. drone, while the potential for something larger (like a military strike) remains. However, the toughening of U.S. sanctions on the country has added a new element to the situation, by severely disrupting the Iranian economy.
Significant developments were also evident in sub-Saharan Africa, where Sudan clashed with the newly independent South Sudan along their mutual border. Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia, while African Union and Kenyan forces remain engaged alongside the government in the country's civil war. Piracy off the country's coast also declined in 2012 (as piracy has also increased off West Africa, though the frequency and ambition of the attacks there is a far cry from what was seen off the Horn of Africa in past years). That region also saw two coups, in
Mali and Guinea-Bissau (all the more noteworthy as such changes of power have become a rarity in recent years), and a rebellion in the Central African Republic. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo the
M23 rebellion, backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda (each dealing with Congo-based rebel groups of their own) added a dangerous, newish element to the complex of conflicts afflicting their region since the 1990s. In South Africa strikes in the mining sector and the violence that has followed (which included a police massacre of striking workers, the first such post-apartheid incident) has raised questions about the stability of the highly unequal country.
The incidence of violence along the U.S.-Mexican border may be falling off, though that claim is a subject of some controversy, especially with the same violence continuing south of the border, though this too may have stabilized or even begin to decline. Much the same may be the case in the Russian Caucasus (even as Russo-Georgian relations - and Georgian relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia - remained little improved), while Tajikistan saw a rebellion begin and apparently end in Gorno-Badakhshan. India's insurgencies in Kashmir, Naxal and the Northeast, too, may be in decline.
By contrast, Indonesia's Papua province has seen a largely unreported surge of violence. At the same time neo-fascist violence appears to be increasing in restive, austerity-stricken Europe, with the activities of the Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary, though anti-Roma violence in particular is becoming widespread, particularly in east-central Europe but elsewhere on the continent as well, while there are also signs of an upsurge in anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attacks.
There have also been some noteworthy developments in the defense policies of certain of the major powers. Germany, while no exception to the trend toward force downsizing and budget-slashing in Western Europe, continues to "normalize" its armed forces, through changes in legislation (permitting the use of German soldiers internally in peacetime) and acquisitions policy (like the purchase of armed drones). Additionally, more slowly and less dramatically than its European allies, the U.S. is also moving toward cuts in defense expenditures, announcing a reduction of almost a half trillion dollars in military spending over the next ten years. The battle over the budget deficit at the year's end also raised the prospect of deeper cuts than that (an issue still unresolved at this time).
Two Particularly Big Stories
Consequential as all the events described above already are, and might become, for the time being the two biggest stories - those involving particularly dramatic turns in situations likely to have wide impact - appear to be the more aggressive tone of the relations between China and the other major powers in East Asia; and the continuing effects of the wave of revolutions sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East from 2011 on.
Realpolitik in the Western Pacific
The U.S. continued in its controversial "pivot" toward East Asia, with 2012 seeing the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia in April, and discussion of the basing of more U.S. warships in Singapore. It also saw the public unveiling of the AirSea Battle doctrine, widely taken as directed against, and provocative to, China. The summer of 2012 also saw Japan's full nationalization of the Senkaku Islands China has long claimed as its own territory.
Meanwhile, China has continued in its harder line on its claims in the South China Sea, interfering with oil and gas exploration and fishing in the disputed waters by neighboring Vietnam and the Philippines. At the same time China has strongly protested Japan's nationalization of the Senkakus with numerous incursions of its waters and airspace by Chinese ships and aircraft - in December, resulting in the first intercept of a Chinese military aircraft by Japanese fighters in half a century. (Taiwan, too, has contested Japan's nationalization of the islands, resulting in a water cannon battle between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels in September.)
It is often noted that while China remains a regional power, far more equipped for defense than offense, it has continued to take rudimentary steps toward a real power projection capability, many of primarily symbolic significance, like China's dispatching warships to the Mediterranean, but others of more practical consequence, like its flying and landing aircraft from its carrier for the first time.4 Japan, for its part, appears to be stepping up defense spending in response to China's recent gestures in the vicinity of the Senkakus. India, which has its own issues with China closer to home, on which there has little been little progress or regress in 2012 (despite allegations of hype over frictions between the two countries in the Indian press), made a declaration of its intention to defend its interests in the South China Sea region.
Some observers also suggest that China's domestic media has also been taking a more militaristic line, celebrating the acquisition of new technologies, and detailing aggressive scenarios involving Japan and other countries.
From Damascus to Timbuktu
Two years after the Tunisian revolution of 2011 the story of the "Arab Spring" remains far from over, with many countries yet to see stability, let alone the establishment of democratic governments which look viable in the long-term. States which have undergone revolutions (like Egypt), and others where the old status quo has not budged (like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) continued to see political violence through 2012, though by far the worst of this has occurred in Syria, and northwest Africa.
The fighting in Syria (which, interestingly, was ignored by some authors of last year's write-ups) has escalated into a full-blown civil war, which has led not only to tens of thousands of deaths and an exodus of refugees to neighboring states, but the increasing isolation of the Syrian government, and increasing international recognition of the rebels (the U.S. doing so in December). There have also been serious regional repercussions, including military incidents with Israel and Turkey (which has seen intensified activity by Kurdish guerrillas more freely operating from northern Syria), and the spread of related fighting into neighboring Lebanon.
Additionally, while the Syrian conflict is already not a purely domestic affair (with the rebels reportedly receiving aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar via a cooperative Turkey, and Syria possibly receiving support from Iran), the scale of the resulting humanitarian crisis, the risk of a wider regional conflagration if incidents such as those already seen continue to occur, and the dangers posed by the Syrian government's chemical weapons, have led to talk of direct intervention by the West. However, the scale of the intervention that would be required, American reluctance to engage in another intervention overseas (especially one involving a large commitment of ground forces, especially in the Middle East), and Russian opposition (and not least, the Russian military presence in Syria) are inhibiting factors for the present.5
Meanwhile, more than a year after the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi, Libya is still a scene of factional fighting--the unexamined context of the attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi. The return of Tuareg fighters with Libyan weapons to Mali was also a factor in the civil war in Mali, which saw an Islamist faction take over the northern part of the country, and brought on a relatively large-scale, French-led international intervention in January 2013. In that same month the conflict spread to Algeria with the hostage crisis at the Amenas gas plant. In short, what began as a war inside Libya has not only fed into another war over the border (leading to yet another intervention by the U.S. and its allies), but shows signs of turning into a broader regional crisis.
Neither the belligerent rhetoric and gestures seen in East Asia, nor the conflicts in the Middle East/North Africa, can be properly considered without reference to the economic pressures faced in those regions. The slowdown in China's economic expansion, combined with the leadership change in that country (two things Japan had in common with China), have been an inducement to grandstanding. At the same time, food and fuel prices had more to do with North African revolutions than Facebook. It may be that the tensions in East Asia, at least, are a matter of posturing rather than imminent war or cold war, but these are no grounds for complacency, especially as those subtler, less Big Moment List-friendly stresses on the international system previously mentioned continue to mount.
1. By "state security" I refer to matters like interstate and intrastate and extra-state wars, skirmishes and military incidents, force build-ups and arms races, large-scale political and criminal violence and state collapse, and the associated political, fiscal and diplomatic maneuverings.
2. Nonetheless, I recommend the New Security Beat's list of its top posts of the year to those interested in keeping up with this issue.
3. You can find the same list of stories on a single page, minus the bandwidth-sucking graphics, here.
4. In January 2013, China's first-ever heavy transport also conducted its first official flight.
5. This presence includes Russian "advisers" manning Syrian air defenses, and recent visits by Russian warships. January 2013 saw a particularly large Russian naval deployment to nearby waters.
2011 Round-Up, Part II: The Year's Biggest Security Stories