Political analysts spend their careers attempting to understand and predict major global events and interactions, yet no one could have expected 2011 to unfold the way it did.
Last week Time Magazine named “The Protester” as its person of the year. Regimes were toppled and democracies formed, not as a result of Western imperial interference, but rather through the voices of the very people subjected to those systems. Revolution swept across the Middle East early this year, precipitated by a simple street vendor in Tunisia named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in protest of his mistreatment by the government. At year’s end, no fewer than 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have seen protests and civil uprisings as, one by one, the people took a stand against their governments.
Longstanding dictators fell one after another amid the uprisings. The drawn-out battle for Libya ended with the death of Moammar Gadhafi after 41 years in power; Hosni Mubarak was deposed in Egypt after three decades in control and Zine El Abidene Ben Ali of Tunisia was removed after almost 24 years. Elsewhere, parliaments were reshuffled and promises of improved civil and political rights made to people across the region.
In March, the world was shocked by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan, and the subsequent tsunami that took the lives of at least 15,000 people. Additionally problematic was the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant, bringing front and center the dangers associated with nuclear power and prompting Germany to permanently shut down its own nuclear facilities.
Nuclear power in the form of weapons was also a major concern in 2011 as protracted negotiations with North Korea and Iran came to no avail, while deteriorating stability in Pakistan raised fears over its own nuclear stockpile.
Africa had its share of historic events, most significantly marked by the split of Sudan into separate North and South republics after over 50 years of civil conflict and deaths estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Less welcomed was the devastating famine in Somalia, exacerbated by the al-Shabaab terrorist organization which went largely unnoticed by the American news media.
This was the year that left many asking “What’s next?” in the perplexing war on terror as Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May. Little has been heard of al-Qaida since bin Laden’s death and it stands as a point of success in what has been a long and messy decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. attention has now been turned to other potential threats such as Iran and its impending nuclear capabilities.
The year 2011 was also one in which Europe faced economic calamity and threatened to take the world’s financial system with it. Countries are threatening to buckle under the weight of debt and unfortunately Europe is not out of the woods just yet. The United States has had its own economic woes to address as Republican and Democrats have repeatedly butted heads over a plan to deal with the national debt.
The economy has grown in all three quarters measured so far, albeit at less than 2 percent (real GDP growth) while unemployment is dropping, but is still far from the low figures that existed prior to the 2008 financial crisis.
Needless to say, this has been a remarkable year. The death of Kim Jong Il serves to reiterate that theories and predictions can only go so far in explaining world events, but that sometimes the unexpected comes along and brings with it substantial change, whether for good or bad.
The changes that have come in 2011 promise to usher in what will likely be an equally eventful 2012. North Korea will either become aggressive or else collapse completely under new leadership. Iran will either comply over its nuclear ambitions or else face intervention by others. The numerous countries in the Middle East building new political systems will face significant challenges in stabilizing. The European Union will likely find itself in a make-or-break situation as it seeks economic security. And the United States will elect a president in November, the result of which will have at least some impact on all of the above.
All of this, of course, will have to take place before Dec. 21 next year when the ancient Mayan prophecy of the apocalypse will supposedly come to pass. Perhaps someone should tell the presidential candidates that they are wasting their time.