In a look around the world, the striking characteristic is the number of crises awaiting resolution. Their outcomes seem almost artificially suspended, and their interactions and their ultimate effects on the world are major question marks.
We start with the euro. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s supplications in Beijing last week were perhaps laudable but a little ridiculous. There is no evidence Beijing could or would bail out the euro. Meanwhile, Greece appears headed inevitably for default - if for no other reason than that the severe new austerity measures, which are the proverbial late closing of the barn door, make impossible the economic growth necessary for Athens to climb out of its debt bind. Can Spain, Portugal and perhaps Ireland be far behind? For its part, Germany refuses to assume the role its hard work, discipline and export-led economy have bestowed on it as the main source of reserves to refinance the European Union. We wait.
Israel, the U.S. and Iran wage a ferocious propaganda war, with the mullahs’ repeating their unprecedented threat to Jerusalem’s existence. Sanctions are having a disastrous effect on the Iranian economy. But history demonstrates that Third World economies have no bottom - especially those propped up by oil revenues. There is a consensus in Western intelligence circles that Tehran continues to make progress toward nuclear weapons, perhaps even including missile delivery. Iran’s surrogates also threaten Israel and the West in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as through a network of worldwide terrorism. How much coordination exists between Israeli policymakers and Washington has also emerged as an issue. We wait.
Syria, Iran’s ally, descends into civil war, raising the prospect that ties between the country’s minorities and neighboring states will further derail the promise of the Arab Spring for Mideast betterment. Egypt is beset by a chaotic contest for power between the military and the Islamicists - while still facing problems of food security and youth unemployment. Washington and Western Europe - surprisingly joined by the Arab League - have abandoned their hands-off policy on Damascus. However inevitable the fall of a 35-year-old dictatorship, the drawn-out struggle illustrates the absence of international collaboration against bloodshed. We wait.
Chinese economic growth dips below levels long held necessary to maintain stability under an authoritarian government with a rapidly growing workforce. Expanding exports and unlimited infrastructure growth, Beijing’s two principal props for two decades, can no longer spur the economy, with debt now reaching explosive levels. A slowdown in China’s market for raw materials is the last straw for the worldwide economic malaise. Debate over policy within the Communist Party appears to have reached unprecedented levels, leaking to the highly censored but innovative personal communications networks. The argument is made on the eve of this fall’s planned transfer of generational leadership. Meanwhile, Beijing’s military power accelerates, accompanied by chauvinistic rhetoric and sovereignty disputes with its neighbors. We wait.
Japan’s political stalemate continues, with the world’s third-largest economy on autopilot. Another round in the legal prosecution of the ruling generation’s most powerful politician, Ichiro Ozawa, comes in mid-February, with the perennial hope that a restructuring of political factions will provide new, vibrant leadership. Meanwhile, a demographic catastrophe is overtaking the country as birthrates continue to drop, producing the most rapidly aging population among the industrial societies while cultural obstacles curb in-migration. We wait.
Russia approaches its presidential elections with growing opposition toward what appeared to be the inevitable victor, Vladimir Putin. Failed efforts at reform of the economy and the military, coupled with incredibly destructive social phenomena such as a declining population, an HIV epidemic, drug addiction and alcoholism, point toward another implosion. The flight of capital and young skilled professionals reinforces the decline. If world energy prices drop in the face of slack economies, Mr. Putin’s formula for stability could quickly evaporate. We wait.
As the world watches, the U.S. enters the peak of its election season presenting a confused picture. The American electorate appears more polarized than ever between interventionist and market-oriented policies, while more mundane issues largely steal the debate spotlight. The world, dependent on American leadership since World War II, seeks clues about whether the Obama administration’s “leading from behind” will remain the leitmotif of the coming four years, with the relative success of Ron Paul’s candidacy signaling a possible turn toward isolationism. Meanwhile, the country grapples with seesawing job markets, buffeted by both technological change and a collapse of credit. We wait.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.