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A world in the balance

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It can be useful at moments of transition to stand back from the flux of immediate events and try to identify wider patterns that can help make sense of them - and where they might be heading. The election victory of Barack Obama in the United States provides such an opportunity. This column outlines five principle areas of concern that the new president will inherit: Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan, the al-Qaida movement, tensions between the west and Russia, and the security implications of the global economic recession. The analysis here is developed further in the Oxford Research Group's latest international-security monthly briefing (see "The Tipping Point?", ORG, October 2008).


Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

Iraq: time of flux

The security situation in Iraq has eased over 2007-08, for a mix of reasons that reflect the changing dynamics of conflict there. The American military's "surge" strategy has undoubtedly had an effect, though the singling out of this by its neo-conservative and other supporters in the United States as the main or even the sole factor is misconceived. The enforced division of Sunni and Shi'a communities as a result of violence and insecurity, involving the displacement of millions of people, has also played a role; as have the ceasefire by the Mahdi army of the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Sunni "awakening movement" which turned against al-Qaida and established an alliances of convenience with the Americans.

In any event, these security improvements remain fragile. A series of attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq since the last week of October 2008 is one indication of this; an even more potent one is the persistent reluctance of US military commanders to redirect troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, no matter how firm the requests for reinforcements from the commanders there.

The negotiations on the status-of-forces-agreement (SOFA) to secure the future of United States troops in Iraq have proved difficult. Whether or not they are brought to a successful conclusion before Barack Obama's inauguration on 20 January 2008, it is highly likely that the new administration will seek a more rapid drawdown - which may well improve relations with the Nouri alMaliki government.

A bottom-line remains, however, and it will influence the thinking of the new administration as it has shaped the departing one: Iraq is immensely important to the United States, both for its own oil reserves (nearly four times as great as those of the United States) and for its geopolitical location. The promise of the first two years of an Obama administration is of a complete withdrawal of US combat-troops and a scaling-down of the remaining forces, leaving less than 20% of those currently deployed. If this is fulfilled, the outlook for the US in the immediate region could become calmer; if it is not, then Iraq could remain a jihadist combat-training zone for many years to come.


In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group (ORG); for details, click here

This column draws on the ORG briefing for October 2008, "The Tipping Point?", the Oxford Research Group's latest international-security monthly briefing - published on 13 November 2008

Afghanistan-Pakistan: hard terrain

The easing of the security situation in Iraq has gone alongside a major deterioration in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. This has boosted both the disparate Taliban militias and helped the al-Qaida movement. As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to enhance US military forces and even to be more forceful in taking the war into western Pakistan is sustained - a stance that has led to suspicion of him among the Pakistani populace.

It is not clear whether this was a position developed with a domestic audience in mind for electoral purposes. The political rationale is evident: to oppose an unpopular war is one thing, but even to entertain the possibility of withdrawal in defeat from two war-zones might be risky indeed. In any event, if the commitment made during the campaign was sustained, an Obama administration would be close to George W Bush on this issue at least.

Many senior military officers (and not a few civil servants) in Canada and Britain are, however, very dubious about the prospects for any kind of military victory in the Afghan theatre. Whatever else it does, an Obama administration will be consciously engaging with close allies, especially those mired in Afghanistan. Here, above all, is where alliance pressure might lead to a serious rethink. It is still a lot to expect, since any rethink must be part of a wider realisation that the days of western occupations across the region are over; but the sheer disarray in Afghanistan and the degree of instability and risk in Pakistan might change minds.

Russia: open door

The heightening of tensions between the west and Russia - over energy pipelines, the August 2008 war with Georgia, and the United States's missile-defence installations, among other issues - will be an area of serious concern to the new president and his team.

This is one policy-field where Barack Obama could make a difference. The sharp falls in energy prices have made Moscow increasingly preoccupied with its economic problems. Moscow is also aware that its intervention in Georgia over South Ossetia has provoked intense hostility and fear in the west, notwithstanding the clear evidence of Georgian provocation. Thus, Russia has an interest in cooling tensions, and a more emollient stance would find a ready echo in several western capitals (the summit between the European Union and Russia on 14 November 2008 is a signal of the desire of both sides to repair relationships frayed by the war).

Obama's team can help improve ties, not least by delaying the missile-defence programme in Poland and the Czech Republic; and more broadly by developing a more consciously multilateral approach in the US's relations with Europe, both east and west. The chance of avoiding the escalation of cold-war-style tensions is in his administration's grasp.

Global order: crisis, crises

There is increasing awareness among many experts in armed conflict and insurgency of the need to go beyond conventional understandings to see how far such security issues are rooted in socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints.

The global leaders of the kind who will gather at the G20 summit meeting in Washington on 15 November 2008 have not yet registered this insights. At present it seems likely that the summit will concentrate on measures designed to contain and manage the current banking crisis. The result may be useful but in itself will have little or no relevance to a wider global predicament in which unsustainable inequality, social tensions, dysfunctional or absent governance, and climate change are destroying or threatening the lives of millions.

The G20 meeting and equivaalent regional and global gatherings need to see the financial crisis in relation to these other large-scale problems (see Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change", 10 November 2008). This would itself be a step-change in beginning to realise that the present moment also offers an opportunity to introduce fundamental economic reforms which begin to take a systemic approach to accumulating and interlocked problems (see "A crisis-opportunity moment", 23 October 2008).

There has been exponential economic growth in the world since the 1970s, but most of its benefits have been concentrated in the hands of a trans-global elite community of about 1.2 billion people, mainly in the countries of the Atlantic community and the west Pacific; as well as emerging privileged groups numbering millions in countries such as China, India and Brazil. At the same time, many existing or newly marginalised people have used improvements in education, literacy and communications in this period to increase their awareness of unjust distributions of wealth (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007)

If present trends are allowed to continue, many hundreds of millions of people among the poorest communities across the world will suffer most. This is likely to lead to the rise of radical and violent social movements which will in turn provoke a forceful, repressive backlash by states. The intensifying Naxalite rebellion in India and the extensive problems of social unrest in China are early indicators (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008). In this light, the most important task - not for some distant future, but for the next twelve months - is to respond to the current economic crisis in a way that emphasises emancipation and the reversal of the widening of the global socio-economic divide (see Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II", 11 November 2008).

This would entail, for example, trade reform aimed at improving the economies of countries in the global south; debt-cancellation; and investment of aid for sustainable development. These moves are required as a matter of urgency to prevent the entrenchment of an even more divided global system that intensifies the marginalisation and bitterness of much of the world's population.

The G20 summit and related meetings face a choice: they can begin to evolve an imaginative and integrated response that emerges from and represents a genuinely global community, or they can produce a set of discrete measures that reflect the concerns of a narrow group speaking for world elites. The choices made in Washington and other capitals in 2008-09 will do much to decide whether the world becomes more or less peaceful over the next ten years.


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