Note: Today is the fourth in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
With the votes counted and the cliff averted, 2013 ought to be a year of substantial legislative accomplishment. Term limits ensure that President Obama can afford to be bolder than a first-term president in offering up concessions in exchange for tangible policy achievements. Republicans, eager for better vote results in 2014 and 2016, should be ready to prove they can get positive things done. The U.S. economy looks set for stronger growth. On energy (the shale revolution) and trade (the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic deals), there are game-changing possibilities to be had. On immigration, the two parties have incentives for cooperation, and both Democrats and Republicans have said that entitlement and tax reform are needed to boost long-term, sustainable growth.
Unfortunately, we can expect another year of zero-sum partisan combat. Elected officials from the two parties are now appealing to increasingly separate constituencies with quite different values on questions of budget and borrowing. A significant number of House Republicans worry more over primary challenges within their reliably conservative districts than about damage to their party's national brand. Democrats, in turn, have seized on issues like immigration reform and women's health issues to deepen their support with groups they believe Republicans are alienating. Obama says he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling. House Speaker John Boehner vows to never again negotiate privately with Obama.
Add volatility elsewhere in the world and the conviction among many investors that the U.S. remains the safest port in any storm, and complacency has begun to take root in Washington over the need to correct chronic imbalances. Borrowing costs remain low, leaving bond markets with less power to discipline elected officials than at almost any time in recent U.S. history. Absent substantial market pressure, U.S. politicians now have little incentive to risk pain by cutting spending and raising taxes in ways that would substantially reduce the federal debt.
A battle over the debt limit and government spending begins in February. Should Washington not produce a deal in time, the U.S. government would shut down, significant automatic spending cuts would take effect, and the government would default on its debts for the first time. The two sides will eventually have to find a way out of the impasse, but political and market volatility is unavoidable.
Compared with more volatile emerging markets, the downside from even worst-case U.S. scenarios is limited. But in a year when political compromise might have turbocharged growth, that opportunity is likely to be wasted.
On Friday, we'll profile Risk #5: the JIBs -- Japan, Israel, and Britain.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Note: Today is the third in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
The Middle East will enter a new phase in 2013. Arab Spring will give way to Arab Summer, as the region faces a series of increasingly complicated overlapping conflicts. As Americans and Europeans resist deeper involvement, rivalries among Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, competition for influence between Sunni and Shia, a lack of economic progress, and a resurgence of militant groups will each heighten tensions.
Syria remains the central arena of conflict, as Shia powers -- Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah -- on the one side, and Sunni states -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on the other compete for leverage. Jihadists have also entered the fray, and turmoil has spilled across the country's borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
Emerging conflicts elsewhere are less obvious. Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco now have moderate Islamist governments. In Jordan and Kuwait, Islamist opposition groups threaten the governing dominance of secular administrations. But while the words and actions of mainstream parties like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahda make headlines in the West, the more serious risk comes from militant organizations that threaten the ability of new leaders to govern and maintain security.
Fueling this trend is the reality that, across the region, new leaders are trying to consolidate power and build popularity at a time when complicated economic problems demand solutions that will make large numbers of people angry. New governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen will last only if they can deliver tangible economic progress for an increasingly frustrated and impatient public.
The risk that a Salafist or jihadist group can exploit these frustrations to seize power in 2013 is low, but groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, and smaller affiliates continue to attract support and new followers by using resentments against local regimes to foster anger at America and the West.
But Iraq may become 2013's newest hotspot. Sunni-Shia tensions are growing, and none of Syria's neighbors is more vulnerable to the threats created inside that country by radical Wahhabi clerics, often with Saudi or Qatari support, now fueling the emergence of an increasingly radicalized and militarily experienced Salafist movement. The Kurdish regional government is becoming more aggressive in promoting its energy development agenda at Baghdad's expense, and Sunni-led violence inside the country might well encourage Iraq's Shia-led government to forge closer ties with Tehran, antagonizing the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The Obama administration wants to focus on domestic challenges and an ongoing foreign policy shift toward Asia. But regional rivalries are heating up, and Americans and Europeans will only add to the uncertainty by keeping their distance -- in hopes that they don't get burned.
On Wednesday, we'll profile Risk #4: Washington Politics.
Note: Today is the second in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
As their people grow bolder in their quest for information, China's leaders will only tighten the restrictions they place on cyberspace. China is, in fact, embarking on a worrying experiment: It is the only major power that is attempting to preserve an authoritarian system in the information age. This gigantic task will demand a great deal of leaders' attention, raise tensions among the Chinese people, and reverberate outside of China's borders through the country's foreign policy.
China's Great Firewall and unpredictable censorship regime have more or less enabled its leaders to manipulate the information accessible to its citizens. But these tools are fast becoming insufficient, a fact made clear by strikes at a major Chinese newspaper this week. China's internet users stand at more than half a billion and counting. Growing demands for transparency and information leaks that embarrass the government are inevitable, as evidenced by the public's growing awareness of high-level corruption scandals.
The Communist Party appears poised to implement a new phase of information control that is part reactive and part proactive. On the reactive side, the government has begun to disrupt virtual private networks used by many foreigners, and even some Chinese, to circumvent the country's firewall. The government will proactively attempt to capitalize on technological tools by using the internet and social media such as Weibo (China's version of Twitter) to convey its own messaging.
The friction between the government's attempts at self-preservation and the population's desire for more transparency will be the greatest political challenge for China in 2013. While the stability of the government is unlikely to be shaken in 2013, this internal conflict will distract leaders and encourage them to deflect public anger outward. Finding foreign scapegoats is a time-honored tactic that the Communist Party is likely to repeat this year.
There are plenty of foreign targets to turn to. Territorial tensions are high and are only exacerbated by the U.S. pivot to Asia, which has emboldened countries such as the Philippines to more aggressively push their interests. The largest risk is an increase in nationalism from China toward Japan, especially given the growing tension surrounding outstanding territorial disputes between the two countries.
Ultimately, though, China's attempts to limit information run counter to its stated desire to develop an innovative economy. How can China's handful of vibrant IT firms and internet giants become global competitors while operating under a regime that restricts online information? How can China become a dominant player in the global economy if it is disconnected from the global information society? These are inherent contradictions that the new Communist Party leadership will have to resolve.
On Monday, we'll profile Risk #3: Arab Summer.
Note: Today is the first in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, investors and companies have focused mainly on risks in developed world markets. But as conditions in the U.S. and Europe continue to improve in 2013, the most worrisome risks will again come from emerging market countries. These countries are fundamentally less stable than their developed world counterparts, and some of their governments used a period of favorable commodities prices and the benefits from earlier reform to avoid the tough choices needed to reach the next stage of their political and economic development.
Some of these emerging market nations face more difficult challenges than others, and much depends on the degree of political capital each leader will have in order to make unpopular but necessary changes. These countries can be divided into three broad categories according to the complexity and immediacy of the risks they face and the longer-term upside they offer.
The first category includes the best bets:
The second category of emerging market economies are at risk of considerable volatility.
Lastly, there are the underperformers, those countries where risks will overshadow returns.
On Friday, we'll profile Risk #2: China vs Information.
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Today, The Call presents our top risks for 2013. Click HERE for Eurasia Group's complete report.
1. Emerging markets -- The era of emerging market abundance is
finished. As the United States and Europe slowly regain their economic footing, the
political risk focus will return to the emerging market world, where
differences among the largest players will become more obvious. Slower growth
and rising expectations from larger and more demanding middle classes will
create public pressure on governments, meaning that emerging markets -- including
the increasingly suspect BRICs -- should no longer be treated as an asset class
for outsized growth. Consideration instead should shift toward which
developing country governments have enough political capital to remain on track
to a more advanced stage of development.
2. China vs. information -- China's new leadership faces many challenges in 2013, most importantly the state's growing inability to control the flow of ideas and information across borders and within the country. Until now Beijing has been largely effective in isolating online discourse to focus on discrete issues without culminating in real challenges to the government's decision-making or policy. But every corruption scandal and example of official malfeasance makes the next event more difficult to navigate, and the risk is that a broad-based social movement for change will gain momentum in China in 2013, distracting the government from its domestic and foreign policy priorities and potentially weakening investor confidence in the stability of the mainland market.
3. Arab Summer -- We are far beyond the Arab Spring, and an Arab Winter, where dictators rebound and consolidate power, has not materialized. Instead we are approaching an Arab Summer, whereby the region will witness radicalized movements -- both sectarian and Islamist -- playing a much more important role. As outside powers look to avoid direct involvement in the region's risks, local powers -- Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others -- will compete for influence and play out their rivalries. At the center of this lies Syria, whose civil war now has implications that extend far beyond the humanitarian. Syria has become a proxy conflict for Shiite and Sunni powers, as well as a magnet for jihadists, increasing the geopolitical risk overall and sparking further insecurity throughout the region, most notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.
4. United States -- Every silver lining has a dark cloud. While the fiscal cliff was averted, the process by which the deal was reached casts a large shadow over hopes that the election might create a more conducive environment for cooperation, and dysfunctional American politics will weigh on both the U.S. economic recovery and President Obama's legislative agenda. This is not about a politically induced new recession, let alone a major financial crisis. But political uncertainty over corporate taxes and a series of noisy brinkmanship episodes will generate a modest but real drag on growth.
5. JIBs (Japan, Israel, Britain) -- These are the three current global trends that matter most: China is rising, the Middle East is exploding, and Europe is muddling through. Set against a G-zero backdrop, the structural losers of these trends are the JIBs (Japan, Israel and Britain): countries influenced most directly and problematically by changes now underway in the geopolitical order. All three countries are now in a similar position for three reasons: their special relationships with the United States are no longer quite as important; they sit just outside the major geopolitical changes underway, without the means to play a constructive role; and key domestic constraints in all three countries (political, social, historic, and otherwise) make it particularly difficult for them to respond effectively to the challenges posed by a shifting global order.
6. Europe -- There will be no grand implosion, but the muddle-through approach to crisis management carries risks of its own. The eurozone is headed for neither breakup nor resolution, and in 2013 the risks shift from a threat of financial crisis to a loss of momentum in creating the institutional and policy frameworks for a redesigned union. The weak economic outlook and the politics of crisis-fighting will also remain sources of uncertainty. Simultaneously, euro-skepticism is on the rise and resistance to reforms is increasing in the face of protracted austerity and few prospects for an economic turnaround.
7. Asian geopolitics -- In 2013, geopolitical risk will continue growing in East Asia in a new and potentially more dangerous way. Facing increased nationalism in China and Japan, the United States will look to play a larger role, giving oxygen to the hedging strategies of many regional states seeking closer American ties. Territorial disputes over the East China and South China Seas will also create new friction, and at risk overall is East Asia's decades-long distinction as a zone where positive-sum commerce and economics trumps zero-sum geopolitical tension.
8. Iran -- The significant risk in Iran this year is not the one everyone's thinking about. A strike on the country's nuclear program is unlikely, but biting sanctions, other forms of international pressure, and leadership tensions make Iran less predictable and heighten the stakes of an ongoing shadow conflict with Israel and the United States -- one with the potential to rattle markets and put upward pressure on oil prices.
9. India -- India in 2013 will be one of the prime examples of the intrusion of political factors into what had until recently been seen as a long-term economic success story. The country's dysfunctional politics and looming elections feed the risk of an economic shock, and in 2013 the ability of the government to implement robust economic policies will decline even further, perpetuating India's "stalling or falling" outlook.
10. South Africa -- In aggregate growth terms, Africa as a whole looks to be on a trajectory to continue its recent position of positive performance. But in South Africa -- one of the continent's largest and most sophisticated economies -- the outlook is far less rosy. Populism, spearheaded by the ruling ANC party, is on the rise, and it is hard to see any real movement on labor, education, and budgetary reforms. Coming retrenchments in mining will almost certainly spur another bout of labor unrest, which has the potential to spread into other sectors as well. Taken together, all these factors increase the risk of further credit downgrades.
In addition to these, Eurasia Group's red herrings for 2013 include:
The geopolitics of energy -- 2013 isn't the year to get overly concerned about geopolitical risk spiking energy prices. For one thing, most of the Middle East risk in the coming year isn't about energy -- it's about everything else -- and the energy revolution happening in the Western Hemisphere will be a boon for consumers across the globe.
Global protectionism -- The G-20 can afford to agree on protectionism because there's less of a threat here than meets the eye. The trend in fact is toward hints of competitive trade liberalization, especially within the European Union, which is generating a strong internal consensus on the need for a new major transatlantic economic cooperation package.
Radicalism in the developed world -- Many fear the growing gap between rich and poor will instigate class warfare and cause significant instability across the developed world. We think not. For much the same reason that emerging markets are the top risk this year, it's the underlying stability of advanced industrialized democracies that will come through in 2013.
European separatism -- There is no doubt that there are very real separatist pressures building in Catalonia and in Scotland, and national unity remains fragile in Belgium. However -- as much as we all would love to watch Barca field its own team in the World Cup -- there is almost no chance that any of these issues will grow into an actual crisis leading to separation in 2013.
? - North Korea -- Sometimes, you just can't know what's happening, and with North Korea in 2013 that's really the case. In the face of a sudden leadership transition in the world's most totalitarian state -- now run by an untested 28-year-old -- it's almost impossible to assess whether North Korea is becoming more stable. All signs point to the country remaining a perilous bet, but what causes trouble and when? It's hard not to lose sleep over it, but at the same time working harder to assess what exactly is going bump in the night doesn't feel very purposeful. Sorry.
Over the next three weeks, we'll be posting more ideas and information on each of these risks.
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Eurasia Group's weekly selection of essential reading for the political risk junkie -- presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections @EurasiaGroup or @IanBremmer.
1. "Freshmen From Kennedy to Double Amputee Join Polarized
Steve Walsh, Bloomberg
An interesting glimpse at some of the new personalities in the 113th Congress, a group of representatives that runs the gamut of conceivable paths to Washington -- and the new Congress breaks records, with 81 women in the House and 20 women in the Senate (both all-time highs).
How to reconcile the similar economic growth we've seen in Mali and Ghana with their starkly different development trajectories? There's no simple answer, but this piece is a good primer on many of the variables involved.
3. "The Art of Snore"
John Arquilla, Foreign Policy
On US defense spending, are there more than budget cuts to fear? Is there an innovation deficit? Arquilla outlines what he perceives as shortcomings in the current military spending approach -- as well as some interesting solutions.
4a."Myanmar Launches Airstrikes on Kachin Rebels"
Simon Roughneen, Christian Science Monitor
4b."Burma's Military Follows Own Course in War against Kachin
Jonathan Manthorpe, The Vancouver Sun
When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in November, it was an historic occurrence -- the first-ever US presidential visit to the country, and a firm endorsement of the recent reforms that have taken place. But while national hero and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi warmly greeted the visitors, she also admonished that "we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success." Fighting between the military and Kachin rebels in the north has clouded reform efforts. And, as Jonathan Manthorpe explains, Myanmar's relations with China -- and water security issues -- underpin much of the issue. These are two sources of conflict that are only trending upward throughout the region as a whole.
5. "Better Than Human"
Kevin Kelly, Wired
At Eurasia Group, we've devoted a lot of attention to the long-term labor force impact that the advent of robotics and 3D printing will have, particularly on emerging markets like China, where the country's greatest resource -- cheap labor -- could very well become one of its biggest obstacles as its citizens are displaced from manufacturing jobs following technological advances. Kelly looks on the bright side of a robotic future, outlining the opportunities for innovation and productivity that come with a mechanized work force. His vision is a bit rosy, but it's a useful counterweight to the much-discussed downside risks.
By Ian Bremmer
A few days ago, I took a quick, informal survey around Eurasia Group on power and global politics. The question: Who are the world's most powerful people? We're defining power as "a measure of an individual's ability to (singlehandedly) bring about change that significantly affects the lives and fortunes of large numbers of people."
Here's what we came up with:
1. Nobody -- In a G-Zero world, everyone is waiting for someone else to shoulder responsibility for the world's toughest and most dangerous challenges. The leaders you'll see named further down this list are preoccupied with local and regional problems and don't have the interest and leverage needed to take on a growing list of transnational problems.
2. Vladimir Putin -- In Russia's personalized system, this is still the person who counts. He isn't as popular as he used to be, and his country has no Soviet-scale clout or influence, but no one on the planet has consolidated more domestic and regional power than Putin.
3. Ben Bernanke -- The world's largest economy is still struggling to find its footing. To help, no one has more levers to pull and buttons to push. The world needs the U.S. economy back on its feet, and Bernanke has more direct influence than anyone else on when and how that happens.
4. Angela Merkel -- For the moment, her commitments are the glue that binds Europe. Merkel's ability to bankroll Europe's emergency funds, win concessions from the governments of cash-strapped peripherals, and maintain solid popularity at home continues to be a remarkable political and policy achievement.
5. Barack Obama -- Even at a time when Washington is focused almost entirely on Washington, the elected leader of the world's most powerful and influential country carries a lot of water. The Obama administration will watch the eurozone from the sidelines and keep commitments in the Middle East to a minimum, but America will continue to broaden and deepen security and commercial relationships in East Asia, and Obama's decisions on how far and how fast to move will be crucial.
6. Mario Draghi -- Europe's backstop. Europe's Central Bank has kept the continent's blood flowing at a crucial moment in its history, and his work is far from done.
7. Xi Jinping -- China's forward progress is the world's most important variable, and Xi Jinping is now the man behind the wheel. Over the next decade, economic and political reforms will be needed to keep China on track, and Xi will make some difficult (and profoundly important) decisions.
8 (tie). Ayatollah Khamenei -- The supreme spiritual and political authority in a country at the heart of a volatile region. Halfway through 2013, Ahmadinejad will give way to a new president, but it is still Khamenei who will decide how the international fight over Iran's nuclear program plays out -- and what the future holds for the Islamic Republic.
8 (tie). Christine Lagarde -- The world's fire marshal. Here is that rare leader whose contribution will be crucial in multiple regions at once. But nowhere will the IMF's work be more important than in keeping Europe on track.
10. King Abdullah Bin Abd al-Aziz -- King of a kingdom with a unique power to move markets. The Saudi monarch is not in the best of health, but the choices he makes in determining who lead the world's hydrocarbon powerhouse into the next generation will help shape the entire global economy for many years to come.
What do you think?
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group.
ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Eurasia Group's weekly selection of essential reading for the political risk junkie-presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections @EurasiaGroup or @IanBremmer.
Must-Reads1. "South Korea's Presidential Election: A Homecoming"
Banyan Asia blog, The Economist
On Wednesday, Park Geun-hye was named president of South Korea by a small margin, making her the first woman to hold the post in the nation's history. How will her presidency differ from Lee Myung-bak's? What are the implications for North-South relations?2. "The Importance of Shinzo Abe"
Sanjaya Baru, The Hindu
A much more momentous Asian election took place this past weekend, as Shinzo Abe and the LDP returned to power. Many are focusing on the possible conflicts that the election could provoke between China and Japan, but this piece asks: Are Japan and India the "natural partners in Asia?" In light of the conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it seems Japan is pursuing an ABC policy (Anybody But China). Why not India?3. "Pakistan: Mullahs and Militants Keep Polio Alive"
Sami Yousafzai, The Daily Beast
The eradication of polio has been tantalizingly within reach, as its presence has dwindled to just a handful of countries. But wiping the disease out of Pakistan comes with substantial risks. This piece focuses on the dangers to the anti-polio mission in the wake of Bin Laden's death and the role that vaccinations played in gathering intelligence for the operation.4. "Slavery's Global Comeback"
J.J. Gould, The Atlantic
Another atrocity that hasn't disappeared: human trafficking and forced labor. These are new terms for what Gould still dubs 'slavery.' Even by conservative estimates, there are more people enslaved today than at any point in history. This is an epidemic that needs global attention.5. "The Putin Show"
Brian Whitmore, Power Vertical Blog
If there were a foreign-policy edition of People magazine, Putin would fill the pages. Why all the hype for his most recent press conference? Consider analysis of his performance as our guilty pleasure political risk story.
Longer Reads6. "Utopia for Beginners: an amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented"
Joshua Foer, The New Yorker
This piece is not political per se, but the treatment of language as an art -- communicable and easily repurposed the world over -- has global as well as philosophical implications. Foer follows a man who spent 34 years inventing a language designed to more precisely mirror reality. The story of who ended up co-opting it -- for political purposes no less -- makes for a fascinating read.
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.