To mark the beginning of 2015, we’ve been examining the most powerful nations in the world, a task amounting to an attempt to describe the way in which geopolitical power is working at this moment in time. First we looked at the “real G-7”, the world’s heavy hitters who set or aim to alter the “global system.” Then there was the second tier—regional, emerging, or fading powers who form the “teams” that the top players assemble to play this bruising sport.As anyone who picks up a newspaper knows, however, a lot of the day-to-day action in world power games involves a third class of state. These countries don’t have the conventional military might or the economic, diplomatic, or cultural heft that the great powers wield. But by their suicidal aggression, willingness to contravene the normal rules of national behavior, or plain inability to keep order, they can upset the plans of great powers and endanger their neighbors. Think of them as “critical states”; their impact on world politics results from their potential either to cause or to suffer a crisis that dramatically affects world events. Generally speaking, the critical states fall into two categories: those that explode on the stage, ready to carry all before them in their revolutionary zeal, or those that implode, dragging others into chaos as they collapse. Either way, they dominate headlines, demand immediate responses from larger powers, and shape the course of history. In this installment, we rank and examine those countries.Our assessment was made not in terms of how bad life is for those living in each nation, but in terms of the destabilizing effect each is likely to have on the wider world in 2015. We chose and ranked these nations based on a careful balancing of the amount of trouble they can cause and the likelihood of them causing it. In measuring that, we excluded nations, such as Russia or Iran, whose power put them among the first or second tier powers we’ve already catalogued; there are no repeats. This list is also not meant to be a catalogue of worst-case scenarios: Pakistan, for example, could in theory launch a nuclear war or suffer total governmental collapse this year, but the more likely scenario is business as usual—a few more steps down the road to perdition, a bit of sabre rattling, more innocent victims of frenzied religious fanatics, but, we think and hope, nothing more dramatic this year. Instead, we focused on the seven countries where crises seemed most likely to shape the behavior of friends and foes alike in 2015.1) ISISISIS may not have (or want) a seat at the UN, but ISIS is a state nonetheless—potentially the most dangerous one in the world. It has a government, a head of state–Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims the title of Caliph–as well as an army, a code of laws, currency, etc. It even lays claim to the “nation” element of “nation-state”: the Sunni tribes of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, who form majorities within ISIS-held lands but felt underrepresented as things used to be.ISIS is by nature a revolutionary power and a disrupter. So long as ISIS remains a going concern, its existence removes any chance Iraq and Syria could have to function as normal states, truncates the international trade routes on which they rely, and provides a home to “long-range” terrorists, such as the “Khorosan group”, that seek to strike the U.S. directly. But while ISIS’ potential to cause trouble stems from its success in creating the first large scale jihadi state on the ground, its trouble-making potential extends much farther than its still weak and rudimentary military reach. And as the most famous and successful jihadi group in the world, ISIS provides inspiration to the enraged of the earth. Pre-existing terror groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram have pledged their allegiance. Self-starting radicals such as Amedy Coulibaly (one of the perpetrators of the recent massacre in Paris) claimed inspiration from and loyalty to the Caliph. And even less organized, seemingly more deranged murderers such as the hostage taker in Sydney speak of themselves as citizens of ISIS.And ISIS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The American military’s plan–which is just that–calls for up to four years to take it out. While ISIS lost some ground in Iraq this year, the group more than doubled what it held in Syria, advancing even in the face of U.S. airstrikes. As long as America isn’t willing to go into Syria or make the moves (such as removing Assad) to induce others to do so, ISIS is unlikely to face the sustained, boots-on-the-ground military pressure that could actually break it up. Meanwhile, optimistic predictions that the group will collapse of its own weight have consistently fallen short. The jihadis may not be good at providing local services, but they’re vicious enough to repress meaningful dissent while they learn.Even if we do break ISIS’ hold on its territory, we will not have ended the danger it poses. The Islamic State has over ten thousand foreign fighters in its ranks, 3,000 or so of whom are thought to come from Europe. Western intelligence agencies are having trouble tracking all of them. And the legend of ISIS, the most successful Islamist group yet, will live on as well as an inspiration for aspiring jihadists everywhere. The Hebdo attacks in Paris may be but a foretaste of what many nations, and especially Europe, will fear for the foreseeable future.2) UkraineUkraine had a terrible 2014, and 2015 is looking even worse. Russia’s invasion of the east dominates the headlines, but even where Ukraine is free, the state is often too weak to exercise the basic functions of government. Though the Ukranians had a revolution in 2014 with the aim of Westernizing their institutions, Ukraine still has a long way to go. Graft is institutionalized to the point that, for example, judges will pay about a $100,000 bribe to be appointed to the bench. Under such circumstances, President Poroshenko’s government can offer neither justice nor services to its citizens; instead, semi-feudal oligarchs dominate the country, providing Vladimir Putin with ample opportunities to divide and manipulate. These problem also extends to the military, which is more a collection of militias than a true national army.So Ukraine lies prostrate, suffering serial defeats in the east and as yet still struggling to build an effective state in the center and west. But it is less likely that Putin will fully conquer the country (which would tie up a significant chunk of Russia’s faltering economic and military resources trying to actually run the place) than that he will exploit its divisions to create a sphere of influence and a buffer zone in between Russia and the West, with Ukraine unable to be absorbed into the EU or NATO. For the Russian leader, who looks back fondly on the Soviet Union but lacks the resources to recreate the Warsaw Pact, this is imperialism on the cheap.All of this would be bad enough, but the tactics Putin used to attack Ukraine could cause more trouble down the road. Russia, where military strategists have been thinking hard about asymmetrical warfare in the face of overwhelming U.S. conventional power, has developed a new approach. Instead of a formal invasion and a declaration of war, Russia sends “little green men”—Russian soldiers without insignia—over the border, and then presents the world with a fait accompli. Could the same trick, Putin must be wondering, work with the Baltic nations in what Russia historically considers its back yard?If little green men show up in the Baltic states, NATO could face the greatest crisis since the Berlin standoff in the Kennedy years. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of NATO. NATO’s credibility relies on the principle stated in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, that attack on one will be treated as an attack on all. So if Russia launched an all-out invasion of Estonia, NATO’s reaction would probably be swift and violent. But if little green men started to show up in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Estonia, would Germany go to war, or look for a way out? No one knows—and that uncertainty creates temptation; that temptation could escalate quickly to nuclear brinkmanship or crack the West’s defensive alliance system to its core. The better results Putin sees from his little green men in Ukraine, the stronger the temptation to use them again.3) GreeceCrisis may be quickly approaching in Greece, where Syriza, the radical leftist party that claims it will demand debt forgiveness or exit the common currency, won a strong mandate in last Sunday’s elections. And while fudging seemingly sharp disagreements and kicking the can down the road is usually the main skill set of the EU’s leaders, this time the timing might be too tight, and the choices too stark for Europe to keep its balance.Nobody wants a sharp rupture. But the upcoming debt negotiations will be determined by complex factors in global markets, Greek politics, the German chancery, and international diplomacy. With so many moving parts, there’s a serious risk of slipping into an unintended crisis.That could come in three main forms. If Syriza misreads its cards and overplays its hand in debt negotiations with Athens’ Northern lenders, Greece might be forced to abandon the euro against a background of bank failure, capital controls and, quite possibly, social crisis. In that case, the credit of Spain, Italy, and even France could be called into question—resulting in banking, monetary, and solvency crises all over Europe. One consequence of a crisis on this scale would be that Syriza would reverse 70 years of Greek policy and shift to a frankly pro-Russian foreign policy, turning a eurozone crisis into a NATO issue and potentially creating the most serious trouble in Greece since its bitter civil war.The second danger is that Syriza folds completely. The Greeks, having just elected a party promising radical solutions only to be fobbed off, might turn to true extremists—and there are plenty around, starting with Golden Dawn. The Greek neo-Nazi party won 6 percent of the vote— which is good enough for third place in the highly fragmented Greek system—despite not campaigning because its leaders were in prison on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder. Political forces that don’t believe in the democratic process might return to southern Europe in a serious way.The third danger is that Syriza negotiates spectacularly successfully: that is to say, Greece wins not just a payment deferral, but outright forgiveness of a large portion of their debts. Many Club Med countries are probably hoping for this outcome, but the Germans would fight such a change to the last ditch. The other PIGS would then be in a strong position to demand the same treatment, and a southern European debt crisis would be transformed into a northern European banking crisis.Whatever happens in 2015, the world’s eyes will keep turning to Greece.4) VenezuelaNicolas Maduro and his henchmen in Caracas often seem the clown princes of socialism—good for a laugh, but ultimately threatening only to their own country. But now that the leaders of the “Bolivarian Revolution” have bankrupted their country (a truly astounding feat: it has the world’s largest proven oil reserves), things could turn from amusing to dangerous for the rest of us very quickly. And as Venezuela circles the drain, it could pull its South American neighbors and much of Caribbean into its vortex.Venezuelans have grown used to running out of necessities such as toilet paper; the end of the “Revolution” may get much uglier than that. It seems in the short run less likely that a counterrevolution would replace Chavez-style socialism with a saner doctrine, than that the current regime would split into factions amid the decay and decline. Civil unrest has plagued Venezuela on and off for a while now, and things could take a sharp turn for the worse as the underfunded government loses its grip. Guns and explosives are cheap, and even reduced oil revenues can buy plenty of both.A collapsed Venezuela would be a haven for narcotraffickers, arms smugglers, and radical militants. The country shares a long border with a Colombia, where FARC guerrillas and cocaine producers are still restless. It’s not just Venezuela’s continental neighbors, either: the Caribbean in more trouble than many non-specialists have yet understood. Tourism remains the foundation of the regional economy, and for many island nations this could be a problem. The rapid spread of the painful, incurable Chikungunya virus has already affected the way many travelers plan vacations, and the easing of U.S. travel regulations to Cuba could lead to significant shifts in travel and investment over time. Venezuela’s collapse will exacerbate these problems. Through its regional oil subsidy, called Petrocaribe, as well as direct transfers, and softer forms of aid, Caracas has underwritten much of the Caribbean in recent years. Now, countries such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic will be scrambling for new sources for everything from oil to raw dollars.An imploding Venezuela in a weak region is a scenario the United States doesn’t need. At a time when the U.S. is facing challenges in the Middle East and East Asia, one thing it—or any of the allies and partners that depend on its resources—doesn’t need is more trouble in its own back yard.5) LibyaThree years after America and its allies helped topple Qaddafi, Libya is mired in a civil war that threatens to go regional. On one side, the Islamist “Libyan Dawn” holds Tripoli; on the other, Khalifa Haftar leads the forces of the so-called “House of Representatives”, based in Tobruk. Haftar has been rolling up the opposition lately and has all the usual hallmarks of an emerging strongman, but it’s doubtful that anyone will be able to fully control the country.Libya’s internal strife is not just a local concern: each side is backed by powerful international actors—Libyan Dawn by Turkey, Sudan, and the Muslim Brotherhood in all of its various shades, and Haftar’s forces by Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and Emiratis seem to be the most determined of all of these: they conducted several bombing raids in Libya last year, and a ground invasion would not be surprising. Egypt is determined to crush any group related to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Sisi government could use a good, quick war to boost its popularity. And other concerned nations, such as Algeria, may also be tempted to intervene if the situation degenerates. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Libyans and north Africans have streamed from Libya’s shores to Italy, contributing to an immigration situation for which Europe is not prepared. The West sort of intervened in Libya, and then sort of withdrew; the effects of that hesitant policy will be felt for a long time, and not just on the shores of Tripoli.6) NigeriaNigeria has Africa’s largest population and GDP—and the troubles to match. Its problems go beyond, though certainly include, Boko Haram, which has overrun much of the country’s northeast and is butchering people by the hundreds and thousands. Nigeria has an election approaching on February 14, and if the incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, wins, then it’s far from clear that the Northern, Muslim-majority party, the APC, will recognize the results. Meanwhile, day-to-day governance is a mess, corruption is rife, and since the oil crash revenues have been drastically down while pay has been spotty for civil servants and soldiers alike.Boko Haram’s war isn’t just against Christians; it is fighting traditional Nigerian Muslim power structures, Sufi brotherhoods and religious leaders. But post-election dissension on religious lines—on top of already worsening religious polarization and the weakening of central authority—could change that, broadening Boko Haram’s appeal and risking large-scale fighting along sectarian lines in Nigeria. Any serious escalation in the religious violence in Nigeria could have fateful consequences across Africa. Nigeria lies right on the continent’s Muslim-Christian fault line, which stretches laterally from Cote d’Ivoire in the west to Ethiopia in the east. All along that divide, religiously-tinged local conflicts are simmering. The Boko Haram conflict has already spilled over into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.In the two decades since Samuel Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations, thinking people around the world have done their best to damp down the potential for intercivilizational and interreligious war. Although the religious conflict in Nigeria today comes with all the intertribal and economic characteristics of strictly local conflicts, the danger that it could one day ignite a full-fledged religious war that spreads far beyond Nigeria’s boundaries is very real. Everyone who wants Christians and Muslims to live in peace with one another needs to watch Nigeria.7) North KoreaIn recent years, the North Koreans have been like a farmer with only one crop: threats of the use of nuclear weapons or offers to refrain from building more nuclear weapons were the only thing made in North Korea that interested anybody outside the country. The art of North Korean diplomacy consisted of mixing nuclear promises and threats in such a way that the world kept providing the economic aid without which the regime would starve.Now Pyongyang has learned how to grow a new crop: cyberwar. The new threat could be more useful to the Norks, and more troubling to the rest of the world than the old one. Hacking works for the Norks on many levels: it’s cheap, can effectively threaten both states and wealthy private companies, and since it’s nonviolent, countries such as the U.S. are less likely to contemplate a violent response when it’s used—especially since the nuclear shield gives Pyongyang a safe home base. Hacks are harder to deter than nukes.Pundits have said for years that cyber wars were the conflicts of the future; now, the future is here. In North Korea’s case, this tool of war is being used in the style of the Barbary Pirates and the Vikings of old. It’s all about the money.Better still, from the Nork point of view, the internet offers a rich world of new targets. Previously, besides the U.S., Pyongyang could only troll regional countries like South Korea, and Japan. But now the world is a Nork oyster, and as the North’s webmasters develop their skills and expand their reach, countries and companies from all over the world could find themselves in Sony’s shoes.
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Published on: January 29, 2015
2015 WatchPower Rankings: The Critical States
Here’s the third tier of our global power rankings: those states most likely to have a destabilizing effect on world order in 2015.