In today’s world, identifying and managing hotspots is not simply a matter of pulling out a map, spotting the wildfires, and empowering diplomats to douse the flames. To understand today’s major conflicts and confrontations, we must recognize important ways in which global political conditions enable them.
Conflicts are much more likely to arise or persist when those with the means to prevent or end them cannot or will not do so. Unfortunately, this will be borne out in 2013.
In the United States, barring a foreign-policy crisis that directly threatens national security, President Barack Obama’s administration will focus most of its time, energy, and political capital on debt reduction and other domestic priorities. In Europe, officials will continue their struggle to restore confidence in the eurozone. And, in China, though the demands of economic growth and job creation will force the country’s new leaders to develop new ties to other regions, they are far too preoccupied with the complexities of economic reform to assume unnecessary costs and risks outside Asia. That is why the world’s fires will burn longer and hotter this year.
This does not mean that the world’s powers will not inflict damage of their own. Today, these governments are more likely to use drones and special forces to strike at their perceived enemies. The world has grown used to US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, but recent news reports suggest that China and Japan are also investing in unmanned aircraft – in part to enhance their leverage in disputes over islands in the East China Sea. By lowering the costs and risks of attack, these technological innovations make military action more likely.