Despite current peace & stability, volatile issues on global horizon

Y2K has passed without so much as a sniff of Armageddon and the international scene seems to be calmer than it has been for a while. Russian soldiers are mopping up the last pockets of resistance in Chechnya, a pacific coup has taken place in Ecuador and the United States is holding low profile talks with North Korea in Berlin. In other words, there isn’t much for an avowed pessimist such as myself to rave about. Let me therefore offer a few ideas on what the next movements and trends in international relations might be this year barring nuclear holocaust or some random comet hitting the earth.

Mark your calendars for March 26 when Russia elects a new president. This may be a landmark occasion for the young Russian republic whose constitution heavily favors a strong presidential regime. Acting President Vladimir Putin, who took over from Boris Yeltsin following his surprise New Year’s resignation, is the strong favorite after mounting a successful campaign in Chechnya and stabilizing a precarious economic situation. The Communist Gennady Zyuganov may profit from a split in moderate right wing parties, however, following Yevgeni Primakov’s recent decision to run. The Communists have had a surge in popularity lately, increasing their hold on the Duma during last year’s December election and managing to recently elect Gennady Seleznyov as chairman of the lower house.

If Putin wins as expected, Russia’s political and economic situation will probably improve, backed by strong western support. It will however be a long time before investor confidence improves for a shaky Russian economy riddled with corruption and aging means of production. Anything but a strong margin of victory by Putin will probably spell more turmoil in a country still reeling from successive economic crises.

No tensions bigger than an England vs. Germany Euro 2000 final in Amsterdam loom high this year. Economies of the world are all growing steadily, though even in developing countries the 15 percent growth rates of the ’80s and early ’90s will be hard to find. Look for countries with ambition to start gaining confidence on the international scene, especially with the U.S. elections looming high in November. The impeached President Clinton may be looking to finish his term on a strong note, however, and decide to try to leave a legacy of interventionism. Rogue nations beware! Seriously, though, look for a confrontation on the international scene late this year or early next as the European Union – or more likely, China – will be looking to enhance its prestige and perhaps test the new American president. Iraq, the Middle East, Taiwan, North Korea and the Balkans are classic volatile areas.

The world may not have too many serious threats left to its security and only economic issues to think about, but by definition as well as historically, the times when those who have experienced the previous large crises begin to lose the grip on power they acquired are the most dangerous. In other words, the greatest threat to peace and stability is precisely peace and stability and the complacency it engenders.

In the long term, look for a new status quo to emerge from this post-WWII era in which the United States begins to assume a role more suited to its diminishing role as the world’s sole superpower. The United States still has a critical role to play in this process, however. If it tries to cling to power and bully those countries who have suffered prestige-wise during its ascendancy, the early 2000s may resemble the early 1900s, also an era of comparative economic growth, international integration and peace that ended with World War I.

The greatest question for the upcoming years is likely to be what the role of the state will be in a world that seems to be integrating faster than ever before. Territorial boundaries no longer seem to really serve a function in delineating cultural, linguistic and social barriers. Many companies are larger and wealthier than sovereign states and have philosophies and lifestyles of their own. In other words, will the system of nation states die peacefully, if at all, and what will it be replaced by?

These are some of the thoughts on my mind as everyone around me wonders who will win the Super Bowl.