Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 31 January 2007

A turbulent 2007 ends with a bang 

The year 2007 was turbulent, symbolized by the violent death of Benazir Bhutto last week.  Wars and civil strife continued around the world and the global economy faltered.  More of the same may be due next year.


The year 2007 ended with a bang, with the shocking news of the tragic death of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.  Her brutal killing will become the symbol and most visible manifestation of what will be remembered as a violent year for many parts of the world.

It has left Pakistan in even greater turmoil, with no light perceivable at the end of the tunnel.  In fact, the end of the tunnel itself is not in sight.

Pakistan is in an unenviable situation, caught between its own internal dynamics of  democratic yearnings and the realities of authoritarian and military controls, between secular movements and a myriad of religious-based forces,  and most of all between big-power (especially American) dictates and the desire for independence in policy making.       

The specter of terrorist attacks, that make victims of innocent civilians, haunts many countries.  Some, like Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, now face them on an almost daily basis.  Other countries are also susceptible, and in yet many others the horrors may also emerge.

The year 2007 saw the continued American omnipresence in Iraq, and the continued resistance to foreign occupation as well as what often seemed like senseless carnage in which one segment of Iraqi society took revenge against another segment.

Allies of the United States, including its staunchest supporters, the United Kingdom and Australia, gave signals of planning significant withdrawal from the scene of action, which will leave the US even more isolated. 

In the US itself, opposition to its occupation increased, but the newly Democrat-controlled Congress could only keep the pressure up on the Bush administration with demands of benchmarks and deadlines.  It could not get the government to commit to an actual plan for withdrawal.

The “other war”, in Afghanistan, went badly for the Western allied forces, as the local movements, loosely described as under the Taliban umbrella, made headway in their resistance.  The resistance was aided by increased local outrage arising from civilian casualties caused by more mistaken Allied bombings.

In the Middle East, as the year was ending, the Bush administration launched a new initiative towards a peace process between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab countries.   Israel and the Palestinian Authority seemed in 2007 to have reached a significant level of communication.

But Israel’s intensified siege of the Gaza economy, as a kind of collective punishment of Palestinians for their vote and support of Hamas, its maintenance of the Wall that cuts through Palestinian lands, and its recently revealed plans to expand settlements in some areas – all these factors do not augur well for the prospects of peace.

The serious split in Palestinian ranks, between the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah, and the Hamas party that won the election and last year took physical control of Gaza, has had tragic consequences and also made the situation more complicated.  

In the other “hotspot” of Iran, the Western powers led by the US, piled on the pressure to discipline the government for its supposed nuclear weapons programme.  Their move to get the UN Security Council to impose sanctions met with resistance from China and Russia

But an even greater and extremely embarrassing block came from an unexpected quarter. The US intelligence community itself issued a report to the effect that Iran had several years ago stopped implementing any nuclear weapons ambition it may have had.  The implication is that previous intelligence reports that said the contrary should be corrected.

This has taken the winds off the sails that the US and other countries may have had to build the public opinion ground for possible bombing of Iran.  That possibility still exists, however, as the US continues to claim that Iran is still a real threat.

Nearer home, the ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawarta confounded the military officials that ousted him in a 2006 coup as well as his civilian political opponents. The  political party of his allies won the most seats in elections earlier this month.  There are complex negotiations ahead, but the bet is that the controversial Thaksin will bounce back into Thai politics in 2008.

The long-awaited Asean Charter was finally adopted this year but it had been much watered down from its original and previous drafts and the Asean Summit that gave birth to it was seriously marred by the inability of the rest of Asean to discipline Burma or even to go ahead with a mild programme of hearing a presentation on the latest situation by the UN envoy to Burma.

A few months earlier, the well-publicised huge protests by Burmese monks, and the way they were suppressed by the ruling junta, shook up Burma as well as the world’s conscience.  But hopes that democracy and a new government will finally dawn on that nation have been put on hold – though by no means extinguished -- yet again.

On the economic front, the rosy picture of good growth in most parts of the world in recent years has been clouded by the uncertainties in the financial sector originating from the United States’ sub-prime house mortgage crisis.

Many economists expect the situation to worsen, with a possible recession in the US that will slow global growth considerably.  Questions include are how rapidly or slowly will the recession, if it happens, clear; and how deeply will Asian countries be affected.

2007 will also be remembered as the year environmental issues, especially climate change, returned to the centre stage.  The year ended with the Bali climate conference that has set the stage for at least two years of negotiations towards new commitments for action by all countries.

The stage is set for 2008 to bring more exciting times.  But exciting does not necessarily mean good, and it is likely that there will be greater turbulence in the year that begins tomorrow.