From Afghanistan to Yemen, the conflicts and crises the world faces in the coming year.
- By Jean-Marie GuéhennoJean-Marie Guéhenno is president and CEO of International Crisis Group. He served as the United Nations under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations between 2000 and 2008. He is the author of The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of Peacekeeping in the 21st Century.
The last year was a bad one for international peace and security. Sure, there were bright spots in 2014. Colombia’s peace process looks hopeful. The last round of Iran’s nuclear talks was more successful than many think. Tunisia, though not yet out of the woods, showed the power of dialogue over violence. Afghanistan bucked its history and has, notwithstanding many challenges, a government of national unity. President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba can only be positive.
But for the most part, it has been a dispiriting year. Conflict is again on the rise after a major decrease following the end of the Cold War. Today’s wars kill and displace more people, and are harder to end than in years past.
The Arab world’s turmoil deepened: The Islamic State captured large swathes of Iraq and Syria, much of Gaza was destroyed again, Egypt turned toward authoritarianism and repression, and Libya and Yemen drifted toward civil war. In Africa, the world watched South Sudan’s leaders drive their new country into the ground. The optimism of 2013 faded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ebola ravaged parts of West Africa, and Boko Haram insurgents stepped up terrorist attacks in northern Nigeria. The international legal order was challenged with the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and war is back in Europe as fighting continues in eastern Ukraine.
So what do the last 12 months tell us is going wrong?
On a global level, increasing geopolitical competition appears, for the moment at least, to be leading to a less controlled, less predictable world. This is most obvious, of course, with regard to the relationship between Russia and the West. It’s not yet zero-sum: The two nations still work together on the Iran nuclear file, the threat of foreign terrorist fighters, and, for the most part, on African peacekeeping. But Russia’s policy in its neighborhood presents a real challenge, and its relationship with the United States and Europe has grown antagonistic.
China’s relations with its neighbors also remain tense and could lead to a crisis in the East or South China Seas. The struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia shapes the contours of violence between Sunnis and Shiites across the Middle East. Major Sunni powers are themselves divided: The contest between the Saudis, Emiratis, and Egypt on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other, plays out across North Africa. Elsewhere on the African continent, powers jostle in Somalia and in South Sudan’s increasingly regionalized war; and the DRC has long been a venue for its neighbors’ competition over influence and resources.
Rivalry between major and regional powers is nothing new, of course. But hostility between big powers has stymied the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine and Syria — and leaves its most powerful members less time and political capital to invest on other crises. As power gets more diffuse, antagonism between regional powers matters more. Competition between powerful states increasingly lends a regional or international color to civil wars, rendering their resolution more complex.
Wars and instability also are becoming more geographically concentrated, spreading from parts of Libya, the Sahel, and northern Nigeria across the African Great Lakes and Horn, through Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and over to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stabilizing the world’s most vulnerable areas should be a major, global foreign policy imperative — and not just a moral one, given that these regions often serve as a haven for terrorists and transnational criminals.
This is compounded by a worrying tendency toward violence in countries attempting to transition to democracy. Some of the world’s most troubled places are those that are trying to move away from authoritarian rule, such as Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, the DRC, and Ukraine. Forging a new consensus on a division of power and resources is a huge challenge — and failure tends to lead to renewed strife.
This poses dilemmas for both domestic elites and foreign powers. On the one hand, we know the behavior of many authoritarian rulers simply stores up problems for later. They hollow out institutions, repress their opponents, neglect much of the population, and often leave succession mechanisms vague. On the other hand, getting rid of them often, in the short term, makes things worse — precisely because their rule has left no system in place to manage change.
Last year also shows clearly that jihadi groups remain a persistent, growing threat. The Islamic State and its new affiliates in Sinai and North Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, and al Qaeda franchises in South Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Yemen, and the Sahel are destabilizing governments, killing civilians, and radicalizing local populations. But grouping these movements is often pointless: While they say their ambitions are global, diverse radical enterprises feed off local grievances.
Although these jihadist groups use horrific terrorist tactics, they are more than just terrorists. They seek to control territory. They often blend brutal tactics with astute political or social outreach. Some present themselves as alternatives to a corrupt and unjust state, providing basic public goods — particularly security and justice, albeit often cruel variants thereof — when a government has failed to do so. Few of the wars they fight in are initially driven by international jihad. Extremist ideology often comes late to the party, and always amid other sources of violence. But once there, it makes finding a mediated end to wars much more challenging.
Clearly such diverse problems don’t lend themselves to generic prescription. Solutions require a granular understanding of each conflict, its drivers, its protagonists, their motives and interests. Any response needs to be tailored to context. But we can offer a few general ideas based on the past year.
First, too often this year, policy has lacked a political strategy. This applies as much to the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State as it does to the Nigerians’ against Boko Haram. Military action won’t work alone; in fact, it often perpetuates underlying drivers of conflict — power inequalities, underdevelopment, state predation, identity politics and so forth. What keeps countries together are political settlements. Ending wars or avoiding crises requires a process that steers toward that.
Second, talking makes sense more often than not. The bright spots of this year — the Iranian nuclear file, Colombia’s peace talks, Tunisia’s transition, U.S.-Cuba relations — all show the value of dialogue, even when awkward or unpopular. Of course there are risks, particularly in talking to groups with exclusionary agendas or where criminal motives outweigh political ones. But at the moment the balance is dangerously weighted against dialogue: Policymakers need to be more flexible, eschew dogmatic declarations about who they can or cannot speak to, and where force is necessary, wed it with engagement, even if only to isolate those who are genuinely beyond the pale.
Third, political inclusion should more frequently be a guiding principle of today’s leaders. Over time, that means building institutions that are representative, effective, and protect all citizens — long, arduous, and intensely political work. In fragile countries, the rush to elections that empower the winner at the detriment of the loser, or to ratify constitutions that concentrate power in one person, are dangerous. Exclusion is a major driver in many of today’s wars — all main groups need a seat at the table to protect their interests.
Fourth, it is much better to prevent crises than to try to contain them later. This means engaging before local conflicts gain a jihadi dimension, for example. It means addressing communities’ grievances before they take up arms. It means trying to end wars before factions fragment, making peace efforts more difficult.
Particularly important is to shore up those states in troubled regions that are reasonably stable, or at least have not yet collapsed. This means making sure military aid does not entrench rulers and perpetuate bad habits. But it also means greater caution in advocating regime change, instead nudging leaders toward more inclusive politics, better provision of basic public goods and services, tackling corruption, and improving relations with neighbors. None of this is easy, particularly given the many crises occupying world leaders. But it is clearly better than picking up the pieces afterwards. In fact, given that that the world’s crisis management capacity is already at breaking point, a collapse in another region — like Central Asia, for example, or the Gulf — would be disastrous.
Last, a word about the list. Like any, it is to some degree arbitrary. With so many crises raging, narrowing it down to the 10 most dangerous is hard. We omit Sudan, for example, which is still wracked by wars in its peripheries that look set to escalate, given the continued lack of reform in Khartoum. Nor do we include the extraordinary levels of violence related to drug trafficking in Mexico and parts of Central America. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also doesn’t appear here — but it could clearly heat up in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, or even Israel itself. Pakistan is off this year’s list too but, as December’s horrific attack in Peshawar shows, still faces multiple interlinked threats, whether from jihadists, sectarian urban violence, or its restless military.
With that qualification in mind, here are 10 wars to watch next year:
1. Syria, Iraq, and the Islamic State
Since the Islamic State swept across a wide swath of northern Iraq in June, the jihadist group has become a primary focus of regional politics. But its success is a symptom of deeper problems that are not amenable to military solutions, including sectarian governments in Syria and Iraq, military strategies dependent on militias that radicalize local populations, and the waning of mainstream Sunni forces.
In the run-up to the Iraqi elections in April, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took a page from the playbook of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, using the jihadist threat to rally his Shiite base and win international support by presenting himself as a bulwark against terrorism. His tactics were as successful as they were damaging: He won the election, but only at the price of estranging most of the country’s Sunnis.
While many Iraqis and U.S. policymakers hoped that Maliki’s ouster in favor of Haider al-Abadi would pave the way for more inclusive governance, they have so far been disappointed. Iran-affiliated Shiite forces still hold sway over decision-making in Baghdad. Meanwhile, though the war against the Islamic State has spurred a nascent rapprochement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, Western support to Kurdish factions is feeding intra-Iraqi tensions and intra-Kurdish rivalries.
The U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State has somewhat slowed the jihadist group. However, the conflict’s broader dynamics on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border continue to shift in the Islamic State’s favor, as it claims it is both the only serious opponent of the Assad regime — which is seen as benefiting from the U.S.-led air strikes — and the only serious defender of Sunni interests in either country.
The fighting capacity and morale of the Western-backed Syrian armed opposition continues to weaken. The al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra has already evicted most moderate factions from rebel-held Idlib province, and the Assad regime is undeterred in its effort to crush them militarily. Western-backed groups remain major players in Aleppo, the most valuable remaining opposition territory, but rebels there are struggling to prevent regime encirclement while also holding the Islamic State at bay in the adjacent countryside. Defeat there would threaten the viability of non-jihadist forces in the north as a whole, probably ruling out a mediated end to the conflict. Maintaining the possibility of a future peace process is essential.
Ukraine may not be the world’s deadliest crisis, but it has transformed relations between Russia and the West for the worse. More than 5,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since open conflict began in March 2014, including about 1,000 after a cease-fire was declared on Sept. 5. The onset of winter could add a new dimension to the crisis: The population in the separatist-held eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk will have to make ends meet with little in the way of heating, medicine, food, or money, which are all in short supply due to the collapse of the local economy and a tightening of financial screws by Kiev. The separatist leadership has created few functioning government institutions, has almost no trained officials, and will not be able to respond to any humanitarian emergency on its own.
There are glimmers of hope. Though Moscow continues to support the tiny breakaway “republics” created in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, its enthusiasm for the separatists is waning. It has not recognized them, and now stresses openly that their future lies within the boundaries of Ukraine.
However, the situation remains unpredictable. The beginning of 2015 is unlikely to see either side impose its will militarily — but as both have influential pro-war lobbies, they might be tempted to try. Other parts of Ukraine’s southeast — areas like Kharkiv and Zaporizhia, relatively quiet until now — could grow restive if Moscow stirs things up, perhaps to open a land route to Crimea through Ukraine’s southeast. More radical separatists are certainly hoping this will happen.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recognizes that urgent economic and political reforms are crucial to Ukraine’s long-term stability. However, he is moving slowly to implement them. The West needs to maintain political pressure on him to follow through.
In the short term, the international community’s main tasks are to separate the warring parties, encourage Kiev to reach out to its compatriots in the east, place the Ukrainian-Russia border fully under the control of international monitors, and gradually shift the conflict from armed confrontation to political negotiations. The emergence of another frozen conflict on Europe’s periphery can still be avoided — with a bit of luck, a lot of energy, and a policy toward Moscow that combines sustained pressure with potential incentives for de-escalation.
3. South Sudan
South Sudan is entering its second year of a brutal civil war that, for the moment, looks set to grind on.
Last December, long-simmering disputes within the ruling party and army exploded into a war between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar. Military garrisons split, often violently, along ethnic lines. Clashes quickly spread from the capital as fighting destroyed major cities and oil infrastructure. With Ugandan troops and Sudanese rebels fighting alongside government forces — and with Sudan reportedly arming both government and opposition — the war has drawn in neighbors and risks further destabilizing an already troubled region. The government is leveraging its financial future to pay for the war, leaving the country on the brink of bankruptcy.
Some estimates suggest the war has already left as many as 50,000 dead and almost 2 million displaced. Humanitarian organizations have, for the moment, averted famine, but they face considerable hostility. The end of the rainy season in December is likely to bring an escalation of violence.
Efforts to end the war have not succeeded. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a sub-regional group of which both Uganda and Sudan are members, has taken the lead on mediation efforts, but talks have had little impact and are not inclusive. Ceasefires are repeatedly violated. Nor have the United States and China put their full weight behind the peace process. Armed groups are fragmenting, and many are now beyond Kiir and Machar’s control, fueling secondary conflicts that are evolving in the civil war’s shadow.
How can the world stop the bleeding? The U.N. Security Council — particularly the United States and China, which maintain close ties to regional powers — need to engage more actively. An arms embargo, if closely monitored, should increase leverage over all sides. U.S. pressure on Uganda, coupled with Chinese pressure on Sudan and combined pressure from the region and major powers on Kiir and Machar, might break the deadlock. A mechanism to ensure that oil revenue is not fueling the conflict should be considered, in conjunction with pressure on opposition supply lines. Mediators should also expand dialogue with armed groups and hardliners across the country.
South Sudan is among the world’s gravest crises. Unlike in Syria and Ukraine, however, there is greater hope for coordinated international action, as the issue doesn’t split the U.N. Security Council. With the region divided, it is time for major powers to weigh in more forcefully.
Nigeria faces a perfect storm in 2015. First, a brutal insurgency by the Islamist group Boko Haram continues to wrack parts of the north, especially the impoverished northeast. The group seized more territory this summer, and its attacks have since spread to neighboring Cameroon and could spill over into Niger and Chad. Now in its fifth year and showing no sign of abating, the conflict has left over 13,000 dead and displaced some 800,000 people.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s response has relied largely on military measures. While his government’s campaigns have scored some victories, they have not succeeded in rolling back the insurgency. At times, they have created more enemies for the government: Operations have been heavy-handed and indiscriminate, with security forces and allied local militias engaging in extrajudicial killings and torture. Significant casualties in some battles have led to soldiers refusing to fight or deserting their units. The more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls, kidnapped by militants last April in an attack that made international headlines, are still missing, reinforcing the perception of a government out of its depth.
Second, the worldwide drop in oil prices has weakened the government, which depends on sales of crude for roughly 70 percent of its income. In the last two months of 2014, Nigeria twice lowered the oil price it uses to plan its budget (reaching 65 dollars a barrel) while vowing not to resort to inflationary measures. Nigeria’s currency, the naira, was also devalued for the first time in three years.
Third, elections scheduled for February 2015 could also destabilize the country. Nigerian polls are always fiercely contested, but the chances for violence this time around are exceptionally high. For the first time since the return to civilian rule in 1999, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) faces a real challenge. An opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has united behind a single presidential candidate, retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who will take on President Jonathan.
As with previous elections, campaigning and voting will almost certainly see violence at the state level. A disputed presidential result would be more worrying still: If Buhari loses, mobs could take to the streets in northern cities, as they did when he lost the 2011 vote — but this time with Boko Haram poised to add to the bloodshed. If Jonathan loses, his supporters in the Delta have already threatened to reignite violence there.
While combined offensives by African Union forces and the Somali army have resulted in impressive gains against al-Shabab, the Somali Federal Government is still struggling to actually govern. Despite a provisional federal constitution, tensions between the president and prime minister escalated into a nasty tussle in late 2014 that resulted in the latter’s ousting. Political discord at both the federal and regional levels now threatens the government’s stated ambition of holding elections and a constitutional referendum by 2016.
Although more territory is under the notional control of the central government than at any time since the early 1990s, the reality is that a patchwork of local armed clans hold sway. The twin goals of federal state-formation and national elections — both still largely viewed, locally, as a zero-sum game of clan dominance — are likely to generate further conflict. In this environment, the African Union mission, AMISOM, will struggle to maintain its neutrality, not least since the majority of its troops come from neighboring states. And despite territorial losses and the targeted killing of its leader by a U.S. drone strike in September, al-Shabab retains its ability to strike at home and farther afield — most notably in Kenya, where it claims to champion the cause of the marginalized Muslim minority.
Somalia’s stakeholders — both domestic and foreign — need to shift priorities to match the country’s challenges. They should focus on local stabilization, including through district councils and municipalities, and the establishment of grass-roots political institutions. Local elections need to take precedence over national polls. The current top-down trajectory risks increasing donor frustration with a central government that cannot deliver, and strengthening the power of clans to capture the presidency.
6. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
The past year has dashed many of the hopes raised by progress in the DRC in 2013.
Reforms promised by President Joseph Kabila, particularly with regard to the security sector, have stalled. While 2013 saw Congolese troops and a special U.N. contingent, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), defeat the M23, a Rwanda-backed militia, efforts to demobilize other militias have foundered. Congolese forces launched operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), but its leadership remains at large and unidentified fighters continue to massacre villagers in its area of operations.
More challenging are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Hutu paramilitaries behind Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. The Congolese government and FIB troop contributors, particularly South Africa and Tanzania, are reluctant to take on Rwanda’s enemies, the FDLR, in the way they took on its allies, the M23. A strategy against the FDLR cannot be based on military action alone. Softer measures — third-country resettlement, a disarmament plan that looks after both fighters and communities, police action against the illicit networks supporting the FDLR, and an agreement about the judicial process for its leaders — need to be combined with a credible threat of force.
For now, however, that threat is missing. The tiny numbers of FDLR fighters handing themselves in suggests the group won’t disarm voluntarily; the six-month deadline for this process, imposed by regional powers, was clearly a tactic to gain time. As the disarmament of militias stalls, another escalation of violence in the eastern provinces is possible, especially if Rwanda pulls out of the political process managed by the United Nations.
As in Nigeria, upcoming polls in the DRC are the most formidable challenge in an already fragile political environment. Kabila, whose legitimacy is already very weak and who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, may try to change rules or delay the vote to prolong his tenure. Either step will spark opposition protests. Given that violence in the DRC’s east is largely a symptom of Kinshasa’s bad governance and state dysfunction, the forthcoming vote will be as pivotal to the country’s stability as militias and meddling neighbors.
Afghanistan, for the first time in its history, saw a largely peaceful transfer of power last year. President Hamid Karzai left office, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as his successor, and the runner-up in the elections, Abdullah Abdullah, became Afghanistan’s “chief executive” in a power-sharing arrangement.
But the protracted crisis over election results suggests Ghani’s unity government could present challenges as well as opportunities. Relations between the two camps are still bitter, they have yet to agree on key cabinet appointments, and the power-sharing deal lacks mechanisms for resolving disputes. Factionalism could stymie the urgently needed reforms that Ghani has promised: to strengthen institutions, check corruption, balance executive power, and move toward a less centralized system of governance.
The new government also faces a growing Taliban insurgency. Ghani signed an agreement with Washington that paved the way for 12,000 soldiers, overwhelmingly Americans, to remain in Afghanistan in 2015 to conduct counterterrorism operations and to advise, train, and assist local forces, who are fighting hard against the Taliban.
But violence is increasing, and insurgents are making gains in outlying regions. In late October, the Afghan Defense Ministry said that 2014 had already become the deadliest year for Afghan forces since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and an earlier U.N. report warned that the year had seen a rising number of civilian deaths and injuries. As foreign troops withdraw, Kabul’s reach into the provinces has weakened, and it will struggle to maintain army rosters at current levels without billions of extra donor dollars.
During visits to China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the initial weeks of his presidency, Ghani has wisely signaled his interest in ending the conflict through mediation. The risk, however, is that this will increase the leverage of Pakistan, with which Kabul’s relationship remains strained — and where Afghan insurgents still shelter along the border. Meanwhile, the number of Taliban attacks suggests that, at least for now, the insurgents will continue to test their strength against that of the Afghan army. Fighting will remain an essential component of bargaining, and 2015 promises to be another violent year for Afghans.
Yemen’s transition has broken down. The political process has fallen victim to elite competition, a shift of the balance of power in favor of the Houthis — a Zaydi Shiite movement that has swept across much of the country from its northwestern stronghold — and a resurgent separatist movement in the south. As economic and security conditions have deteriorated, the state’s credibility — and trust in President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi as an honest broker between factions — has suffered.
The Houthis, backed by a broad political front frustrated with political stagnation, took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. They agreed to a plan to appoint a new government, the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, but rapidly violated its spirit by tightening their grip on the capital and extending their territorial control southward and westward into the country’s Sunni heartland and the oil-producing region of Marib.
While Yemen doesn’t have a history of sectarian violence, it is starting to acquire one. The Houthi power grab has brought it into greater conflict with Islah, a political party that includes the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009 by Saudi and Yemeni Sunni militants. The Houthi advance has also stoked fears in the south that federal autonomy, as envisioned by the transitional dialogue that followed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster, is unlikely to succeed.
Regional and major powers have a mixed record in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council were critical to bringing factions together during the turmoil in 2011. The Saudis also have poured in billions of dollars to prop up the state budget. But after the Houthis entered Sanaa, Riyadh expressed doubts about funding a government dominated by a group it considers Iranian proxies. Were the Saudis to discourage investment and pull financial support, the Yemeni state could completely collapse. Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have a common enemy in al Qaeda, should cooperate rather than let Yemen slip into another proxy war.
The U.N. Security Council’s role has also been mixed. In February 2014, it mandated sanctions for any group deemed to be disrupting the transition. After the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, it sanctioned two Houthi commanders and former President Saleh, at the urging of President Hadi and the Saudis. This backfired, handing a temporary boost to those it sought to weaken. Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party promptly withdrew support from the government and expelled Hadi from its leadership, while the Houthis welcomed the sanctions as a badge of honor. None of these parties seem likely to embrace compromise any time soon.
9. Libya and the Sahel
Libya’s transition has also derailed, and the ensuing chaos is spilling across its borders. Political deadlock has produced two rival legislatures — an internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk and an Islamist-dominated General National Congress in Tripoli. The Libyan government no longer enjoys real authority; confidence in state institutions, today little more than a façade, has crumbled. Assassinations of officials and a coup attempt led by an anti-Islamist general have split the country, reflecting regional polarization. Divisions, however, are more complex than Islamists vs. anti-Islamists. Struggles over oil and gas wealth, rivalries between militias and tribes, foreign powers’ competing interests, and disagreements on how to structure the post-Qaddafi state all threaten to tear the country apart.
This is a problem not only for Libya, but also for its neighbors. The influx of arms and mercenaries partly explains Mali’s collapse in 2012, as Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked groups seized the north and a military coup toppled the Bamako government. A French operation drove back the jihadists — but many still shelter in the desert or within remote communities. Meanwhile, terrorist activity has also increased in Niger: As in Mali, authorities are struggling to exert control over the vast desert, with their efforts complicated by regional rivalries, in particular between Algeria and Morocco. Extremists and criminals with transnational connections increasingly exploit the Sahel to escape French operations and gain a foothold in northern Africa, and porous borders, weak state authority, and the ready availability of weapons all work to their advantage.
All this regional insecurity, meanwhile, reverberates in Libya’s vast ungoverned south. The neglected southwestern Fazzan province has experienced an influx of Tuareg fighters, including radical Islamists, and is becoming a haven for radical groups.
Libya’s leaders appear incapable of stemming the country’s disintegration. Interventions by France and, to a lesser degree, the United States have checked the jihadist advance in the Sahel. But whether military efforts are accompanied by the inclusive politics and socio-economic development necessary to achieve real stability remains to be seen. Thus far, political strategies badly lag behind military operations.
Compared with many of the others listed, Venezuela is no war zone. Calm has returned to the streets of Caracas after clashes between protesters, security forces, and pro-government militias claimed several dozen lives, mostly those of protesters, in early 2014. But the underlying causes of the crisis remain, and Venezuela could suffer another bout of instability this year.
President Nicolás Maduro’s government faces an economic crisis that has been worsened by the dramatic fall in the price of oil, on which Venezuela depends for around 96 percent of its revenue. The situation was dire even before the decline in oil prices: The country already suffered high inflation (upwards of 60 percent); scarcities of food, medicine, and other basic goods; collapsing public services; and one of the world’s highest violent-crime rates.
The government’s popularity has fallen steadily since Maduro took office upon the death of Hugo Chávez in March 2013. Maduro’s approval rating is below 25 percent, unusually low for Venezuela and reflecting discontent even within the chávista rank and file that make up his base.
None of this would be insurmountable were it not for the failure of the present regime, since it came to power in 1999, to strengthen the country’s institutions. The Supreme Court (TSJ), electoral authorities (CNE), and three components of what Venezuelans call the “moral power” (the attorney general, ombudsman, and comptroller general) are packed with government loyalists. The legislature, which should serve as a forum for peaceful debate, is a rubber stamp for the presidency. As a result, Venezuela has been left without safety valves that could help ease tension.
Amid last year’s clashes, a tentative dialogue began between the government and the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. One of few points of accord was the need to fill long-standing vacancies on the TSJ and the CNE, and replace the three members of the “moral power” whose terms were due to expire at the end of the year. Unfortunately, the government did not take a consensual approach and an opportunity to de-escalate tensions with the opposition has been lost. Unless regional actors are prepared to weigh in more decisively, legislative elections due in 2015 are more likely to trigger another bout of violence than they are to usher in a widely accepted parliament.
The picture that emerges from this survey of conflicts is grim. There is, however, one glimmer of hope — the increasing fragmentation of the world also means that there is no overarching divide. Even if the deepening crisis between Russia and the West is unsettling Europe, the last remnants of the Cold War are disappearing as Cuba and the United States normalize their relations. Many conflicts can now be dealt with on their own merits, and the growing role of regional powers — while adding complexity and, in some cases, new antagonisms — also creates opportunities for more creative diplomacy.
This is no time for the “old powers” to retrench, but they do have to acknowledge that successful peacemaking in 2015 will depend on working with a much broader array of countries than they have in the past.
Scott Olson/Getty Images