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Shadow Government

The axis of upheaval

By Christian Brose The curse of a bimonthly magazine is that you have to predict what the main issues of debate will be two months into the future, and then build an entire magazine around that guesswork. This was the case for us here at Foreign Policy back in December, trying to imagine what people ...

By Christian Brose

The curse of a bimonthly magazine is that you have to predict what the main issues of debate will be two months into the future, and then build an entire magazine around that guesswork. This was the case for us here at Foreign Policy back in December, trying to imagine what people would be talking about in February, March, and April. There were many good candidates, but not surprisingly, what stood out most was the continuing economic crisis. We had already gotten beyond recognizing that it was a crisis, a fact on which five of our last authors had been ahead of the curve. Now it was time to contemplate the consequences — and not just economic but geopolitical consequences.

Thus was born our idea of the "axis of upheaval" and the special report on it for the March/April issue of FP, which we are broadening this week at ForeignPolicy.com. For several years now, a spectacular amount of energy in U.S. policy debates has been expended on the three countries that President George W. Bush, in 2002, labeled the "axis of evil" — Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. These countries and their myriad different problems dominated Bush’s presidency. And all three remain major challenges for President Obama. But added to that now are an array of other countries in which existing political and security problems are being exacerbated by the global recession. The challenge comes not from their evil intentions but their various states of upheaval.

Our special report focuses on three: Mexico, Russia, and Somalia. And this week online, we will expand our focus to others in the "axis of upheaval" — for, sadly, this is a club with many members. That is a point Harvard professor and best-selling author Niall Ferguson makes well in the introduction to our magazine feature. He suggests as many as nine countries that could constitute the "axis of upheaval," and we invite readers to agree, disagree, and suggest their own candidates.

Ferguson’s other salient point may be even more troubling: While every country in the world is looking after its own interests and struggling to weather the instability of the economic crisis — many unsuccessfully — there is little time and resources to focus on the problems of others. So what happens when geopolitical crises are proliferating and everyone, including the United States, is focused inward? It seems like a recipe for a turbulent, dangerous year.

If you don’t believe us, then have a look at what the new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, told Congress last week:

The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications. The crisis has been ongoing for over a year, and economists are divided over whether and when we could hit bottom. Some even fear that the recession could further deepen and reach the level of the Great Depression. Of course, all of us recall the dramatic political consequences wrought by the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the instability, and high levels of violent extremism. Though we do not know its eventual scale, it already looms as the most serious global economic and financial crisis in decades.

Much as we wish it weren’t the case, it’s looking as if the government of Iceland won’t be the only one in 2009 that falls victim to the economic crisis. The "axis of upheaval" is large already, and its membership may be growing.

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