Regime Changes May Lead To Dangerous New Year

Big changes in 2011 — from the Arab Spring to the death of North Korea's dictator — create opportunities for 2012. But change can be scary, even when the regimes to be replaced are unpopular or repressive, because there's never a guarantee the new regime will be better.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Iran is just one of the nations that make it hard to forecast what will happen overseas in 2012. We've completed a year in which several dictators fell, but the global landscape may be as dangerous as ever. Transitions are unpredictable. Turning points can be treacherous. NPR's Tom Gjelten has a risk assessment for the year ahead.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The prospect of regime change can be scary, even when the regimes to be replaced are unpopular or repressive, because there's never a guarantee the new regime will be better. In fact, just going through a transition - the process itself - can damage a country, regardless of who's driving it.

Take Egypt. We don't yet know which group will eventually wield power in that country - the military, the Islamists, or the secular parties. But that's a secondary issue, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group. The immediate concern is what Egypt will experience in the meantime.

DR. IAN BREMMER: That's not a matter of what the new government would do if it's in power. That's a matter of if they can actually affect a meaningful transition at all. Or is this place going to start fragmenting?

GJELTEN: So the danger in Egypt may be the process of moving toward a new government, more even than who ends up in the government.

Bremmer's firm does risk analysis and Egypt is one of the places it'll be watching most closely in 2012. Indeed, the whole Middle East, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, has become more unstable. It's going through dramatic political change just as the United States is disengaging from the region.

The U.S. government was not a guiding force in Egypt or Tunisia. In Libya, the U.S. did support the movement against Gadhafi, but it has since backed off. Nor, Bremmer says, is the U.S. directing developments in Syria.

BREMMER: At the same time that the U.S. isn't playing that role, other countries from outside the region won't either. The Chinese won't. The Russians won't. The Europeans won't. They're all distracted. They're all plenty busy.

That means that the Middle Eastern countries have to resolve their own problems. And yet, the countries that are prepared to do so - the Saudis, the Turks, the Iranians - they don't always play ball nicely. And their ability to affect useful transitions or even maintain the status quo is very limited.

GJELTEN: Another big transition is under way in North Korea and, as in the other cases, it's unpredictable. For the moment, the army and the Communist Party there are ostentatiously showing support for the new leader, 20-something Kim Jong-un. But this is only the second leadership change in that country's 60-year history.

And with the new Supreme Leader so untested, Bremmer's group includes North Korea in its list of the top ten risks facing the world this year.

BREMMER: Either he's going to have a whole bunch of strong folks coalesce around him, and put him forward as a symbolic leader, or it's going to get ugly at the top. So this is a very dangerous environment, indeed.

GJELTEN: Also among the top 10 risks: Pakistan, with its weakened government; China, in trouble with its neighbors; political infighting in South Africa; Venezuela, facing a variety of bad outcomes. And then there's the whole global economy, back on the edge of recession.

In Europe, the 17 governments that use the same currency haven't been able to figure out how to manage their finances harmoniously. Result: Europe's cohesion is more at question than at any point since the Second World War. And for those countries like the U.S. that have depended on Europe, that's worrisome.

Ian Bremmer and his colleagues don't see the 17-member euro currency zone breaking up in the next 12 months, but 2012 could be just as risky as this last year has been.

BREMMER: We also don't believe that a resolution is coming anytime soon. They're going to continue to muddle through. This is a long process. And at the absence of those effective solutions is going to drive a massive amount of volatility and investor sentiment, as we work our way through 2012.

GJELTEN: And the United States, with its own debt problems, is hardly any better off. In both cases, Europe and the U.S., politics stand in the way of progress on the economic front. Leaders apparently lack the political will to do what needs to be done. That may even be true for the world as a whole in 2012. Three years ago, a global financial meltdown had shaken up governments everywhere. This year, it may be just the opposite: around the world, political crises endangering the global economy.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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