NEWS

2009's "Black Swans" for International Security

By Matthew Harwood

The present and widening financial crisis became 2008's "black swan"—those random,  highly unpredictable events, like 9-11, that dominate history and leave experts scrambling to find out just what happened.  

Which, naturally, begs the question: What could be the foreign policy black swan for 2009?

In one of his inaugural blog posts for Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, president and chief executive of Garten Rothkopf and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, identifies five possible black swans that could peck at President-elect Barack Obama and international security more generally.

  1. Mexico—Rothkopf calls Mexico our "failed state next door." Simply put, if the Mexican government cannot combat and cripple, or even contain, its powerful organized crime syndicates,  "the symptoms of crisis will come streaming over our borders." Security Management readers should be familiar with Mexico's problems after the December cover and as one of that story's main sources on anti-kidnapping strategies and responses was kidnapped himself the same month. 
  2. More weak, failing states—Mexico isn't the only state that could weaken to the point of collapse. Rothkopf identifies plenty of others—Turkey, Ukraine, Argentina, and even Greece—as the worldwide economic recession plunges developing and underdeveloped nations into further crisis. The worst development in such a scenario, according to Rothkopf, is if China's growth slows to between 5.5 and 6 percent, causing a collapse in commodity prices and punishing emerging countries.
  3. Slower moving black swans—Unpredictable events happen fast, but some take longer to gather steam. And as the flare-up in the Gaza Strip shows, there will be no shortage of international crises to keep President Obama's administration busy. So what will happen when the Obama administration focuses too much attention on short-term conflagrations and neglects longer-term problems? On Rothkopf's list are global warming, Iranian nuclear weapons, and the militancy of Hamas and Hezbollah.
  4. Russia–With natural resource revenues dropping like mercury in winter, will Russia's Prime Minister Vladmir Putin divert attention from instability at home by provoking the United States? Rothkopf says Putin's many options include stoking conflict in Georgia or the Ukraine; pulling closer to Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran; or all the above.
  5. The Congo—Over the last decade, Rothkopf notes, 5 million people have died, and another 45,000 each month in the country's neverending conflict. Genocide or a disease epidemic could  dramatically push these numbers higher. In Africa, he writes, "the new administration's ability to marshal multilateral action will be tested, and a failure may be the beginning of the end of the honeymoon for Barack Obama in the international community."

But black swans are, by definition, either unforseen or dismissed. "[W]hile it is hard to predict just what event will test the [Obama] team," Rothkopf writes,  "it can be fairly confidently asserted that they (like most first term administrations) will be in over their heads very soon."

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