For 2010, I attempted to read the proverbial tea leaves and predict the future, with mixed success. Over the last year, I came to realize that it matters less to me whether I can call an event correctly before it happens as much as it matters to me what the important areas of concern for the year might be. So, for 2011, rather than predicting directly, I will share with you the things I will be paying attention to throughout 2011.
- Illicit nuclear programs: This is a concern that is not just limited to Iran and not just limited to nations. Over the past several years, we have seen illicit programs identified or seriously suspected in Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syrian, and Venezuela. Further complicating matters is the widespread and growing trade in nuclear materials and, possibly, actual nuclear devices. Many experts say that it is actually amazing that we have not already had a nuclear or dirty bomb event yet, and it is just a matter of time before we do, I think.
- International terrorism: Of course, the forces of the likes of al Qaeda and the Taliban will continue to use terror as a tool in 2011, and I think that the use of that tool will escalate as they see the success of even failed attempts to kill changing the way the rest of the world behaves, especially in the United States. Further, I think the use of simpler, cheaper, and more independent acts will grow. I expect the incidents of terrorism in nations already experiencing insurgencies will multiply, and these events will spread around the world as well.
- Economic uncertainty: I do not think we have seen the last of the economic uncertainty that has dominated the last several years. If the US economy does not decline in 2011, I suspect it will remain essentially flat even as a whole host of new threats begin to emerge: Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s debt load, Medicare and Social Security insolvency, the US national debt, the commercial real estate bubble, continued instability in the banking system, and the increasingly rapid rise of commodity prices.
- Chaos in the US federal government: Everyone knows something has to be done about federal spending, but no one has the political will to do anything about it. I think 2011 will make 2010 look like a great political year, and I have to wonder if we will see a significant government shutdown before the end of the year.
- Chaos in the state governments: The states are in trouble, and the list of states on the edge of financial catastrophe seems to grow with each passing month. The hardest hit in any kind of meltdown will be people who depend on state services for their basic well-being. If I had to point to an event that could ignite widespread chaos or violence in the United States in 2011, it would be the suspension of state social welfare programs because they are broke.
- Big city meltdowns: One of the most ignored stories of 2010 was the sudden demise of the once always reliable municipal bond. Cities throughout the United States are on the verge of default, and no one has any idea what to do about it.
- A year without sports? 2011 finds itself with all three major sports leagues negotiating contracts between their players and owners. What happens if they can’t compromise? We’ll see.
- Syria-Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India: It is far too easy to focus on the events in one country without considering how they are all linked together. These six nations represent an axis of political, cultural, and religious instability that has the power to rock the world. I think that sudden turmoil in any one of these nations could set off a chain of events that could affect them all and bring the world down with them. Careful study of the relationships among these nations is imperative in 2011.
- Iran: Iran and its various goings on has been a longtime focus of mine, and 2011 will probably ratchet that focus to a new level. Of specific concern is, of course, Iran’s nuclear program and its dealings with nations like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela. Also of concern is its continue support of Hamas and Hezbollah.
- Israel: A nation can only be besieged for so long before it feels compelled to act decisively, and I have to wonder if Israel has reached that point.
- Saudi Arabia: The Saudi monarchy has been unstable for a long time, and continued pressure from al Qaeda in that country and Yemen continues to undermine it.
- Somalia: Somalia is home not just to infamous international pirates but also a grown consortium of Islamic extremists who could very well become the new al Qaeda.
- Venezuela: The rising price of oil plays right into Hugo Chavez’s hands and his growing relationship with Iran presents a threat to the whole world.
- Yemen: Will Yemen become the new Afghanistan in 2011? Anwar al-Awlaki represents the most significant personality in radical Islam since Osama bin Laden, and his leadership has inspired hundreds of jihadis to acts of terrorism in 2010. If he can consolidate and build his base in Yemen, he could recreate what al Qaeda had in the 90s in Afghanistan.