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The Globe and Mail

Is 2011 another 1989? Five experts on shape of things to come

A man holds an Egyptian flag during a rally at Tahrir Square, in Cairo Feb. 25, 2011.

Peter Andrews/Reuters/Peter Andrews/Reuters

The world was already in flux before the wave of citizen revolts in the Middle East. The Globe and Mail asked five geopolitical thinkers whose recent books are nominated for this year's Gelber Prize two big questions about the shape of things to come:

1) How will unrest in the Middle East reshape the region's relations with the West in the coming decade?

2) Who (or what) will be the most influential figure/idea/technology in global affairs in the coming decade?

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Serhii Plokhy

Yalta: The Price of Peace

1. Whenever something of the magnitude of the Egyptian and Libyan events takes place, one tends to seek parallels with the past and lessons for the future.

The previous American administration's promotion of democracy in the Middle East helped launch a popular uprising that not only overthrew a dictatorial regime but also potentially threatens Western strategic interests there.

This brings to mind president Jimmy Carter's promotion of human rights throughout the world in the late 1970s. At that time, U.S. policy undermined the legitimacy of dictatorial regimes in general and helped bring to power not only the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but also the current rulers of Iran.

Hosni Mubarak was not the first dictator with whom the West has had to deal to achieve its geostrategic objectives. The most notorious of them was Joseph Stalin, whose courtship by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill I discuss in my book on the Yalta Conference.

Sooner or later, dictators fall, and the West gets an opportunity for a new start with nations freed from tyranny. The Western powers rose to the occasion after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I hope they will also be up to the task in the Middle East.

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2. The events in Egypt became known as a "Twitter revolution." All over the Middle East, new technology is helping to empower a new generation of political activists and to topple dictatorial regimes.

At such moments, it becomes easy to assume that information technology will change the very essence of world politics. But any student of international relations knows that they are still rooted in the principles set forth by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, written in the fifth century BC.

Are we then on the verge of going "back to the future"? While the Cold War was fought in a bipolar world, what followed was a unipolar world challenged by international networks like al-Qaeda. The new decade will see the rise of multipolar politics. With China, India, Brazil and possibly Russia on the rise, the world will again become multipolar, as it was for most of its history prior to the Yalta Conference.

The challenge will be the same as it was then: how to avoid war (conventional, nuclear or cyber) and make the new regional powers respect the rights of their citizens and smaller nations in their neighbourhood.

Shelagh Grant

Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America

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1. Public protests in the Middle East have taken on a life of their own after Egypt's success in removing president Hosni Mubarak and his government. As uprisings continue and violence escalates, there is always the threat of intervention by Western democracies. Yet, based on the experience in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, would they be willing to risk all-out war? Or will they maintain neutrality, in hopes of renegotiating oil contracts with the winning side? Or will business diplomacy trump political diplomacy? There are too many questions and too few certainties.

Western support of Arab regimes was always driven by the need for oil and required a blind eye to abuses of power. Today, there are added complications, namely the uncertain role of Islamic fundamentalism in any newly formed government. Aside from posing a dilemma for Christian leaders, the age-old religious conflict could influence negotiation of future oil contracts.

In North America, there will likely be renewed efforts to reduce dependency on the Arab countries by increasing tar-sands production and offshore oil wells. Some governments may adopt other means to isolate their countries from the social and political unrest. In the interim, relations between the West and Middle East are in limbo and likely will be for some time.

2. The next decade will witness three major influences on global affairs: the growth of China as an economic powerhouse, the spread of Islam and the use of new communication technologies to provide an uncensored window on governments and events throughout the world. Of the three, the latter may have the greatest influence on global affairs in the next decade - but not necessarily a positive one.

Thanks to WikiLeaks and cyber-attacks, the private affairs of government, industry and individuals are frequently exposed to public scrutiny. Particularly vulnerable are diplomatic peace initiatives involving compromise and accommodation, which may fail when prematurely exposed to public criticism. Mobile phones, on the other hand, have been lauded for their ability to spread live news and images around the world; Facebook for organizing protest meetings. On the downside, the latter can also be used as propaganda tools to incite anger and distrust.

The world may be getting smaller and the workings of government more transparent, but advances in communications may have accelerated social and political unrest in the Middle East ahead of responsible leadership. Have these new technologies inadvertently unleashed a monster?

Ian Morris

Why the West Rules - for Now

1. Asked in 1971 about the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously said that it was too soon to tell.

Just 10 weeks have passed since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself and the whole Middle East alight, just six since Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell from power and just two since Egypt's Hosni Mubarak followed his example. But we cannot tell - yet - what will replace them.

In Tunisia, many old faces remain despite the revolution. In Egypt, the uprising has so far yielded only a military coup. The gerontocrats and generals may yet muddle through - in which case 2011 may not look so different from 1952, which brought Egypt two generations of military rule.

If, on the other hand, people power does triumph, the West might get a nasty shock. A 2010 Pew poll suggested that Egypt's future voters are far more religiously conservative than the tweeting young demonstrators who filled Tahrir Square (twice as religious, in fact, as Iranians were in 1979). Democracy will not turn Egypt into Canada. We can only hope it does not turn it into Iran.

If Zhou Enlai could not decide about France after 182 years, we should probably allow the Middle East at least a few more weeks.

2. The 2010s will bring exciting new ideas and magical new technologies, but one man will bestride the decade like a colossus. Few Westerners, though, have even heard of him.

Xi Jinping used to be a chemical engineer, but today he is China's vice-president and vice-chair of its Central Military Commission. He will almost certainly succeed Hu Jintao as party secretary in 2012 and president in 2013.

Mr. Xi will not wield as much military or material clout as America's presidents, or command as much faith as the popes, but without this man's say-so, nothing important in the world will get done. There will be no progress on global warming or financial imbalances. And if he makes bad decisions, China's "peaceful rising" could turn very nasty indeed.

What should we expect from Mr. Xi? On the whole, more of the same. He is a pragmatist with a track record of pushing economic growth, and a cosmopolitan, with a daughter at Harvard. But he has a tough streak too; he is said to be the force behind China's J-20 stealth fighter plane, and is closer to the military than any predecessor since Mao.

He is the man to watch.

Nick Cullather

The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia

1. The anxiety about a diplomatic rupture draws on a historical comparison policy-makers can't help thinking about: If 2011 is another 1989, then the Middle East is the West's Eastern Europe. Politically and institutionally, the region is a Cold War anachronism, as outdated as Checkpoint Charlie, which in places it resembles. When Robert Zoellick of the World Bank calls for transition instead of revolution, he is saying that he, at least, is not ready to be another Mikhail Gorbachev.

But a more apt comparison may be the "people power" revolutions of Southeast Asia, which sent dictators packing but left patterns of corruption and alliance intact. In Tunisia and Egypt, the army still holds the cards, and the crowds in the street yearn not for the unreliable wind of neo-liberalism but for a return to the economic nationalism that once guaranteed bread and jobs. It is unlikely that an Algeria without Abdelaziz Bouteflika would stop selling oil or that a democratic Bahrain would kick out the Fifth Fleet. Patriarchs can flee, but interests stay behind.

The West should dread less and aspire more. Now may be the best time to push our shaken allies toward solutions based not on drones or walls but on a broad, popular consensus.

2. The state. For the past 30 years, governments have steadily lost importance. The big problems - climate, terrorism, poverty - were transnational; technology broke down borders; and a new style of humanitarianism bypassed corrupt and debt-ridden capitols and went straight to the people. Policy shifted power from governments to de-territorialized markets. But the pendulum is about to swing back.

The countries that emerged most quickly from recession - Germany and China - had treasuries with the resources to shore up currencies and investment. Carbon trading is out, and public investments in wind, solar and rapid transit are in. Al-Qaeda can't even get airtime on Al Jazeera any more. A borderless world? With security screenings at airports and every large building, we're all living on the border, all the time.

What the crowds in Tahrir Square recognized was that law and policy matter. Governments define and shape markets; they decide how much information and freedom people can have. In a globalized future, the state will be more important, not less.

Doug Saunders

Arrival City: The Final Migration and our Next World

1. What we call the Middle East has been, for most of the postwar era, a set of arrangements between regimes and leaders, sometimes organized to create equilibrium and compromise but most often also resulting in subjection, violence and human stagnation.

From Suez to the Second Intifada, from Iran in 1979 to the collapse of the "peace process," the lands of the Persian Gulf and the southern Mediterranean manifested themselves as a collection of leaders, usually authoritarian and, if elected, rarely representative of their populations. By the 2000s, these people were experiencing the slowest economic and social progress in the world. What is astonishing is that so many of them collectively identified and confronted the precise cause of their problem. The revolutions that began in the Tunisian town of Sidi-Bouzid in December of 2010 are putting an end to "the Middle East" as a political concept by means of the simple removal of those leaders.

From this point, the region will be defined by human populations, most often organized along national lines (rather than the religious and sectarian identities that filled the vacuum of non-sovereignty). A new settlement can be reached between these populations, more stable than before - but we may also find that they have outgrown their old ties to the West.

2. My book makes the argument - and, I hope, demonstrates through first-hand examples - that the defining event of this century will be, and already is, the large-scale shift of human populations in the world's East and South from subsistence peasant livelihoods to largely urban populations supported by commercial farming.

Predictions are a mug's game, but it's very safe to project that our rural-to-urban transformation, and the hopeful, high-risk, transitional communities it engenders, will be the root of most conflicts and the source of almost all social progress in the decades ahead.

Most immediately, though, the worldwide population transition will have two effects: First, it will be the root of the changes necessary to bring the world out of a food-scarcity position and to begin to produce surpluses - ideally within the next two or three years. The countries that are suffering are those that use the land to support populations, not produce food. Second, the countries that have urbanized are increasingly shifting from the problems of population growth to those of shrinkage, and the economic challenges of non-growing populations will become a difficult factor in the decade ahead.

<dotted_rule>The Lionel Gelber Prize is an award for the world's best non-fiction book in English that seeks to deepen public debate on significant global issues. The writer of the winning book, to be announced on Tuesday, will receive $15,000.

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