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The Top 5 Overlooked Foreign Policy Stories of 2012

It is fair to say that with multiple 24-hour cable news channels, social media sites like Twitter and smart phone apps that keep us in constant contact with the internet, Americans are voracious consumers of information. You would assume that, thanks to this constant flow of information, we are well-informed about a wide array of topics. But, when it comes to global affairs, unfortunately this often isn't the case. American coverage of global events tends to cluster around a few topics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Israel top the list.

As a result, a lot of important stories pass with little notice. With that in mind, here are five of the biggest under-reported foreign policy stories of 2012. 

1) Mali

Once a hopeful example of development in West Africa, as 2012 unfolded, Mali turned into a train wreck of epic proportions. The chaos began when Tuareg mercenaries formerly employed by Libya's Moammar Gadhafi returned home to Mali and allied themselves with Al-Qaeda-linked militants to turn what was a poorly-defined campaign for an autonomous homeland in northern Mali into a full-blown insurrection. Malian soldiers, unhappy with their government's handling of the uprising staged a coup, and in the resulting chaos, the Tuareg/Al-Qaeda alliance captured half of the country.

The coup-plotters gave up in August, but Mali still does not have a functioning government. The Tuareg/Al-Qaeda alliance fell apart, but not before the Al-Qaeda militias destroyed historic sites in Timbuktu for offending their “religious beliefs.” Today, the situation in Mali is chaotic. ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is proposing a military intervention to stabilize the situation; a move supported by the United States and France who hope to use AMISOM's intervention in Somalia as a model. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda-linked militants hold vast tracts of land in northern Mali, with the fear being that they could use Mali as a base to extend operations into other parts of West Africa, and perhaps to Europe as well. 

2) Yulia Tymoshenko

In 2004, Yulia Tymoshenko, with her trademark Princess Leia-esque braided hairdo, became the public face of Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution. But her two subsequent terms as Prime Minister were marked by infighting with her Orange Revolution partner; President Viktor Yushchenko that left Ukraine's government largely paralyzed and paved the way for the return to the presidency of Viktor Yanukovich, whose attempts at public oppression sparked the whole Orange Revolution in the first place.

Tymoshenko still controlled a large faction within Ukraine's parliament before being jailed – first on charges that she misappropriated funds while prime minister, then on charges of tax evasion that dated back to the 1990s. Her supporters contend that the charges are simply an attempt by Yanukovich to sideline a powerful political rival. From jail, Tymoshenko charged that her prison guards were abusing her and denying her medical treatment for a long-standing back injury; Tymoshenko even went on a hunger strike earlier in the year. Her supporters pushed for a boycott of the UEFA 2012 soccer tournament, which was jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine, though the calls for a boycott went largely unanswered. Once a symbol of Ukraine's pro-Western/pro-democratic future, Yulia Tymoshenko now sits in jail, largely unnoticed by the international community, while Yanukovich nudges Ukraine back towards their traditional ally, Russia.

3) Shale Gas

There's a good chance you've heard of shale gas, particularly in the context of the environmentally controversial technique of hydrofracking. The fracking of domestic shale gas reserves – has led to a natural gas boom in the United States; but shale gas is not unique to the U.S. and now other countries are eager to get in on the bonanza. Poland is hoping that they can frack their way to energy independence; the UK is looking at onshore shale gas reserves to replace declining production from the North Sea; and energy-hungry China has invested in U.S.-based gas companies to gain expertise that they can use on their domestic shale gas reserves.

Shale gas is beginning to reshape the global energy picture, at least as far as natural gas is concerned. A few years ago, the United States was a net importer of natural gas, now plans for LNG (liquefied natural gas) export facilities are under consideration. The gas the U.S. had been importing is now available for other consumers. The biggest potential loser in the shale gas explosion is Russia, which for much of the last decade used a near monopoly on natural gas supplies from Central Asia as a way of exerting leverage over Europe, while profits raked in by the quasi-state run firm Gazprom filled Russia's state coffers. Breaking the Gazprom gas monopoly means Russia needs to rethink its strategic approach to Europe, and rebalance its national budget.

4) Democracy in Africa

The situation in Mali tends to be the image of governance in Africa burned into the minds of many Americans – one of military coups, non-functioning states and utter chaos. But in many parts of Africa, 2012 was actually a good year for democracy.

Earlier this month, Ghana held its sixth-straight peaceful presidential election; allegations of voter fraud made by the losing party were quickly dismissed by most Ghanaians. Even more noteworthy were the elections in Senegal where after amending the nation's constitution so that he could run for a third term, President Abdoulaye Wade quickly conceded defeat to challenger Macky Sall. In Malawi, Vice President Joyce Banda became that country's first female head of state (became only the second woman to lead a state in post-colonial Africa) after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Successful elections were also held in Somalia, where the country finally shows hopeful signs of emerging from two decades of warfare and chaos.

Africa is still dealing with seemingly intractable conflicts like the ongoing war in The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and some African countries still are run by strongmen and autocrats, but democracy and good governance are taking hold in more and more nations.

5) The Arctic

At the risk of sounding clichéd, things are heating up at the top of the world. Changes in the global climate are making more and more of the Arctic more accessible to exploration and transportation. The Arctic region is believed to hold much of the world's great untapped oil and gas deposits, while Greenland (which remains an autonomous territory of Denmark) could hold vast reserves of a host of valuable minerals that could become commercially viable as the Greenlandic ice sheets retreat. Meanwhile, the Northwest (Atlantic to Pacific via Canada) and Northeast (Atlantic to Pacific via Russia) Passages are starting to be seen as valuable maritime routes that can shave weeks off of current seaborne journeys.

But this also means that countries are starting to discuss, and disagree, about how to carve up the Arctic spoils. Russia and Denmark have both claimed the seabed at the North Pole as their own, while Canada contends that the Northwest Passage falls within their territorial zone, putting them at odds with the United States, which considers the Northwest Passage to be international waters, free for use by any nation. Meanwhile, non-Arctic China wants to make sure that they also have access to the potential wealth of the Far North, meaning that the Arctic could become another source of tension, and perhaps conflict, for the world's powers.

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