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Talk of trouble in Davos

The chattering classes in Davos were not terribly interested in the new threats from North Korea.

Jan 29,2013
The five-day World Economic Forum, the annual meeting that brought over 2,500 political, economic and business leaders as well as participants from various sectors from close to 100 countries to Davos, Switzerland, did not merely discuss economic challenges the global economy faces today. Experts, politicians, industrialists, entrepreneurs and statesmen pored over a wide range of issues that can affect today’s global economy and shape its future.

In opening remarks on Jan. 23, the forum’s founder and chairman Klaus Schwab warned that the global economic crisis is still ongoing with various forms of economic and geopolitical risks raising alarms for the world economy in 2013. Foreign affairs experts all pointed to the Middle East as the biggest risk zone. At the center of its problems are Iran and its nuclear program. Iran’s nuclear weapons program could trigger a nuclear arms race in the conflict-prone region, eventually undermining the strategic stability of the entire world.

The danger is apparent but world leaders are still poles apart in solving the problem. Some want military attacks to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities while others prescribe tougher sanctions to dismantle and weaken the leadership in Tehran. But military action could start a full-blown war in the Middle East and international sanctions have run out their effectiveness in toppling regimes, according to Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough, he said, “You really are looking at a scenario where Iran is going to rush very quickly toward nuclear power.”

Also stuck in the bottleneck is the protracted conflict in Syria. What started as an anti-government civilian protest against the authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad prompted by the Arab Spring democracy movement has developed into a violent civil war between factional rivals, Sunni Muslims and Alawites. Furthermore, religious and economic interests have pulled in neighboring countries, pushing the region into a near state of war with rapidly rising civilian casualties and regular massacres of innocents.

In the meantime, many have become skeptical whether Islamic states are really headed down the path of democracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring after Muslim forces gained ruling power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen through elections. Mali and the vast, ungoverned deserts of North Africa are turning into a new habitat for Al Qaeda-linked militant forces, posing a new danger zone and sharply raising political risks in the area.

Few strategic experts in Davos were worried about the consequences of a tense rivalry between the United States and China. As America still outweighs China in every way, and the two have more to benefit from reciprocal relations, they won’t likely run into a head-on clash, the experts argued.

But some were critical of Washington’s strategic “pivot” to Asia, saying it has helped escalate tensions in the Middle East and Asia Pacific. Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and former U.S. government official, pointed out that the words “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward Asia can only annoy China. He advised Washington to pursue what he called a “deeper engagement” to work cooperatively with Asia’s rising power.

Despite alarming headlines, experts did not expect the territorial spat between China and Japan to escalate into a military clash. Nationalism is brewing, but the leaderships in both China and Japan are mature enough to exercise restraint and avoid extreme military measures.

More noteworthy was the fact that participants in the brainstorming at Davos were vocal on the waning global leadership and engagement of the U.S. It’s not that Washington surrendered its moral commitment or strategy to maintain global order and safety. Rather, it is too preoccupied with a domestic agenda of fiscal troubles and can no longer afford colossal military engagements, as manifested by its conspicuous hands-off approach to both the Syria and Mali crises. Its stance could suggest a fundamental shift in Washington’s role as the world’s policeman.

Surprisingly, the chattering classes in Davos were not terribly interested in the new threats from North Korea. Pyongyang threatened a third nuclear test and military attacks against South Korea, the United States and Japan in retaliation for tougher UN sanctions, but the international forum shrugged off those headlines.

A lack of interest by the global elite in the brewing risks on the Korean Peninsula can be an ominous sign for us. It may help the country keep its sovereign credit rating, but it won’t solve the fundamental problem of how to keep the North to its pledge to end its nuclear program. We must keep vigilant so the security of our state does not slip away from global attention.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in



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