2022 - The Year of Instability
As 2022 draws to a close and I look back at the year, I notice the increased amount of instability in many of the major world powers. The U.S.'s traditional rivals, Russia, China, and Iran, are facing significant internal problems, leading one to wonder whether these regimes will fall or be forced to change. The world, however, not only saw these nations struggle with instability. The West has also been dealing with a degree of instability. Instability has always been with us, but it usually affects less stable nations. This year it seems as if it is affecting major players. Let us take a look.
Iran is facing large demonstrations and opposition to the severe religious restrictions the government imposes on its people. I won't go into the details, they have been well covered elsewhere, but decades of restrictive laws, aggressive morality police, and systemic torture of prisoners have brought a large part of the nation to the point of rebellion. Demonstrations have been met with violence by the government, which has led to greater acts of defiance on the part of the people. As of this writing, the demonstrations continue, defiance remains, and the regime has not budged from its position. There are several potential outcomes to these demonstrations. The regime can yield on some points, like eliminating the requirement for women to wear the hijab, loosening the enforcement of other religious strictures, as well as either dissolving the morality police or modifying its activities and authorities. Alternatively, the regime could continue to crack down on demonstrators and make no changes, either defeating the mass movement or losing the battle. In this last scenario, the regime would fall.
At present, demonstrators are not receiving much support, other than verbal and moral, from the rest of the world. Without outside support, how long can they sustain their movement? Will they tire of hitting the streets every day and fighting off law enforcement? We must also remember that this is a movement principally of the cities. The countryside remains more conservative and supportive of the regime. Within the last few years, there have been multiple mass demonstrations and movements against the regime and they all failed. There is a strong likelihood that this movement will also stall, especially if the regime gives some concessions, defusing the cause of the upheaval.
When the Shah fell in 1979 and ushered in the current government, it was because his security forces began striking against university students, a growing center of anti-regime activity. This is where the children of the upper and middle classes, as well as the military, his traditional base of support, went to school. That is when he lost his support. As long as the current regime maintains the loyalty of the security and military forces, it is likely to survive this uprising as they have in the past. When we see these forces refuse to take action against the people, then the regime is in trouble.
China is faced with unprecedented demonstrations against harsh Covid restrictions. Anti-government demonstrations are extremely rare in China, where the state controls every aspect of life. The level of protest has surprised many and left them wondering if this is the beginning of a problem for the Communist Party of China. While some people have taken advantage of the demonstrations to place posters and write messages critical of the regime, these messages will likely not have a great impact overall. In turn, it is not likely that these demonstrations will become anything more than a protest against Covid restrictions. The Chinese government will remain firmly in control and is already loosening some Covid restrictions.
What is of interest is that many Chinese citizens will come to the conclusion that their protest had an effect, that it changed Chinese government policy. Citizens could view the change in Covid policy as the Chinese government backing down to the will of the people. We might see more protests in the future that could become a more serious threat to Xi's hold on power. I am sure Xi has opponents in the Communist Party who would love to blame him for the unrest and use it as a reason to remove him from power.
Russia faces the greatest challenge this year and next. Its war in Ukraine has been a disaster. Instead of a rapid occupation lasting a few weeks, we are approaching a year of a brutal grind in which Russia is losing. Regardless of what happens, the myth of Russian military power has been shattered, weakening Russia's standing in the world, along with its economy and its arms industry. It will take Russia one or two decades to recover from this disaster. Vladimir Putin, once viewed as a master strategist, has personally been weakened, both inside Russia and outside. Russian losses continue to mount and no amount of Russian propaganda and information control will keep the losses and the terrible situation at the front secret for too long. It is almost reminiscent of WWI, with Russian troops poorly equipped, poorly led, and suffering severely against a much smaller German army. This loss led to the collapse of Tsarist Russia and ushered in the Soviet Union.
No one can really predict what will happen, war is chaotic and the situation can change from day to day. However, unless Russia goes on a full war footing, with a full military draft, shifting the economy to war production, it is unlikely that Russia will win this war. At best, Putin can hope for a stalemate with a humiliating peace.
He will have to work hard to remain in power, especially if he is as sick as some rumors claim, and they are just rumors for the moment.
Economic hardship as a result of sanctions and a diminished role in the world will not only anger Russians, both high and low, but it will humiliate them, an emotion not to be underestimated when it comes to power. An outright loss could mean the demise of Putin as Russia's leader, followed by a power struggle, either peaceful or violent. Russia is the more unstable of the three nations I just cited.
And what about the West? We are certainly not in as bad a position as the three previously mentioned nations, so why bring the West up? It has been a difficult few years for the West, and by this, I mean the United States and its NATO allies. We have watched the United Kingdom's economy take a sharp nose dive as a result of Brexit and Covid lockdowns, followed by one relatively incompetent government after another. The U.S. has experienced significant internal turmoil with its once highly respected democratic institutions called into question. Forces within many Western countries are pushing for authoritarian regimes, weakening democratic institutions, and strengthening the very rightwing fascist movements that were defeated in WWII, and the western system was set up to prevent their return.
The West is not in danger of collapsing into chaos anytime soon, but it will be a few years of hard struggle to preserve democracy and the freedoms it guarantees. All this while the world watches, questioning which side to take, and which political/economic system to follow. It has been a fairly unstable year for the major powers. Alliances are shifting, power is moving back and forth. The world order created after WWII is changing, for better or worse. Next year will probably be even worse.