The year 2003 was the year of Iraq. No other event compared in reshaping America's role in the world. And in 2004, the occupation of Iraq is sure to remain on center stage.
But it would be a big mistake to let Iraq block our vision. Many other developments in the wider world this coming year could change our lives.
Some are opportunities. Sadly, others are threats that could thrust us into new crises.
My list of opportunities may strike some as naively hopeful. And at the risk of scaring the heck out of you, I have drawn my list of threats at their darkest. But they are all real.
Here they are:
- North Korea goes boom. Negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program collapse in the spring when the U.S. demands full dismantling as a first, non-negotiable step. China denounces the United States for the handling of the talks and refuses to join in imposing a total economic embargo. North Korea celebrates the anniversary of the Korean war later in the summer by testing a nuclear weapon.
- Taiwan tensions. Taiwanese nationalist Chen Shui-bian wins re-election as president in March and a simultaneous referendum reveals strong anti-Chinese feeling on the island. China, which had hoped for Chen's defeat, mobilizes its armed forces, charging that Chen is leading Taiwan to declare independence. The Bush administration sends the Pacific Fleet to Taiwan straits, setting up a confrontation.
- Pakistan goes rogue. Pakistan leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf is assassinated by Islamist terrorists, leading to a takeover by radical elements of the Pakistani army. The new government backs an upsurge in anti-Indian violence. India mobilizes its army, bringing the region to the brink of war.
- China's economy slows. China's shaky state-run banking system has a crisis, forcing a massive bailout and an upsurge in inflation. The government moves to cool down the economy, sending Korea, Japan and the rest of Asia, which have been pouring goods into China, into a downturn. The U.S. economy's faltering recovery ends abruptly.
- Russia loses a nuke. Al-Qaida agents, aided by Chechens, raid a nuclear weapons storage site in southern Russia, successfully making off with nuclear warheads. Al-Qaida threatens to explode a bomb unless the United States withdraws immediately from Iraq. When the United States refuses, a nuclear weapon wipes out the Russian Far Eastern port of Vladivostok, sending a radioactive cloud toward Japan.
- India and Pakistan peace. Talks beginning in February lead to a blossoming of economic and cultural exchanges between India and Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government wins a massive mandate in elections. The two countries reach a deal in the fall to settle the Kashmir dispute.
- Brazil emerges. Led by its charismatic president "Lula," Brazil experiences an economic turnaround, triggering a dramatic upturn in Latin America. Riding this wave, viewed as confirmation that there is an alternate path to Washington's "free trade" pact, Brazil and Argentina lead a move to form a Latin American economic union.
- Iran and the U.S., again. A reformist upsurge sweeps Iran, forcing Islamic clerics to yield real power to the president and a reformist-controlled parliament. The new government restores diplomatic relations with the U.S. Economic ties with the U.S. and Europe expand.
- Japan's economy revives, led by consumer spending and a new wave of technological innovations by the auto and electronics industry. The growth allows government reformers to finally tackle the debt-ridden banking system, setting the stage for an end to Japan's era of stagnation.
- Osama gets cornered. After months of delay, NATO and the U.S. put 50,000 troops into Afghanistan to beat back a Taliban insurgency. Carrying out a sweep through the mountains along the Pakistan border, German troops capture Osama bin Laden in a well-stocked cave.
As 2004 unfolds, keep these in mind. Myself, I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.