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The world in 2011: A look back

Tunisians celebrate on December 17, 2011 in Sidi Bouzid, the Mohamed Bouazizi square, named after the fruitseller whose self-immolation sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator and ignited the Arab Spring. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Sweeping revolutions brought on by popular protests captivated the world in 2011 and a global financial downturn and European debt crisis punctuated the turmoil.

The question that occurred to many people who watched these remarkable events take place was: "What happened to spark all of this?" This is not the first time that revolutions occurred in a series: the American, French & Haitian Revolutions fed off each other's victories. Time Magazine's report on the year of the protestor documented the ripple effect, unlike previous periods of protest, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and with less success in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. And the U.N. got involved in the use of force, refugee settlement, food distribution and Middle East issues on a scale never before seen.

Politics observers (or history buffs) read Thucydides, written in 431 B.C. about the Peloponnesian War, where the residents of a small neutral island were told to submit and surrender: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." It is supposed to be a dose of political realism in order to understand that "might" makes "right" in the international system. But in 2011, that rule was turned on its head, at least in parts of the Arab world.

Some analysts believe it was the information revolution that sparked the pro-democracy movement. Others say technology was not the core, but helped those who wanted change, young and old, to spread the word and mobilize.

The revolutions that did succeed are fraught with growing pains and rivalries, some based on power, some along sectarian lines. Syria continues to be in the midst of massive and deadly crackdown on its civilian opposition; United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has urged the U.N. Security Council to investigate Syria for crimes against humanity.

The seminal events of 2011 did not end with the Arab Spring. Mother Nature was a force that seemed more powerful than in previous years. Movement of the Pacific tectonic plate under the North American plate caused an earthquake and devastating tsunami that crippled Japan's Fukushima reactors, which will take 40 years to clean. Drought in Somalia turned the hunger needs to a famine and refugees fleeing from nation to nation in the horn of Africa became victims of crime.

The year also saw the deaths of traditional American foes.

When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs in what might have been closure to a national tragedy, U.S.-Pakistan relations soured badly -- and were worsened by a friendly-fire accident that resulted in a further downturn of relations.

And North Korea's Kim Jong Il died, leading to the fear that the transition in the Kim dynasty to 20-something Kim Jong Un might increase military confrontations with South Korea and Japan.

Kim Jong Il's legacy of defiance

2012 holds some promise but also the prospect of continued turmoil:

  • The biggest challenge of the coming year will likely be dealing with Iran and North Korea. Iran's defiance of U.N. mandates and sanctions continues unabated. One diplomat, who represents a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, told CBS News that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have made it clear that they will not have Iran (if it were to develop a nuclear weapon) and Israel as nuclear neighbors without pursuing their own. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East defines a tinderbox.
  • The turmoil in Syria is at center stage now, with Arab League observers not succeeding in protecting the protestors; Egypt's elections may or may not satisfy the protestors' desires for a true democracy.
  • Fence mending will be needed or U.S.-Pakistan relations will continue to sour.
  • Food needs in the Horn of Africa continue at emergency levels.
  • Drug-trafficking and related crimes need attention. The U.N. Secretary General's 2011 message on the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, was that drug-trafficking has become a major threat to the world's health and security. The World Drug Report for 2011, issued by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was grim: drug-trafficking is no longer a social and criminal ill but a trade that funds organized crime, terror and security threats.
  • U.N.: Afghan's $61B drug trade funding terrorism

  • Tension in the Middle East, between Israel and Palestine is at a boiling point and negotiations are stalled.
  • China's Communist Party will decide on leadership in Hong Kong and on the value of its currency.
  • With Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seriously ill, the future of the oil-rich revolution is likely to be in the spotlight in the coming year as will Cuba, as Raul Castro (and brother Fidel) have not groomed a successor.
  • Iraq's future and Iran's relations in a turbulent time may be in focus.
  • In June 2012, Brazil hosts the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (known as the Rio + 20) to focus on making cities more livable, protecting the oceans, renewable energy, and eradicating poverty.
  • World population numbers also give cause for concern. The U.N. celebrated the 7 billionth child born in 2011; by 2050, there will be 9 billion.

What to make of all the turmoil? Curiously, although it seems like the world took a beating in 2011, the world is a less violent place. Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker, who has documented levels of world violence says, "homicide rates have plummeted over the centuries, and during the past sixty-five years, the rate of death from war has fallen to historically unprecedented lows."

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the U.N. has "never been so needed" with growing demand and humanitarian crises around the world.

All these turbulent transitions may hold some hope for better governance in the end. And some of these transitions have opened doors. Many of the changes came about because of the revolution of information, aided by the increased use of unmanned predator drones, which bring both increased intelligence to protect civilians and have raised questions about collateral damage and civil liberties.

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