You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Welcoming Joe Biden to Tbilisi yesterday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that "in America, as anywhere on earth you can find lots of cynics and realpolitik followers. But in America, idealists ultimately run the show."
It's easy to understand why Saakashvili said this: he's desperate for American backing and that requires portraying Georgia as a beacon of democracy and freedom and making a none-too-subtle appeal to America’s commitment to defend these values everywhere. Why? Because it requires real creativity to divine a powerful strategic interest for an alliance with Georgia, especially when Washington is trying to get Russian cooperation on issues that clearly matter more, like Iran. It also requires overlooking Saakashvili's less-than-democratic behavior in the past, and the foolish war that he launched a year ago.
In any case, I hope Saakashvili also read the Times piece on U.S. policy in Central Asia, where human rights and other idealistic considerations are taking a back seat to strategic interests (i.e., the need for regional backing for the U.S. war in Afghanistan). It suggests that Saakashvili has got American foreign policy exactly backwards: yes, you can always find lots of "idealists" trying to get the United States to take on various philanthropic projects overseas, and of course U.S. leaders will always invoke cherished U.S. ideals when describing their policies. But in the end, realpolitik tends to win out, even if we don't like to say so too openly. To be sure, sometimes various special interest groups succeed in getting their pet projects onto the policy agenda, especially if they know how to work the American political system, and sometimes hubris leads U.S. leaders to take on grandiose plans to spread democracy or human rights, or other admittedly desirable things. Indeed, because the United States is so strong and comparatively secure, it's been able to take on more of these projects than anyone else, and probably more than it should.
But when push comes to shove, U.S. leaders usually fall back on the less sentimental calculations of realpolitik, and they are rarely willing to risk much blood or treasure on behalf of purely moral concerns. I hope the Georgians keep that in mind.
VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.