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This year has the potential to shape the world in profound ways. Some key events, and their results, will be instantly evident. Much of their impact will not be visible for years to come, however. We can identify with reasonable certainty what those moments will be, but only guess at their outcome and consequences. And, of course, there will be wild cards, both natural and man-made, that defy our best guesses and preparations.

The year begins with two crucial elections. The first will be held Jan. 9 as the Palestinian Authority designates a successor to deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It is almost certain that Mr. Mahmoud Abbas will prevail, but will the new president break with the past, crack down on terrorism against Israel and open the door to new relations with its adversary? It is unknown whether Mr. Abbas has the courage to try to forge a real peace with Tel Aviv, or if he can muster the support to fight militants committed to armed struggle. If he is bold and strong, he can set the Middle East on a new trajectory.

Equally, if not more, important are Iraqi elections scheduled for the end of January. That ballot will give the Iraqi people the chance to finally choose their own government. Yet the country continues to be wracked by violence, and it is unclear whether the elections, even if held as scheduled, will pass muster as truly democratic. Anything less will leave the resulting government without legitimacy and unable to fend off challenges from critics, many of whom desire nothing less than continued anarchy to discredit democracy and the U.S.-led attempt to reshape Iraq and the entire region.

The Middle East will also be affected by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. If that move is seen by the Palestinians as an opportunity to prove that they are a responsible peace partner, then it will reinforce the positive dynamics in the region. If militants see it as a victory and escalate attacks on Israel — both to enhance their own credibility and to undermine that of the new Palestinian leadership — then the cycle of violence will only accelerate. Israeli policy is also critical. If the withdrawal is perceived as a cynical move to discredit the Palestinians and validate a West Bank land grab, then long-term peace prospects will be badly — if not permanently — damaged.

In Northeast Asia, all eyes remain focused on North Korea and its willingness to resume negotiations aimed at dismantling its alleged nuclear-weapons program. Those talks will shape relations throughout the region, with Pyongyang and China each ready to exploit perceptions of U.S. intransigence and to drive wedges between Washington and its allies in the region. Similar negotiations are under way between European nations and Iran to settle lingering questions about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. A failure to end doubts could fatally damage the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

That regime will be under intense scrutiny at the 2005 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference to be held in May. The NPT is under assault from all sides, and the failure of participants to even agree on an agenda last year underscores how difficult those talks will be. As the North Korean and Iranian cases prove, the danger of nuclear proliferation is real. Actions and decisions taken this year could determine whether nuclear weapons are used in the years ahead.

In Southeast Asia, Myanmar is the nation to watch. If it implements its “democratic road map,” then it will eliminate a main source of tension in its relations with the rest of the world. Failure to do so by 2006 — when Yangon is due to chair the annual ASEAN summit — will ensure that the United States and Europe disengage from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The organization’s readiness to deal with the regime will demonstrate that it can be an international player; otherwise, it could be discredited.

How will Russia respond to criticism of revived authoritarianism and setbacks in the “near abroad” such as Ukraine? Will President Vladimir Putin turn on the West and revert to increasingly shrill nationalism? Will Europe drop its embargo on selling arms to China, thus deepening its rift with the U.S., which one day conceivably, such as in a Taiwan contingency, could end up battling forces equipped with those weapons?

Will the United Nations embrace real reform and ensure that it remains relevant to new security concerns? Will it look hard at recent scandals and fix festering problems? Will the U.S. recognize the damage it has done to its image and legitimacy worldwide and rebuild its credibility by providing moral, rather than mere military, leadership?

Then there are the great unknowns such as the horrors being planned by terrorists and others who thrive on chaos and destruction. It promises to be a fitful year.

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