The most important fact about 2011 is that it is the year before 2012. That year will be marked by elections and leadership transitions; the prospect of those changes will influence more immediate political calculations. So, 2011 reckons to be a year in which political leaders position themselves to exploit an evolving political environment. There is little reason to expect those leaders to expend hard-earned political capital to deal with enduring problems. Thus, those problems will endure longer still and become even more intractable. It is a formula for frustration.

This is nothing new for Japan. The country has slogged through a messy transition since the end of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule in 2009, but the Democratic Party of Japan’s learning curve refuses to flatten: The party seems as bereft of direction and leadership as the day it took power. Rather than tackling national problems, the country’s political class seems content to let the government founder. The economy stumbles along. Ties with the United States have improved after bottoming out during the Hatoyama interregnum, but there is little hope that 2011 will see the revitalization of that relationship, something that was anticipated in 2010, the 50th anniversary of the bilateral security alliance. Public disillusionment is mounting and disapproval of the government is reaching pathetic levels, but there is little sign of a genuine alternative. The LDP seems content to bide its time, hoping that the public will return it to office, even though it has little to offer apart from time-tested — and failed — policies.

In China, all eyes are focused on the leadership change in 2012 and the coming to power of the fifth generation. Most observers see the increasingly assertive foreign policy that Beijing adopted last year as a product of that transition. There is no profit in moderation in foreign policy if it opens a leader to charges of being insufficiently zealous in defending national interests. Thus, China too will stick to its current path, doing all it can to avoid destabilizing changes, consolidating consensus to ensure that there is no dissent to the handover in power that looms.

In Taiwan, jockeying for position in its 2012 presidential ballot has already begun. As Taiwan’s politicians gird for a bitter fight, China will be attempting to influence Taiwanese voters’ election-day decisions. Beijing worries about the return to power of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, and will be doing all it can to nudge voters toward the ruling Nationalist Party. Caution will be the guiding principle of cross-strait relations.

On the Korean Peninsula, 2012 casts a long shadow. North Korea will continue its provocations as it bolsters the legitimacy of the next leader, Mr. Kim Jong Un, and prepares to mark its emergence as a “strong and prosperous country” to herald the 100th birthday in 2012 of former leader Kim Il Sung. Dealing with the North will dominate South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s agenda, and his successors — South Korea holds presidential elections in 2012 — will use his strategy as a benchmark for their own Nordpolitik.

Russians will spend the year wondering whether Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will reclaim his old office in the Kremlin. If he does, then the consolidation of power, the erosion of the rule of law, and the resurgence of the security forces that have marked the past years will continue. If President Dmitry Medvedev decides to put up a fight, then there might be change in Russia. But few expect Mr. Medvedev to pose much of an obstacle if Mr. Putin decides he wants the top job back.

In the perpetual campaign that defines U.S. politics, gridlock seems the most likely outcome. Republican leaders have declared that their top priority is defeating President Barack Obama, which means denying him any legislative victories. With the Congress bitterly divided, stalemate may be the best to hope for. But a beleaguered U.S. president is weakened diplomatically too, meaning that there is likely to be an absence of leadership on key international issues, such as climate change.

Middle Eastern leaders are keenly attuned to political winds in Washington and ride them to maximize their own positions. A weakened U.S. president cannot command concessions from key players. Expect continuing stalemate in those negotiations.

In Tehran, as in Pyongyang, nuclear trajectories will remain on track. Attempts to halt or rollback the moves of Iran and North Korea have failed. Neither country has reason to change course and the failure of other countries to change their policies — neither Moscow and Beijing will stiffen their weak opposition to bad behavior nor will Washington find new ways to accommodate those countries’ ambitions — means the status quo will endure.

Finally, there is little sign of shift in economic policies. Governments remain divided between deficit hawks and Keynesians, with the result being sufficient stimulus to prevent collapse, but not enough to ensure recovery. There is some hope for financial regulation that might insulate the system from future crashes, but there is no indication that bankers appreciate the damage they have done or the need to change their behavior. And governments do not appear ready to force that on them. That is a real reason for frustration, if not despair.

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