The 'too hard' box

Foreign Policy
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Posted By Stephen M. Walt, A Realist in an Ideological Age

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

#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

From: A. Papazian