Top countries of 2014 that we didn’t see coming

Iran, China, North Korea, Greece, Syria, blah blah. These are the usual suspects, countries that everyone knew would be interesting this year. But there are 196 countries in the world, most of which don’t get mentioned in the global media. This year, however, a few unsuspected countries, countries that no one expected to be on the map, did get the world’s attention. Not always for good reasons, of course, but then again, unfortunately, it’s the bad news that gets our attention. Here are some of the most interesting ones:
  1. Guinea – Ebola put this African country on the map. I use the word map loosely, as most Americans assumed that all Africans had Ebola and started discriminating against all Africans.
  2. Ukraine – Putin’s antics made Ukraine the new keyword for geopolitical tension.
  3. Estonia – This little Baltic country launched the revolutionary e-Identity concept, where foreigners can get digital citizenship in the country without living there.
  4. Malta – This little European country had less tech-savvy citizens than Estonia, so instead just tried to sell traditional passports to rich foreigners, to EU’s chagrin.
  5. Romania – This Eastern European country also had tech-savvy citizens, but used its powers for evil instead, and became the cybercrime capital of the world.
  6. Luxembourg – This little sleepy European country was shaken by the world’s big countries suddenly cracking down on tax havens, a few decades too late.
  7. Qatar – Hey, let’s have the World Cup in the Gulf summer! It’s only 50 degrees celsius in the shade! And hey, while we’re at it, let’s get tens of thousands of illegal migrant laborers and work them to death to build the stadia! Thanks, Qatar.
  8. Colombia – This former murder capital of the world had a more positive turnaround and became one of the start-up capitals of the world.
  9. Tunisia – Suddenly, there was only one country left standing after the Arab Spring. Tunisia holds the torch as the only hope of the Middle East.
  10. Mongolia – For five seconds, this was the fastest growing economy in the world. Then, they succumbed to the usual resource curse.

Crimea meets Bloomberg: The future of nations and cities

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Two very interesting trends lately that have been running in parallel, but that together could spell large changes in what we perceive as countries and where the nexuses of power will be in the future.

On one hand, we have the idea of the nation state coming into question. The Economist proclaimed in the latest issue that Putin’s actions in Crimea are suggestive of a new world order where borders are not respected and where there is no certainty regarding international rule of law. This makes the nation state a more fragile, fungible concept. Gillian Tett questioned in the FT whether the idea of the nation state is starting to come to an end. It doesn’t have to be the necessary order of things, and in fact, it hasn’t been during most of history. She gives the example of Switzerland staying together since it’s practical. But in many, poorer, countries, where the borders were drawn by map-wielding colonialists and no nationalistic sentiment exists – if the national government can’t provide any services, what is its purpose?

From Catalunia to Scotland, we see how people’s sense of identity might not lie with the larger country, even in nations that have been established for centuries. Power is being decentralized and localized. This is going down even to the city level. I mentioned the metropolitan revolution earlier. Cities are strengthening their position vis-a-vis their nations. Many countries are too short of funds to tackle larger challenges, leaving it up to cities to act on their own. Michael Bloomberg has been leading the way, both by tackling challenges in New York that can’t be touched on a federal level, and through the C40 initiative, where mayors tackle climate change. This op-ed in FT described how US cities are gaining in power. In developing countries, this trend is even more pronounced, since the government might be completely unable to perform the basic functions. The number of mega cities is increasing, and the global urban population is rapidly increasing (to triple in the next 100 years)

We also have more and more countries entering, or wanting to enter, larger unions. Despite all the issues of the EU, the list of countries wanting to join is just growing longer. Putin wants to create his Eurasian Customs Union. African countries are looking at creating a currency union (although having a joint Eco currency seems like a terrible idea).

Perhaps therefore, the future does not belong to historically-derived nation states, but rather large, strong mega cities existing within a framework where they derive some services from their weak, parent nation states and others from larger federal unions.

Vitali Klitscho and the art of chess boxing

Deutsch: Das Bild zeigt die Sportart Schachbox...

I’ve always been skeptical to Vitali Klitschko as an opposition contender for the Ukrainian presidency, since it seemed odd to envision a champion boxer as the president. I’ve probably been biased by footage of Mohamed Ali slurring his speak or Mike Tyson’s erratic behavior. But a recent BBC Business Daily podcast has gone some way to changing my mind.

The podcast covered the apparently fast-growing sport of chess boxing. I’m not a stranger to the sport, having spent my 90’s listening to the GZA’s, of the Wu Tang Clan, fantastic album Liquid Swords. It’s an album that was recorded during months of the RZA, the Wu’s other-worldly producer (and, by the way, writer of a fantastic philosophy-light book – The Tao of Wu) and the GZA playing chess in a basement, and it is full of references to the “art of chess boxing”.

Chess boxing, as it sounds like, is the combination of chess and boxing – the most cerebral of sports married to the most violent of sports. The winner can defeat his opponent either by a check mate or by a knock-out, since the two sports are played in turns. Although I still believe that the knocks to the head during the boxing part would decrease mental performance during the chess part, I have to admire it as the clearest test of a person’s combined physical and mental prowess.

According to the podcast, Vitali Klitschko is actually interested in the sport and wants to bring it to Ukraine! This makes his candidacy for the presidency make much more sense. He just announced that he’s quitting boxing to focus on his candidacy. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t quit the chess part.

Photo: Wikipedia