Small Wars Journal

Twenty-year Cycle of Unrest: Regional Turmoil Has Global Consequences

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 11:20am

Twenty-year Cycle of Unrest: Regional Turmoil Has Global Consequences

Joseph N. Gardner

Global unrest is at an all-time high because containing local civil disorder in a region is impossible in today's global environment.  Looking across the global landscape, nation-states facing internal stressors without any relief in sight.  More states may collapse over the next 13 years as citizens defy government control of wealth resources and individual liberties, raises concern for stakeholders worldwide.  Is it possible to foreshadow the next global challenge of the 21st century?  Strategists spend countless hours analyzing the world with the hopes of predicting and planning for the next larger scale event.  Interested parties must accept reality without cultural or personal biases when examining nation-states in turmoil due to the combination of autocratic regimes and government inefficiency.  Countries embattled with this tension represent the where, and in all likelihood, the twenty-year cycle marks the when.  The present-day twenty-year unrest cycle moves in a westerly direction toward the Americas. Still, the Middle East is the most likely location, with a possible course reversal to the Korean peninsula is troubling.  Either way, history forebodes that local and regional conflicts lead to disturbing global events.  The historical timeline is not perfect, but it requires a pause and careful thought to grasp the risks of what lurks ahead. 

Historical Context

The world has a history of repeating themes, such as the collapse of states and global unrest, about every twenty years.  More than a few classic examples in recent history of government failures highlight the importance of studying past events.  For instance, France could not sustain the French Indochina War in Vietnam, which ended with a French withdrawal.  Yet, the United States continued to support the South Vietnamese efforts, which ultimately bogged down three presidential administrators, only to end with a rapid exit and a united Vietnam.  Between the time of France's withdrawal and the United States' full entry into Vietnam, the on-ground circumstances remained unchanged; thus, the outcome was predictably the same.  Next, the Soviet-Afghan War lasted about nine years, with the Soviets finally walking away in 1989, leaving Afghanistan in a virtual stalemate between the original warring parties.  Yet in Afghanistan, the United States finds itself mired in the longest war of its short history, fighting virtually the same rebel groups the Soviets fought.  Finally, there is the multi-complex ethnic struggle in the Middle East, where three sectarian groups vie for territorial control with deadly consequences.  Still, when the United States invaded in 2003, with the idea of liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein's iron claw, it met massive resistance from a mixed bag insurgent group of Sunni, Shia, and foreign fighters.  Some lessons relearned are the local fighters always have a vote - with death being the only capitulating option, local enemies become friends when they have a common adversary. Historical facts provide invaluable insight into predicting the outcome of similar situations.

Recent History

Since 1910, using the 1900s as a baseline, several disruptive regional events resulted in a new international order.  In 1910, Japan annexed Korea; by the time it withdrew in 1945, scores had died.  The attempt to assimilate Koreans as subjects of the Japanese empire was as ill-fated as its decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1945.[i]  Moving along the timeline to 1930, Gandhi emerges to lead the Indian National Congress' Salt March, an event cited as the prelude to India's independents from Great Britain 17 years later.  The North invaded the South in 1950, triggering the Korean War, and a divided peninsula still exists today.  In 1969, the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt waged until the United States mediated a truce in 1970 to stabilize the region.  Abruptly, the world changed again in 1989 with the Berlin Wall fall that reunified Germany, followed by the first Gulf War in 1990, and the Soviet Union dissolution a year later.  In the years after a splintered Soviet Union came a fragmented Western Balkans.  The Western Balkans of the 1990s is today's Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with parallels such as ethnic violence, civil wars, mass refugee flows, and civil unrest.[ii]  As the world came to grips with the "end of the Cold War," the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 to punish al Qaeda for its 2001 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States.  Less than two years later, the United States added a layer of complexity with the Iraq invasion.  After the U.S. initiated drawdown operations in Iraq, North Africa and the Middle East exploded with the Arab Spring in 2010, to start the current twenty-year cycle of unrest. 

It is plausible to conclude the events of 2001 changed world order and created a new normal. Still, in reality, NATO Article V and the U.S. invasion of Iraq were not the catalysts for current global unrest.  Instead, the terrorist attacks and mass migration that has the world on edge is a product of the 2010 Arab Spring resistance movement, more so than the events in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were regionally isolated, with foreign fighters flowing into those countries. Still, there was no mass exodus of civilians fleeing to neighboring countries or Europe to avoid the battle guns.  The primary difference between the Afghan and Iraq wars and the Arab Spring is the belligerents involved.  The Afghan and Iraq wars were between opposing armed forces that caught civilians in the crossfire.

Conversely, the Arab Spring is a classic example of oppressive regimes suppressing and killing their citizens.  When a government becomes the people's antagonist, they have three options: succumb to authority, resist with violence, or flee to safe havens.  In the Middle East and North Africa, the latter two recourses selected by the population have the world order in disarray.            

The Next Twenty-Cycle (2030)

The international order is due for massive disruption, and the likely sacrifice is North Korea.  Before settling on North Korea, some other worthy candidates deserve honorable mention.  Up first are the countries in Central Africa, for reasons highlighted in upcoming paragraphs.  Next is Venezuela because the once socialist government is becoming authoritarian, and the country is facing an economic crisis of significant importance.  Venezuela is also interesting because it continues the westward movement of global unrest, which started in Asia and moved through the Middle East, Europe, and back down to North Africa.  So are the Americas due, maybe?  Unless Iran cheats on the 2015 nuclear agreement and creates nuclear weapons by 2030, as the deal's most restrictive measures end.  The Turkish referendum is thought-provoking. Turkey seems to be the one country too vital to fail – its importance to NATO defense and Middle East stability gives autocratic rule a chance at survival.        


Authoritarian kingdom-building, civil unrest, and government inefficiency are causes of the regional turmoil.  Wealth division and government control of income-generating resources are central themes that lead to failure in a state with uneven development and high poverty rates due to slow economic growth.  Government inefficiency, coupled with oppression, often results in civil unrest and, when well organized, can be detrimental to authorities' power. 

The first comparison is economic conditions in Central Africa, which are near carbon copies of states in the Middle East and North Africa.  Next is the government ineptitude that led to a reunified Germany and a broken Soviet Union.  Germany is an ideal case study for North and South Korea, while the Western Balkans is a point of reference for the Middle East and North Africa. 

Resource-rich countries in Central Africa tend to be more authoritarian than democratic, which leads to the accumulation of wealth at the government level while forsaking its citizens' needs.  Countries such as Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon, Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic are prime for continued and escalating unrest brought on in large part due to economic grievances and public insecurity.  The economic conditions of countries in Central Africa mirror the North Africa countries, Libya and Algeria.  Libya and Algeria are both resource-dependent countries, and at the time of their turmoil, wealth distribution was a significant issue. Still, excessive use of force on society was the tipping point. 

Like the Middle East during the Arab Spring, the regime institutions in Central African countries seem to be mainly in place for international recognition and serve as a vessel for the steady stream of foreign aid and direct investment.  In the end, they have limited positive benefits to the daily lives of the residents, especially those in the mostly rural areas.  Another alarming parallel is the Central African region has six countries in either a very high or high alert status on the 2015 Fragile States Index.[iii]  Whereas, the Fragile States Index in 2010 had Libya and Algeria listed in a warning status.[iv]  The similarity of longstanding regimes in these countries is probably more critical than the fragile states index because the countries never advance beyond the ideas of one leadership style, which is a connection that links North Korea to this unsettling review. 

North Korea is at the other end of the spectrum for governmental impact on the population, because as a communist state, "everything" is under tight political control.  This type of political power is reminiscent of the former Soviet Union and modern-day Russia, where all high-density resources are virtually government (oligarch) owned.  The government distributes a nominal portion of revenue to provide essential life support to citizens in free or very low-cost social programs.  From the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War period, the Soviet Union sustained its status on the global stage by consolidating resources and distributing wealth in Moscow's direction.  North Korea does not have the same benefits as the former Soviet Union concerning exportable resources and vast trade partners'.  UN sanctions on North Korea make it difficult to export natural resources or other goods for a capital gain, except through its neighborhood trade partner China.  By most measures, labeling China as a trade partner is a stretch because the relationship is more of a foreign investment arrangement.  Deprived of China's economic and material support, North Korea might collapse in a few years; a 2011 report estimated China's direct investment amounted to $67 million.[v]  The estimated years are realistic since the government has enough central resources to sustain itself for an extended period.  North Korea further depends on China as a transit corridor for luxury imports smuggled in from other countries.  These luxury goods serve as an appeasement for the Korean Worker's Party provincial directors and municipal committee secretaries.[vi]  Like MENA and Russia, even the most ruthless dictators need a close-knit group to carry the regime's agenda.      

The unstable peninsula allows China to create the illusion it influences North Korea, a deceptive act China uses to its strategic advantage in the region.  China has limited (at best) sway over North Korea because Pyongyang serves an implicit purpose for China.  Pyongyang, the regional agitator, deflects global attention away from contentious Chinese military operations in the South China Sea.  Under present leadership, North Korea is strategically complicated to regulate, and the tactical implications are too dangerous for the security milieu.  Hence, it will continue to engage in perceived hostile actions until an unintended miscalculation garners a regional power's response that requires international intervention.  The North Korean military is the x-factor because outsiders do not know if military leaders are deeply committed to total war or merely following orders out of fear or personal gain. 

The Collapse

What if North Korea collapses under the weight of Kim Jong-un? What is the net effect?  From an economic standpoint, North Korea is today's East Germany, but with a larger population.  At the height of the migration, almost 600,000 East Germans, roughly 3.7% of the region's population, immigrated to West Germany.[vii]  The per capita gross domestic product in East Germany was around $11,800, while West Germany was at least $27,000.[viii]  To bring the East up to West standards, an estimated 2 trillion euros transferred from West to East Germany over the last 25 years.  North Korea's economic situation compounds its population size, and UN sanctions make matters worse than East Germany.  The financial toll on South Korea to absorb a 4% migration would be tremendous in today's dollars, not to mention the cost necessary to bring North Korea's infrastructure into the 21st century.  Chinese investment as a supplement to South Korean apportionments could offset reunification woes.  An equipoise would be transitory because it is not in China's interest to see a unified Korea thriving. 

The prospect of a one Korea is the least appealing option to China for numerous reasons.  A one Korea would tip the military scale in favor of U.S. strategic interest in the region.  To once again, reshape a regional alliance and cause consternation for China and Russia, both of which prefer a divided Korean peninsula.  Currently, China has a workforce advantage over Korea and Japan for manufacturing. Still, South Korea can rebalance the marketplace by assimilating the North Koreans into the labor market.  A new source of labor would give foreign investors a viable alternative to the government-controlled Chinese industry.      

As seen in recent history, government structures or civil institutions' failure invariably results in displaced persons and mass migration strains on neighboring countries' infrastructure and economic capacity.  In the case of North Korea, expect limited migration unless remnants of the dictatorship start indiscriminately attacking civilians caught between the collapsing government and peacekeeping forces.  Those who decide to relocate South would do so primarily to reunite with relatives and secondarily for financial reasons.  After the unrest period, anticipate the hardcore, inner circle of the regime to seek asylum status in China. 

National Interest

How does the United States' national interest fit into this scenario?  The inflection point begins with the nearly 30,000 troops permanently stationed or rotating through South Korea annually, which, combined with an estimated 49,000 positioned across the Sea of Japan and an economic link with China, qualifies as U.S. interest.  In this complex environment, being an ally of South Korea and Japan and a strategic partner of China symbolizes fitting a square block into a triangle hole that requires trimming corners to find a workable solution. 

One rough edge to anticipate is for China to veto any UN first strike military declaration against North Korea.  The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has to be the clear aggressor, and the target of such hostility can only react in self-defense.  To date, North Korea keeps the region on edge with ballistic missile and nuclear capability testing.  Regional allies perceive every test as an advanced threat due to the erratic behavior of Kim Jong-un.  Other parties in the region view these activities through less volatile lenses.

As noted in the Korea Economic Institute Vol. 23 published in 2012, Japan has taken steps to develop military and diplomatic responses to the North Korean threat.  In the past, Japan imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea for various acts to include missile testing and Japanese citizens' abduction.  Nevertheless, Japan is likely to consult with the United States before taking military action against North Korea, even if provoked.  As for a One Korea, Japan may not oppose in the same manner as China, given that the United States has strategic ties to both South Korea and Japan; indeed, a workable solution is attainable.

National interests are the barometer test for the level of impact a failed state or massive civil unrest has regionally and globally.  For instance, if x-number of countries collapse across Central Africa, what impact will it have on the global community?  The initial thought is limited.  Yes, international and non-governmental organizations will ring humanitarian crisis alarms. Some governments show concern in the form of financial and food aid, but the national interest factor would be relatively low. There is little concern for unsecure weapons of mass destruction, and migration to Europe is highly improbable.  If Venezuela becomes a disaster zone that filters into Brazil or Colombia, two nations with internal struggles, then American and Russian national interests will emerge.  Preventing catastrophic events in the Americas is in the United States national interest due to the potential spillover effect.  As for Russia, Brazil is a strategic partner in the BRICS alliance group that competes in the global economy against the U.S. and the EU.  Still, Venezuela in ruins will not rise to the level of global impact.

Given current indicators, North Korea possesses several volatility markers capable of redefining international order and capturing national interest. There are three potential reasons for a North Korea collapse.  First, the erratic behavior of Kim Jong-un triggers a war with the United States and its allies in the region.  Second, economic conditions decline to the point that becomes unbearable for loyalist on the fringe of the inner circle, resulting in a coup attempt.  Third, a regime suppression of rebel factions that leads to human rights violations and civil unrest.  North Koreans have adapted to living in poverty, so civil unrest due to a lack of resources is unlikely.  The most pressing issues to address if Pyongyang falls are securing nuclear material, providing immediate relief, and limiting Russian influence in the region. 

During the last century, the United States has been the global leader in initial conflict resolution and peacekeeping operations worldwide.  Historical examples confirm that a superpower geographically disconnected from an environment cannot sustain sway over a situation for an extended number of years without losing support in the homeland.  The United States, under an array of presidents, recognizes the significance of transferring oversight authority to a regional security apparatus.  Regional coalitions culturally linked to the situation understand the existing ethnic challenges.  Countries with capable security and economic resources must accept control from the United States as soon as possible. 

Understand the Past to Change the Future

The recommendation as we advance is to be wary of small superficial indicators that lead to a powerful retort from either the government or civilians; as tensions rise, the situation will spiral out of control.  Continue to dialogue with shortsighted erratic governments in the multi-dynamic regions enduring hostilities that hold the world at large hostage.  Construct a holistic strategy with mitigation measures to prevent local or regional uncertainty from having global consequences.  Countries with a national interest in a region have a primary response duty, while on the other hand being caution of overstaying the initial welcome.  To be sure, early operational success devoid of indigenous long-term goals has limited value.  Reconciliation efforts should utilize Germany and Vietnam as benchmarks for unifying a country.  The Western Balkans, Sinai Peninsula, Somali, and Georgia are examples of "fairly" successful peacekeeping operations. They were initially led or heavily supported by the United States, now the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's responsibility, the United Nations, African Union, and the European Union.  

The coming decade will confirm whether North Korea is the next regional rebalance war or merely part of the twenty-year global unrest cycle.  Regardless of which, the initial burden of conciliation rest with the international community, whereas sustainable stability and security are dependent on regional cooperation.  The ultimate objective is to maintain global stability by averting avoidable conflicts and social disorder through good governance.  Above all, the use of a historical model will at least reveal the pitfalls of the past.

End Notes

[i] The Japan Times, The annexation of Korea, dated 29 August 2010, (accessed 24 May 2017),

[ii] Jim Seroka (2012), Revisiting Regional Security in the Western Balkans, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 25:4, 493-511, DOI: 10.1080/13518046.2012.730364.

[iii] Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index, 2015 (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

[iv] Ibid, 2010.

[v] Florence Lowe-Lee and Troy Stangarone, Korea's Economy, Korea Economic Institute, 2011, (Accessed: 3 January 2017).

[vi] Ibid, 81. 

[vii] Frank Heiland, Demographic Research, Trends in East-West German Migration from 1989 to 2002: The Two Waves of East-West German Migration, 17 September 2004 (Accessed 27 December 2016).

[viii] Brianna Lee, Germany After The Berlin Wall: From Painful Reunification to Global Powerhouse, 11 August 2014 (Accessed: 27 December 2016).


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph N. Gardner is a Distinguished Military Graduate of the Army Officer Candidate School, where he received his commission as a Signal Officer in 2001.  He is a graduate of Georgia Southern University with a BS in Sports Management and holds a MA in Information Systems Management from Webster University.  Lieutenant Colonel Gardner is an alumnus of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Senior Fellows program, having studied there as the Army G-3/5/7 Fellow for academic year 2015-2016.  Prior to his selection as a Marshall Center Fellow, he served in variety of command and staff positions across different warfighter and enabler disciplines.