Malaysian people hold placards reading "2012" during New Year's Eve celebrations at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image Credit: AP

It would be fun to be upbeat, big and bouncy about 2012 — but gloomy facts get in the way. In international affairs, at least, the year ahead looks like a miserable affair, likely to be characterised, in headline terms, by the three nos: no peace, no prosperity, and no progress.

In conflict zones from the Middle East to Africa and Asia, there is scant prospect of relief in 2012 and good grounds for believing that worse is to come. Economically speaking, the monetary and sovereign debt crises affecting Europe and the US threaten to taint global markets further and trigger a general depression.

The year 2012 will be remarkable for the fact that four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council (the US, Russia, China and France, with the exception of Britain) will conduct high-profile elections that will distract attention and curtail their engagement in international affairs.

The prime example is the US, where Obama will seek a second presidential term in November. Already he is cutting his foreign policy cloth to suit his political ambitions. His recent hyperbolic celebration of American ‘success' in Iraq, marking the fulfilment of his pledge to end the war and bring the troops home, was aimed directly at middle America voters. Never mind that Iraq's political tensions remain acute. A spate of bombings before Christmas raised fears of renewed sectarian conflict.

Elections are also due in China and Russia. Until recent mass street protests over fraudulent parliamentary polls disrupted the plan, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was expected to be effortlessly enthroned as Russia's president in March. Putin is still odds-on to win — but the shine has gone off his particular red star.

Arab Spring

In Beijing, the Communist party's October conference, barring unexpected earthquakes, will appoint empty-space apparatchik Xi Jinping as general secretary and prospective successor to chief empty-space, President Hu Jintao. Continuity will be the watchword. Last but not least, the voluble, vituperative French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will seek a second term in spring polls that pit him against the socialist-lite candidate, Francois Hollande, centrist Francois Bayrou, and the far-right standard-bearer, Marine Le Pen.

But tensions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "charity begins at home" Germany may build if euro woes deepen.

The Arab Spring is just over one year old and everywhere the outcome of this unprecedented popular drive for democracy and self-determination, from Yemen and Algeria to Egypt and Libya, remains in doubt. Tunisia offers the only clear success story so far. The ongoing repression of the Syrian uprising represents the nadir.

A key issue for 2012 is the survival, or not, of 2011's leading crimes against humanity contender, President Bashar Al Assad. His downfall could trigger momentous upheavals in Lebanon, where Syria's close ally Hezbollah dominates, in Palestine, where Hamas' grip on Gaza owes much to Syrian support, and in Iraq, where the Sunni minority might seek to emulate Syria's Sunnis in overturning the status quo.

But the biggest impact of a successful Syrian revolution could be on the country's chief non-Arab ally, Iran. Al Assad's fall would be a big blow for the Tehran regime's regional ambitions and might even encourage Israel to use the opportunity to strike a blow at its main adversary.

2012 will see plenty of other actual or potential conflicts. Border and resource tensions affecting South Sudan, which gained independence from the North in 2011, have raised fears that the world's newest state could be throttled at birth. The sporadic murder perpetrated by Boko Haram across the Christian-Muslim faultline in Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, shows no signs of abating.

In east Asia, the death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea has introduced massive uncertainty amid doubts that the youthful, inexperienced "Dear Successor", Kim Jong-un, is up to the job. In Myanmar, 2012 may determine whether recent progress towards more inclusive governance is permanent and substantive, or mere window-dressing designed to rehabilitate the regime.

Chronic instability in Pakistan can also be expected to increase as long as the standoff with the US over counter-terrorism tactics continues and an Afghan peace settlement with the Taliban remains elusive. The fear in Pakistan is of another military takeover. A coup could bring an intensification and widening of the Afghan-Pakistan conflict.

2012 could turn out to be even worse as the 26 EU members (excluding Britain) who have agreed a new pact to regulate government budgets and debt fall out over the details. This outcome is not inevitable. But it looks highly likely on past form.

2012 is a big one for Venezuela's president, the ailing firebrand Hugo Chavez, who is expected to seek re-election. Likewise the ageing autocrat, President Robert Mugabe, could call early polls in Zimbabwe, heralding the now depressingly familiar scenario of rigging, violence and intimidation.

As for the year's biggest environmental issue, climate change, the best that can safely be said is that, unimpeded by puny international negotiating efforts so far, the climate will continue to change.

Happy new year!

— Guardian News & Media Ltd