China and Afghanistan aren't the only two foreign countries that matter.
You couldn't swing a dead cat in 2009 without hitting headlines about the troop escalation in Afghanistan or the troop withdrawal in Iraq. The same goes for the rise of China and the not-so-democratic presidential "election" in Iran. These were some of the big international attention-getters of the year, and for layman and foreign policy professionals alike, they're stories that most of us have heard about.But let's be fair. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 countries in world, not just the 10 we hear about on television. Here are five countries that changed the world in 2009-and are largely absent in mainstream American press coverage.By bringing to light the unique circumstances that are shaping these individual countries, we can also discern trends that are shaping the wider world. Plus, if globalization is going to bring peoples and nations closer together anyway, it can't hurt to know more about the folks we're sharing a planet with.From Pigs to Politics: Swine flu in UkraineThe H1N1 influenza pandemic is milder than initially feared-though widespread globally, the impact is comparable to seasonal influenza. But how countries have faced it can reveal their preparedness for more virulent pathogens. As the case of Ukraine makes clear, even a relatively tame virus can cause major social disruption when combined with ineffective governance.In July, Gallup reported that 4 percent of Ukranians approve of the performance of their country's leadership-the lowest rating it ever recorded anywhere. This likely reflects conflict between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, former allies swept to power with the 2004 Orange Revolution. Both are candidates in the January, 2010, Presidential elections; their bitter rivalry has undermined policymaking while Ukraine's economy has collapsed.With the first confirmed death from H1N1 in Ukraine, Tymoshenko instituted stringent measures, including banning political rallies (after holding her own, that is). Ukraine has reported about 400 H1N1 deaths and Tymoshenko is widely suspected of exaggerating the danger to assume a hero role and narrow the gap with Presidential frontrunner Viktor Yanukovich. If the rumors are true, the strategy is working. Yushchenko, trailing in polls, was accused of trying to delay elections in the name of a public health emergency.The media, with new freedoms since the Orange Revolution, amplified public panic. People emptied pharmacies, hoarding medicine and masks. Patients waited days before seeking treatment from a dysfunctional health-care system, leading to severe H1N1 disease and possibly avoidable deaths. They couldn't receive antiviral medication until H1N1 was confirmed by a laboratory in Kiev.Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is investigating changes in the H1N1 virus in Ukraine that might make control more difficult. Influenza viruses mutate readily and the significance of these changes is notoriously difficult to ascertain.Many countries have ineffective governments and under-resourced health-care systems. Add an enigmatic pathogen, and conditions are ripe for social upheaval.Dr. Jean-Paul Chretien is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project and an active duty U.S. military officer. The views expressed here are his own.A Few Good Yemen: When Everything that can go wrong in a Middle East country, doesYemen, home of the fabled Queen of Sheba and ancient cradle of civilization... What does it have to do with the 21st Century? Well, pretty much everything.Roughly the size of Texas, this arid country reaps few benefits from its location on the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. Far from it. In 2009, Yemen endured nearly every hardship imaginable.Dwindling oil reserves. A precariously low water supply. Incessant conflict, stoked by meddling archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. An ongoing refugee crisis and humanitarian emergency. Piracy. Rising hunger, and the threat of another food crisis.Yemen's experiences speak volumes. Its fate could well foreshadow that of the broader Middle East, as oil supplies ebb while climate change accelerates desertification. In 2009,Yemen ranked as one of three countries hardest hit by extreme weather.Yemen's woes also portend new security challenges across the developing world. Having lingered on the margins of the global economy, countries with the world's poorest billion people like Yemen can't pay government workers, secure their borders, provide basic public services, or jump start their economies.One result: extremists can now operate more freely and idle youths heed their call to arms, as recent evidence demonstrates. Lethal terrorist attacks are increasing in poor countries, where more often, they target the U.S.Yemen is no exception. This year, al Qaeda established a new hub there. United States intelligence czar Dennis Blair and President Obama both warned Yemen is re-emerging as a jihadist battleground. The country's plight reverberated across the globe on November 5 when a U.S. Army psychiatrist killed 13 people at Fort Hood. The suspect had had repeated contacts with a radical imam in Yemen.Is an alternative future conceivable for Yemen? Sure, and the call in U.S. Congress for increased support for development and peace in Yemen is a tiny first step in the right direction. But as 2009 turns into 2010, we'd do well to keep taking more steps.Corinne Graff is a Truman National Security Project Fellow and a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she has just finished a co-edited book on fragile states titled Confronting Poverty: Weak States and U.S. National Security.Not at Home, But not Abroad: Making room for rebels after Sri Lanka's civil warFor much of modern history, Sri Lanka, an island nation located off the southern coast of India, has been synonymous with paradise. British colonialists grew some of the world's finest teas in the tropical climate of the island they formerly called Ceylon.Sadly, in recent years Sri Lanka has become another in a long list of countries plagued by ethnic strife and terrorism due to a civil war between the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority government and the mainly Hindu Tamilese minority rebels.Compounding the tragedy, the island was also devastated by the giant tsunami of 2004, which killed over 30,000 Sri Lankans.After years of fighting, the Sinhalese government finally defeated the Tamil rebels this year. Unfortunately, since that time Sri Lanka has been grappling with over 260,000 internally displaced persons, a condition affecting an estimated 24.5 million people worldwide and generally deemed to be one of today's most daunting humanitarian challenges.Efforts to reintegrate the Tamils back into Sri Lankan society have been slow and demonstrations by the Tamil diaspora have taken place around the world. Much of the global community has urged the Sri Lankan government to reconcile with the IDPs but internal politics makes this difficult. Furthermore, Sri Lanka doesn't get much in the way of foreign aid so international pressure holds limited sway.One potential piece of good news is that Sri Lanka is set to hold a presidential election in the coming months, which means that all Sri Lankans, including the Tamils, will have a role in shaping the new government. In light of this, it seems that the current government is working harder to heal old wounds.This effort, if successful may provide a useful exemplar for other countries with significant numbers of IDPs, including Sudan, Iraq, and Colombia, to follow in the future. Failure, on the other hand, may lead to more conflict and potential destabilization. Either way, it's an experiment whose results are sure to be worthy of world attention.Michael McNerney is a Truman Security Fellow and former military officer with nonprofit experience in Sri Lanka. The views expressed here are his own.Sink or Swim: The Maldives become the world's conscience on climate changeSpread out flat like a thin emerald necklace over a band of the Indian Ocean about the size of Maine, the islands of the Maldives are no longer content to lay low on the world stage. As climate change is causing sea levels to rise, the nation with the world's lowest average elevation has become the first to confront a remarkable choice: stop climate change or face national extinction.Thanks to the 2008 election of the charismatic President Mohamed Nasheed-the Maldives's first new president in 30 years, who ranks one spot above Barack Obama on one "Hottest Heads of State" list-the Maldives has become the poster child for the effects of climate change in the developing world, and Maldivians themselves have become vocal advocates of radical measures to stop climate change.Other nations-Bangladesh, Nauru, Chad, Zimbabwe-face costly catastrophe if climate change is not slowed to less than a 2 degree rise in Earth's average temperature. But the Maldives has assumed a mantle of leadership in the Association Of Small Island States, a critical bloc in the international climate negotiations. Because of President Nasheed's activism, and his eye for publicity-in October, his cabinet suited up in scuba gear to stage the world's first underwater bill-signing-the Maldives is changing its image from a sleepy tourist destination into the world's conscience on climate.The Maldives has led the international charge for adaptation funding-money given by developed countries to help poor developing countries cope with the costs of climate change. The Maldives often compares its request for such aid to the Bush and Obama administrations' bailouts of Wall Street. The hotter it gets, the more President Nasheed's words echo in our ears: Climate change is happening now. Our response is urgent. The Earth is too big to fail.Eric Maltzer is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a specialist on climate issues.Voting Irregularities: Asia's oldest democracy on the brinkWhile Americans traveled far and wide to see family for Thanksgiving, a one-time U.S. colony, the Philippines, suffered a brutal massacre that shocked Filipinos and the international community alike.Fifty-seven civilians, journalists, and lawyers were massacred by members of a private militia on the Philippines' conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao. The long dominant Amputuan clan, a significant support base for the ruling Arroyo administration, orchestrated the killings to prevent a new challenger from officially filing to run for governor in next May's national elections.While an extreme case, the Maguindanao Massacre-named for the province in which the killings took place-is hardly the first instance of election-related violence in the Philippines.Consider the contests of 2004 and 2007. In 2004, 189 people lost their lives. Conditions improved in 2007, but there were still 126 deaths. A spate of extrajudicial killings of leftist activists and party leaders has gone unpunished. The Committee to Protect Journalists now calls the Philippines the world's most dangerous place for members of the press, many of whom cover local politics and corruption cases. The tragedy of political violence-perpetuated by a deeply entrenched culture of impunity-is too familiar.This year's atrocities were especially worrisome because they exposed the Arroyo administration's support for local militias to defeat the country's Communist and Muslim insurgencies. Moreover, to facilitate arrests-and to the alarm of many Filipinos-the massacre provided the current government with the opportunity to declare martial law.Despite these challenges, the Philippines has a dynamic Supreme Court, vibrant civil society, and proud tradition of "people power" that make it far from a hopeless case.In recent years, the state of democracy in Asia's oldest democracy has weakened significantly, making next year's elections critical. The international community would do well to stay tuned beyond this single devastating incident in Maguindanao. The future of human rights in the United States's longest-standing ally in the region and one of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's best hopes depends on it.Camille Eiss is Director of Programs for the Truman National Security Project and a Southeast Asia Analyst for Freedom House.