World in Turmoil: Seven Countries to Watch in 2014

The world will face countless challenges in 2014, but a few nations in flux stand out in the crowd. NBC News correspondents and writers explain how the outcome of wars, negotiations and elections in these countries could have a deep impact on their own populations and regions, and sometimes the world. 

Paramilitary policemen patrol in front of Tiananmen Gate on Nov. 17, in Beijing, China. (Feng Li / Getty Images)

AFGHANISTAN
With the Taliban resurgent as most American and other foreign troops get ready to leave in 2014, desperately poor Afghanistan is a country riddled with fear and uncertainty.
“The mood is not good,” said Wadeer Safi, who has been a professor of political science at Kabul University for 25 years. “Without Western support there will be chaos … there is even potential for civil war.”
Many believe that key to the country’s future is a U.S.-Afghan security agreement that would allow some American troops to remain in the country beyond 2014 and open the door to billions of dollars in foreign aid.
President Hamid Karzai has not signed the pact despite the unanimous endorsement of it at a recent meeting of tribal elders and other dignitaries.
The climate of uncertainty is taking a toll on the economy. Prices for food and fuel have rocketed, and unemployment is rampant. Foreign investment has stalled and with the economy almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, business confidence is very low. 
There are even doubts that national elections scheduled for April will actually take place. Observers and Western diplomats are concerned that there will be delays, and agree that there will almost certainly be a run-off.
“We had war, we had brothers killing one another, and I don’t want that to be repeated,” said 44-year-old Kabul tailor Faiz Mohammed. “If the people in charge don’t change, ordinary Afghans will suffer.”
– Kiko Itasaka
BRAZIL
All eyes will be on Brazil as 32 teams and thousands of fans roll into the country for the soccer World Cup in June. And with viewership set to run into the billions, the event will bring extra scrutiny to Latin America’s most populous nation and the world’s sixth largest economy.
While the soccer euphoria will surely boost the government’s performance leading up to national elections in October, the possibility of turmoil at home will eventually determine the future of President Dilma Rousseff’s left-of-center government.
“If [the Brazilian team] loses, she would still be the front runner, but it’s not guaranteed,” said Dr. Jeff Garmany of the King’s Brazil Institute in London. “There’s an informal correlation between the two.”
Authorities will surely be keeping close tabs on rising dissatisfaction among Brazil’s growing middle class. In 2013, thousands routinely took to the streets across the country to protest against extreme and growing income inequality, official corruption, teachers’ pay and even bus fares.
And many are furious that billions are being spent on soccer stadiums instead of schools, hospitals and social programs.
Last year protest groups like the Black Bloc snarled up routes into the stadiums during games, preventing fans from entering and resulting in thousands of empty seats. The group has threatened to do the same for the World Cup.
So will Brazil’s leaders manage to appease the population enough to ensure the population tunes into the games, and doesn’t again take to the streets?
“What Brazil does well is improvisation,” Garmany says. “So we’ll have to wait and see.”  
– Henry Austin
CHINA
In his first year in charge of the world’s second largest economy, China’s President Xi Jinping made achieving the “Chinese Dream” a key goal. According to The New York Times, this dream means “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening.”
The Communist Party’s global ambitions carry with them raised expectations at home and abroad on how the country will handle issues ranging from the environment to regional rivalries.
Nearly a month of near-apocalyptic levels of air pollution in northern China in 2013 forced Beijing to acknowledge the toxic air plaguing much of the mainland. The government’s sudden willingness to address the environmental crisis shows the power of China’s growing urbanized middle classes, who are more aware of their rights than the country’s rural population.
Personal rights will still be on the agenda. Even with China’s much lauded announcement last month that “re-education through labor” camps would be abolished, a report from Amnesty International suggests that dissidents and activists will simply be railroaded into other existing forms of criminal detentions, like “black jails.”
Intimidation looks set to be part of China’s foreign policy toolkit. Carefully cultivated soft power appears to have gone out the window with Beijing announcing an Air Defense Identification Zone, infuriating neighbors Japan and South Korea, and forcing the U.S. into the debate over sovereignty in the East China Sea.
The introduction of more military hardware in response to regional ultra-nationalist tensions and virtually nonexistent rules of the sea contribute to the potential powder keg.
So having promised prosperity at home and power abroad, China will have to carefully navigate the suspicions of its neighbors, and its people’s blossoming expectations in 2014. 
– Ed Flanagan