People can easily be forgiven for not looking far beyond the national headlines –it’s been a crazy couple of months hasn’t it? The GEO business, Karachi, the big push north, all sorts of famous people being shot, and terrible steady toll of sectarian killings. All the same, lift thine eyes up to the horizon, because there’s new kinds of trouble brewing there, in the places where things happen first. With Crimea and Iraq, the rules of the international game may be about to fundamentally change. I like threes, so let’s look at the top three list then.

1) The map of the middle of the Middle East (the bits between Egypt and Iran) was largely fixed by Britain and France while fighting the Ottomans a century ago during the First World War. It may be about to change beyond all recognition, and this time it is regional forces that are playing the biggest part. The Turkish ruling party’s spokesman has made a recent stunning statement that they support self-determination for Iraq’s Kurds who have effectively seized political and financial autonomy. The process will not, cannot stop here – some, perhaps many of the names on the map today may in the future be as much of a memory as those before WWI.

2) Movements that redefine national identity not just in terms of language and religion, but sect are growing in strength. The Iranian revolution, the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ‘Arab Spring’ have all marked new levels of violence, but we are reaching the point at which we’re not just seeing countries fragment, but cross-border movements building sectarian ‘states’ of their own in Iraq and Syria. These have been accompanied by major population movements and millions of individual traumas, setting the stage for changes that cannot be easily undone.

3) The post WWII-norm of discouraging states from enlarging their borders through the use of force is under very severe challenge. Russia as a P-5 member of the UN Security Council is not on the fringe of the world order, but at its core. It has successfully annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, a UN member state, and may yet see Donetsk added as well on the basis of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ with an ethnic twist. This is in addition to the effective addition of Georgian territory in 2008.

Whether its Maliki’s Iraq, Bashar’s Syria, or Yanukovych’s Ukraine, anyone who reads the news can point out the mix of domestic extremists and opportunistic external powers that took advantage of the situation. But the critical element that allowed those forces to unite was bad governance – authoritarian rule, staggering corruption, and violent sectarian/ethnic favouritism that undermined any notion of nationhood. Violently silencing dissent didn’t make the problems go away – if anything it pushed the situation over the edge. These are all useful lessons for South Asian states and their ruling classes.

If you still think that all of this is very far away, I have a small reminder. The logic of nationally and internationally sanctioned forcible exchange of millions to create the very modern idea ‘pure’ nations was first tried out between Turkey and Greece in 1923; less than a quarter of a century before the death trains carried their cargo of slaughter back and forth across the Punjab. The greater Middle East from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, down to the Indian Ocean and out to Khorasan remain the crucible of the world, the place where all roads meet. Ignore its happenings at your own peril.

The writer is a freelance columnist.