Twenty years ago, Queen Elizabeth called the year she had just endured her “annus horribilis.” President Barack Obama might well say the same of 2013. Consider his near-humiliation over Syria’s chemical weapons use; the string of budget and debt ceiling crises culminating in a government shutdown; the catastrophic rollout of the healthcare website; Russia’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden and the unstoppable flood of his revelations of U.S. surveillance of America’s citizens and friends; China’s increasingly aggressive elbow-throwing against U.S.-ally Japan and others in the neighborhood; and, government overthrows and uprisings that challenge U.S. interests, values, or policies in Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine.

Does 2014 portend more of the same?

Jessica Tuchman Mathews
Mathews is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served as Carnegie’s president for 18 years.
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Each of these international challenges continues into the new year, but it is worth noting that there is offsetting good news. Economic growth at home has been steady, if weak, and the year ends with rising employment and accumulating signs that next year growth will strengthen. U.S. oil and gas production continues to soar, putting downward pressure on prices worldwide and weakening future prospects for Russia and others with whom Washington has serious differences. Syria’s chemical warfare materials and infrastructure are being rapidly dismantled by an international coalition and in the midst of a raging war—a nearly unimaginable achievement.

Most important, the United States and its allies ended the year by reaching an interim nuclear agreement with Iran on terms that would have seemed utterly unachievable six months ago. This was a true diplomatic breakthrough in a country that has nearly forgotten what one of these looks like.

Prospects in the Middle East

If this six-month nuclear accord can be turned into a permanent one that replaces the imminent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran with a transparent, internationally monitored civilian nuclear program, that achievement alone is how 2013 and 2014 will deserve to be remembered.

That “if” looms large, however. Unlike the key talks in the first phase, which were carried out in secret between the United States and Iran, the next phase of negotiations will feature six parties trying to agree on one side of the table—hardly a prescription for agile or effective bargaining. Across the table, Tehran will want more give on sanctions than the United States can offer. Moreover, negotiations will have to go beyond the fuel-cycle issues of uranium enrichment and plutonium production addressed in the first phase to the even more sensitive weapons technologies that have no civilian purpose. Deep-seated mistrust on both sides will frustrate every step.

Hard as it will be in the negotiating room, the greater impediment will be the self-fulfilling exchange of threat and counterthreat between those in Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran who want this effort to fail. The negotiators—especially Iran’s—will be working with one eye over their shoulders, watching for threats from domestic opponents. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau has made it plain that no negotiated settlement will satisfy him, and he has an overly attentive audience in the U.S. Congress. The longer the negotiations take, the greater the pressure will be on Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to show results that bring economic relief at home. At some point, the Revolutionary Guard and others in Iran’s powerful right wing who profit from the country’s economic isolation will try to retake the political initiative. The supreme leader has made his support for the negotiations absolutely clear—for the time being. But he is less of a leader and more of a follower than his grand title implies. For decades he has believed that what the United States really wants in Iran is regime change. The supreme leader’s support for the path of reintegration with the outside world that Rouhani campaigned on and overwhelmingly won on last summer is unlikely to survive prolonged stalemate or breakup of the talks.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the challenges are as great, but the promise of a positive outcome in the coming year is absent. The opposition to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad continues to be fractured, leaderless, and increasingly non-Syrian and jihadist. The civil war is destabilizing Lebanon, and the burden of caring for millions of Syrian refugees threatens Jordan and even Turkey. Notwithstanding human suffering on a massive scale and the destruction of much of Syria’s GDP, the prospects for a negotiated end to the fighting are bleak, even if the United States and Russia could work toward a common end.

Egypt will likely continue to lurch through political change, away from Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy and away from the Islamist rule of the now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps soon it will even move away from General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military rule. But toward what, Egyptians cannot agree.

The current round of Israeli-Palestinian talks is more of an exercise in going through the motions than a serious effort by either side to reach a settlement. Do not expect good news on that front. Beyond these individual conflicts, the region as a whole is riven by a deepening Sunni-Shia divide. The challenge for the United States in the coming year and beyond will be to craft sensible policies in each situation without appearing to take sides in what would be a lose-lose choice. This is far easier to write than to do. The only prediction one can make with certainty is that worsening sectarian conflict means that for the foreseeable future, U.S. policy in the region—no matter what it is—will be passionately opposed by one side or the other.

Threats in Asia

China has openly abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s precept that it should keep a low geopolitical profile as it accumulates economic strength. It is clear, too, that the public and the government are in the grip of growing nationalist feelings.

Beyond that, however, Beijing’s intentions are murky. Do its moves to assert sovereignty over contested islands in the East and South China Seas portend growing aggression that the United States will have to confront or else forfeit its long-standing position in the Pacific and its support of friends and allies there? Was Beijing’s startling announcement of an air defense identification zone without prior consultation merely a case of clumsy execution or a sign of more open hostility to come?

The year ends without an indication of the answer. Just as Washington will have to walk a difficult tightrope in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia interests, in East Asia in 2014 it will have to simultaneously balance closeness to its friends, military and political resolve, and a desire to work with China wherever it can.

One of those interests is the future of North Korea. In the two years since Kim Jong-un walked beside his father’s hearse, he has purged five of the seven elderly advisers who marched beside him that day and hundreds of their aides and family members. December brought the unprecedented public arrest and execution of his uncle, the second-most-powerful man in North Korea and the regime’s closest tie to China.

The thirty-year-old Kim’s actions may have been taken to redress his internal political weakness or to consolidate his strength. Either way, when dictators behave this way it is reasonable to expect provocative acts—perhaps a nuclear or missile test, or worse—to follow.

So, North Korea watchers in Beijing, Seoul, and Washington approach 2014 with trepidation. The United States and China have similar—though not identical—interests in managing this dead-end but dangerous and unpredictable regime. There has perhaps never been a more important time to be working together to advance them.

The Endgame in Afghanistan

With the exit of most or all U.S. and NATO combat forces from Afghanistan, 2014 could mark the end of America’s longest war. The year will also see a presidential election and the constitutionally mandated end, at long last, to President Hamid Karzai’s reign.

The war’s end and the political transition are entangled. After months of negotiation on a status of forces agreement that would allow the continuing presence of support troops after 2014, Karzai reversed his position and at the last moment refused to sign, adding contradictory new requirements as the price for his signature.

U.S. officials had set the end of 2013 as the absolute deadline for reaching this agreement. As he has done so often before, Karzai magically transformed his weakness into strength, making the great powers that bleed and pay to keep his country together dance to his tune. While he cannot be reelected, Karzai seems determined to remain kingmaker in the elections and beyond.

Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain threats to Afghanistan’s future. After more than a decade of effort by the United States and NATO to build a functioning country, the national government still has little power beyond Kabul. The economy and political institutions remain fragile at best, as are the gains that have been made in the education and rights of girls and women.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Americans would like to see an end to U.S. involvement there. Notwithstanding real interests at stake, it is difficult to discern a path ahead worthy of further sacrifice that will command public support.

And the Rest

As for Russia, there is almost nothing happening in its relationship with the United States. After two years of struggle over the Assad regime in Syria and Russia’s welcome of Snowden, Obama seems to have decided that the less he has to do with Russian leader Vladimir Putin the better. Hence, the canceled summit meeting in fall 2013 and the official snubbing of the Sochi Olympics. The two countries have similar interests in resolving the Syrian war and avoiding either a nuclear-armed Iran or war to prevent that eventuality, and they will continue to work together—though certainly not as partners—to achieve both. Expect little more than that from what was once such a dominant relationship, except perhaps growing antagonism over whether Ukraine will ultimately cast its fate with Russia or the European Union.

Important elections in Turkey and in India could spell the end of the political parties that have dominated those two countries for decades. Both could have wide regional repercussions. An increasingly violent and politically unsettled Iraq also faces key elections in 2014 in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will try for a third term in office. So far the political and sectarian violence has been more than outweighed by the lure of a rapidly growing economy, so much so that Iraq may continue to hold together—to the surprise of many. Egyptians, too, will visit the polls yet again, first to approve a constitution, then to elect a parliament, and, finally, to vote for a new president. Little in the way of progress toward a settled new direction for Egypt’s politics can be expected from any of these.

Europeans will be selecting a new parliament in an election that will say a lot about the future of the European experiment. And, of course, the United States will hold midterm elections in November. Given the choice, the administration will focus heavily on domestic issues in the run-up to the vote. The Middle East, particularly Iran, and East Asia will demand attention willy-nilly and should absorb the bulk of Washington’s limited international initiative in a highly political year. But expect the unexpected to throw a major monkey wrench or two into the best-laid plans. It happens every year.