The top foreign-policy story of 2014 sneaks up on you. It generated precious few headlines. It is even a bit counterintuitive. But if you measure the importance of foreign-policy stories in any given year in terms of their likely impact on international relations in the years ahead, this one stands out from the other candidates. It is not a runaway winner. But it is a story the world would do well not to underestimate, oceans of rhetoric and punditry to the contrary notwithstanding.
Before we get to that story, however, we are at that moment when the year’s most significant developments are worth some reflection. So let’s take a tour of the year by examining the biggest stories, region by region.
In Europe, the big geopolitical story of the year seemed to be Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its subsequent intervention in Ukraine. Crimea fell without a shot being fired. And despite outrage from European and U.S. leaders and a series of meetings, conference calls, press releases, and generally low-caliber sanctions against Mr. Putin and his regime, Russia has won a seat at the table in ongoing discussions about the future of Ukraine.
I say this seems to have been the big story of the year because an even bigger one appears to be looming as the year draws to a close. And that story is the economic crisis now brewing within Russia as global oil markets have plummeted and its resource-centric economy is being squeezed. This, combined with continuing stirrings of opposition to Putin and ham-fisted attempts to suppress that opposition from the government, suggests that 2015 could be a very rough year indeed for a Russia that, while economically weak, is still a nuclear power and an international force to be reckoned with. If the economy suffers further in the year ahead, we may look back on 2014 as a turning point for the Putin regime.
Recently, U.S. President Barack Obama touted the sanctions regime championed by his administration as having helped put Putin in this tough spot. He suggested in an interview with NPR that Putin, who was seen by some as having outplayed Obama and the West in his Ukrainian gambit, no longer looked “so smart” in light of Russia’s economic problems. He further implied that the sanctions program anticipated a downturn in the price of oil and that thus things were playing out precisely as planned. This both implies that somehow the White House expected the oil-price dive that shocked the energy world (the president said it was inevitable such a dip would come) and that it feels that crushing the Russian economy would produce a positive outcome in terms of Putin’s behavior. The first is not credible. The second is by no means certain. If history is any indication, Putin is more likely to behave dangerously (as he has in the past) in the face of a domestic crisis for which he has no good solution than he is to suddenly become the compliant, courteous global citizen he has never been.
We shall, of course, see. The degree to which the Obama-Putin animus became visible and visceral this year was a colorful subtext of the story.
Clearly, Obama is from Venus and Putin is from Mars. They are the oil and water of the global leadership set. Obama eschews force and wears restraint like a hand-tailored suit, whereas Putin loves to flex his muscle and long ago figured out that the best way to determine how much bad behavior the world will tolerate is to behave badly and then see what happens. Obama has had more domestic policy success than overseas triumphs. Putin has been a bust on the home front, while winning popularity with international gambits. Obama seems to think making America appear more compliant and less ambitious internationally is his mandate from voters. Putin believes that his support depends on restoring some of the status Russia has lost in the years since the end of the Cold War by acting like a superpower even when it has long since ceased to be one.
Elsewhere in Europe, the continuing problems in Greece seem to have that country on the verge of an election that may lead to its exit from the eurozone and the EU itself. And, throughout the year, the EU showed yet again — especially in the case of Ukraine — that the notion that it has a coherent foreign policy or the ability or inclination to play a leading role on the world stage is still pure fantasy. While Russia plays at being what it once was and America seeks to redefine global opinion about what it truly is, the EU continues to go through the motions of pretending it is what it will likely never be — a coherent, unified entity capable of wielding international political clout equal to its formidable economic riches and potential.
At this time last year, few people knew about the Islamic State (IS) — much less the yearlong debate that would follow its ascendancy, over just what acronym to use to describe (without elevating) the brutal extremist army that aspired to turn war-ravaged regions of Syria and Iraq into a new state. Clearly, the group’s rise, beginning with the capture of Fallujah last January and carrying through to today, was not only the big story of the year in the Middle East, but it was the symbol of an even more worrisome and dangerous trend — the rise of extremism from Africa to Asia.
Within the context of this trend, numerous sub-stories emerged, each with devastating consequences … and each coming so rapidly on the heels of one another that it was almost difficult to take it all in: the rise of IS, the continuing chaos in Syria, the Gaza war, the mayhem wrought by Boko Haram in Nigeria, continuing fighting on the Horn of Africa, terror attacks and counterattacks in Yemen, the disintegration of Iraq, the crackdowns of the Sisi government in Egypt, the descent into chaos of Libya, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the group’s depravity in Pakistan. In many respects, 2014 was the year that it became clear that America’s 13-year “War on Terror” had become a losing campaign — there were now more terrorists, more major terror groups, more terror attacks, more terror casualties than ever before.
The rest of the world seemed powerless to stop the trend. Even after Obama determined that American forces should re-engage in Iraq, the country he was elected to get America out of, it was unclear what the best outcomes we could hope for might be. Today, the United States is effectively allied with Iran and a regime in Baghdad that is more beholden and responsive to the Iranians than it is to the United States or the people of Iraq. Progress toward fixing the political dysfunction in Iraq that left Sunnis feeling disenfranchised and thus opened the door to IS has been halting and limited at best. The most optimistic estimates are that the war in Iraq and Syria will go on for years. But none can say who the long-term victors will be — other than chaos, human suffering, and weak states.
Amid all this there were other big stories of potentially great importance for 2015: the Iran nuclear talks and the growing likelihood of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Today the U.S. president speaks of the merits of Iran as a strong regional power and of an embassy in Tehran, a view jarringly out of kilter with U.S. policy in the region for three and a half decades — even if it is founded in a sense of optimism. In Turkey, Erdogan seems dedicated to demonstrating his contempt both for democracy and for the alliances his country long sought to be part of, proving himself to be far less than what he appeared to be in the halcyon days of his bromance with the American president.
But amid this welter of stories, perhaps the biggest of the year was that all the headlines the region generated were not because of its growing importance, but quite the contrary. They were the death rattles of a region that was largely growing less relevant to the world by the day. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that while the Middle East burned, global stock markets boomed, oil prices fell, and other regions, once thought of as dependent on Middle Eastern resources, found new suppliers. Investors hedged and bet elsewhere. If the people of this region were not going to solve their problems constructively, the planet’s markets seemed to be saying, We will work around them. We will disconnect. We will let these fights burn themselves out.
The rise of two of the great powers with dependence on Middle Eastern resources — China and India, the Middle East’s two great markets of tomorrow — was not smooth during the past year. But even with slowing growth and corruption scandals, China continued its relentless march forward to being one of the two great powers of the 21st century. The United States and China even showed some signs of better cooperation during a visit by Obama and with a series of agreements including a constructive step forward on climate. That deal put India and other emerging powers in a difficult position regarding their own climate stances, but India showed again that it had a strength China can only aspire to. It is a democracy, the world’s largest, and somehow it has embraced both the messiness and the virtues of democracy in a way that has kept it moving forward. Its neighbors in Pakistan, a country more divided and dangerous than ever, remain a threat. But India’s rise has been recognized by the other great powers of the world, progress toward enhancing its status that has come through growth on a variety of fronts (including an innovative bargain-basement space exploration program) that will fittingly be noted in an early-2015 summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama.
A climate deal in Lima, Peru, was another important story of the year … as was the planet’s continuing inability to act more effectively to reverse the real and deepening climate crisis we face. There were also a host of other minor stories that captured our attention, from America’s opening to Cuba (which was more important for how it changed the tenor of U.S. relations with the rest of the hemisphere than for anything having to do with the tiny, no longer terribly relevant Caribbean nation), to Brazil’s looming Petrobras scandal and Mexico’s deadly, devastating drug wars.
But amid all these stories of 2014, the one that may be the most important is one that no one would have expected in the wake of the debacle in Iraq, the long slog through Afghanistan, the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009, or the seemingly deepening leadership crisis in Washington, D.C.
America is back. Despite Washington. Despite lousy leadership. Despite the rise of other great powers. Back because its economy is resilient. Back because the other great powers are each facing deep challenges at home — from European coherence to corruption and the slowing growth of job creation in China. Back because America remains a hotbed of innovation. Back because the fiscal deficit that threatened it has receded along with the recession that stirred up fears. Back because it proved that even at a low point in political creativity, the country could flourish — especially in light of the fact that that low point is likely to end soon.
This doesn’t diminish the great problems facing the United States — not just in dysfunctional Washington but in terms of the growing inequality in our economy, our underinvestment in infrastructure, the weakening of our friends, the strengthening of some rivals. But looking at the world today, it is arguable that the United States has never faced fewer major rivals — rivals capable of existential threats or forcing strategic realignment — and, even among those atop that list, notably China, it is clear their intentions are not likely to manifest themselves in the form of conflict or attack in the near future.
This is, to be sure, a resurgence manufactured outside of D.C., and one that is fraught with risks, but one that outstrips in importance the headline-grabbing struggles of regions torn apart by models and cultural divides that are depleting them of relevance, that outstrips the rise of the rest in the near term, that confounds past theories, and that could be accelerated should the United States actually enter a period of strong leadership after the muddled recent past. Should Obama be given credit for this resurgence? Of course. His collaboration with President George W. Bush even in the depths of the financial crisis, his team’s efforts to contain the crisis and reverse its worst effects, his oversight of an economy that has started to create jobs at a more robust pace than at any time in this century — these are areas for which the administration deserves recognition. As maladroit as they have been on a host of international issues, they have done remarkably well at home — which, after all, is the wellspring of America’s international strength. The year has also demonstrated the degree to which America remains the indispensable nation — both in those instances where American leadership was essential to galvanize coalitions or provide vital resources and in those where it was absent and our inaction or diffidence came at a high cost.
But the majority of the credit goes to the American people, to American businesses, and to America’s hotbeds of innovation, be they in universities or research laboratories. Not only have they made America the fastest-growing major economy in the world again, the destination of choice for the world’s investors, an example to other nations in terms of how to create jobs or embrace the changes associated with the new manufacturing economy or the latest revolutions in global energy, they have done it without much help from their leaders in Washington. Imagine what they could have done with a Congress that actually took its job more seriously, that passed laws, that fostered investment? Imagine what they could have done with a real effort to help fund innovation in American education, better payment for American teachers, lifelong education for American workers? Imagine what they could have done with leaders who were more effective at advancing America’s international interests, revitalizing old alliances, making greater progress at opening commercial and trading ties in ways that produce growth for all Americans? Imagine what might have been possible if there were a serious discussion underway about how to ensure that the benefits of this American growth were more equitably shared among all Americans — to better harness the energy and guarantee the future of all U.S. citizens and all those who are here today contributing to our economy?
Don’t just imagine those things because we miss them or need them or because they would make us stronger. Imagine them because somehow, improbably, the laments of the declinists aside, the failures of our leaders pushed to the margins, America is in a position to lead again even before those changes have been made. And we have a system that constantly reinvents itself. In most of America it is the cusp of 2014 and 2015. But in Washington it is already 2016. It is already a time to debate who our next leaders will be and to reconsider our national priorities. It won’t be pretty. In fact, it will likely be ugly as sin. But America is in a position now, depending on those choices, to do something few thought was possible. The United States could be the world’s dominant power of the 21st century, not because that was our role in the century just passed but because we are internally — outside of Washington — making the changes that will make it possible. On the verge of the runup to the 2016 elections that has already begun in earnest here in the United States, we are able to say, Look how far we have come with the federal government in disarray. Imagine what we could do with even incremental improvements in the years ahead.
For the world, as for America, of all the stories of 2014, this may well be the one that has the greatest potential significance in terms of geopolitics, the function of international institutions, and the direction of political and social discourse on the planet.