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The passing of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5 confirmed a grim reality about global leadership in 2013: The era of visionaries is over; most countries today are ruled by technocrats whose ambitions don't stretch much beyond tinkering with the status quo. From Barack Obama (soaring oratory notwithstanding) and Angela Merkel to Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping, Dilma Roussef, Manmohan Singh and beyond, government today is in the hands of men and women who promise stability, security and efficiency rather than profound transformation. And 2013 offered a number of reminders that even when they put their heads together, they appear collectively incapable of responding effectively to the global perils of war, poverty and climate change.
Pope Francis sounded a lone voice of conscience in the global conversation insisting that we cannot reconcile ourselves with the prevailing socio-economic order that enriches a few but leaves the multitude in poverty. But it was not only the vision deficit that made 2013 a morbid year on the global stage; there was also a growing power vacuum. The waning of U.S. authority and influence has been evident throughout the debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq, and even the U.S. public now embraces a reduced global role for Washington. The White House and Pentagon have no appetite for military adventures, and America’s newfound energy self-sufficiency reduces the long-term importance of the Middle East to the U.S. national interest. Washington’s impact was most notable for its absence as the troubled region passed another difficult year. But if President Obama seemed unable to project authority abroad, the same was true at home: A dollar-dependent world watched aghast as the growing political paralysis in Washington rendered the world’s most important economy increasingly ungovernable, possibly even unreliable, and fueled increased urgency in the search for alternatives to a dollar-based global financial system.
On the geopolitical front, longstanding allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia appear more willing than ever to openly challenge and defy Washington’s Middle East policy, and there were diplomatic setbacks as Obama fell foul of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Roussef after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the NSA had been spying on these friendly powers — the Brazilian leader’s pique may even have cost Boeing a $4.5 billion aircraft deal.
Arab rebellions fade
The promise of the Arab rebellions that began in 2011 seemed to sputter and die in 2013: The military coup that toppled Egypt’s first democratically elected president in July may have had large popular support, but it left Cairo's streets bathed in blood and restored a familiar authoritarian system that faces a turbulent 2014. Neighboring Libya saw increasing violence on the streets as a weak central state remains unable to rein in militias, while even in Tunisia — cradle of the rebellion — the democratically elected government faces a growing challenge on the streets. What also became clear in 2013 is that the regime of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad appears to have prevailed in his country's civil war. Having backed himself into a corner by declaring the use of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line,” Obama weighed punitive air strikes after conclusive evidence emerged that such weapons had been used late in the summer. But he pivoted at the last minute by deflecting the issue to the U.S. Congress and finally got out of a tight spot through a Russian deal under which Assad agreed to destroy his country's chemical stockpiles. Chemical weapons, of course, had been a sideshow in Syria — they were responsible for less than 1 percent of the more than 100,000 casualties in the war. But Obama stayed out of the conflict because his generals made clear there was no viable end game in any intervention. The Western-backed opposition has floundered and more radical groups lead the fighting on the ground. Washington looks set in 2014 to work with Moscow in promoting a peace process that won't necessarily remove Assad — much to the chagrin of the opposition, and of Saudi Arabia. Regime forces are enjoying the better of the fighting and showing no sign of collapse almost three years into the rebellion, while the plight of millions of displaced Syrians grows more dire with the onset of a harsh winter.
In neighboring Israel, settlement construction by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dimmed prospects for Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to resuscitate the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the Israeli leader has loudly condemned the agreement struck between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program as a “historic mistake.” As the Obama administration takes advantage of a more accommodating Iranian leadership to strengthen safeguards against Iran using its nuclear infrastructure to build weapons, 2014 will see Israel, the Saudis and the hawkish bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill demand that Iran dismantle its entire enrichment capability — an outcome Tehran is unlikely to accept in the foreseeable future. But there will be a counterweight to the hawkish pressure in Washington in the form of the overriding desire of the administration, the U.S. military and the electorate to being drawn into another Middle East war, as well as the danger that the big-power consensus on which current sanctions rest could unravel if Washington buckles to pressure for a harder line.
There is, of course, one world power pressing for a harder line on Iran — Francois Hollande, the improbably hawkish Socialist president of France. Not only did Hollande lead the charge for air strikes on Syria; Paris also forced Washington to hold out for tougher terms in talks with Iran. As the U.S. retreats from Middle Eastern entanglements, France appears to be expanding its regional role, perhaps with a view to strengthening strategic and business ties with Riyadh and other Gulf powers. But Paris also demonstrated a more muscular foreign policy in its readiness to deploy troops abroad, having stopped an Al-Qaeda led offensive in Mali and more recently intervening to stop the bloodshed in the Central African Republic.
Tension in Asia
The Obama administration hoped to implement its promised “pivot to Asia” in 2013 but it seemed, once again, distracted by the Middle East and by domestic drama. The U.S. did demonstrate a readiness to assist its Pacific allies when it led the effort to provide humanitarian relief to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. But the geopolitical storm came later, as China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over a set of islands claimed by both China and Japan. The U.S. responded by flying a couple of B-52s through that space, and tensions are likely to continue to escalate in 2014 as China challenges smaller neighbors that have made common cause with the U.S. in containing Beijing.
Japan, in particular, is seeing possible signs of economic revival under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and also expanding its defense spending. Avoiding the more volatile prospects of a direct China-Japan confrontation requires the U.S. to assert itself on behalf of its allies, promising a testy year ahead in the North Pacific. And the execution by North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un of his uncle and mentor, Jang Song-thaek, offered a reminder that an even more unpredictable leader is at the helm in nuclear-armed North Korea.
Crises in Africa
Just as Iran proved the unlikely bright spot in the Middle East, Africa’s best news on the security front came in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a long-running civil war appeared to being brought to an end -- although, as has so often been the case in Africa's Great Lakes region, the prospects for peace seemed in danger of unraveling by year's end.
And while Africa’s economies are collectively deemed among the more hopeful in global growth prospects in the coming years, turmoil appears to be growing in a number of key countries — from Nigeria’s ongoing battles with Boko Haram; Mali’s instability in the face of an Al-Qaeda–inspired challenge; violent communal fissures in the Central African Republic and South Sudan; and the Nairobi mall attack reminding us that the failed state of Somalia continues to radiate instability throughout East Africa. Those crises are likely to drag on morbidly through 2014, while South Africa’s election promises to bring to the fore many of the tensions over government corruption and failure to deliver that have been highlighted by the passing of Mandela.
All eyes on Russia
Europe continues to limp along, hobbled by economic decline and rising far-right nationalism that will likely make its presence felt in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Conflict over immigration is rising most acutely in troubled southern Europe, where efforts by migrants to sail to European soil sustained an ongoing humanitarian tragedy throughout the past year. And just where Europe’s eastern boundaries are drawn is being contested by Russia, with Ukraine being the prize most in play as the New Year dawns.
Moscow has had a good year diplomatically, largely as a result of Western misadventures in the Middle East. But it could face crises of its own as it hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February, drawing the international spotlight on human-rights issues — and presenting a tempting target for high-profile acts of violence by insurgents from the ever-restive Caucasus.
Elsewhere in Asia, 2014 also portends deeper uncertainty. The U.S. will end its combat mission in Afghanistan and the country is scheduled to elect a new president to succeed Hamid Karzai. But the Taliban insurgency continues and most of the region’s power players — including Karzai himself — are already playing the post-withdrawal power game. Nobody ought to bet on a smooth transition, while the impact of a change of military leadership in neighboring Pakistan remains to be seen. India also goes to the polls, and the prospect that Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi — who’s been accused of instigating anti-Muslim violence — could emerge the winner also threatens new turbulence.
South America, China unite
Latin America remained fairly stable on its post-20th century path outside of the orbit of the U.S., and China is now the continent's major trade and investment partner. Its symbolic displacement of the U.S. was embodied by the announcement in June of a Chinese project to build a Panama-alternative canal through Nicaragua linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Politically the continent's year was bookended by two milestones for the political left: the passing of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, leaving his “Bolivarian” revolution under the stewardship of the less popular Nicolas Maduro; and the reelection of socialist Michelle Bachelet as president of Chile, marking a strengthening of the more European model of social-democracy among Latin America’s more developed economies. Uruguay, meanwhile, also ruled by the social-democratic left, dealt what may prove to be a decisive blow to Washington's decades-old “War on Drugs” on the continent by legalizing marijuana — heralding a regional retreat from a policy that has failed to solve drug problems, but has turned narco-syndicates into powerful mini states that threaten democracy in the region.
It was the funeral of Nelson Mandela that provided the unlikely setting for a symbolic handshake between President Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro that may, or may not, signal a shift in the half-century stalemate between Washington and Havana. Either way, 2014 finds Cuba's revolutionary regime in a moment of transition as its founding generation begins to pass from history's stage.
Although large-scale wars appear less likely in 2014, tensions and localized conflicts are likely to escalate in Asia, the Middle East and Africa in the year ahead. Don't bet on 2014 being a banner year for addressing global problems, either — although bear in mind that 2013 demonstrated progress, sometimes, may be possible in areas where it’s least expected.