Year in Review: The Biggest Global Politics Stories of 2013

The year 2013 was interesting in global politics, in the sense of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” The center of gravity for the world’s political economy continues to shift toward Asia, and at the same time, non-state actors (terrorists) continue to pose an elevated threat to international security compared to decades past.

What I find most troubling is the inability of policy makers in most of the nations of the world to think beyond the Cold War and 9/11 paradigms with which they grew up. I believe that global politics is not a zero-sum game, nor do I believe that hard power alone (military force) can keep us safe.

At the same time, the instability in the world system can offer us a way out of problems that have persisted for ages (e.g., Palestine) if we can find new directions from which to approach these issues. Conflict among nations is inevitable — even the closest of friends have disagreements and differences. War, on the other hand, is not inevitable, if we are creative enough and farsighted enough to preempt it. With that in mind, I have selected the big events of this year not because the stories are complete but because they are not. We’ll be living with these issues for a long time yet.

The End of the Arab Spring

Like all revolutionary movements, the Arab Spring started out in a bonfire of hope, and it has begun to eat its own children now. In this, it is no different than the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions that went before it. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. Each of those revolutions replaced a monarch with a dictator. The civil war in Syria marks the end of the optimistic period, and change in the Arab world will be slow and painful from here.

Germany’s Merkel Reelected

Angela Merkel won a third term as Germany’s chancellor in this fall’s elections. Because Germany is the paymaster of the eurozone, whoever governs Germany has wide-ranging implications for the entire continent. Dr. Merkel has been cautious and resistant to greater European integration, and frankly, she damn near wrecked the euro with her narrow view of the matter. Now that her conservative Christian Democratic Union has had to go into a coalition with the leftish Social Democratic Party, we may see a more flexible and intelligent policy in Berlin on all things European. The good news is that the euro crisis seems to have crested. I can only hope she wants to leave something grand and visionary as a legacy. Otherwise, Germany may face a third-term malaise that it doesn’t need.

Pope Francis Shakes Up the Church of Rome

Since I was raised Lutheran and have moved on to atheism, I am not entirely sure why anybody gives a toss what the Pope says. However, Francis has captured the imaginations of millions including many non-Catholics. While I don’t see much change in substance, the tone of the Vatican has changed — and often, the tone has to change before anything else can. At 77, he will not have the time to be as important as John Paul II, but for however many years he has, he appears to be moving the Church to a more humane way of addressing issues. This will affect how some Catholics vote.

Snowden’s Leaks and the NSA

Some of Snowden’s leaks were important (video of U.S. troops killing the wrong people in Afghanistan), but most were nonsense (a memo from a U.S. diplomat in Paris said the French president was “thin-skinned” — isn’t that every French president since De Gaulle?). Snowden didn’t tell me anything about the NSA signal intelligence gathering that I didn’t learn from a 1980s book called “The Puzzle Palace.” However, the American media is lazier and less willing to challenge the government than it was in the 1970s. As more revelations come out, the U.S. is going to have to mend fences with offended allies (e.g., Brazil). The real scandal is how Snowden ever got a security clearance in the first place.

Venezuela’s Chavez Dies

Hugo Chavez, along with Fidel Castro, represented an archetype of the Latin American strongman that is moving out of fashion. The charismatic revolutionary who can’t deliver prosperity is really a thing of the past. That isn’t to say that the left in Latin America is finished, far from it. However, the sober, rational leftists (like Lula and Rousseff in Brazil) are the future of political style. And style in politics becomes substance under some conditions. When you compare the success of Brazil and the failure of Venezuela (an oil exporting state that has a chronic electricity shortage), it’s clear that the fatigue-wearing, cigar-smoking type has been replaced by a man or woman in a suit who doesn’t give six-hour speeches. In the end, this means that democracy in Latin America has not just taken root, but it is flourishing.

Social Strife in Brazil

Brazil likes to project the image of a vibrant society in the process of fulfilling great potential. Hosting the World Cup this summer and the Olympics in 2016 is part of this prestige parade. But Brazil is a nation divided by money and race — in 2012, bus fare increases sparked violent demonstrations. This was a tipping point, and there is a “Brazilian Spring” of sorts going on. I don’t think it will topple the government (Brazil is a democracy and therefore has certain safety mechanisms like free elections that Libya and Tunisia lacked). However, the sporting events give the protesters access to a mass global audience before whom to air their grievances; the recent soccer riots were merely a dress rehearsal. The protestors will assuredly take advantage of this. More unrest lies ahead, at least through 2016.

North Korea Stays Crazy

The Korean Peninsula and Kashmir are the two places in the world that genuinely make me worry about a nuclear exchange. The difference is that in the case of Kashmir, neither India nor Pakistan is run by a sociopath. North Korea is. As Kim Jong-un tightens his grip on the country (and perhaps as his grip on reality loosens), he may calm down a bit. However, he has just executed his uncle, who was his mentor in dictatorship for the past two years. He has summoned North Korean officials working abroad to come home. A huge purge is likely, and there’s no reason to think he’s going to settle down anytime soon. I have maintained for years that the North Korean problem will only go away when China decides to solve it. A little more craziness, and Beijing might act — but not yet.

Rouhani Elected President of Iran

Within a narrow range of political options permitted by the mullahs, Iran is a pluralist state — not the pure dictatorship that many believe it to be. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president marks a shift away from the knuckle-dragging Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his stubborn confrontationalism. While the ultimate power in the land remains with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the day-to-day operation of the Iranian regime is now in the hands of someone who appears willing and able to compromise and make deals with the West. Iran is less of a problem today than it was a year ago, and the trajectory makes me hopeful.

China Flexes Its Muscles in East Asia

Napoleon said that China was a sleeping dragon and it was best to let it sleep. Well, it appears China woke up and spent a couple decades growing richer after giving up the stupidity of Maoism. And it has made the same mistake every rising power makes when it has some extra cash — it spent it on its military. The country has bought an aircraft carrier, it has upgraded the weaponry in the People’s Liberation Army, and it is throwing money at a space program, which is a military project posing as science. In response to China’s new muscular foreign policy in the region, Japan is boosting its military spending (despite a pacifist constitution). South Korea is getting nervous about China, the Philippines aren’t happy, and the whole thing could spark an arms race the world doesn’t need.

Russia/EU Argue Over Eastern Europe

Russia and the European Union are still trying to figure out how to deal with each other more than two decades after the Cold War ended. Russia views the nations it used to occupy as its sphere of influence, and the EU (and the U.S. for that matter) view them as nations that don’t need to play nice with Moscow unless they really want to. The main flashpoint in the coming months (years?) will be Ukraine. A majority of the people there favor closer ties to the EU, while the Russophone minority prefers dealing with Russia. Putin’s government has announced it will buy $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and slash natural gas prices by a third. The quid pro quo is probably Ukraine joining the Russian-led customs union. And Ukraine will have a financial gap of $17 billion next year — it needs Russia’s money.

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