Stephen M. Walt

The top 10 stories of 2013 that never happened

Updated: 2013-12-29T00:05:32Z


Foreign Policy

The year 2013 is coming to an end, so newspapers, magazines and websites are filled with top 10 lists. You know the drill: “The 10 Best Movies,” “10 Most Interesting Celebrities,” of the past year. For foreign policy mavens, this ritual takes the form of the Top 10 Most Important/Surprising/Dramatic Foreign Policy Events of 2013.

That’s all well and good. But what about all those Important Events that didn’t take place? There are plenty of good things that might have happened this year but didn’t, and a bunch of bad things could have occurred but fortunately did not. In that spirit, here’s my Top 10 Non-Events of 2013, in the form of the Top 10 Headlines You Didn’t Read Last Year.

1. “U.S. Airstrikes Pummel Syria (and/or Iran).” There were plenty of reasons for the United States to use force against Syria or Iran this year — not good reasons, mind you, but reasons — yet the Obama administration resisted the temptation to make a bad situation worse. Military force wouldn’t have solved our difficulties with either country, and another Middle East war is not what the world needs right now.

2. “Hillary Rodham Clinton Endorses Interim Nuclear Deal with Iran.” Amazing, isn’t it? The former chief diplomat of the United States is supposedly an expert on foreign policy and may still harbor a desire to be leader of the free world. Yet she’s been completely silent on the whole question of the negotiations with Iran.

3. “Europe Gives Up the Euro.” Didn’t happen. No country left the Eurozone; a few countries still want in. Go figure.

4. “Obama Announces End to Drone Strikes and Targeted Assassinations.” You’d think U.S. leaders would be a mite troubled by all the bad publicity they’re getting from the country’s drone policy, especially when innocent civilians keep getting killed by mistake. Maybe ending this policy is on President Barack Obama’s to-do list for 2014 — right after he closes Gitmo.

5. “Nations Sign Global Accord to Address Climate Change.” In 2013 we had a record typhoon in the Philippines, disappearing glaciers and a further decline in Arctic sea ice. What didn’t happen was serious progress toward a global agreement to slow or halt manmade climate change.

6. “Obama Pardons Edward Snowden.” I don’t doubt that Edward Snowden broke the law when he exposed the NSA’s vast intrusion into civil liberties. I also don’t doubt that his motives were laudable and U.S. citizens are better off knowing what their government is doing. The real culprits were an out-of-control intelligence bureaucracy that couldn’t tell the truth consistently and appears to have assumed that its burgeoning data-gathering operation would remain secret forever.

7. “Chinese and Japanese Navies Clash Near Disputed Islands.” China and Japan remain at odds over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and the two Asian powers seem likely to be intense rivals for many years to come. There’s plenty of loose tinder and flammable material lying around here, but nobody struck a match in 2013.

8. “U.S. Officials: All U.S. Troops Will Leave Afghanistan in 2014.” When Afghan leader Hamid Karzai started making onerous demands in the negotiations over a long-term U.S. presence in this strategic backwater, U.S. officials should have grabbed their English-Pashto dictionaries and found the proper phrase for “Catch you later.” Instead, the United States started begging the Afghans for permission to throw good money after bad. Sigh.

9. “Netanyahu and Abbas Sign Final Status Agreement.” Yeah, I know: John Kerry parted the Red Sea and got the two sides talking again. But so what? They’ve been talking off and on since the early 1990s, with less-than-evenhanded U.S. “mediation,” and the two-state solution is further away than ever.

10. “Iraq Enjoys New-Found Stability.” Iraq suffered for years under Saddam Hussein and, after the United States ousted him, was then convulsed by a brutal internal conflict. Alas, 2013 was the deadliest year since 2008, with more than 7,000 civilians killed.

Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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