Picking through the detritus of 2013 is a less-than-uplifting exercise. There has been a certain logical progression to much of what has happened around the world this year. From US influence and credibility taking a battering on the global stage to the Arab Spring’s descent into a wearying quagmire of infighting, the big decision points have come in the context of events and trends, which begun in the previous decade and earlier in the current one. And at each fork, circumstances and poor leadership have conspired to choose the worse of the available paths.
In many ways and on multiple levels, the Edward Snowden affair sums up 2013 neatly. Perhaps the year’s biggest story, it illustrates the inevitable endpoint of the growth the US security apparatus has seen since 9/11. And the angry reactions, both domestic and global, show the manner in which that growth has shaded into overreach as well as the pushback against US influence. And it points to crucial debates that await States, governments and people around the world in the coming years. The US has led the way when it comes to instituting State control over the new vistas of communication and data opened by technological progress, but other States will seek to follow suit as they too acquire the capabilities to do so. How this global conversation takes shape will have far-reaching consequences in an area still so much in a formative stage that its boundaries cannot yet be delineated. That two judges in the US have, in the past week, given diametrically opposing rulings vis-à-vis the NSA’s activities — the first that they were probably unconstitutional and the second that they were, in fact, constitutional — shows how fraught that conversation is likely to be.
The evolving scenario in the Middle East, meanwhile, has set expectations straight when it comes to the Arab Spring. The string of people’s movements across the region in 2011 generated understandable optimism, but also unrealistic expectations. Revolutions are rarely neat affairs, and even more rarely progress in a linear manner. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is something of an exception in that the government is making a halfway decent fist of shaping a non-authoritarian State. In other countries such as Egypt, Libya and Yemen, matters are far worse; either civil strife or a retreat to authoritarianism in a different guise have been the order of the day. It is too soon to read a failure of the Arab Spring’s promise into this, of course. But 2013 has made it abundantly clear that revolutions and their after-effects take years, sometimes decades to play out.
The depressing centrepiece of the turmoil in the Middle East has been Syria. With the dubious achievement of being 2013’s biggest humanitarian crisis, it has evolved into a sectarian and regional conflict that is likely to persist through 2014 and beyond, sucking in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Amidst all this, Syria also showcased, as nothing else has this year, the battering American credibility has taken. US President Barack Obama’s will-he-won’t-he approach seen to best — or, depending on perspective, worst — effect here and in Egypt received due comeuppance. To be fair, none of his choices were particularly palatable, and he had an important success in the region by laying the foundation for a rapprochement with Iran in 2014. But even so, his lack of decisiveness allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to effect a stunning diplomatic reversal, protecting his client Assad and defanging any US attempt to employ military force in Syria.
It was, in fact, something of a gala year for Putin. For all his thuggishness at home — and there has been plenty of that, from persecuting the LGBT community to clamping down on the media — he has been adept in making the US look particularly ungainly on the global stage. Syria is a highlight, of course, but he has had his way elsewhere as well and seems set to do so again in Ukraine, cutting short the former Soviet republic’s attempt to move closer to the European Union and bringing it deeper into the Russian sphere of influence.
Putin was not alone in challenging US influence. With its leadership transition taking place right at the end of 2012, 2013 was a period of transition for China. Given that, its third plenum, held in November, was understandably highly anticipated. But anyone anticipating a dramatic shift in direction from President Xi Jinping is likely to have been disappointed. What emerged was a shift towards allowing the market to play a greater role in the Chinese economy, certainly — but to what extent will become clearer only over the next year or two. What does already seem apparent, however, is that Beijing does not mean to let the US ‘pivot to Asia’ go uncontested. Its provocative establishment of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea — an area including the contested, Japanese-administered Senkaku islands — has, predictably, raised both Tokyo and Washington’s hackles. The new year won’t just see the affair play out; it is also likely to provide a pointer or two towards how Beijing means to assert itself in its strategic backyard.
That backyard will include Afghanistan; nor is China going to be the only country looking there with some trepidation in 2014. With the pullout of foreign troops happening this year and no agreement yet between Kabul and Washington on a US contingent staying behind, Afghanistan is likely to one of the — if not the — biggest stories of the year. New Delhi will be one of the many stakeholders hoping that the just-released US intelligence report stating that US gains over more than a decade of fighting in the country will be rolled back by 2017 is wrong.
Against this backdrop of nations and peoples struggling to navigate a post 9/11, post financial crisis world, the year’s highest points have been provided by two remarkable individuals. Taking over from Pope Benedict XVI in March, Pope Francis has managed to change the Catholic Church’s image for the better and make it relevant in a word reeling from economic woes in less than a year. It will be interesting to see where his model of a compassionate papacy focusing on social justice goes in 2014. And in South Africa, Nelson Mandela provided an elegiac coda to the year. His death, a growing inevitability over the course of the preceding months, serving as an occasion for remembering and celebrating the man and all he stood for. They are principles that will be sorely needed in 2014.