— by Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
The advent of a new year draws me back to Century’s blog to offer my idiosyncratic picks on the most important developments worldwide of this past year, for better and for worse, that are likely to have repercussions or at least offer telling lessons for years to come. Summarized compactly in two to three sentences each, the “10 best” and “10 worst” are randomly alphabetized rather than priority ranked:
The 10 Best
– Climate concerns regain traction.
The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit to produce a binding treaty deflated the hopes and expectations of scientists and negotiators alike for effective international action, but this December’s follow-up meeting in Cancun yielded surprisingly specific agreements on a 2 degree C temperature target for mitigation, a system for monitoring progress on emissions reductions, forestry protection, and climate assistance that all bridge the traditional divide between developed and developing countries. Still, the inability of a filibuster-strangled U.S. Senate to vote on House-passed climate legislation provided a bracing unreality check on the political will of the world’s largest carbon-consuming countries to achieve binding reductions in emissions.
– Cuba feints toward liberalization — economically.
Havana’s communist government approved a striking loosening of the strict socialist straitjacket on the country’s economy, taking the political risk of cutting a half million jobs from state companies by spring 2011 and permitting private businesses to hire non-family employees in hopes of jump-starting a dynamic private sector that could spark a surge in employment and income. But Raul Castro’s regime made clear it was not interested in liberalizing the political system; even as it released 52 political prisoners in an agreement with Spain and the Catholic Church, it forced most of the freed human-rights advocates into exile — and the Obama administration, avoiding engagement, simply renewed the widely discredited U.S. embargo.
– India presses into the global inner circle.
Long the Avis of the developing world, India this year won from President Obama a coveted promise of U.S. support for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — even though the Indian parliament had effectively nullified the U.S. nuclear industry’s hopes for big new contracts under President Bush’s nonproliferation-busting nuclear agreement with New Delhi by insisting on holding suppliers liable for operators’ accidents (to say nothing of India’s awarding much of the reactor business to Russian firms). In the spirit of prime minister Manmohan Singh’s pragmatic reformism, India had already jettisoned much of the cold-war prickliness that had seemed so whiny and irritating to Westerners, and proved a capable partner in climate and energy negotiations and G-20 economic policy debates; at the same time, Singh confounded conservative U.S. geo-strategists who had hoped to draw India into an anti-Chinese alliance by strengthening relations with #1, China. Stubborn civilian resistance to Indian rule in Kashmir and the heavy costs of continuing a virtual armed occupation there began to register with the political class in New Delhi this year, raising faint hopes for eventual resolution of a long-festering conflict that has burdened Indian diplomacy.
– Iraq sets its own course.
The once-heavy hand of foreign occupation and tutelage was all but lifted from Iraq in 2010, as President Obama fulfilled his pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from the country by June while steadfastly refusing to request revision of President Bush’s reluctant commitment to withdraw the remaining 50,000 non-combat forces by the end of 2011. It took nine months gestation after the March parliamentary election, but at year’s end Iraqi politicians finally formed a governing coalition, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki having secured a new mandate through an alliance with the fiercely anti-occupation Sadrist bloc. It wasn’t the coalition Washington would have liked, but the Americans still pressed a willing Security Council to lift the last vestiges of the U.N.’s Saddam-era sanctions on Iraq.
– Malaria, polio cornered despite economic downdraft.
After recent years’ backsliding in the global effort to eradicate polio, international efforts succeeded once again in reversing the spread of the disease, with a 99 percent drop in new cases in Nigeria — the country whose neglect had launched re-infection in 15 previously polio-free countries in Africa, most of which this year likewise stopped those outbreaks — and with near-eradication in India’s worst polio-prone states. President Bush’s global initiatives for controlling malaria and AIDS similarly bore fruit in 2010, with malaria infection rates slashed by more than half in eleven African and 32 other malaria-endemic countries, and new HIV infections dropping by 20 percent by the turn of the decade.
– Nuclear weapons face tighter controls.
President Obama began to produce some major deliverables on his commitment to rolling back nuclear weapons, concluding a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia to replace the expired 1993 pact, convening the first-ever nuclear security summit in Washington with 47 heads of government, reviving international commitment to enforcing the nonproliferation regime through agreement on a new plan of action at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, and at year’s end winning Senate consent to ratification of the new START. The NPT agreement included a call to convene a conference on a Mideast nuclear-weapons free zone, which annoyed Israelis but which diplomats credited with facilitating Security Council approval of stiffened global sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.
The unexpected difficulty in winning 67 votes for what should have been a no-brainer START treaty was a signal, however, of how deeply entrenched the Strangelovian attachment to nukes among conservatives has become, making next steps in their control and phase-out an ever harder slog.
– “Re-set”: U.S.-Russian relations yield tangible gains.
American efforts to restore amicable ties with Russia, after the antagonisms that metastasized in the years before Obama came to power, paid tangible dividends in a new nuclear arms reduction pact, indispensable Russian support for tightening the U.N. sanctions noose on Iran’s nuclear program, and Russian collaboration on NATO missile defense and supplies for Afghanistan. President Dmitri Medvedev’s participation in the NATO summit in Lisbon signaled the repair of Russian-Western relations ruptured in the South Ossetian war of August 2008, reopening the door to Russia’s political as well as social and economic integration with the West.
– Ukrainian public settles NATO issue.
Obama was spared conservative charges of selling out Ukraine’s membership in NATO to court better relations with Russia (or, even worse, to curry favor with West Europeans skeptical of further alliance expansion) when Ukrainians overwhelmingly repudiated president Viktor Yushchenko, who had worked closely with the Bush administration to lock in NATO membership. The victory of Viktor Yanukovich, a firm opponent of joining the alliance and a party apparatchikof the old school, put a swift end to the NATO application, which had not enjoyed much public support anyway; but Yanukovich’s razor-thin margin over braided prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko underscored the country’s uncertain identity and continuing east-west divide. Now, if only neighboring Belarus could similarly be persuaded to trust its people to freely decide their future …
– U.N. Women mobilized.
While consensus-building on Security Council reform accelerated to a snail’s pace this year, the United Nations did achieve a landmark consolidation of scattered small bureaucratic outposts into a single U.N. agency for high-level global promotion of women’s empowerment, the awkwardly named “U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.” To give the new agency visibility and heft, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Michelle Bachelet, the first woman to become defense minister and then president in Chile, who would have credibility not only on traditional “women’s” issues like workplace equality and girls’ education but also on implementation of U.N. mandates to include women in peace-making and post-conflict reconstruction.
– World Bank and I.M.F. shift voting power.
It may not look big, but April’s transfer of 3.13 percent of World Bank and International Monetary Fund voting shares (and financial contributions) to fast-growing large developing economies was a seismic tremor, after long rearguard resistance by European members to shrinkage of their shares. China’s and India’s shares jumped from 2.77 percent to 4.42 and 2.91 respectively, making China the Bretton Woods institutions’ third largest contributor, ahead of Germany, and India their seventh largest, ahead of Italy; with “developing and transition” countries now holding an aggregate 47 percent share of voting power, Bank president Robert Zoellick called the transfer “crucial for the Bank’s legitimacy.”
The 10 Worst
– Afghan torpor undercuts allied effort.
A feckless Afghan government seemed unable to grasp the opportunity the Obama administration’s stepped up military effort was giving it to regain the initiative after a four-year Taliban resurgence, even with NATO allies’ warning not to count on them past 2014. Deepening public disgust at officials’ corruption, punctuated by insiders’ self-dealing in cases like the collapsed Kabul Bank, manifested itself in the precipitous drop in voter turnout in this year’s parliamentary elections — in which an admirably independent election commission again had to invalidate widespread fraudulent returns — and, more ominously, in Taliban penetration even into parts of the non-Pashtun north.
– Cote d’Ivoire tests democracy thesis.
While diplomats had long seen elections as the key to resolve the deep divisions between Cote d’Ivoire’s traditionally dominant coastal south and its Muslim north, the two rounds of balloting confirmed a disturbing trend in African politics previously evidenced in Kenya and Zimbabwe: democracy is too important to be left to incumbents seeking reelection. Laurent Gbagbo, who may have actually been elected in 2000 but whose administration triggered a north-south civil war, annulled decisive votes from the north that lopsidedly favored his challenger, Alassane Ouattara, a former I.M.F. official and prime minister, and with his control of Ivorian security forces in the capital he challenged the peacekeepers of the United Nations, which had confirmed the election commission’s certification of Ouattara’s victory. Despite African unanimity in recognizing Ouattara as the elected head of state, Russia blocked coercive measures by the Security Council to pry Gbagbo out of the presidential palace, and the year ends with no road map in sight for a peaceful transition.
– European outrage at abuse scandals rocks Vatican.
Pope Benedict XVI’s hopes to lead Europe back to the historical Christian roots nurtured by the Catholic Church since Constantine’s time were shattered by the explosion of priestly sex abuse scandals that brought down one leading cleric after another in Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, and even the pontiff’s German homeland. Many Vatican insiders had dismissed the first iteration of clerical abuse revelations in 2002 in the United States as a frenzy orchestrated by American secular media, but their return with a vengeance in Europe — and the cover-ups and impunity associated with the abuse — so shook the trust and, yes, faith of the laity across Europe as to create an existential crisis for the authority of Europe’s most ancient continuing institution.
– Isolated, Iran hunkers down.
The government convincingly showed its control of the Tehran street at the Islamic republic’s 31st anniversary in thwarting protests against the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s disputed 2009 election, but it could not duplicate abroad its domestic success in crushing resistance. Not only did it fail in its effort to derail tightened U.N. sanctions on its nuclear program by playing Turkey and Brazil against Washington, but–faced with a humiliating defeat by Maldives for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council–it withdrew its candidacy before the General Assembly could vote; and UNESCO revoked its sponsorship of a World Philosophy program in Tehran after the government’s announcement of new restrictions on social sciences — especially law, political science, and philosophy — in Iranian universities. At year’s end, Ahmadinejad’s abrupt dismissal of foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and execution of a long-dreaded (though economically sensible) quadrupling of subsidized fuel prices suggested the mounting strains from Iran’s isolation.
– Israel-Palestine negotiations enter deep freeze.
The prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians this year might never have been bright, given the opposition of hard-right parties in Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition to picking up where previous negotiations had left off, but U.S. mediator George Mitchell’s patient efforts finally produced face-to-face talks between Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in September — which ended within weeks on the resumption of accelerated Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territories. Bereft of viable options and seeing the success of international pressure in forcing a relaxation in Israel’s blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza after the Turkish flotilla incident in May, Palestinians dusted off once again their campaign for international recognition of their state within the 1967 borders, wooing Europe and winning Argentina and Brazil; the Obama administration limply repeated the mantra that the best way to “achieve that [statehood] is through negotiations by the two parties.”
– Korean tensions escalate.
Caught between a brittle communist leadership intent on steering the succession to a third-generation Kim in the North, and a confrontational conservative leadership in the South that has abrogated one North-South commitment of its predecessors after another, Koreans this year faced rising tensions and the riskiest exchanges of live fire since the 1953 armistice. The sinking of the South’s warship Cheonanin disputed waters (by a North Korean torpedo, say Seoul’s supporters), the North’s artillery shelling of Seoul-controlled Yeonpyeong island in response to military exercises there, and Pyongyang’s unveiling of a new nuclear facility did not shake the Obama administration from its path of unswerving backstopping of its rightist partner in Seoul and of hopefully pressing China to turn against its old ally in Pyongyang. With State reluctant about opening an official track, the communist regime this year turned again to American luminaries outside the administration — Jimmy Carter and Bill Richardson — to signal its intentions on nuclear weapons and a would-be peace settlement.
– Mexico drug war deaths surge past 30,000.
With over 12,450 deaths from Mexico’s drug wars in 2010 — nearly five times the number of Afghan war deaths this year — the rate of killings by drug cartels and by government forces trying to suppress them has grimly accelerated; by comparison, the wars took 9,635 lives in 2009 and 6,844 in 2008. The cartels have redoubled their efforts to place allies in key electoral positions, and opposition politicians increasingly voice skepticism about president Felipe Calderon’s determination to suppress the violent criminal networks. Recognizing that it is Americans’ drug habits (and gun sellers) that have fueled the narco-insurgency, the Obama administration this year pressed for sharply increased U.S. demand reduction initiatives and tighter reporting on weapons sales in states along the Mexican border.
– Pompeii collapses spotlight World Heritage erosion.
While UNESCO continues to inscribe new sites on its World Heritage list — this year adding the Thang Long citadel in Hanoi, an ancient pastoral settlement site in Tajikistan, and the episcopal city of Albi in southwest France, among others — staggering losses this fall at the mother of all world heritage sites, the excavated Roman city of Pompeii, underscored the failure of many governments, even in wealthy countries as economically heritage-dependent as Italy, to maintain their heritage sites. The “House of the Gladiators” (Schola Armaturarum) collapsed in early November, followed only weeks later by the crumbling of the “House of the Moralist,” triggering an urgent visit by a UNESCO team of experts to a site in a country that was more accustomed in the past to send such preservation experts to advise other countries on maintaining their sites.
– Star-crossed Haiti survives — barely.
Buffeted by death, hunger, pestilence, and civil strife, for Haiti 2010 was the year of the Apocalypse. It opened with a catastrophic earthquake that by the Haitian government’s count killed a quarter million people — including the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, as well as the head and deputy head of the U.N. mission and 83 of their colleagues–left a million homeless, and so completely shattered the country’s fragile infrastructure that emergency relief was chaotic and clean-up and reconstruction efforts were hobbled for the entire year; cholera was a grim by-product. The magnitude of the disaster sparked unprecedented global assistance, and Obama tapped his two predecessors to lead a massive fund-raising effort; but Haiti’s own administrative structures were overwhelmed and incapable, stoking public frustration and anger with the government that exploded at the announced results of the first-round presidential election in November, in which outgoing president Rene Preval’s unpopular favorite candidate was assigned a berth in the runoff.
– United front for economic recovery fragments.
The resolute unity of the international community in confronting the 2008 economic crisis through coordinated stimulus may have averted a second great depression last year, but it frayed in 2010 as China rejected realignment of its grossly undervalued renminbi and European governments U-turned to embrace deficit reduction and fiscal austerity, spooked by a eurozone debt crisis that quickly metastasized when German politicians balked at nipping it in the bud in Athens. Europe’s turn to austerity — echoed in the United States by resurgent conservatives challenging Obama — occurred even though, two years into the crisis, all four of its leading economies had still not recovered their GDP levels of 2008, and all but Germany still had markedly higher rates of unemployment; the U.S. at least was expected to end 2010 with a 1.7 percent GDP gain over 2008, though bearing an unemployment rate two-thirds higher than at the crash. Strikingly, however, it was the largest developing country economies that paced the global recovery this year, not the old G-7: the I.M.F. estimated China’s 2010 GDP at 21.3 percent above its 2008 level, India’s at 13.4 percent, and Brazil’s at 23.7 percent.