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Last year, the U.S. confronted new kinds of conflicts and challenges overseas. In a shifting political and economic landscape, new actors entered the world stage, while longtime powers tried surprising strategies.
Gwen Ifill recorded this look back at what 2014 means for the new year.
Global upheaval was the hallmark of the year just ending. A pro-Russian leader was toppled in Ukraine. A new government and civil war followed, and Russia seized Crimea. The Islamic State and Boko Haram became household names in foreign policy circles. U.S.-led Middle East negotiations derailed. And a war broke out between Israel and Hamas. Ebola killed thousands in West Africa. American forces returned to Iraq.
And that's just the beginning of an eventful year that is already spilling over into the year to come.
So what were the biggest game-changers? And what comes next?
For that, we turn to Indira Lakshmanan, foreign policy correspondent for Bloomberg News, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, and former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, now CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
Welcome to you all.
David Ignatius, I want to start by asking you, just from the United States' point of view, what was the biggest foreign policy challenge that this administration had to deal with?
DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post:
I would have to say — and it's a big list — that the most consequential was the breakout of ISIS, the Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria, drawing the United States back into war in Iraq.
And I say that because I fear that this conflict and the consequences for America will be generational. This is going to take a long time. The resilience of these Islamic fighters, their ability to just rip through Northern Syria and Northwestern Iraq was astonishing, forcing Obama to do the thing he least wanted to do in 2014, which is to reenter this conflict.
David Miliband, from a global perspective — and perhaps the answer is the same — what would you say is the biggest challenge?
DAVID MILIBAND, International Rescue Committee:
I think that this was a year of disorder.
It's striking that, at the beginning of the year, people were talking about tensions in the South China Seas. No one was talking about tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border. By the end of the year, obviously, Russia had emerged as the biggest geopolitical spoiler, and in the agreement that President Obama struck with the Chinese over climate change, perhaps an indication of the kind of geopolitical cooperation that could take place for the final two years of his presidency.
However, from the humanitarian sector's point of view, the fact that old wars in Somalia, Congo, et cetera, continued and new wars started, as David says, back into Iraq, the South Sudanese civil war, suggest that the international system is not doing a good job of keeping a lid on conflicts that are just bubbling over.
I want to circle back to that question of the humanitarian impact, because there are places we haven't even touched on where that was a big issue.
But, Indira, think about it, Ukraine, something that certainly is not resolved yet. There are so many of these issues which we have named and some we haven't which still spill over.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, Bloomberg News:
And, to me, the other huge challenge that we need to talk more about is Russia and Ukraine. And that is a problem that is not going away. I don't think there is anyone who could have predicted at the beginning of 2014 that we were going to see a shelved trade pact by the Ukrainian leader Yanukovych leading to massive popular protests, the fall of his government, the rise of a Western-oriented government, and finally Putin being, you know, worried to the point that he felt he needed to invade, annex Crimea and go down this path of destabilizing Eastern Ukraine.
I think nobody saw that coming. And it's going to have huge, huge consequences. Not only do we have the biggest East-West struggle since the end of the Cold War, but we have this cycle now of sanctions from the United States and Europe which have not stopped Putin's behavior. And combine that with the other huge story, I think, from 2014, which is the drop in the price of oil, 45 percent down for crude in this calendar year, and that has really hit Russia and other petro states, like Venezuela, Iran.
So I think that's a big thing that is going to push Putin in the coming year.
David Ignatius, she mentions Vladimir Putin by name. Is there any other single leader who we should be the most concerned about, worried about, planning our foreign policy around?
I think we should pay special attention to the leader of China, President Xi Jinping, who would be on my list as the most skilled and successful political leader of the year.
Xi identified the biggest threats to the Communist Party's rule in China as corruption and environmental pollution that Chinese are frightened about. And he went after both aggressively in 2014. He went after top party officials for corruption. And he signed a climate pact with President Obama in November.
That nobody saw coming.
That nobody saw coming, but they should have because it was clear that Xi had made the decision, I have to show my people that I am acting on this issue that they fear is going to make China unsafe for them in the future.
So I am impressed by his skill and his aggressiveness, his boldness as a leader. We're going to have to deal with him, maybe in good ways, cooperatively, maybe in more difficult ways.
And, David, what do you think about Bashar al-Assad in Syria? To what degree is he a major figure that we still have to be worried about in 2015?
Well, sad to say, President Assad certainly strengthened his position in Syria.
But the country imploded underneath him. It is actually extraordinary to think of 12 million people, half the population, uprooted from their homes, three to four million in neighboring countries. And, of course, ISIS has emerged into vacuum that was created in Central and Eastern Syria.
One thing that I think is very, very important that people keep an eye on in 2015 is how the Iranians decide to play their cards, not just on the nuclear file, but also on the wider regional conflagration that is engulfing significant parts of the Middle East.
Obviously, they have been a significant destabilizing force over the years. But partly because of the oil price change, but not only because of that, also because of popular pressure inside Iran, I think it's very important to see them as having an absolutely pivotal set of decisions to make in 2015.
Indira, do we have to worry now in this post-Snowden era as much about cyber-warfare as we do about old-fashioned warfare?
Look, cyber-warfare, as we see at the close of this year, with the hack of Sony, which may or may not have been the result of the North Korean state, depending on whose intelligence you believe, has turned out to be the cheapest form of warfare since the bow and arrow.
You know, I do think that there is a lot of potential for spoilers to come in, just — we have seen major attacks on major U.S. banks, major U.S. retailers. And now this attack on Sony shows the ability to do things quite cheaply and easily with sort of off-the-shelf malware.
So, yes, I think that is a really important thing to watch. I also agree that Iran really bears watching, because that could potentially be a game-changer. If there is a possibility — and I think that's a very big if — of getting a nuclear deal with Iran, that could lead to some agreement on normalization, just like we have seen at the end of this year with Cuba. I'm not saying it will happen, but it's a big thing to watch.
David Ignatius, I wonder if we shouldn't be redefining or reshaping how we define foreign policy in general, when you think about things like cyber-warfare, where, with the push of a button, you can completely change what we are all focused on, or whether we are overstating it or overreaching a little bit.
Well, I — the cyber-dimension pushes warfare into a new space. It's like the nuclear weapons, which changed the nature of foreign policy.
I was struck this year by the way in which foreign policy played with President Obama and his presidency and his legacy.
For good or for ill?
At the middle of this year, it was a common place — at least in Washington — that this turbulence around a world explosion of Putin in Ukraine, the explosion of ISIS, was a sign of Obama's weakness, that he was weak and feckless — I'm quoting Republican critics now — and that this disordered world was a consequence.
But, at the end of the year, I'm struck by all the things Obama must be glad he didn't do that critics were urging him to do. He must be glad that he didn't take military action to check the Russians and Ukraine, which the U.S. really couldn't have followed up on.
He must be glad that he didn't take more extreme action early in Iraq, which might have blown the opportunity to get a more united government there. So, I think the year ends for Obama with this attempt to engage Cuba, with the Iran talks going, the Obama of 2009 talking about engagement, and probably just as happy not to be seen as the tough guy, as his critics have been urging him to be.
And, David Miliband, there are the foreign policy challenges which nobody can prepare for. And I'm thinking about Ebola, kind of health crises, things which affect people, catch people's attention, take our eye off other balls, and — and isn't done yet.
Well, I think that the fact that one refugee occurred every four seconds in 2014 tells you the scale of crisis and disorder that exists around the world.
One thing that strikes me is how the political and economic and humanitarian pillars of societies intersect so closely. Many of the places that are being struck by political disorder are also great markets, where businesses are trying to invest.
In the case of Ebola, this health emergency has upended, not just politics, but obviously also economics. And I think there are some very important lessons there about how not just governments, but also aid agencies, frankly, how we think about helping people build stronger societies.
I mean, the Liberia-Sierra Leone case that you raise is one that I think very few people would have put at the top of the flashing red lights list at this time last year. They were seen as countries that had come through a terrible conflict, were in a post-conflict phase, were building systems of governance and services that could survive.
When you then find out that there were only 15 ambulances in the whole of Monrovia at the beginning of the Ebola crisis, you see how far we have got to go to tackle some of the causes of extreme poverty and instability around the world.
And the fact that now 50 percent of the world's poor, living on less than $1.25 a day, are in conflict or fragile states tells you a lot about the changing geography of poverty and possibly also the changing geography and instability around the world.
Indira Lakshmanan, David Ignatius, David Miliband, thank you all very much.
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