Photo by Dasha Love, graphic work by Sam Taylor
Look, you might not like it, but the fact is, foreign policy has a lot to do with you. If you live in the US (and you probably do because I can see your iPod), then what Obama does with our bombs reflects you globally. And if you live in the world (and you probably do because I can see you’re human), then you still, for now, live on a planet where the USA has the most sway. And if you like gay people, or women, of all the superpowers available to humans, America is probably your best bet. Your votes appointed a bunch of people who are barely of average intelligence to run—or shut down—Congress and therefore hold some responsibility as to how this country operates.
As such, it's obvious that last year you, YOU, dropped the ball, because looking back, 2013 was a really shitty year for foreign policy. Against the backdrop of grinding war in Syria, we cringed as Edward Snowden lifted the lid on the largest mass surveillance program in history. Terrorists staged mass prison breakouts and held entire cities to ransom. Egypt killed the hell out of itself and both sides blamed the US and literally nothing was done to make Syria any less hellish. In fact, it got worse. Well done. Meanwhile, on the part of the planet where you can’t even pretend to have any influence, the Chinese navy won a game of WW3 chicken in the Pacific. Somehow in all of this, Russia came out smelling of roses.
So, yes, frankly the US could be doing better. The Taliban are still with us, hiding in their caves, eagerly awaiting the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. And chaos eagerly awaits that. In Yemen, Pakistan and beyond, US drone strikes continue, making Obama the Peace Prize Winner look evermore like someone who uses flying robots to assassinate people. Thanks to an embarrassing climb-down over involvement in Syria, the very idea of the West intervening in another country’s problems has never been less in fashion. And looking at Afghanistan, still donning its A/W 2001 garb of shrapnel and loved ones' viscera, it’s not hard to see why.
Supporters of Egypt's deposed President Morsi feel the wrath of the Egyptian army. Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy.
David Kilcullen is a foreign policy heavyweight and strategist who spent years advising (and criticizing) the US government as part of "Petraeus' 'brain trust'”—a squad of intellectuals drafted in to try to sort out the Iraq War. David thinks that the first thing the US must do this year is fix the “damage done by the biggest foreign policy development” of 2013: Edward Snowden’s revelations on government spying – especially the parts about the US snooping on some of its closest allies. Almost everyone is angry with US spooks, meaning the West is as divided as it has been for decades. Which isn’t a good start. The world needs an America that can at least be trusted not to fuck over Europe’s most important country (that’s Germany, not the UK, duh).
The good news, according to David, is that Snowden “prompted a debate that we need to have in 2014,” which may be “the key to unlocking a wider discussion about international norms and our relationships with our governments.” This year, better foreign policy should probably start with repairing old friendships, not starting new fights.
Secondly, the US needs to stop droning teenage boys in Waziristan under the assumption that all men old enough to hold a gun are terrorists. Instead, said David, they need to stay ahead of a huge, on-going shift in the way terror, crime, and poverty emerge in the “world’s fast-growing, connected, overcrowded, coastal cities.” In these places in 2013, it was gangsterism and corruption that posed the biggest threats to ordinary people.
As vast numbers of poor people “migrate to the world’s marginalized slums,” weak governments are losing their grip, leaving “non-state armed groups” in control. “Western governments spend a lot of time worrying about radical groups,” David told me, “but if you live in Dakar, Nairobi, or Karachi, you’re more concerned that a gang is going to shake you down, or that you don’t have enough water or power.” If you are, say, a Somali immigrant living in Eastleigh, Nairobi, and al Shabaab are gaining power over local infrastructure in a place with few jobs, they’re going to look less like a terrorist gang, and more like the only gainful employers about.
Beyond that, the jihadist problem has changed. According to David, an “urbanising pattern of war across the planet” means the US needs to unlearn what it picked up in the mountains of Afghanistan and Iraq, and prepare instead for a new type of fight—one in which highly trained jihadists post selfies from Syria with impunity, and cartels flaunt their wealth and violence on Instagram.
Western, probably German, jihadists in Syria. Photo from Instagram.
"Syria has given new life to al Qaeda,” said David. “This is a group that was basically smashed in 2010, and in 2013 it’s come back, stronger, with a much better class of jihadist than we’ve ever seen before.” This is especially dangerous as many of the fighters are Westerners, as VICE News reported last year. In 2014, “some of these guys are going to come back to the West, having worked for a ‘full-spectrum’ Sunni terror group.” Keep an eye on them this year; just don’t tap everyone’s phones while you’re at it.
Next, the West should probably be mindful of the world’s new class of pissed-off people. In the coming months, David reckons we’ll see a growing number of explosive, Arab Spring-style protests pop up across the world, triggered by perceived injustice in fast-growing economies. “As we saw in 2013 in Turkey and Brazil,” he said, “people will keep contesting who gets to control the urban space.
"I think in 2014 we’ll see the Brazilian government working to secure its urban spaces ahead of the World Cup, and we’ll see major urban unrest and violence, as police move into areas that are dominated by armed groups, who could even try to lock down the city; we may even see the Brazilian military moving in to shore this up.” Local events like this will have international significance: in "hyper-connected" places where people are upset and have decent internet, small clashes can become big, quickly. Therefore, international messaging needs to express—clearly—that sending police in helmets to gas the people who pay their wages isn’t acceptable.
As for Turkey, if it really does kick off, the US will need to pick sides (as it completely failed to do in the Arab Spring). Do we support despots or popular uprisings? This year will be decision time.
If we want a safer planet this year, we should keep an eye on hotspots where the world’s most vulnerable people might be in danger. One, David, reckons, may be South Africa, where 44 people were killed during confrontations at a miners’ strike in 2012. “I was in South Africa when Mandela died, and I was surprised by the depth of anger against [Mandela's political party] the ANC. People saw Zuma, Mandela’s successor, at the funeral, and made a direct comparison between their old leaders and the people running the country now. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw unhappiness expressed, possibly violently, in South Africa’s cities this year."
Oh, and quite a lot of the rest of Africa too, where the US will confront “several on-going crises and fragile societies” in 2014; moves that will possess the “potential to draw Western countries into difficult interventions”. Not to mention the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which—following twin terror attacks last week—look set to be a focal point for unrest (and international condemnation over Putin’s anti-gay law). Then there’s the dispute over the South China Sea, which in 2014 “really could” spiral into an “accidental conflict” as China asserts itself in the region.
Riot police in Rio attend to protests held after the Confederations Cup. Photo by Matias Maxx.
2013 wasn’t all bad. In April, 115 countries finally got around to signing the Arms Trade Treaty, an agreement to not sell missiles to each other willy-nilly. And over the months leading up to November, the US and Iran secretly discussed a gradual slowdown in Iran’s nuclear program. A new, slightly more chill president installed there in June means Western nations can speak to Iran without being branded Zionist conspirators or something. For 2014 to be better than 2013, it will need to build on the positive vibes around these big agreements. That will be hard, but necessary.
I called Nasser Hadian, a top Iranian political scientist to see what he thought about this cheery Tehran deal: “Since President Rouhani came to power in 2013 we’ve almost eliminated the chances of war with Israel, sanctions against my country have paused, and the world has a less hostile image of Iran. That said, I’m not that optimistic about the relationship in 2014, so both sides will have to go carefully.”
What else should we worry about from the planet’s perennial nuclear wannabe? In 2014, Nasser told me, “the biggest concern in Tehran will be the growing divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims across the region in 2014; this will have important consequences for Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan… It could be very destructive for each of those states. I hope it can be contained.”
On Syria, he said: “the situation can only get better, but again I'm not all that optimistic. At least we can try to stabilise it in 2014, which will take consensus. That’s another reason why we need to be friends over the nuclear issue.” On Afghanistan: “When the US leaves we may have a huge problem, but if the government can survive into late 2014, then there’s a good chance it’ll survive [in the long-term]. Saudis, Pakistanis, and even Indians are dependent on Afghan security, so we’ll need some kind of international agreement to help keep it stable this year.”
There's one thing that everyone seems to agree on – that one way to make the planet a safer place would be for the West to stop being stupid about drone strikes. As David says: “In the future, drones are gonna be seen as something that seemed like a good idea at the time. The US has decided it can strike anyone, at any time, according to its own home laws, what happens when the Chinese decide to apply the same rules and drone strike a Falun Gong activist in San Francisco?” This year, new laws will be written on how to use drones. The US government should follow them.
So, there’s a vague blueprint for what we need to be keeping an eye on in 2014. But, can it be done? "The US is distracted by gay marriage, culture war, healthcare; it’s inward-looking,” said David. “We’re not gonna see a robust debate about foreign policy.” What about the UK? “People there have also turned inward and aren’t thinking about liberal intervention – politicians are tired and don’t have a sense of what the UK’s purpose is.” OK, so what about Iran and the Middle East? “I’m not that optimistic,” reckons Nasser. “It’s going to be a tough year.”
Alright. Since no one else seems to be taking care of business, here’s what needs to be done, in the form of a basic checklist:
1 – Obama to fly round the world personally apologizing for bugging heads of state and handing them his Twitter password as a sign of faith.
2 – Obama to stop flying drones round the world, obliterating people without trial from several thousand feet.
3 – Let’s keep an eye on the world’s poorest cities and make sure they don’t fall under the shadow of gangsterism.
4 – Let’s keep an eye on huge cities in rich countries and stop the authorities from punishing people for protesting.
5 – Oi, China! Please avoid World War 3.
6 – Someone should do something about Syria at some point.
7 – Is there any way to get troops out of Afghanistan without it falling apart? Cause if someone has one, we should do that.
8 – Less crime abroad, and more integration at home, will mean more less foreign fighters will take a jihadi vacation.
Follow Alex Chitty on Twitter: @alexchitty