The year in foreign relations

Some promising initiatives may bear fruit down the road

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This, the first of three end-of-the-year columns, will assess what I consider to be the most important developments in U.S. foreign affairs in 2013.

The second, to appear on Christmas Day, will be a gift list for different players in the international relations pantomime. The third, for New Year’s Day, will have me sacrificing my few remaining shards of credibility by making predictions for 2014.

As prelude, I would say that 2013 saw a very impressive performance from Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Mr. Kerry was different from his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in that he was quick to take the big risks in trying to resolve the really hard questions that U.S. foreign policy confronts.

Without pausing to pass “Go” or collect $200, Mr. Kerry plunged straight into three difficult and controversial problems: the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the tangled problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and economic sanctions, and how to engage the international community to stop the suffering in Syria and put the country back together again.

Ms. Clinton had ducked heavyweight involvement in these problems, not wanting to scratch her paint in unsuccessful efforts to resolve them. Each of them has domestic political ramifications as well as myriad international sub-problems. Ms. Clinton still probably wants to run for president again. Mr. Kerry ran for president once, lost, and no doubt has no taste to try again. Secretary of state is clearly the pinnacle of Mr. Kerry’s career, and he is ready to be judged by the American people and history on the basis of his achievements in that post.

On the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Mr. Kerry has tried to steer them towards success by paying close attention to both the Israeli side, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian side, where he has concentrated on Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, leaving the inhospitable field of Hamas largely unplowed. This could be a serious omission.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, in an attempt to overcome sour U.S.-Iranian relations since 1979 as both sides carried out hostile operations against the other (unless one wants to cast President Ronald W. Reagan’s Iran/​Contra actions as an effort to improve relations), Mr. Kerry has presided over a basically international effort to reach a deal, moving Iran back toward a reasonable relationship with the international community.

These efforts have been in the finest tradition of trying to build international consensus around U.S. goals. Engaged parties include such disparate players as China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the European Union. Mr. Kerry was forced to take — and did not shy away from — an antagonistic posture toward traditional American allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, in adopting a more open approach to Iran. He was sharp enough to make it possible for the United States to profit from Iran’s election this year of a more reasonable president, Hassan Rouhani.

The United States seems to have weathered more or less intact a major, every-10-years change of leadership in China, the No. 2 country in the world for the moment. President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, a very important shift in U.S. foreign policy concentration, seems to have threaded the needle between being seen as an expression of U.S. interest in and respect for that part of the world and being seen as an unhealthy desire on the part of the United States to interfere there, particularly with military force.

To some degree, what the United States achieved this year in foreign policy was in what it didn’t do. Mr. Obama’s administration has so far not let America get dragged back into Iraq, even as Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence has spiraled in that country, which the United States may have fatally destabilized during its military presence there from 2003 to 2011. And so far, the United States has stuck to its plans to withdraw at the end of 2014 from Afghanistan, another U.S. foreign policy example of enough-is-enough, leaving President Hamid Karzai and the rest of the crooked Afghanis to stew in their own juices.

The United States has also stayed out, for the most part, of the squabbling in Asia among China, Japan, South Korea and other nations over pieces of rock sticking up out of the East China, South China and Yellow seas. It limited itself to zooming unarmed B-52s over some of them while China looked the other way, concentrating its attention on the moon.

I also happen to think that the information that former National Security Agency consultant Edward J. Snowden brought to the attention of the American public and the rest of the world through his leaks also made 2013 a rich year in terms of Americans’ understanding of U.S. government actions, capabilities and at least potential knowledge about what is going across the globe.

These things usually close on a somber note. South Africa and the world went through the parting of Nelson Mandela in 2013. Little progress was made on a global effort to meet the challenges of climate change. U.S. Cuban policy still needs work, as do relations with countries enduring our surveillance or drone attacks.

All in all, though, 2013 was not a bad year for U.S. foreign relations.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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