2009 Annus Horriblus or the Year We Stopped Digging

Descriptions of the failures and unresolved problems confronting U.S. foreign policy as 2009 and the decade of the 2000s come to an end are difficult to miss or overlook. There is a virtual consensus that this has been an annus, or even a decade, horriblus for the U.S. A year that began with a new glimmer of great hope as President Obama took office ends with ongoing instability in the AfPak region, indications that things may not be going quite so swimmingly in Iraq as George Bush led us to believe, and signs of the American decline all around us.

Obama’s first year in office, while far from a foreign policy failure, has not brought resolution to any of the major challenges facing the U.S. Wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq; peace remains more elusive than ever in the Middle East; Iran is still on the brink of developing nuclear weapons; significant parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remain concerned about renewed Russian power in that region and the global economic downturn has raised the possibility of political instability in much of the world. This was the capstone year of a decade that has included the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, a conflict in Iraq that has lasted considerably longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II, plummeting U.S. popularity abroad, the stalling, or even reversal, of the spread of democracy, and rising military, political and economic threats to the U.S. from Teheran to Beijing and from Moscow to Caracas.

The news for the U.S. over the last ten years, or from 2009, may not be quite as bad as all that. While the seemingly intractable problems leftover from the Bush administration, other problems have been resolved relatively easily. Anti-Americanism in much of the world, notably Europe, has receded to its pre-Bush levels. The wave of global instability which was going to bring governments around the world crashing down and create economic and social upheaval seems to have been avoided, at least for now. The recession has been bad for the U.S., but worse for many of our global rivals. The economies of most oil producing and export oriented countries have been hit at least as hard as that of the U.S. Russia, which eighteen months ago seemed poised for a real resurgence is still wrestling with the aftershocks of the economic crisis. Rival powers, most notably China, find themselves confronting problems of stability and uneven economic growth which will likely get worse in the near future.

There have also been some foreign policy developments in 2009 that were quite positive. The demonstrations following a stolen election in Iran earlier in the year may have helped institutionalize an anti-government movement there which may lead to the collapse of that regime in the next few years. The Copenhagen conference, while very disappointing in some respects, saw the emergence of the global leadership, in which the U.S. continues to play a key role, which will be necessary for the 21st century. These are small things, in some respects, but they indicate the something is changing.

The hole in which the U.S. found itself in the beginning of this year was very deep, but 2009 may be remembered as the year we stopped digging.