1. President Vladimir Putin and Russia
The champagne corks were popping in the Kremlin after a banner 2013. With Edward Snowden ensconced in Moscow, Putin can celebrate Russia’s biggest embarrassment of the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union. But that’s only the beginning. Russia’s client Assad defied bloodcurdling White House threats of bombing raids and demands that “Assad must go” in Russia’s biggest geopolitical victory over the United States since Brezhnev was in power. As icing on the cake, a desperate, fumbling White House had to accept a Russian proposal to escape from the trap President Obama built for himself. Russian foreign policy makers hadn’t had this much fun since the Bay of Pigs. Finally, to complete the Kremlin’s annus mirabilus, a clueless European Union lost out to Russia in a battle to bring Ukraine into a trade association with the rich western bloc. What makes this string of impressive victories even more impressive is that President Putin is playing with a weak hand. His economy is in trouble, his army is rife with corruption, his population is in decline, and his coutry faces a growing Chinese superpower to the east and a growing threat from terrorists in the south. Underfunded, underequipped, and underrespected, Vladimir Putin danced rings around Barack Obama, John Kerry and Angela Merkel this year. Western stupidity is his chief strategic asset, and in 2013 at least, there was a lot of that going around.
Close behind Vladimir Putin as the biggest winner of 2013 comes the Islamic Republic of Iran. While western diplomats spun fantasies to themselves that the regime was ‘crippled’ by sanctions, the Iranians managed to extend their hold on the Fertile Crescent and by year’s end appeared to have trapped the United States into a negotiation that, from a US point of view, would at best leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state in exchange for tacit US recognition of Iran’s new dominant position in the Middle East. Spending billions of dollars to prop up its protégés in Damascus and Lebanon, Iran strengthened its presence in Iraq, and used the chaos of the Syrian war to give Hezbollah sophisticated new weapons that could change the military balance on Israel’s northern frontier. This would have been achievement enough for any revisionist power, but Iran took it one step further. At the same time that it’s actual policy became increasingly aggressive and assertive, Iran brilliantly deployed theatrical lighting to paint itself as an increasingly moderate and conciliatory state. It’s like taking the Sudetenland and getting the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year.
3. Bashar Assad and his Damascus Regime
The year’s third biggest winner was the man President Obama said must go and then threatened to bomb. Unbombed and unbowed, Bashar Assad has turned the tide of war in Syria and may yet end up with American support as Al Qaeda linked groups take over what is left of the forces opposing him. The victory wasn’t perfect; President Assad has had to let Iran’s Revolutionary Guard into what was once his closely held private preserve of a country, and it’s unclear just how much freedom of action he has. But 2013 could have been much, much worse for the world’s most famous chemical warrior; he’s saved his skin for yet another year and turned the President of the United States into a paper tiger.
Number four on the list of countries who visibly enhanced their position in the international horse race last year was Japan. Once widely hailed as the next superpower whose technical prowess and economic might would pound poor America into the sand, Japan has had to endure a generation of decline and neglect as neighboring China replaced it as the coming thing in Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe didn’t manage to recapture all of Japan’s old moxie in 2013, but few leaders have increased their nation’s profile so much in one year. What Abe understood, and what so many pinstriped oracles of conventional wisdom on the Davos circuit missed, is that Japan’s technological prowess is an increasingly important tool of power in an era in which drones, robots and cyberattacks will be more important than 17 year old infantry grunts. China has more kids than Japan, but Japan has more and shinier toys than China—and could well keep that edge going forward. While Chinese nationalists want the big story in Asia to be the end of China’s “Century of Humiliation” and the Return of the Middle Kingdom, Japanese nationalists think they out-teched China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and they can out-tech it again. Nobody knows how this will work out, but in 2013 Japan made China and the world sit up and take notice of its ambitions.
5. Al Qaeda and Violent Sunni Jihad
Rounding out the top five on our global winner’s list is the increasingly loose but increasingly effective constellation of jihadi groups that were on the rise ideologically, financially and militarily during 2013. The eruption of a Sunni-Shia war across the Middle East gave the jihadis new respectability and allies. While the Sunnis overall lost ground in Syria during the year, the radical jihadis won the power struggle inside the rebel movement even as their colleagues re-emerged as a serious political and military force in Iraq. Win or lose in Syria and Lebanon, the jihadis look set to emerge from the war with much tighter links to big money in the Gulf along with new legitimacy in much of the Arab (and Pakistani) world. Meanwhile, shrewdly exploiting the aftermath of the profoundly ill-advised western adventure in Libya, jihadi groups, often rooted in local and tribal politics but benefitting from access to an international network of training, funds, ideas and arms, made significant gains across Sub-Saharan Africa. Weak and poorly trained as many of these groups are, the states opposing them are so fragile that in many cases only French and sometimes American intervention has been able to contain them. Add the Afghan Taliban’s ability to withstand the Obama surge, and the picture of jihadi gains becomes clear. Not since the days when Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was widely (if erroneously) believed to have the United States on the run in Iraq have things looked so bright for the bombers and fighters of radical Sunni jihad.
6. Climate Skeptics
Like Al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers, rivals and associates in the world of radical jihad, the next big winners of 2013 are a loosely organized group of non-state actors. Climate skeptics, those who either disbelieve in what they call AGW (‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’) or oppose efforts for a global climate treaty, had much to celebrate in 2013 as the hopes of climate activists for effective global action continued to fade. The once-ballyhooed UN effort to negotiate a climate treaty has largely faded from view. The prospect that the US Senate would ratify any meaningful climate treaty was never high; it has largely disappeared. European governments struggling with austerity have lost much of their enthusiasm to raise electricity prices as a way of reducing carbon emissions, and while China and India want to increase energy efficiency and reduce the use of coal for perfectly sensible, non-climate related reasons, there is no sign that either country will sacrifice its development objectives for the sake of carbon control. Climate skeptics don’t have the money, the media firepower or the government backing that climate activists can muster, but they have a secret weapon that more than evens the odds: inertia. It is very hard to get the international system to do the things most climate activists want done, and unless the climate change movement can develop another kind of policy agenda, climate skeptics look set to have another good year in 2014.
7. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia had a mixed year, but enough international issues broke Riyadh’s way to give it a place among the winners of 2013. It was a bad year generally for Sunni Muslims in the wars of religion convulsing much of the Middle East, but even as the Sunni cause globally sustained some serious setbacks, the Saudis managed to strengthen their position in and around the Gulf. While 2014 will see an extended showdown with Iran and the Saudi position in that rivalry suffers from some serious weaknesses, in 2013 the Saudis went a long way to elbowing rivals aside. Three big wins in particular helped Saudi Arabia make it into the winners’ circle this year. First, the Saudis worked with the Egyptian military to frustrate both the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States. The Egyptian coup (facilitated by Saudi promises of cash to offset any reductions in US or IMF funds) was a serious setback to any efforts to democratize the Arab world, and the Saudis can now count on a friendly neighbor across the Red Sea. Qatar, a smaller petro-state on the Gulf which had aggressively backed the Muslim Brotherhood, was forced to back down as well. And finally, Turkey, where the AK Party of Prime Minister Erdogan sees itself as a rival to the Wahabi Saudis as the leader of the Sunni world, ended the year in frustration and confusion. At the end of the year, the Saudis could congratulate themselves on their success in seeing off any state rivals in the Sunni world and turn their attention to what many in the kingdom believe is a life and death struggle with Shia Iran.
The eighth biggest winner of the year also had a mixed record in 2013. When Russia snatched Ukraine out of the EU’s grasp, German prestige and power suffered a significant setback. But that loss must be set against some significant wins. Overall, it was a very good year for the European Union’s leading economic power and its redoubtable Chancellor. Germany’s greatest success in 2013 was simple: it managed the euro catastrophe without spending too much money, kept its economy on an even keel, and strengthened its power in the EU even as the austerity policies it championed unleashed massive social pain across the Club Med countries from Portugal to Cyprus and Greece. Three of 2013’s winners enhanced their position inside a declining alliance; Al-Qaeda affiliates grew stronger in Syria even as the rebels as a whole weakened, the Saudis gained power while the Sunni world lost ground, and Germany gained power within a weakening EU. It is getting harder to figure out a way forward for Europe, but Germany will have more say than ever in where Europe goes.
9. The Egyptian Military
The Egyptian military also had a good year, seeing off the Muslim Brotherhood and reasserting ultimate power. While conditions in Egypt continue to deteriorate, and the outlook seems cloudy at best, the years since the ‘revolution’ that overthrew President Mubarak have reaffirmed the military’s role as the guardian and final arbiter of Egyptian stability. The ‘revolution’ allowed the military to slough off the dreams of the Mubarak inner circle to create a dynasty by having the aging President’s son replace his father. Then the liberals fell to the Muslim Brotherhood as elections revealed their lack of support among voters, and finally the Muslim Brotherhood government became so unpopular that the military was able to brush it aside. 2013 ends with the military firmly back in the saddle, and with the ability of liberal foreign powers to influence Egyptian events significantly reduced. Whether 2014 will be another successful year for Egypt’s generals remains unclear; crushing Islamist opponents in the name of nationalism has been the Egyptian military’s core competence since the Nasser era, but economic dysfunction and a dangerous regional environment make the old tricks harder to pull off.
10. The UK
Rounding out the list of the biggest ten winners of 2013 is the United Kingdom. Britain, like some of the other 2013 winners, faces an uncertain future. The 2014 Scottish referendum and the growing difficulties attending British membership in the EU mean that there is rough sailing ahead. Nevertheless, in 2013 Britain’s position improved as skepticism about the ever-growing powers of the EU bureaucracy (and the high pay of European bureaucrats) grew in an increasingly populist Europe. It remains difficult to see how the coalition government can negotiate enough of the right EU changes so that a looser and more flexible union emerges, but in a typically chaotic and indirect way, opinion on a number of issues in Europe is slowly moving Britain’s way.
Tomorrow: a look at the year’s biggest losers.