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Thank God It’s Over

Before we say say goodbye to 2010, a look back at the year's achievements and disasters, natural and otherwise.

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With earthquakes in Haiti and western China, floods in Pakistan, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, and wildfires in Russia, the Earth was intent on releasing a lot of pent-up anger in 2010. Tremors and eruptions — along with the more basic elements of fire and water — seemed to shape the past year’s events even more than traditional foreign policy actors.

Meanwhile, Europe struggled to regain its economic footing, China continued to rapidly grow its GDP, Middle East peace talks crumbled, and world leaders misbehaved (we’re looking at you, Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi). But there were bright spots, too: A group of Chilean miners escaped after enduring two months trapped underground and long-suffering Burmese democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released after spending nearly two decades in detention and under house arrest.

Here are a few glimpses of 2010’s international high- and lowlights.

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Haiti Earthquake: Jan. 12

On Jan. 12, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, the Western hemisphere’s poorest country. As many as 300,000 Haitians died; another 2.1 million were left homeless. Nearly a year later, despite billions of dollars in international aid pouring into the country, the prospects for most Haitians look bleak. The country’s poor sanitation and public health infrastructure could not stop a cholera outbreak this fall from sickening some 57,000 people, and planned presidential elections haven’t masked the reality that Haiti’s government is dysfunctional at best, non-existent at worst. In February, Howard French wrote an article for Foreign Policy, “Only Haitians Can Save Haiti,” grimly predicting: “The world has tried before to fix this troubled state — and failed each time. Now will be no different, unless Haitians take the lead.” By year’s end, this dismal forecast seems all too true; there appear to be some places in the world with problems so intractable that even massive amounts of international aid can’t help.

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China vs. Google

China may look like the promised land for foreign companies wanting access to the country’s 1.3 billion potential consumers. But doing business in China also means playing by China’s rules, and this spring, one prominent American company decided that it simply wasn’t worth it. In mid January, search-engine giant Google, already frustrated by Beijing’s strict censorship policies, discovered China-based cyber attacks on the company’s databases. Google, perhaps recalling it’s informal corporate motto “Don’t Be Evil,” pulled few punches in its response: After temporarily rerouting Google.cn searches to a Hong Kong-based site, the company entirely withdrew key search functions from China (although other operations, such as mobile advertising, remain in place).

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Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Tehran’s brinkmanship over its nuclear program reached new heights in 2010. In February, the government announced that it was processing uranium to a 20 percent purity level at its reactor at Natanz. Both sanctions and multiple efforts at negotiations have thus far failed to blunt Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, even as the prospect of a nuclear Iran threatens to destabilize delicate regional power-balances — from Saudi Arabia to Israel to the United Arab Emirates. Increasingly, it seems that a nuclear Iran may be something the world will have to learn to live with in the not-so-distant future.

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Riots in Greece

Greece was the first major European economy to fail in 2010, with its debt crisis imperiling the continent’s common euro currency and raising difficult questions about the sustainability of the EU’s institutional arrangements. In March, a cash-strapped Greek government announced stiff austerity measures, including pension reform. The move triggered mass strikes, violent riots, and even domestic terrorism. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said he no intention to fiddle while Athens burns, as he told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview this July: “Obviously there’s pain, and people are unhappy. But I would say the wide majority of the people realize that we needed to make changes that were long overdue in our country.”

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U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan

“The year began amid uncertainty at home and abroad about whether Barack Obama’s administration was coming or going: Troops went in, but a date of July 2011 was set in advance for the soldiers to start heading home,” as Steve Coll wrote recently in a piece looking back at the past 12 months. “[But] during 2010, though it has received little credit for the effort, the Obama administration gradually clarified and firmed up its strategy in the Afghanistan war.” One key component of that strategy was the decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in spring 2010 — a move that seems to have yielded positive results, according to an administration review of the Afghan war strategy in December. But whether these gains will even last the winter is open to question. And questions remain as to whether NATO forces can forge a political strategy to work alongside these military tactics in keeping the Taliban down and the country from falling apart.

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Iraq’s Elections: March 7

On March 7, defying mortar and rocket attacks, Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new Parliament. When the votes were counted, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s coalition closely trailed that of his main opponent, Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister from 2004-2005. However, it was Maliki who proved better positioned to strike a deal with the other parties in Parliament. On Oct. 1, Maliki reached an agreement with another Shiite faction that provided the framework under which a unity government — again led by Maliki — could take office. Though more delays followed as the parties hashed out the details of the coalition agreement, Iraq’s parliament finally approved the new government on Dec. 21, ending nine months of deadlock. The country’s progress since the election has been halting, but it’s been progress nonetheless.

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Controversy over drone warfare in Pakistan

According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation, “In the first 11-and-a-half months of 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration authorized more than twice as many drone strikes, 113, in northwest Pakistan as it did in 2009 — itself a year in which there were more drone strikes than during George W. Bush’s entire time in office.” The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in a country where U.S. forces are not able to conduct ground operations has stirred heated debates over the legality, effectiveness, and morality of these strikes. But according to Bergen and Tiedemann, the increased use of drones has not directly correlated with an increase in civilian casualties. “Even as the number of reported strikes has skyrocketed — with one every three days in 2010, compared with one a week last year and one every 11 days in 2008,” they wrote in a year-end piece for Foreign Policy, “the percentage of nonmilitants killed by the attacks has plummeted.”

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Polish president dies in plane crash: April 10

On April 10, Polish President Lech Kacyznski’s plane crashed in western Russia, killing the president and all 96 other passengers — including Poland’s deputy foreign minister, a dozen members of Parliament, the army and navy chiefs, and the president of the national bank. In a cruel bit of irony, the passengers had been en route to visit Katyn, the site of a Soviet massacre of 20,000 Polish military officers and prominent citizens during World War II. Yet the tragedy did not plunge the country into political or economic chaos. As Steve Walt wrote in Foreign Policy in April, “Poles can react to their shock and grief with calm and resilience because they live in a society where stability and safety do not depend on the leadership of a single individual or the unchecked authority of a single political party. Rather, it depends on the existence of a legitimate framework of laws and institutions than can provide continuity even in the aftermath of an enormous body blow.” Poland’s democratic resilience was a solemn achievement in an otherwise difficult year for the European continent.

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Eyjafjallajökull erupts: April 14

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajskull volcano began to spew smoke and lava on March 20. On April 14, a further eruption sent clouds of ash nearly 11,000 meters into the air, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of European flights, stranding travelers across the globe and shutting down much of the continent’s economy for 10 days. Though the world increasingly takes its high-tech, hyper-networked habits for granted, it was somehow refreshing to see Mother Nature so easily (and without loss of life) remind us just who’s the boss.

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Gulf oil spill: April 20

On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig operated by BP off the coast of Louisiana exploded and caught fire, catastrophically rupturing an undersea well. Over the course of the next two months, as the world watched in slow motion, approximately 185 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico — an environmental disaster whose full impact on local wildlife, wetlands, and the economy won’t be known for decades. But while the impact of this unprecedented ecological disaster on U.S. energy policy seemed cataclysmic, it proved anything but: In late May, the White House announced a six-month moratorium on drilling in the Gulf, but U.S. dependency on oil continued unabated.

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The rise of the BRICs

Brazil, Russia, India, and China — the BRIC countries — continued to assert their rising global influence this year. India hosted Obama on his longest overseas trip to date as president. China became the world’s second largest economy. In May, Brazil and Turkey shocked the world by offering a joint proposal to contain Iran’s uranium enrichment program, bypassing traditional U.S.-dominated diplomatic channels. Although the deal failed to garner wider international support, the message was clear: the United States is no longer the globe’s only indispensable power-broker.

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The Gaza flotilla: May 31

Since the militant group Hamas seized control of the Gaza strip in 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade on direct shipments to the Palestinian territory. On May 31, a flotilla of Turkish ships approached the coast of the Gaza strip attempting to deliver aid supplies. That morning, Israeli commandoes raided one of the ships and killed nine people on board. The events caused an uproar in Turkey and led to increased calls across the Middle East and around the world for an end to the blockade in Gaza. Relations between Israel and Turkey are still rocky, with Turkey continuing to demand apologies and compensation from Israel. But Israel and its hardline government stood firm, refusing to accept blame for the unfortunate — and poorly planned — raid. But the episode was a losing battle in Israel’s drawn-out war in 2010 to maintain its international reputation.

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World Cup in South Africa: June 11 – July 11

The 2010 FIFA World Cup was the first ever held on the African continent. While Spain defeated the Netherlands in the final game, many declared the ultimate winner to be the host nation, South Africa, which proved naysayers wrong and pulled off a successful international soccer tournament. The event wasn’t without controversy, but for a month at least, Africa seemed to shed it’s benighted role as global basket-case, and it’s leading nation, South Africa, garnered generous tourism dollars and accolades.

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General McChrystal steps down: June 23

On June 23, President Obama accepted the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine quoted the general and his staff openly disparaging senior members of the administration. (Vice President Joe Biden was referred to as “Bite Me”; national security adviser Jim Jones was called “a clown.”) In his place, Obama appointed Gen. David Petraeus — raising hopes that Petraeus might be able to apply some lessons learned in Iraq to Afghanistan, a much different battlefield. The swift personnel maneuvers were among Obama’s most resolute actions as commander-in-chief, an unsentimental reminder that civilian chain-of-command still has priority in the war effort over any single military officer — even a much-lauded “warrior-monk.”

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Russian wildfires

Wildfires raged across Russia this summer, killing dozens, leaving thousands homeless, and devastating vast tracts of farmland. From a Moscow engulfed in smoke, President Dmitri Medvedev declared a state of emergency for the capital city and several neighboring regions. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meanwhile seized the opportunity to hop into the cockpit of an “amphibious plane” to aid in efforts to extinguish the blazes — with Russia TV cameras nearby to capture the moment. Meanwhile, climate scientists ominously predicted more to come: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected this fall that 2010 could be the hottest on record.

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Pakistan floods: July 22

Pakistan experienced its worst flooding in decades this July. About 10 percent of the country’s population was left in dire need of food, shelter, and clothing. Yet international aid and sympathy was slow in coming, especially when compared with the outpouring accompanying January’s earthquake in Haiti. “Why has the most devastating natural disaster in recent memory generated such a tepid response from the international community?” Mosharraf Zaidi, a former adviser on international aid to Pakistan for the United Nations and European Union, asked in Foreign Policy. “There is no shortage of theories. It’s donor fatigue. It’s Pakistan fatigue. It’s because the Pakistani government is corrupt and can’t be trusted. It’s because the victims are Muslim…. There’s a degree of truth to all these explanations. But the main reason that Pakistan isn’t receiving attention or aid proportionate to the devastation caused by these floods is because, well, it’s Pakistan.”

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China moves to # 2

On Aug. 16, China officially passed Japan and became the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the United States. It still lags way behind, however: China’s economy is valued at $1.33 trillion versus the United States’ at about $14 trillion. But some forecasters are predicting that China could surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy as soon as 2030, and Robert Fogel went even further in the pages of Foreign Policy, projecting that the Middle Kingdom will grow into a $123 trillion economic hegemon by 2040.

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Chilean miners rescued: Oct. 13

On August 5, the shaft of a gold and copper mine in Chile caved in, trapping 33 miners 2,300 feet underground. Their subterranean ordeal lasted for more than two months. On Oct. 13, their dramatic rescue was televised around the world — with each miner traveling inside a single-passenger, purpose-built capsule up a half-mile rescue shaft and emerging, wearing gifted Oakley shades, in the Chilean spotlight to rapturous applause. The miners have since become international celebrities, though several have also shown symptoms of depression.

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“Austerity”

“Austerity” was Merriam-Webster’s 2010 Word of the Year. Many European governments pledged this year to trim deficits and lower spending — steps seen as both necessary and painful. French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, one of Foreign Policy‘s 2010 Global Thinkers, withstood popular protests to champion ambitious plans to reduce welfare provisions, raise the retirement age to 62, increase taxes for the highest earners, and eliminate 100,000 civil-service jobs. “We are in the middle of the beginning of the end,” she said in July. “The crisis has really hit its peak.” But, perhaps more than any other leader, David Cameron embodied the spirit of slashing: In October, Britain’s new Conservative-led government announced the deepest government-spending cuts in decades, including significant reductions to the military budget which left the once-formidable British Navy without a single aircraft carrier.

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The triumph of the Tea Party: Nov. 2

The 2010 U.S. midterm elections proved that the loose anti-government coalition of disenchanted conservatives known as the Tea Party was a real political force — if a slightly schizophrenic one. Tea Party victories helped Republicans wrest control of the U.S. House of Representatives, although the movement’s impact was less clear in the U.S. Senate, where such Tea Party-backed candidates as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle failed to win seats. But with Rand Paul now in Washington there’s still bound to be some fireworks. The real question is what impact the Tea Party will have on the presidential election of 2012.

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Release of Aung San Suu Kyi: Nov. 13

On Nov. 13, Nobel laureate and Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, after having spent most of the past two decades in detention. Now, she says she plans to lead a nonviolent “revolution” to improve the lives of Burma’s 55 million mostly impoverished citizens. Yet her dramatic release, coming six days after a disputed election that reasserted the military junta’s grip on power in Burma, does not necessarily signal a larger shift toward democratic governance. However much her voice has inspired the world, her democracy movement at home seems to have been successfully stifled.

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Tensions rise on the Korean peninsula

After the North Korean sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26, it seemed that the cold war between Pyongyang and Seoul had turned hot once again. But though tensions calmed somewhat over the summer, the introduction of Kim Jong-Il’s heir to the regime, Kim Jong Un, had everyone holding their breath. Then, on Nov. 23,  North Korea commenced firing at the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians, bringing tensions on the peninsula to the boiling point. After South Korea announced that it would conduct live-fire drills in late December, the North pledged to retaliate with “brutal consequences beyond imagination,” but then, thankfully, did nothing. While the United States participated in joint naval exercises with South Korea on Nov. 28, China called for a continuation of the Six-Party Talks to shutter North’s nuclear program. One thing is clear: North Korea has the world, again, on edge.

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WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. State Dept cables: Nov 28

The self-described whistleblower site WikiLeaks first caught global attention in April when it released a video dubbed “Collateral Murder,” which appeared to show the U.S. military firing on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. In July, WikiLeaks released 92,000 internal U.S. government documents related to the war in Afghanistan. Beginning Nov. 28, the site began to release 250,000 U.S. State Department cables. Among the revelations: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s order to U.N. diplomats to collect personal information on foreign officials; Saudi Arabia’s lobbying for the United States to bomb Iran; and the Obama administration’s secret missile attacks in Yemen. History will judge whether Julian Assange was ultimately a hero or a villain, but for now he has many of the world’s diplomatic and media establishments paying attention.

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Ireland’s economic collapse

The swift decline of the Irish economy was as mythic as its rise. After nearly 15 years of swift economic growth, a period in which Ireland came to be known as the “Celtic Tiger,” the bubble burst in 2010. To contain Dublin’s debt crisis, the European Union offered a bailout package of 67.5 billion euros. Ireland’s leaders first claimed not to need the help, but in late November accepted the EU’s terms. Having patched up Ireland for the short term, European economists and bankers are now worrying about which country might be next — but with Ireland’s banks still ailing, the weakened Celtic Tiger might still need another bite out of the EU bailout fund.

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Middle East peace talks collapse

In 2010, Middle East peace talks hinged on U.S. efforts to persuade Israel’s government to renew its freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. On Dec. 7, the White House and U.S. State Department announced that their efforts had failed. Absent a pledge by Israel to maintain the building moratorium, the Palestinians refused to come to the negotiating table. The U.S. government has pledged to mediate indirect talks between Israel and Palestine, but the prospects for lasting peace in the Middle East seem to be receding. And though a peace process has been a goal of the Obama administration — and of Secretary Clinton, in particular — Washington’s leverage to bring the actors involved to the negotiating table seems to be weakening, fast.

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