Winners and losers of the decade: The global edition

So, here we are at last, the big ones, my choices for winners and losers of the decade on the global stage. While these selections are slightly less subjective than, say, the Golden Globe nominations (which are, I believe, selected by three drunken expat Latvian critics in a bar in West Hollywood), they do represent ...

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

So, here we are at last, the big ones, my choices for winners and losers of the decade on the global stage.

While these selections are slightly less subjective than, say, the Golden Globe nominations (which are, I believe, selected by three drunken expat Latvian critics in a bar in West Hollywood), they do represent just the views of one man. If you agree with those views, please post your congratulations below ... or go ahead and add a few other names. If you disagree, just remember, there will be other lists -- only I decide whether to include you among the global losers of tomorrow (alongside, say, the Tiger Woods of 10 years from now when he is running Tiger's "Just Do It" Mini-Golf Course in Melanoma City, Florida) or the global winners of the future (alongside, say, President Timberlake in 2030 or so).

The Losers

So, here we are at last, the big ones, my choices for winners and losers of the decade on the global stage.

While these selections are slightly less subjective than, say, the Golden Globe nominations (which are, I believe, selected by three drunken expat Latvian critics in a bar in West Hollywood), they do represent just the views of one man. If you agree with those views, please post your congratulations below … or go ahead and add a few other names. If you disagree, just remember, there will be other lists — only I decide whether to include you among the global losers of tomorrow (alongside, say, the Tiger Woods of 10 years from now when he is running Tiger’s "Just Do It" Mini-Golf Course in Melanoma City, Florida) or the global winners of the future (alongside, say, President Timberlake in 2030 or so).

The Losers

The People of Iraq: George W. Bush was our Washington loser of the decade, but all he lost was his reputation such as it was. He’s still rich and will probably never pay for a round of golf again. But somewhere between 100,000 and 800,000 Iraqis are dead as a consequence of the war, the country is shattered, its government held together with chewing gum and bailing wire and the random killing continues. Oh, and there was absolutely no justification for going in and breaking up the place from the get-go. This isn’t a tragedy … it’s a crime, as I suspect international courts will conclude in the years to come.

The People of Afghanistan and Pakistan: These countries are no playgrounds, they are home to plenty of bad actors and, as Barack Obama has demonstrated, no U.S. president, regardless of party, could stay disengaged from the festering political sore on the planet that is AfPak. But while the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban is justified, the wars that continue to percolate here will kill countless thousands, impoverish hundreds of thousands more and at the same time, support for terrorists and other enemies of civilization will grow. That there are no good choices here is a cliché … that there are going to be no winners is a related tragic reality.

The British Government (Lifetime Achievement Award): Well, let’s book at the worst problems the world has faced during the past decade — Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine…what do these diverse countries have in common? They were all cooked up or stirred up by those fertile minds at the British Foreign Office and their colleagues elsewhere up and down Whitehall, either as they were dismantling their empire or fiddling with the region after one war or another. Thanks guys for your creativity…and for the foresight you showed by actually bequeathing your handwork to yet another remnant of your empire as you shuffled off the world stage so you could focus on counterbalancing your past contributions to global culture by producing Simon Cowell and the likes of Susan Boyle.

The U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Dollar, and American Capitalism: It was a tough decade for the pillars of U.S. society. We should have seen it coming when the decade began with the Supreme Court fiddling with an election and when a central theme of the Bush years became undercutting the Constitution. Thanks to the U.S. government’s similar callous disregard for the laws of economics and fiscal responsibility the dollar began a downward spiral that many experts see as a semi-permanent feature of our future.

Democracy: Oh, yes, we know that Churchill called it the "worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried"… but as my grandma would have said, "there’s democracy and then there’s democracy." In other words, some forms of democracy are worse than others, and among those that that have flourished during the past decade are Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Zimbabwe, and, yes folks, Honduras — where leaders took advantage of the common misperception that voting equals democracy.  

Ice and Water: It wasn’t a good decade if you were a polar ice cap or a glacier in the Himalayas or the Andes. While the world debated global warming and what kind of fixes were "politically viable," recent studies have shown that polar ice caps are shrinking at an alarming rate and that the water on which perhaps 3 billion people depend is at risk if that pace continues in the arctic and in glaciers at higher elevations. According to one such study released this week in Copenhagen current proposals for ameliorating global warming would still lead to an over 3 degree increase in global temperatures in the century ahead … which in turn could dislocate over 700 million people. With deadlines looming the past decade may be remembered more for what we did not do than what we did.

The EU: Is the world’s biggest, most complex serious experiment in real supranational governance stronger or weaker at decades end? I have only three words for you: Herman Van Rumpuy.

Tony Blair: Has anyone’s status plummeted more internationally than Tony Blair’s? Blair was the one man in the world who, had he denied support to Bush’s Iraq initiative, could have stopped or seriously impeded it by denying the U.S. president any semblance of international legitimacy. Instead, by going along with Bush, Blair became "The Enabler of the Decade."

Robert Mugabe: Disgusting, corrupt, shameless. A strong contender for worst leader of the decade and a pretty good shot at making the Dictator’s Hall of Fame. Among the decade’s other political brutes who are likely to be first ballot contenders for the Hall either because of how repressive they are or because of dangers their policies may have caused: Kim Jong-Il and Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir.

Silvio Berlusconi: Disgusting, corrupt, shameless … but also oddly comical. Certainly a heck of a lot funnier than Mugabe. (Which is a little like saying a comedian is funnier than Dane Cook.) As the decade closes with him nursing a busted schnoz, Berlusconi can look back on a decade of political highs and lows and personal ups and downs that have left his wife furious, his country embarrassed, and the fathers of teen-aged girls disinclined to invite the prime minister over for espresso.

Travelers: Some of the indignities are courtesy of terrorists. The 9/11 attacks produced tightened security worldwide in airports, long lines and myriad indignities. We can thank Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, for having to endure those lines barefoot. We can thank the airlines for a business model so divorced from reality that they had to take away our food, our blankets and any hint of comfort in the sky. We can thank the unions for leaving us with flight attendants who are universally cranky and who consider service to be beneath them. We can thank a focus on economics above all else for the Airbus 380 and the notion that squeezing a small village into and out of a small metal tube would produce a service worth paying for. And as noted in this space long ago, we can thank airport managements for making it actually worse to be on the ground than to be starving, freezing, and enduring nasty stares from the stewardi while waiting 11 hours on the tarmac without a bathroom break. It’s the 21st Century folks, why is traveling actually getting worse and worse?

The Winners

The BRICs: These four very different countries take the grand prize.  As 2000 dawned, Russia was getting back on its feet from an economic crisis and the memory of its lost super-power status was fresh.  China was big and growing but many thought it’s days of influence many years in the future.  India was also big and growing but their influence would certainly lag that of China, thought the pundits. Brazil’s big triumph was stabilizing its economy…real global influence seemed unthinkable. Today, these four countries are the x-factor that has changed global diplomacy. They are not a true bloc. They have many divergent views. But they have combined good internal growth stories with deft political maneuvering (and regular meetings among heads of state, ministers and even Washington ambassadors) into a central role in most of the big issues the world faces. 

China is the biggest of these big winners with the G2 a reality whether they want to accept it or not. For this, the individual big winner award goes to Zhu Rongji who stood out among the Chinese leaders who set the country on its current economic course — in his roles as Central Bank Governor, Vice Premier and during the first years of this decade as premier.  He is joined among the BRIC individual winners by the other individuals who were key to the current standing of their governments: Manmohan Singh, another former Central Bank governor who is now India’s internationally respected Prime Minister, Brazil’s President Lula, the elementary school drop-out and labor leader who didn’t mess with success on the economic side but gave Brazil its first major leader on the world stage and Dmitri Medvedev, current president of Russia. Why Medvedev? Simple: Putin is too odious and Medvedev may end up achieving the unthinkable, going from being the nobody Putin pick to keep his chair in the Kremlin warm to becoming a voice for reform (ok, at least a degree of change) that was so much more appealing than Putin at home and abroad that he actually nudges the shirtless cowboy out of office.

Culture played a role in the rise of this group too, with headline stories ranging from China’s Olympics to Yao Ming in the NBA, from Giselle marrying Tom to Rio getting its own Olympics, from Slumdog Millionaire to Padma Lakshmi (oh, ok, well how about the fact that half the great new English-language authors being published today are Indian), from  …well, ok, what are the Russian contributions to world culture in the past decade? Alexander Ovechkin? Beluga Vodka? Oh … no … I remember now: Tatu

Osama bin Laden: Tell me that you thought he’d still be at large at the end of the decade. Tell me you don’t think that his entire plan was to attack and then go to ground in the mountains as the United States invaded the region, alienating locals and serving his cause. Oh, sure, he may be dead now, but you have to acknowledge, he loomed large over the decade both as a symbol of ultimate evil and, for the most powerful military in the world, as an unattainable target. Certainly, more people have died in the real and alleged pursuit of this man than as a consequence of his crimes. That’s a loss for the world. But for him … every day the cave doesn’t crumble onto his head is (was?) a good one.

The Greens: At the dawn of the century being green was for Europeans, amphibians and plant life. By the end of the century, it was not only mainstream but it was seen as everything from the antidote to global warming to the solution to dependence on those bad guys in the Middle East to the source of the next great business and tech revolutions. Admittedly, a few challenges remain. The world hasn’t actually agreed on what to do about global warming and big differences remain between the two players who will do the most to shape that plan, the United States and China. But China, once seen as reluctant on this subject, has placed an almost $500 billion bet on green tech and the United States, which spent most of the decade disengaged, now wants to be part of the solution. (The "let the polar bears drown" segment of the Republican Party notwithstanding.)

The Superclass: They made it onto my 2009 list and they make it on to the list for the decade. Need to understand? How about the chief executives of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citibank not being able to fit the President of the United States (yes, the country that bailed their asses out of a crisis they made) into their busy schedules this week. They said weather was a problem. Not for the people who showed up it wasn’t.  And couldn’t they have taken the train or driven? These guys are so firmly in the driver’s seat they are not even making a pretense of feeling obligated to the tax payers who they used and abused like Tiger working his way through a cocktail waitresses convention. Enough with the understanding.  Time to get out the pitchforks. But remember this: we are the people, we have right on our side…and we will lose.

The Next Marx: He’s out there somewhere. I’ve written about him before. But it’s worth considering what a good decade he had. Elites abused the world. American capitalism faltered. The fastest growing economies in the world for the foreseeable future will be in countries where the government plays a much bigger role in shaping the economy than it does in the United States. A new balance between public and private forces is going to be identified as ideal and with any luck at all new metrics for the success or failure of societies other than GDP and stock market indices may be embraced.  In short, the marketplace of ideas may have a surprise or two in store for the economic marketplaces of the world in the decades ahead.

Hugo Chavez: As bin Laden demonstrates, you don’t have to be a good guy to be a net winner over the course of the decade. Chavez has proven to be considerably more resilient than Rasputin standing up not only to his opponents but thus far surviving his own myriad, serial failures and misdeeds as president of Venezuela. It was in 1999 that he took office and by year’s end he had altered the Venezuelan constitution to give him a longer term in office. He survived a coup attempt in 2002, a recall movement in 2004 and won re-election in 2006 with 63 percent of a "certified" vote. He failed to amend the constitution again in 07 but in 09 won a referendum to eliminate term limits. Meanwhile, supporters popped (and were propped up) around the hemisphere from Bolivia to Ecuador to Nicaragua and Honduras. In fact a general leftward drift in Latin America made it ever harder for Chavez’s critics to isolate him…and that remains the case today despite his squandering the national petroleum patrimony, his dirty tactics against his opponents and his often comical bluster. As the new decade dawns, even with new turmoil at home, the record of the past decade suggests we may be saying Hola Presidente (the name of his weekly television self-love fest) for quite some time to come.

Google: Google was founded in 1998.  Today, it is the most visited site on the Internet, has been identified as the most powerful brand in the world, is by far the world’s most dominant web-search tool, generates over $10 billion a year in advertising revenue, and has fundamentally and irreversibly redefined the way people access information.  It is the world’s window onto the web and by extension to the world itself.  Looking for a label for the past decade that does not involve terror, failed U.S. foreign policies, Wall Street excesses or the rise of emerging markets. .. but somehow refers to the reweaving of the world’s fabric that connects all these things? Call it the Google Decade.

Barack Obama: He was our big Washington winner, he has to be on the global list of winners for the decade.  Anyone who can go from obscurity in the Illinois legislature to being the most powerful man in the world, the sole superpower’s first African-American president, and a symbol of hope to the world has got to be considered a big winner … even though right now his reputation is more about promise than performance. 

J.K. Rowling: Yes, the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997.  But the last four were published in this decade. And imagine how we would view Rowling’s accomplishment if any of them had petered out or failed to live up to the expectations that made her the decade’s best-selling author? The first movie came out in 2001. The brand is now estimated at a value of in excess of $15 billion and Rowling is now worth, it is estimated in excess of $800 million. 400 million books have been sold in 65 languages. The movies have been so successful that they have made Emma Watson the top grossing actress of the decade with over $5 billion in box office receipts. (Five of the top 12 grossing movies of the decade were Harry Potter movies.)

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.