New Year’s Resolutions for World Leaders

What Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Hu Jintao should be promising to do in 2011 -- but probably won't.

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 22: President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on December 8, 2010 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day, the president signed into law a repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell provision and the Senate ratified the New Start nuclear arms treaty with Russia. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Barack Obama


Resolution: Make 2011 an opportunities year, not a crisis year

Why he should: Between the international economic crisis, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing bloodshed in the Middle East and a brewing currency war, the Obama administration’s foreign policy in its first term has largely been a series of responses to crises, either new or inherited. Even what should have been a relatively uncontroversial arms control treaty with Russia turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight with Senate Republicans.

In the coming year, major progress on these pressing issues is unlikely, so Obama should take the opportunity to focus on the positive in 2011. That means fence-mending visits to regions like Europe and Latin America, which have felt left out by the administration’s Middle East- and Asia-centric agenda. Obama should give human rights hawks within his administration, such as Samantha Power and Susan Rice, freer rein to call out abuses. He could also take advantage of one of the few perks of a Republican Congress and push to ratify trade agreements with close U.S. allies like Colombia and South Korea.

Why he won’t: The crises aren’t going anywhere. U.S. troops are still under fire in Afghanistan, and Obama is likely to come under criticism whether or not he honors next summer’s self-imposed deadline to begin withdrawing troops. And the longer Israel-Palestine goes without a settlement on final borders, the less likely a two-state solution becomes. Obama’s still going to be troubleshooting this year.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images


Resolution: Prove the haters wrong

Why he should: China, which had already badly handled a censorship showdown with Google earlier in the year, ended 2010 on a low note with its petty and brutal response to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. When even Premier Wen Jiabao is considered too controversial for public consumption, the Chinese government’s mistrust of its own people has clearly gotten out of hand.

The Communist Party has achieved a veritable economic miracle in recent decades, bring tens of millions of people out of poverty. There’s reason to think that China’s current rulers would still enjoy the support of their citizens if they were willing to open up. Why not make 2011 the year China proves it’s not afraid of criticism and loosen some of its onerous restrictions on freedom of expression?

Why he won’t: Because the current system is more or less working. As long as China’s economy continues to grow, the public stays quiescent, and other capitals continue to kowtow to Beijing’s wishes on questions like the Nobel Prize, there’s no incentive for Hu and the rest of China’s leadership to alter their behavior.



Resolution: Give Dmitry a chance

Why he should: It would be too much to expect Russia’s authoritarian prime minister to turn into a democrat over night, but at the very least, he could give the elected leader of the Russian people — President Dmitry Medvedev — a change to actually govern. There are signs that if given the opportunity, the technocratic Medvedev might try to institute some much-needed liberal reforms without shaking up the power elite in a way that threatens Putin’s position. During the last year before presidential election season kicks off, why not give Medvedev a chance to actually be president?

Why he won’t: Because it’s not part of the plan. It’s looking increasingly likely that Putin will attempt to reinstall himself as president in 2012; this year, we should expect to see more, not less activity from the prime minister’s office.



Resolution: Quit while you’re ahead

Why he should: Right now, the 74-year-old Berlusconi’s incredible political saga seems set to end in one of two ways. He continues to govern — fighting off legal challenges to his sovereign immunity and threats to his ruling majority — until he dies in office. Or he’s forced from office and put on trial for one of the many, many charges against him. If he’s smart, Berlusconi will work out a grand bargain with the opposition in which he agrees to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution and lives out the rest of his days in pleasant debauchery.

Why he won’t: He doesn’t trust the judges. The judiciary is the one branch of Italian government where Berlusconi doesn’t have any friends. The moment he becomes a common citizen again, he has to expect the judicial branch to come after him, deal or no deal. Plus, Berlusconi has never expressed any remorse for the transgressions of which he has been accused and seems to view the prime minister’s office as his birthright. He won’t give it up without a fight.



Resolution: Ease up

Why he should: Cameron was as good as his word this year, unveiling a deep set of cuts to government services, the civil service, and the defense budget, and increasing university tuition as part of an ambitious austerity program. But the fees increase, in particular, brought young Britons out onto the streets in scenes reminiscent the late 1960s. If the government goes through with further planned cuts, he risks fracturing his fragile coalition with the Liberal Democrats and even losing support from his own party.

It’s time for Cameron to prove that his “Big Society” vision is about more than just cutting services. Perhaps one place to start is immigration. As the case of Stockholm bomber Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly shows, Britain has an ongoing problem with the radicalization of Muslim immigrants. The Cameron government, not seen as touch-feely on immigration issues, could make the integration of Britain’s Muslim community a major priority.

Why he won’t: The Cameron government views deep cuts as an economic necessity, given the country’s still-high level of public debt, political consequences be damned. Plus, British votes overwhelmingly support further restrictions on immigration.



Resolution: Think big

Why he should: A politician of the Israeli prime minister’s stature and ego doesn’t want to be remembered as one of a series who held the line against a peace deal while the two-state solution died on the vine. Netanyahu needs to move beyond this year’s back-and-forth over a settlement freeze and push for a final resolution on borders before the Palestinian state simply declares its sovereignty unilaterally. This will involve standing up to both hard-liners in his own cabinet and the powerful settlers’ movement in the West Bank, but like his right-wing predecessor Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu may be uniquely qualified to explain the necessity of concessions to a skeptical Israeli public.

Why he won’t: Netanyahu still relies on the support of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party in his coalition, led by controversial figure Avigdor Lieberman. So far, there’s no sign that Bibi is willing to risk the fall of his government on the Palestinians’ behalf.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


Resolution: Be like Lula

Why he should: In the remaining hours of 2010, Chávez ought to look south, where Brazilian President Luiz Inacío Lula da Silva is stepping down with one of the highest popularity ratings on Earth. Chávez could have adopted Lula’s style of practical populism, combining generous social programs with support of trade and private industry and a foreign policy widely seen as independent, without falling back on kneejerk anti-Americanism.

Instead, Chávez has opted for old-fashioned Latin American leftism, which has left his country coping with economic distress and increasing international isolation. His once-unchallenged control on Venezuela’s legislature is now starting to slip. But it may not too late for the Bolivarian revolutionary to take a cue from his outgoing neighbor, ease up on private industry and political dissent, and let his country grow into the Latin American power it should be.

Why he won’t: Chances for political reform in Venezuela tend to rise and fall with oil prices, and those have been on an upswing lately. El presidente shows no signs of loosening up these days, having just pushed through new emergency decree powers for himself.



Resolution: Be the hard-liner’s reformer

Why he should: It would be the ultimate irony if the man seen as the face of Iran’s hard-line Islamic regime became the agent of its undoing, but there have been signs lately of the president splitting from Iran’s clerical establishment. Ahmadinejad has been blasted by conservatives recently for criticizing Parliament and promoting an “Iranian” rather than “Islamic” school of thought. He has also accused other members of the government of “running to Qum [Iran’s religious capital] for every instruction.” The tensions came to a head over his recent firing of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was widely supported in Parliament. Could Ahmadinejad build his conservative nationalist supporters into a movement capable of challenging Iran’s dominant theocracy?

Why he won’t: Despite growing fault lines between Ahmadinejad and the hard-line clerics and their allies in the legislature, he owes them for supporting him during last year’s election crisis and is unlikely to ever step too far out of bounds. Plus, there’s the supreme leader to worry about, and he still calls the shots.



Resolution: Don’t start a war

Why he should: In the past, Kim has always been able to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula right to the breaking point, offering last-minute concessions and returning to the negotiating table to keep sanctions light and foreign aid flowing. But he may have gone too far this time. After this year’s sinking of the Cheonan warship and the shelling near Yeonpyeong Island, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is under heavy pressure to retaliate against future attacks. North Korea wisely backed off its threats near the end of December, but any future military action could mean war. If nothing else, Kim should ratchet down the rhetoric out of his own family’s self-interest.

Why he won’t: It’s succession time. Chosen successor Kim Jong-Un is relatively unknown, and is closely identified with a disastrous currency devaluation scheme last year. The need to obtain military “victories” for the future leader may lead North Korea toward further provocations.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.