Stephen M. Walt

Top 10 Things I’m Thankful for This Year

People like me really shouldn’t complain about anything, at least not at the personal level. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky from birth, and most misfortunes I’ve experienced have been self-inflicted. That’s one of the reasons Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday; though I’m not religious, I like the idea of a day set aside to be thankful ...

Photo: Andrew Kelly/Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Kelly/Getty Images

People like me really shouldn’t complain about anything, at least not at the personal level. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky from birth, and most misfortunes I’ve experienced have been self-inflicted. That’s one of the reasons Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday; though I’m not religious, I like the idea of a day set aside to be thankful for one’s blessings and grateful for friends, family, and random acts of good fortune. As in past years, today I offer up this year’s Top 10 Things I Am Thankful for This Year (Foreign Policy division).

1. The Iranian nuclear deal. Everyone should be thankful for this because the alternative is an unconstrained Iranian program or another unnecessary Middle Eastern war. The P5+1 countries have a long way to go to reach the finish line, but the interim agreement was a victory for sensible people and a defeat for threat-mongering hawks. One must always be grateful for that.

2. Vladimir Putin. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad he’s not running my country, and I usually find his behavior and decisions rather thuggish and heavy-handed. (Remember the Pussy Riot affair?) And were I Ukrainian, I’m certain that gratitude wouldn’t be the emotion I’d be feeling toward Moscow right now. But let’s give credit where it’s due: We should be thankful that President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threw Barack Obama’s floundering administration a lifeline on Syria.

3. International institutions. You might be surprised to see a realist like me express gratitude for this, but the cold, hard fact is that we wouldn’t have been able to start disarming Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile if a set of institutions (including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ) wasn’t already in existence and ready to go to work. Yes, I still think all the attention focused of chemical weapons was misplaced — far more people were killed by conventional weapons — but it’s not like I’m sorry that Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal is being eliminated. And maybe, just maybe, the chemical deal will ease the way for some diplomacy that can end Syria’s brutal civil war.

4. Edward Snowden. My conservative father will be upset with me for this one, but I am still grateful to know what the National Security Agency was doing with my tax dollars. Clandestine organizations of all types tend to spin out of control until they are caught, and with luck the experience of getting caught will induce a certain sobriety, just as the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s taught the CIA that its follies could be exposed. None of this would have happened without Snowden, and I think the revelation is worth the embarrassment it has caused and the tensions with some allies of the United States. (My gratitude here also extends to the people who made this possible: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and the Guardian).

5. AIPAC, CUFI, ZOA, the ADL, WINEP, and the rest of the Israel lobby. Of course I’m not grateful that these groups continue to have disproportionate influence on America’s Middle East policy, but it is hard not to be appreciative that 1) their activities are increasingly overt and understood, 2) they failed on Syria and are failing thus far on Iran, and 3) their activities and influence on other issues continue to prove my co-author and me right.

6. Mario Draghi. I still don’t know whether the euro will survive — and neither do you — and it is hard to be optimistic that Europe will return to robust economic health anytime soon. But absent Draghi’s calm but herculean efforts, Europe would almost certainly be in worse shape today. A nod of thanksgiving thanks across the ocean is deserved.

7. Technology. Each year I feel like I am clinging to the technological frontier with my fingernails, and if I’m honest I’ll admit that I’m actually just falling further behind. But what technology now makes possible is still remarkable: Our ability to do our work, maintain friendships, learn at a distance, share music and literature, and do a thousand other activities is being transformed on a daily basis. This process is not without its obvious downsides, and the digital divide is just another manifestation of pervasive inequality. But increasing mastery of science and technology is both a source of great human empowerment and pleasure; it is also the best hope we have of surmounting the challenges that are rushing at us in the decades ahead.

8. Dissidents. Foreign-policy makers are a pretty conservative lot, especially in the developed world. It’s comfortable staying within the consensus, and that’s certainly better for most wonkish careers. But I am grateful for the boat-rockers, muckrakers, edgy provocateurs, and all the other people in the United States and abroad who see things differently and aren’t afraid to take on entrenched authority and stale dogmas. Whether it is a Saudi woman behind the wheel, a dissident artist in China, an "activist journalist" in the West, or that rare politician who says what he or she thinks as opposed to what donors or focus groups mandate, the people outside the mainstream are a critical engine of human progress.

9. Humility. A lot of grandiose ambitions have been brought to Earth over the past decade. The United States didn’t transform the Middle East at the point of a gun. The euro now looks like one of the great missteps of the past 50 years. Turkey’s "zero problems" diplomacy didn’t make it the linchpin of a new regional order. India’s rise to great-power status has stalled, and China’s emergence as a peer competitor is facing strong headwinds too. The dreams of the Arab Spring have withered in the face of an authoritarian backlash. Because ambitious idealism tends to get a lot of people killed, I’m thankful that some of these unrealistic visions have been discredited, and I hope world leaders will focus their attention on what is necessary and possible, instead of on overambitious fantasies. Surtout, pas trop de zele.

10. Readers. If a blogger posts on the web and no one logs on, does it make any noise? Of course not. As in previously years, my thanks to all of you who take the time to read this site and to all who tweet, kibitz, or otherwise engage with me and my colleagues at FP and beyond. I hope your past year has given you plenty to be thankful for too and that the next year brings you even more. Happy Thanksgiving!

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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