10 Things World Leaders Are Thankful For

Why Angela Merkel is thinking of France, Khamenei is grateful for Lindsey Graham, and why China isn’t disappointed the United States is back in Iraq.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
Adam Berry/Getty Images

The United States isn’t the only country that devotes a holiday to giving thanks, yet it still feels like a quintessentially American celebration. It starts with a feel-good story about cooperation between the Pilgrims and the local tribes back in 1621, a tale more pleasant to contemplate than the subsequent treatment of the native population by their European conquerors. Most of the day focuses on eating too much — an art form America seems to have perfected. And what could be more American than a holiday whose date was chosen in part to extend the shopping season and boost the economy?

Yet Thanksgiving is also a special holiday because it invites us to acknowledge that our good fortune is not solely due to our own efforts. No matter how smart, hard-working, or inspired one might be, well-being also rests to some degree on help received from family and friends, on accidents of birth or opportunity, or just dumb luck. On Thanksgiving, we reflect on the blessings we enjoy whether we deserve them or not.

One Thanksgiving custom at our house is to ask each person to identify one thing for which she or he is particularly grateful. And that got me wondering: What might various world leaders say if they happened to be at our table? I don’t really know, of course, but that won’t stop me from hazarding a few guesses. In that spirit, here’s my "Top 10 Things Key World Figures Might Give Thanks for This Year."

No. 1: Xi Jinping 

I doubt he would say so openly, but China’s president is probably feeling thankful as he watches the United States get dragged back into the Middle East/Central Asian maelstrom. There’s no profit in it for the United States — just additional costs, risks, and unintended negative consequences. And the longer the United States tries to fix intractable problems in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc., the more resources and attention will be diverted from East Asia in general and China’s growing regional role. America’s rise to world power was facilitated by costly rivalries among the other major powers, and you can bet Xi will do his best to keep China out of the quagmires that Washington seems unable to avoid. I’ll bet he’s not sorry to see rising tensions between Washington and Moscow, either. Schadenfreude isn’t a noble sentiment, but how many of us can resist the temptation to take pleasure in a rival’s difficulties?

No. 2: Dilma Rousseff

Brazil’s stunning 7-to-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinal was a shocking jolt to Brazilian national pride, but President Rousseff is probably giving thanks that the tournament itself was such a rousing success. Cassandras had warned for months that the preparations were behind schedule and had predicted that the tournament would be a chaotic mess. Instead, soccer fans around the world got to watch a remarkably exciting event. And then Rousseff got re-elected. Now all she has to do is pull off the Olympics in 2016.

No. 3: François Hollande

Given his bottom-of-the-barrel approval ratings, Hollande probably took comfort knowing it was essentially impossible to impeach a French president. But then last week the French finalized a law making impeachment somewhat easier, if not quite easy enough to put Hollande’s position at serious risk. In any case, Hollande can still be thankful that he will earn a generous pension when his term is up, and that ex-presidents in France get a bunch of terrific perks no matter how they perform in office. The sorry state of the French economy doesn’t seem to have interfered with Hollande’s lively social life; given how well the rest of his presidency has gone, he should indeed be thankful for that.

No. 4: Angela Merkel

This one is simple: Chancellor Merkel should give thanks that she’s not the president of France.

No. 5: Vladimir Putin

Facing declining oil prices, economic sanctions, and unfavorable demographic trends, Vladimir Putin might find it hard to feel especially thankful about anything. But I’ll bet he’s grateful Russia still has a sizeable nuclear arsenal, a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and a potentially important role to play on Iran, Syria, and a few other issues. Putin might also give thanks that NATO’s European members have let their defense capabilities atrophy while taking on new defense obligations in the east, and he may even be grateful that Western mishandling of the Ukraine crisis gave him the opportunity to retake Crimea. Lastly, he is undoubtedly grateful that other powerful countries are also opposed to U.S. liberal hegemony, and will therefore do what they can to keep Washington from imposing its will on Moscow.

No. 6: Hillary Clinton

As she prepares to run for president in 2016 (and let’s not kid ourselves — of course she’s running), Hillary should be grateful U.S. President Barack Obama didn’t give her much running room when she was secretary of state. As I’ve noted before, she was a good team player during the first term, but the White House kept a close hold on the big diplomatic issues and didn’t give her much independent authority. Given how well most of those big U.S. initiatives turned out, she should be thankful she only has to answer questions about Benghazi, and doubly glad that a GOP-led investigation appears to have vindicated her.

No. 7: Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

The latest general to run Egypt is undoubtedly pleased the United States is still providing him with military aid and diplomatic support and turning a blind eye to his brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other elements of civil society. But if Sisi is giving thanks to anyone this year, it should be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which together pledged some $20 billion to prop up the struggling Egyptian economy. With friends like that, who needs democracy?

No. 8: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran’s supreme leader should be grateful to congressional hard-liners like Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and to the various right-wing organizations that are working hard to derail a possible nuclear deal. If the latest extension of the talks goes nowhere and congressional opposition gets the United States blamed for the failure, the existing sanctions regime will collapse, Iran’s nuclear program is likely to accelerate, and the opportunity to open Iran up to the outside world will be postponed yet again. That outcome might suit Khamenei just fine, because a genuine and far-reaching rapprochement with Iran is the greatest long-term threat the clerical regime faces. Treating Cuba like a pariah for 50 years hasn’t toppled the Castro brothers, and keeping Iran isolated and sanctioned hasn’t shaken the Islamic Republic much, either. But open Iran up to trade, investment, tourism, hip-hop, and consumer goods, and get lots of Iranian students streaming out to foreign universities and mingling with their student counterparts, and watch the mullahs tremble. Ironically, U.S. hard-liners are probably doing more to keep the mullahs in power than anyone else, and Khamenei should be deeply grateful to them for their shortsighted pandering.

No. 9: The U.S. Intelligence Community

Men like John Brennan, James Clapper, and many of their subordinates ought to be feeling especially thankful right about now, mostly because the Obama White House remains firmly committed to not holding them accountable for much of anything at all. Both Clapper and Brennan have been caught making false statements about NSA or CIA activities over the past year, yet both retain their jobs and the "full confidence" of Obama. But the citizens who pay their salaries and provide tens of billions of dollars to fund these organizations each year can’t even find out what they’ve been doing. If you’re a dedicated spook, that’s a lot to be grateful for this week.

No. 10: The Rest of Us

There’s been a full share of grim news since Thanksgiving 2013: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the grinding civil war in Syria, a return to recession in Japan and continued economic troubles in Europe, yet another pointless war in Gaza, senseless murders in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the emergence of the Islamic State, and geopolitical challenges in East Asia, Ukraine, Central Africa, and a number of other trouble spots.

Given all that, what is there to be thankful for? Well, I’d start with the disasters that could have happened but didn’t. Another year went by when WMD were not used, and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria doesn’t have them anymore. Iran and the P5+1 are still talking, which is usually preferable to fighting. The eurozone didn’t collapse, Scotland and Catalonia didn’t secede (yet), and a number of developing countries achieved impressive economic growth. There was no clash of arms in the East China or South China Seas, and President Xi of China and Prime Minister Abe of Japan even managed to exchange a perfunctory handshake at the APEC summit. Hackers continue to cause various sorts of mischief, but none of the doom-and-gloom scenarios invoked to justify expanded cybersecurity budgets occurred. Terrorism remained a serious problem in a number of poorly governed regions, but the overwhelming majority of the world’s population was untouched by violent extremism.

And there were some other hopeful signs, too. The United States and China inked a climate change agreement: It’s not much by itself, but China is openly acknowledging the need to adjust its own behavior and that’s a step in the right direction. The global response to Ebola was too slow, but we should still be grateful for men and women working to treat the victims in West Africa and to bring the epidemic to a close. Even non-Catholics and atheists should appreciate Pope Francis’s efforts to restore a degree of tolerance and humanity to Catholic doctrines. By historic standards, the overall level of violence in the world remains low, if still unacceptably high. And humanity continues to make new discoveries in science, continues to produce inspiring works of art, music, and literature, and men and women of all nations, faiths, and backgrounds continue to work for a more peaceful and harmonious world.

These events may seem like small shreds, but for me, they are sufficient grounds for giving thanks this week. And so I shall, and I hope you do too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.