My Greatest Hits (and Misses) of 2014

What I got right, what I got wrong, and that time everyone got mad at me for tweeting about Ukraine.

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

As 2014 comes to an end — and not a moment too soon, as far as I’m concerned — I decided to glance in the rear-view mirror and re-read all the FP columns I posted over the past 12 months. By my count, I published 49 columns last year, on topics ranging from the Iran talks, the all-too predictable world-view of D.C. think tanks, the (misguided?) war on the Islamic State (IS), the Ukraine crisis, the “chickenshit” flap, Europe’s (nonexistent) role in the “rebalance” to Asia, and a host of others. Here’s my personal list of favorites (in no particular order), followed by a mea culpa for some big things I missed.

No. 1: How to Get a B.A. in IR in Five Minutes

Inspired by Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Sarducci, this tongue-in-cheek column described the five things any IR major will remember five years after they graduate. Quick review: 1) anarchy, 2) balance of power, 3) comparative advantage, 4) misperception, and 5) social construction.

Readers seemed to enjoy the piece, even if they had just spent thousands of dollars to get an IR degree. I just hope nobody plagiarized it for their final exam.

No. 2: It’s Not the Guns of August; It’s the Trenches of October

Probably because humans have ten fingers, one hundred year anniversaries always get a lot of attention. And so it was in 2014, when just about everybody tried to say something profound about the outbreak of The Great War. This column suggested that our preoccupation with the origins of World War I has led us to neglect an equally important question: why did the war last so long? If it had ended sooner, we might not consider it a major war at all, and almost every participant would have been far better off. The real lesson of World War I, therefore, is that once great powers commit to battle, they find it very hard to get out. Unfortunately, that also seems to be a lesson that is very easy to forget.

No. 3: Top 10 Mistakes in the Afghan War

While we are on the subject of wars that lasted too long, this column tried to explain why America’s vaunted military and intelligence establishment managed to lose not one but two major wars since 2001. It was not due a lack of martial valor, or because U.S. leaders cut and ran at the first sign of trouble. Instead, I argued that the war effort was rife with contradictions, and undermined by unrealistic goals, unreliable partners, the diversion into Iraq, and a number of other mistakes. Some of the reasons I gave may not have been as important as I believed then, and other causes of the defeat may loom larger in our estimation once historians have done more work. But I’m glad I wrote this column, because failure to draw the right lessons from this defeat makes future errors much more likely.

No. 4: Condemned to Repeat It

Speaking of history, this column made a plea for greater historical understanding, and called for giving it a more prominent place in the training of future foreign-policymakers. We teach a lot of useful analytic skills in law schools and in schools of public policy, but with a few exceptions, we don’t teach much history and we don’t train people how to think about history intelligently. Yet it is precisely this sort of knowledge that might have helped some recent leaders anticipate the trouble that they were marching into with their eyes wide-open but their minds disengaged.

No. 5: How to Justify Any Policy, No Matter How Bad It Might Be

Politicians have labored to justify their actions ever since … well, forever, but the role of professional spinmeisters, apologists, and media fixers has never been greater. I fear this column is as apt today as when I originally wrote it, as we watch the people who invaded Iraq, “tortured some folks,” conducting illegal spying and lied about it, etc., retain positions of influence and power despite track records that make Rex Ryan’s tenure as coach of the New York Jets look like a towering success. Which reminds us why countries like being really, really powerful: It lets them do lots of dumb things, while others bear most of the cost.

No. 6: Accentuate the Positive!

Both advocates and critics of the effort to negotiate a cap on Iran’s nuclear program have focused almost entirely on possible negative outcomes. Hawks warn about the dire effects of an Iranian breakout and doves worrying that a failed negotiation would be a prelude to war. This column suggested we also look at the possible long-term benefits of a deal, including economic gains, improved U.S. leverage in the region, and enhanced cooperation against common enemies (such as the Taliban). If anything, the emergence of IS (Daesh) has strengthened the case I made back then, which is why I’m still hoping the two sides will reach a deal. But Iranian hard-liners and congressional Republicans will find clever ways to snatch a diplomatic defeat from the jaws of victory. Stay tuned.

No. 7: “Being a Neocon Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry”

I’ve written a lot of critical things about neoconservatives over the years, but given the damage that their policies inflicted on the United States and several other countries, any criticism to date is still less than they deserve. Yet the puzzle persists: How can pundits who’ve been so wrong for so long still retain influence? The answer, I suggested, was a combination of 1) shamelessness, 2) financial support, 3) a receptive media, and 4) support from liberal allies.

No. 8: Do No (More) Harm

My frustrations with our recurring failures in the Middle East produced this cri de coeur, which was probably overstated but whose basic thrust I will still endorse. The basic argument was three-fold. First, the United States no longer had any attractive alliance partners in the Middle East. Second, the main goal of U.S. strategy is to prevent any single power from dominating the region, and given present divisions there, that danger was farther away than ever before. Third, U.S. involvement over the past two decades has tended to make things worse instead of better. The obvious conclusion? The United States should sharply downgrade its involvement in all aspects of Middle East politics, and let the locals fend for themselves.

No. 9: Democracy, Freedom and Apple Pie Aren’t a Foreign Policy

The liberal approach to foreign policy is better at identifying desirable end-states (i.e., democracy, rule of law, economic openness, protection of basic rights, etc.) than it is at specifying effective and morally defensible policies that will produce these intended results. This gap between liberalism’s desirable ends and its dubious means helps us understand why well-intentioned liberal projects often end up costing far more and achieving far less than their proponents promise (see under: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Hungary, Ukraine, etc.). It would be nice if the world were as malleable as liberal do-gooders seem to believe, but the evidence points strongly the other way. But if that’s the case, how can we convince U.S. leaders to adopt more realistic (and therefore achievable) goals?

No. 10: Top Five Foreign-Policy Lessons From the Past 20 Years  

A recurring theme in this column has been the need for accountability and the importance of learning from past experience. (For an earlier discussion of this topic, see here). This column tried to distill the biggest lessons I’ve learned about world politics since the Cold War ended. In shorthand form, they are: 1) power politics still matters, 2) local identities remain profoundly important, 3) the only thing worse than a bad state is no state, 4) “take it or leave it” is bad diplomacy, and 5) beware hubris. This brief list hardly exhausts the possibilities, of course, and I encouraged readers to work on similar lists of their own.

What did I get wrong? I didn’t miss the boat quite as badly this year as I did following the Tunisian Revolution (see here and then here), and my biggest gaffe this past year wasn’t a column but rather an ill-advised tweet.

Nonetheless, with hindsight I underestimated the costs that the Ukraine crisis would have on Russia, in part because I didn’t anticipate the dramatic fall in oil prices. In my defense, I did caution that high costs alone would not induce Putin and his supporters to surrender their interests there. My gloomy predictions about the war against IS may have been overstated: the campaign seems to be going better than I expected and certain local actors have performed better than I thought they would. But the jury is still out, and our prior experience in Iraq warns against declaring victory too soon. Still, I’ll be delighted if my pessimism is ultimately proved wrong.

Of course, a number of other developments caught me napping or kept me puzzled. I didn’t see the Ukraine crisis coming, don’t fully understand why John Brennan has his job, had nothing insightful to say about the Ebola epidemic, climate change, or the continuing negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Gazing back further, I overestimated Chuck Hagel’s potential as secretary of defense and I underestimated the eurozone’s ability to hold itself together. As always, writing a weekly column is first and foremost a humbling experience.

And as I re-read last year’s columns, it’s clear that I simply couldn’t make up my mind about U.S. President Barack Obama and his handling of foreign policy. At times I felt he and his team were in over their heads, and at other times I was impressed by his realistic forbearance in the face of recalcitrant allies, disloyal associates, hostile adversaries, and a foreign-policy establishment that seems congenitally predisposed to drag the country into all sorts of unpromising adventures. I’ve bemoaned his reluctance to rein in our intelligence community, but welcomed his opening to Cuba and his refusal to be buffaloed into a foolish war with Iran or an open-ended intervention in Syria.

And lastly, there were some great pieces in the past year that I wish I had written. A partial list:

1) Michael Glennon’s brilliant National Security and Double Government

2) James Fallows’s newly published Atlantic article on “The Tragedy of the American Military”

3) Peter Schuck’s sobering book Why Government Fails So Often

4) Nathan Thrall’s “Faith-Based Diplomacy,” a deeply insightful analysis of America’s recurring inability to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace

5) James Meeks’s “Worse than a Defeat,” a stunning but depressing account of the British role in Afghanistan

6) Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy

These (and many other) pieces were both insightful and inspirational, and I’ll be pleased if I can produce something half as good in 2015.

Happy New Year!

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

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