2019: The Year Ahead

My Top 10 Foreign-Policy Wish List for 2019

Peace in Yemen, rapprochement with Russia, and other hopes and dreams for the year ahead.

Fireworks explode following an inauguration celebration for President-elect Donald Trump at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Fireworks explode following an inauguration celebration for President-elect Donald Trump at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

I’m sure that some of you out there had a perfectly fabulous 2018. Maybe you fell in love, got married, or welcomed the birth of your first child. Perhaps you scored a big promotion at work, finished your degree, or had the foresight to sell your stock portfolio back when the Dow peaked. Or maybe you’re one of those Americans who think President Donald Trump is really making America great again, and your biggest disappointment is that the rest of us don’t recognize his very stable genius.

2018 was a fine year for me personally—among other things, my latest book got published—but I’ll still be happy to leave it in the rearview mirror. It is hard to watch the deteriorating state of the world—and yes, Virginia, political conditions are getting worse—and not be worried about where the United States (and many other countries) are headed. Of late, my biggest concern is that the pace of change and the range of new challenges is overwhelming our capacity to respond to them, a prospect that Thomas Homer-Dixon warned about nearly 20 years ago (and that I viewed with some skepticism at the time). The combination of environmental degradation, shifts in the global balance of power, revolutionary technological developments, and deteriorating political competence heralds a bleak future, and in an era when a handful of states still possess the capacity for immense destruction.

But instead of going all doom and gloom as a new year approaches, I decided to look on the bright side. For all my concerns, what do I hope will happen in 2019? I’m not saying any of these things will happen, mind you, but none of them are completely implausible. So without further ado, here are my “Top 10 Hopes and Dreams for 2019.”

1. Ending the Yemen War. The war in Yemen is a humanitarian nightmare and a strategic disaster, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. It is the bleak result of policy failures going back several decades, and we Americans should be deeply ashamed by the role we’ve played both in backing Saudi Arabia’s pointless assault and in our own inept interference in earlier years. All wars create human suffering, but rarely have so many innocent people suffered for so long and for so little purpose. There are some faint glimmers of hope now, perhaps, but it will still take sustained international pressure to restore peace there. Too bad Trump’s son-in-law and Israel-Palestine peace point person, Jared Kushner, isn’t available to fix this for us.

2. Resolving the Brexit Debacle. Let me be clear: I think Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was a blunder of vast proportions, sold to a gullible public by ambitious and unscrupulous politicos thinking only of their political fortunes. It is Exhibit A for why government-by-referendum is a bad idea. Moreover, the behavior of Britain’s leaders since 2016 has been one “own goal” after another, perhaps best satirized by the Times columnist Hugo Rifkind’s viral tweets comparing Brexit to trying to build a submarine out of cheese. Brexit Day (March 29, 2019) is fast approaching, and even now no one knows what the outcome will be or how it will affect the country. I hope the worst-case scenarios are averted, but equally important, I hope the whole sorry business gets settled one way or the other.

3. Renewing Democratic Institutions. One of the ironies of contemporary political life is the obsession with “leadership,” in an era when effective leaders are about as plentiful as the ivory-billed woodpecker. We tell students we will teach them to be effective leaders, first-image theories about leadership qualities have returned to fashion, and authoritarian “strongmen” are commanding support in a wide array of countries.

Yet everywhere one looks, we see leaders who turn out to be comically incompetent. Looking around, one cannot fail to be underwhelmed by the likes of Paul Ryan, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Betsy DeVos, etc. I recognize that governing complicated societies is not easy, but the number of prominent leaders whose main skill seems to be shooting themselves in the foot is striking. One need not be nostalgic for earlier eras to realize that the quality of political leadership in contemporary democracies appears to be in irreversible decline.

And their authoritarian counterparts are scarcely better: Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone from “zero problems with neighbors” to problems with almost all of them, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary managed to drive one of Europe’s best universities out of his own country. Such leaders (to include China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) have been adept at consolidating and retaining power, but each has suffered humbling setbacks in the past year. If you thought enhanced executive authority was the recipe for success, think again.

What this tells me is we need to focus less attention on individuals and personalities (admittedly, a hard thing to do in the era of Twitter-based politics), and more on building robust and effective political institutions, starting with democratic institutions here in the United States. Robust norms and rules help safeguard us from the foibles and follies of unscrupulous or error-prone individuals, which is precisely why ambitious would-be potentates work so hard to weaken them. I hope 2019 sees a renewed commitment to the rule of law, greater protections for journalists and other truth-tellers, and greater respect for the “soft guardrails” of democracy.

And you know what would really help? Electing more women.

4. Progress on Climate Change. One of the things that depressed me most during 2018 was the growing evidence that man-made climate change was accelerating, even as the Trump administration pursued policies that were going to make the problem worse. Yet here too, there are some modest signs of progress, as in the successful (if still insufficient) agreements recently reached in Katowice, Poland. Here’s hoping that these positive steps continue next year, and that the United States gets off the sidelines and back in the game.

5. The Mueller Report. I disagree with those who have repeatedly called for special prosecutor Robert Mueller to wrap up his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election (and possible collusion by the Trump campaign), because accuracy in such matters is far more important than speed. Nonetheless, I hope that Mueller and his assistants complete their work next year, no matter what they end up concluding. Ditto for the investigation underway by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (who happens to be a Trump appointee, by the way), into possible criminal activities by the Trump Organization. The American people need to know where they stand, and waiting for the next shoe to drop is not healthy for U.S. democracy.

6. A More Tranquil White House. My next wish might seem fanciful, especially in light of No. 5, but the unprecedented level of turmoil in the White House staff cannot be healthy for the country. Trump told gullible voters he would hire only the “best people”; instead, he seems to have a tin ear for talent and burns through aides faster than Lady Gaga changes outfits. Given his tendency to blame anyone but himself for screw-ups (of which there have been many), and his well-documented status as “the worst boss in Washington,” it is probably too much to hope that his next round of appointees will demonstrate more staying power than the previous set. But I can dream, can’t I?

7. Peace in Syria. As with Yemen, the carnage of the Syrian civil war is a tragedy with no real winners. Assad has survived, but the country he governs has been ruined. Russia and Iran succeeded in propping him up, but the strategic benefits are minimal, and they are forever linked to a regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Neither the United States, the EU, Turkey, or the Gulf Arabs who interfered in the war covered themselves with glory either. Looking ahead, all we can wish for is an end to the carnage and the restoration of some degree of stability. Much as one hates to admit this, the best solution at this point is an agreement that consolidates Assad’s position, along with guarantees of protection for groups like the Syrian Kurds, and an end to foreign efforts to topple the regime. I’m not happy about this outcome, but any other course will simply prolong the war, cause more innocent deaths, and create renewed opportunities for ISIS or its ideological brethren.

8. Renewing American Diplomacy. As I’ve argued before, some of America’s greatest foreign-policy successes were diplomatic rather than military in nature (e.g., the Marshall Plan, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the reunification of Germany), yet genuine diplomacy was getting less attention than it deserved even before Trump showed up. His administration has been a disaster on that score: former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was well intentioned but ill-suited for the job, while his replacement, Mike Pompeo, has perfected an unappealing combination of bombast, dishonesty, and lack of accomplishment. As for the president himself, he seems to prefer meaningless “reality show” summitry to the hard bargaining that real diplomacy requires, and his national security advisor, John Bolton, sees most forms of diplomacy as some sort of ill-advised appeasement.

My hope for 2019? Against that backdrop, only the modest wish that Pompeo comes to understand that having competent and knowledgeable diplomats is a real asset, and that he begins a serious effort to rebuild our diplomatic capacity. The signs thus far—such as the pending nomination of former Fox News host Heather Nauert as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—are not encouraging, but I will keep my fingers crossed.

9. A Coherent Strategy. If you squint hard enough, you can see the outlines of a sensible grand strategy in some of what the Trump administration has done. Trump is not wrong to push Europe to take responsibility for its own defense, to end U.S. involvement in the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Syria, or to confront China over its regional ambitions and its dishonest trade practices.

The problem is that nobody in the administration has been able to articulate the strategic logic behind these sensible instincts, or to formulate a coherent and convincing approach to implementing them. If you wanted to confront China, for example, did it make sense to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership and to pick fights with valuable trading partners such as Mexico, Canada, South Korea, and the European Union?

My hope for 2019 is that someone in the administration will begin to explain exactly what they think they are trying to accomplish and show how different policy initiatives are supposed to reinforce each other and eventually leave the United States in a stronger position.

10. A Rapprochement with Russia.I’m no fan of Putin, and I’m grateful that I don’t live in Russia. Nothing personal, but I like living in a country where expressing contrarian views won’t get me into real trouble. Nonetheless, I believe doing more to work out America’s present differences with Russia could be good for just about everyone. It would be good for Europe if Russia’s role in Ukraine declined and if it stopped trying to intimidate the Baltic states, meddle in European politics, and assassinate people in some European countries. It would be good for Russia if U.S. and European sanctions were lifted and if Moscow no longer had to worry that NATO would keep expanding eastward. And it would be good for the United States if the growing alliance between Russia and China were weakened or even reversed.

Unfortunately, Trump is probably the last person who can pursue a genuine detente, because his own relations with Moscow and his own conduct in Putin’s company have raised doubts about his independence (and fueled all sorts of wild speculation). That’s another reason why I hope Mueller finishes up next year, and why I hope House Democrats don’t conduct an open-ended fishing expedition like House Republicans’ sham inquiry into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Even so, I hope 2019 sees a modest thaw in the present deep freeze. We might start by extending the existing New START agreement and making a good-faith effort to fix the rapidly fraying Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

As a good realist, I am not saying that any of these desirable developments will actually occur. But as Andy Dufresne writes his friend Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Remember, Red: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” If even a few of my hopes come to pass, it will be an improvement over 2018. And I hope each of you gets some of what you are wishing for too.

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

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