The Year in Review

The Best Deep Dives of 2020

Essential reads from a Chinese wind farm in Del Rio, Texas, to U.N. headquarters.

By Audrey Wilson, an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Wind turbines tower over a building on a farm in Colorado City, Texas, on Jan. 21, 2016.
Wind turbines tower over a building on a farm in Colorado City, Texas, on Jan. 21, 2016. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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In a year when the world briefly stood still, good storytelling and unvarnished analysis seemed as vital as ever. In 2020, Foreign Policy published a variety of long-form reporting and argument from around the world. From a Chinese wind farm in Del Rio, Texas, to U.N. headquarters in New York, here are a few of the deep dives that shed light on a world shifting under the weight of an unprecedented pandemic—and what comes next.

1. Deep in the Heart of Texas, a Chinese Wind Farm Raises Eyebrows

 by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, June 25

With the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s repressive national security law in Hong Kong, and intensifying technology rivalry, 2020 was the biggest year for U.S.-China relations in decades. In June, FP’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer reported that U.S. competition with China had arrived in an unlikely place: Del Rio, Texas. Chinese companies have jumped into the Texas energy market in recent years, and a wind farm project near the U.S. Air Force’s largest training base has raised concerns over potential espionage and economic warfare among local officials and members of Congress.

“Lawmakers who might normally welcome foreign investment with open arms are also looking askance at the project,” Detsch and Gramer wrote. The Trump administration’s decision not to block the Chinese project on national security grounds has set a precedent for further wind and solar development around the base and elsewhere in Texas.

Foreign Policy illustration/1897 map of the British empire/Getty Images

2. Why Race Matters in International Relations

by Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken, June 19

In June, mass protests over police brutality that began in Minneapolis spread across the United States and then to cities around the world. The movement triggered a cultural reckoning over race and injustice, including within the field of international relations (IR). In Foreign Policy, Kelebogile Zvobgo and Meredith Loken argued that race is a “central organizing feature of world politics” but that mainstream IR scholarship does not take race or racism seriously, diminishing the field’s integrity.

“Race and the racism of historical statecraft are inextricable from the modern study and practice of international relations,” Zvobgo and Loken wrote. “They are also not artefacts: Race continues to shape international and domestic threat perceptions and consequent foreign policy; international responses to immigrants and refugees; and access to health and environmental stability.” Zvobgo and Loken’s article helped prompt a wider debate within IR about the field’s problems—one that’s still ongoing.

3. Can One Woman Fix a Failed State?

by Katrina Manson, Sept. 27

 This month, the United States announced it would withdraw troops from Somalia, leaving the task of countering the country’s jihadi insurgency to U.S.-trained Somali troops. The move comes at an especially fragile moment for Somalia and the region, with the militant threat on the rise and a civil war brewing in neighboring Ethiopia. In September, Katrina Manson profiled diaspora returnee Hodan Osman. Hodan joined Somalia’s central bank as a senior advisor amid endemic corruption, at a time when some Somali soldiers hadn’t been paid for six months, and forced an internal review—reforming the system, bit by bit.

“It shows how long it takes. Slowly you address the issues, but you have to reach critical mass,” Hodan told Manson. “It’s still a rogue kind of nation. The most I can do is this: Fix a corner. That corner’s clean.”

Foreign Policy illustration/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/National Archives/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

4. How the Bottom Fell Out of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance

by Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer, April 23

This spring, as the global economy collapsed amid the coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia unleashed its oil weapon—deliberately crashing oil prices and inflicting damage on the U.S. economy. The move tested the patience of the Saudis’ staunchest supporters in Congress, but many in Washington were already beginning to question the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship after a rocky few years, as FP’s Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer reported in April.

“How did it come to this? Today’s tensions stem, in many ways, from the original foundations of the odd-couple relationship: an oil-for-security bargain that always sought, but never fully managed, to bridge the divide between a liberal democracy and a conservative religious monarchy,” they wrote.

5. The U.N. Has a Diversity Problem

by Colum Lynch, Oct. 16

In a year of global protest over racial injustice, the United Nations—one of the most diverse institutions in the world—came under fire for failing to promote equality within its own ranks, as FP’s Colum Lynch reported in an exclusive in October. While there are plenty of field jobs available for people from the developing world, the best-paying, most senior jobs at U.N. headquarters go disproportionately to Westerners, Foreign Policy found—and nowhere is this gap between rich and poor countries more evident than in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the U.N. emergency relief agency.

“The department’s Western tilt begins at the very top,” Lynch wrote. “The vast majority of senior staff are recruited from Western countries that donate to U.N. relief efforts, even while the majority of the agency’s operations are in Africa and Asia.” 

Joe Magee illustration for Foreign Policy

Plus: Into the Breach: How Data Is Driving the New U.S.-China Cold War

 by Zach Dorfman, Dec. 21

As 2020 came to a close, Foreign Policy published a three-part investigation on the decade-long data war between the United States and China. Zach Dorfman interviewed more than three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence officials, producing a sweeping story of China’s assault on U.S. personal data. China’s newfound confidence has meant exposing CIA operatives, disrupting U.S. intelligence, and enlisting private technology firms for an edge in the trade war with the United States.

“The battle over data—who controls it, who secures it, who can steal it, and how it can be used for economic and security objectives—is defining the global conflict between Washington and Beijing,” Dorfman wrote. “Data has already critically shaped the course of Chinese politics, and it is altering the course of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence gathering around the globe.”

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson