The FP Stories That Changed Things in 2021

From the U.N.’s diversity problem to the pipeline that turned into a lightning rod, here are our most impactful reads.

By , a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Girls attend classes at Zarghona high school in Kabul on Sept. 15. Stefanie Glinski for Foriegn Policy
Girls attend classes at Zarghona high school in Kabul on Sept. 15. Stefanie Glinski for Foriegn Policy
Girls attend classes at Zarghona high school in Kabul on Sept. 15. Stefanie Glinski for Foriegn Policy

2021

This year saw no shortage of big news stories, with the new Biden administration struggling to clear away the debris left by four years of Donald Trump while dealing with a pandemic that wouldn’t die, energy crises, rising inflation, and a cascade of foreign-policy challenges that made it all the harder to focus on building anything back better.

The biggest challenge of all, perhaps, was how to extricate the United States from twenty years of war in Afghanistan without entirely losing the peace—or the trust of those left behind. But the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the rapid-fire takeover of the country by the Taliban left the United States and its allies wrongfooted, Afghan partners abandoned, and the Afghan people staring at a return of the dark ages.

The Biden administration’s planned pivot to Asia was if anything stirred by China’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan and a solidifying consensus in Washington on the need for a full-spectrum response to Beijing’s military, diplomatic, and economic challenge. But any hopes of a speedy pivot were gummed up by an activist Russia that continued meddling in its neighbors’ affairs, hacking U.S. government agencies, poisoning opposition leaders, and seemingly holding Europe hostage over energy. 

This year saw no shortage of big news stories, with the new Biden administration struggling to clear away the debris left by four years of Donald Trump while dealing with a pandemic that wouldn’t die, energy crises, rising inflation, and a cascade of foreign-policy challenges that made it all the harder to focus on building anything back better.

The biggest challenge of all, perhaps, was how to extricate the United States from twenty years of war in Afghanistan without entirely losing the peace—or the trust of those left behind. But the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the rapid-fire takeover of the country by the Taliban left the United States and its allies wrongfooted, Afghan partners abandoned, and the Afghan people staring at a return of the dark ages.

The Biden administration’s planned pivot to Asia was if anything stirred by China’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan and a solidifying consensus in Washington on the need for a full-spectrum response to Beijing’s military, diplomatic, and economic challenge. But any hopes of a speedy pivot were gummed up by an activist Russia that continued meddling in its neighbors’ affairs, hacking U.S. government agencies, poisoning opposition leaders, and seemingly holding Europe hostage over energy. 

But there was more afoot than just the Biden administration’s struggles. International organizations such as the United Nations were also trying to remake themselves for a changing global order after four years of disruption and while faced with a revisionist pair in Moscow and Beijing. One thing the U.N. could do was start to diversify the ranks of senior officials who oversee some of its most important portfolios, chipping away at a post-World War II legacy that had left the world’s body looking decidedly unlike the world.

Here are five of Foreign Policy’s most impactful news stories of 2021.


1. China and Russia Turn Deeper Ties Into a Military Challenge for Biden

by Jack Detsch and Amy Mackinnon, April 20

It may be only coincidence that China ramped up confrontation over Taiwan just as Russia renewed its saber rattling over Ukraine, forcing the Biden administration to react to two dire threats a world apart. But the growing apparent cooperation between the United States’ two biggest rivals has complicated Biden’s efforts to deal with either, as Detsch and MacKinnon detail in this piece, which revealed how even frenemies can work together to stymie U.S. goals. “You face a two-front war where we don’t have a two-front military,” said one former U.S. defense official.


2. The Russian Pipeline That Turned Into a Lightning Rod

by Amy Mackinnon, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch, July 23

Foreign Policy Illustration/Getty Images

One seemingly innocuous project has created a crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations, cast a chill down Europe’s energy-dependent spine, and helped poison the Biden administration’s relations with both Capitol Hill and half of Europe. Mackinnon, Gramer, and Detsch show just how Nord Stream 2, a Russian gas pipeline, has gone from a quasi-commercial energy project to one of the biggest challenges in trans-Atlantic relations.


3. Life Under the Taliban

by Stefanie Glinski, Sept. 11

Not even the Taliban—and certainly not the Afghan or U.S. governments—seriously expected Afghanistan to utterly collapse in the middle of August, leading to a Taliban return precisely twenty years after the group had last been booted out of Kabul. What was expected, sadly, was a return to the Taliban’s extremist brand of Islam, an especially cruel blow for an entire generation of Afghans that had grown up with more than a smattering of freedom and rights. The Taliban have delivered, as Glinski grimly shows, by banning girls in school, hunting down former Afghan officials, and generally undoing two decades of fitful progress toward a liveable future.


4. Those Left Behind in Afghanistan

by Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Amy Mackinnon, Oct. 1

When the United States hurriedly pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of August, it pulled off one of the biggest evacuations in history. What it left behind, though, were tens of thousands—perhaps more—Afghans who had spent years risking their lives to help U.S. and coalition forces, and who now faced a vengeful Taliban with little hope of escape. Gramer, Detsch, and Mackinnon detailed the harrowing future awaiting the United States’ one-time partners. Some, thanks to the glare of this article and contacts with aid organizations, have since managed to make it out of the country.


5. The U.N. Has a Diversity Problem

by Colum Lynch, Oct. 16

One of the most diverse institutions in the world, it turns out, has a diversity problem. The United Nations still allots a disproportionate amount of senior roles to diplomats from rich Western countries, leaving developing countries badly underrepresented, even in core missions such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which some staffers say “operates like a neocolonial fiefdom with a particularly Anglo-Saxon complexion.” Lynch painstakingly details the skewed personnel policies still operating decades after the U.N. was founded, and his reporting helped drive, at last, a series of high-level appointments from the global south.

Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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