Our Favorite Profiles of the Year

From Belarus’s leader-in-exile to Japan’s newest prime minister, these articles show how personality and policymaking intertwine.

By , the executive editor at Foreign Policy.
British Secretary of State Liz Truss chairs a call with her G-7 counterparts.
British Secretary of State Liz Truss chairs a call with her G-7 counterparts.
British Secretary of State Liz Truss chairs a call with her G-7 counterparts in the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office in London on March 31. ROTA/Camera Press/Redux

2021

Here at Foreign Policy, we don’t cover a lot of celebrities, but we do recognize that in the political realm, it’s impossible to separate people from the policies they make. Belarusian activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spent her childhood fearing nuclear radiation in Belarus; British foreign secretary Liz Truss remembers her parents taking her to protests against nuclear proliferation in Glasgow, Scotland. Read on to see how each experience shaped their worldview—alongside profiles of the new Chinese ambassador to Washington, the new Japanese prime minister, and Germany’s outgoing chancellor.


1. Liz Truss, True Believer

by Amy Mackinnon, Oct. 22

Before she became British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s foreign secretary in October, Liz Truss was best known for the “cheese speech”—an address to a Conservative Party Conference that was so impassioned it became a meme. Seven years later, she is the face of “global Britain,” with crises rife at home and abroad.

Here at Foreign Policy, we don’t cover a lot of celebrities, but we do recognize that in the political realm, it’s impossible to separate people from the policies they make. Belarusian activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spent her childhood fearing nuclear radiation in Belarus; British foreign secretary Liz Truss remembers her parents taking her to protests against nuclear proliferation in Glasgow, Scotland. Read on to see how each experience shaped their worldview—alongside profiles of the new Chinese ambassador to Washington, the new Japanese prime minister, and Germany’s outgoing chancellor.


1. Liz Truss, True Believer

by Amy Mackinnon, Oct. 22

Before she became British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s foreign secretary in October, Liz Truss was best known for the “cheese speech”—an address to a Conservative Party Conference that was so impassioned it became a meme. Seven years later, she is the face of “global Britain,” with crises rife at home and abroad.

Still, as FP’s Amy Mackinnon reports, Truss is used to fighting uphill battles. She played former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a mock election at her primary school in Scotland and received no votes; later, she rejected her parents’ liberal politics to embrace the free market dogma of the Conservatives, only to face a challenge from within party ranks after preselection. Now that Truss is a possible party leader, she is unlikely to budge from her hard-won beliefs. “Those who know Truss describe her as a conviction politician,” Mackinnon writes. “Her view of the world shapes her policy-thinking.” Including, it seems, on cheese.


2. Fumio Kishida’s Principles Are About to Be Put to the Test

by Tobias Harris, Oct. 4 

Fumio Kishida

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sits at his office in Tokyo on Sept. 3.Shoko Takayasu/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fumio Kishida has been contemplating a run for the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) leadership since 2018, and through a series of deft maneuvers, he succeeded this September. With LDP leadership came the office of prime minister; Kishida is the first from the LDP’s liberal faction, the Kochikai, to hold the post since 1993.

Japanese policy expert Tobias Harris argues the compromises Kishida made with his party’s more right-wing factions—strengthening military power, revising the country’s constitution, and taking a harder line on China—are not merely opportunistic. “Kishida’s rise,” Harris writes, “is ultimately the story of how the LDP’s moderates have had to make their peace with the party’s shift to the right since the end of the Cold War.”


3. The Other Side of Angela Merkel

by Matthias Matthijs and R. Daniel Kelemen, July 9

Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as Germany’s chancellor came to an end this summer. The tenure of the first woman elected to the role has been, by many metrics, a success. When she took office, Germany was the “sick man of Europe.” Now, unemployment is at record lows and, as political professors Matthias Matthijs and R. Daniel Kelemen write, “no one doubts Germany’s political, financial, and economic leadership of the European Union.”

In this profile, Matthijs and Kelemen complicate Merkel’s glowing reputation, asserting a “darker side” to her legacy, which they term “Merkantilism.” This is “defined as the systematic prioritizing of German commercial and geoeconomic interests over democratic and human rights values or intra-EU solidarity,” and instances range from her coddling Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban to her actively courting Russia, as seen in her determination to pursue the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite strong opposition from German allies. “We may one day look back and judge that one of Merkel’s greatest legacies for the EU was to open the door to women’s political leadership in Germany,” Matthijs and Kelemen conclude.


4. Is China’s New U.S. Ambassador a ‘Wolf Warrior’—or a Fox?

by Melinda Liu, Aug. 10

When Qin Gang was appointed Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington, many observers assumed he would take cues from Chinese President Xi Jinping and deliver hostile diatribes in the United States’ direction. Not so fast, China expert Melinda Liu writes, recalling a “free-wheeling exchange” she had with Qin after the Sichuan earthquake, in which he delivered “one of the most spontaneous press conferences with a Chinese premier I’ve seen since the 1980s.”

The art of diplomacy is always a high-wire act, and it’s more perilous than ever for Chinese officials with nationalism surging at home. But Liu assembles compelling evidence that Qin may seek to strike a more conciliatory tone than some of his predecessors. “Qin may well play a critical role in finding a way forward for a U.S.-China relationship,” Liu writes—which will be necessary if there is hope for solving the biggest problems of the day, from COVID-19 to climate change.


5. Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

by Amy Mackinnon, Aug. 6

At the start of this year, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was a supportive wife to an outspoken blogger as well as a full-time mother of two. She ends 2021 believed to be Belarus’s rightful president, an exiled opposition leader to a country on the cusp of toppling brutal dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. 

The story of how Tsikhanouskaya got here is just as dramatic as you might expect, and Mackinnon chronicles its many turns, from Tsikhanouskaya’s decision to run for office after her husband’s arrest to a very long, tense car ride with a KGB agent after Belarus’s presidential election. Mackinnon was with Tsikhanouskaya on her recent trip to Washington, during which she urged sanctions on Belarusian industry. “I will be with people as much as people need me,” Tsikhanouskaya told Mackinnon. “But if the new president and prime minister will be a wonderful manager, I will with pleasure become an ordinary person again.”

Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia

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