Our Most Read Stories of 2021

China’s rise, the post-Trump world, and the fall of Kabul were of particular interest to FP readers.

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid speaks to the media at the international airport in Kabul on Aug. 31.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid speaks to the media at the international airport in Kabul on Aug. 31.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid speaks to the media at the international airport in Kabul on Aug. 31. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

2021

2021 was the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but plenty of other shocking events grabbed the world’s attention: the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, power grabs from Myanmar to Mali, and the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.

Foreign Policy readers were particularly drawn to stories about China’s shifting role in the world; the rise of cryptocurrencies; former U.S. President Donald Trump’s legacy and the challenges that remain for his successor, Joe Biden; and the state of global democracy. Here are 10 of our most read stories this year, as measured by website traffic.


10. China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

by Derek Grossman, July 21

2021 was the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but plenty of other shocking events grabbed the world’s attention: the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, power grabs from Myanmar to Mali, and the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.

Foreign Policy readers were particularly drawn to stories about China’s shifting role in the world; the rise of cryptocurrencies; former U.S. President Donald Trump’s legacy and the challenges that remain for his successor, Joe Biden; and the state of global democracy. Here are 10 of our most read stories this year, as measured by website traffic.


10. China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

by Derek Grossman, July 21

On Aug. 15, Kabul fell to the Taliban—the conclusion of a military offensive that had begun in May amid the planned withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan. Weeks earlier, defense analyst Derek Grossman seemed to see the writing on the wall, arguing that China was “starting off on exactly the right foot with the Taliban should the group regain control over Afghanistan.”

Although Beijing has not yet recognized the Taliban government, it has stepped up its engagement with the regime—which Grossman argues could have consequences for the balance of power in the region. “[T]he nature of China-Taliban ties will be geostrategically significant,” he writes. “A sustained positive relationship may further enable Beijing to make broad economic and security inroads into Afghanistan and Central Asia.”


9. Trump Is Guilty of Pandemicide

by Laurie Garrett, Feb. 18

The United States started off 2021 amid its worst COVID-19 wave since the pandemic began. Writing a month after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, FP’s Laurie Garrett argues that his predecessor Donald Trump is responsible for the “national horror” that at its peak saw more than 300,000 new cases in 24 hours, leveling the hypothetical charge of “pandemicide.”

“By the time the election took place, Trump had ignored the pandemic, not attending a single COVID-19 White House meeting for at least five months, since late May,” Garrett writes. “During a period when experts inside his government warned that holiday travel and interactions over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s could lead to massive spread of the virus, and states clamored for aid to disseminate vaccines, Trump was mum.”


8. China Is Building Entire Villages in Another Country’s Territory

by Robert Barnett, May 7

In a Foreign Policy exclusive, Robert Barnett reports on Chinese encroachment in northern Bhutan, where Beijing has begun building villages in an effort to secure Tibet’s borderlands. It is planting settlers, security personnel, and military infrastructure—all unnoticed by the rest of the world. Barnett, an expert on modern Tibet, and four researchers mapped China’s claims and expansion in Bhutan based on a combination of official reports, media reports, and open-source data—documenting big changes in a sacred valley.

 “It is hard to fathom China’s rationale for its shift from nibbling at a neighbor’s territory to swallowing portions of it wholesale,” he writes. “In the past, annexation has not worked well for China as a solution for territorial disputes, especially when deep-seated cultural and religious values are at stake.”


7. Confused About Dogecoin? Here’s How It (Doesn’t) Work.

by David Gerard, Feb. 11

Investors and mainstream companies have taken an interest in cryptocurrency this year, raising questions about regulation in Washington and beyond. In February, as Bitcoin prices surged, David Gerard, the author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, focused on an odd beneficiary of the surge: Dogecoin, which was promoted heavily by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. “Dogecoin was originally a joke cryptocurrency,” Gerard writes—but as with other cryptocurrencies, people hoped for an opportunity to get rich with it.

Gerard uses Dogecoin to explain why cryptocurrencies are so prone to manipulation and price pumping. “The only way to make money from a cryptocurrency is to sell it to someone else for more money, and the only way they can make money is to sell it on for even more,” he writes. “It’s a hot potato with a price tag.”


6. Kais Saied Is Not a Dictator

by Hasan Ismaik, Aug. 16

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days in what some observers described as a coup. But Saied said his actions were within the bounds of the constitution, which allows for such measures in the event of “imminent danger.” Hasan Ismaik, a Jordanian entrepreneur and writer, argues that Saied’s move wasn’t that of a power-hungry president but an attempt to protect Tunisia’s democracy from anti-reformists in parliament.

Tunisia’s pro-democracy revolution kicked off the Arab Spring more than a decade ago, and Ismaik argues that its democracy is still in progress. “[B]uilding democracies that survive the test of time … will be fruitless unless the people of the region understand democratic philosophy and how to safeguard their right to choose a government that truly represents them,” he writes.


5. The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

by Paul Musgrave, Nov. 27

 In a deep-dive feature story, political science professor Paul Musgrave gets to the bottom of an internet legend: the idea that PepsiCo Inc. once possessed the sixth-largest navy fleet in the world. Executive Donald Kendall oversaw the company’s acquisition of submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer from the Soviet Union in 1989—but Musgrave explains that the legend of its strength is largely false. “The Pepsi navy no more conferred military power than a rusting Model T could have been a Formula 1 contender,” he writes.

The winding story shows how interactions between governments make up just a small part of international relations; much of it is instead steered by business interests. “Had events unfolded the way Kendall hoped and [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev planned, the 1990s might have been a decade of democratization and economic growth for a strengthening Soviet Union,” Musgrave writes.


4. China Is a Declining Power—and That’s the Problem

by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, Sept. 24

Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves after making a toast during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 14, 2017. Wu Hong/Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves after making a toast during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 14, 2017. Wu Hong/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves after making a toast during a welcome banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 14, 2017. Wu Hong/Getty Images

As the U.S.-China rivalry appears to grow ever more intractable, political scientists Hal Brands and Michael Beckley argue that the “deadly trap” threatening to ensnare both great powers is not China’s rise—but its potential decline. “[G]reat powers that had been growing dramatically faster than the world average and then suffered a severe, prolonged slowdown … usually don’t fade away quietly,” they write. “Rather, they become brash and aggressive.”

What does this mean for the United States? China could act boldly or even erratically with respect to critical technologies, supply chains and infrastructure projects, and the issue of Taiwan. “Welcome to geopolitics in the age of a peaking China: a country that already has the ability to violently challenge the existing order and one that will probably run faster and push harder as it loses confidence that time is on its side,” Brands and Beckley write.


3. ‘We’re in a Worse Place Today Than We Were Before He Came In’

by Kelly Bjorklund, Jan. 11

Just before a mob inspired by then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, writer and activist Kelly Bjorklund interviewed Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. The conversation spanned Trump’s foreign policy, the state of the world in 2021, and the challenges President-elect Joe Biden would face in office. Tillerson was frank about the difficulty of balancing national security objectives with Trump’s priorities: “His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited,” he told Foreign Policy.

The former top U.S. diplomat ultimately took a dim view of Trump’s legacy on the eve of his departure from the White House. “Nothing worked out. We squandered the best opportunity we had on North Korea,” Tillerson said. “With Putin, we didn’t get anything done. We’re nowhere with China on national security. We’re in a worse place today than we were before he came in, and I didn’t think that was possible.”


2. The Ever Given Crew Are Still Stuck at Sea

by Elisabeth Braw, June 9

The saga of the Ever Given—the container ship that became stuck in the Suez Canal in March—briefly captured the world’s attention. But months later, the ship and its crew remained in limbo, seized by the Egyptian authorities until a deal could be reached on compensation demanded by the Suez Canal Authority. Their fate was not unusual for an abandoned freighter, FP’s Elisabeth Braw writes; ships and their crews have been stranded for years in situations that don’t generally make headlines.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has at times exacerbated seafarers’ struggles. “[W]hen the world’s shipping companies can no longer recruit enough seafarers, we’ll find out how absolutely vital they are to our daily lives,” Braw concludes.


1. The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

by Richard Aboulafia, June 30

As China has risen on the world stage, many observers assumed that its growth as a combat air power would follow. But there’s just one problem, air industry expert Richard Aboulafia argues: Beijing hasn’t been able to expand sales of its fighter jets beyond a small core market. “This feeble sales record has nothing to do with the aircraft themselves,” he writes. “The best explanation of this failure is China’s foreign policy.”

Aboulafia argues that tensions with the Philippines in the South China Sea have gotten in the way of potential acquisitions, and similar patterns have played out with some of China’s other neighbors. The disconnect advantages the United States. “While Beijing struggles to find any takers, Washington’s military export standing is poised for further growth,” he writes.

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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