The Year’s Most Notable Obituaries

The complicated legacies of leaders from Queen Elizabeth II to Mikhail Gorbachev, and other leaders who died in 2022.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1961.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1961.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip leave St. Paul’s Cathedral in London after attending the annual service of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1961. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

2022

Amid the wars, uprisings, and elections that made global headlines in 2022, this year also saw the passing of a number of current and former world leaders as well as notable (and, in some cases, notorious) political and diplomatic figures. 

In the United States, three influential people whose actions had profound impacts on U.S. foreign policy died: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female secretary of state known for her relentless advocacy of U.S. and NATO intervention to protect vulnerable people in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo; former Sen. Bob Dole, who successfully led the charge in Congress to support Bosnia throughout the 1992-1995 war; and former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who aspired to be the next Henry Kissinger but instead ended up embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The world also lost three former world leaders, two of whom—former Mexican President Luis Echeverría Álvarez and former Chinese President Jiang Zemin—died at advanced ages (100 and 96, respectively) after long political careers, and one of whom—former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—was assassinated at age 67 while at the pinnacle of political power in Japan.

Amid the wars, uprisings, and elections that made global headlines in 2022, this year also saw the passing of a number of current and former world leaders as well as notable (and, in some cases, notorious) political and diplomatic figures. 

In the United States, three influential people whose actions had profound impacts on U.S. foreign policy died: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female secretary of state known for her relentless advocacy of U.S. and NATO intervention to protect vulnerable people in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo; former Sen. Bob Dole, who successfully led the charge in Congress to support Bosnia throughout the 1992-1995 war; and former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who aspired to be the next Henry Kissinger but instead ended up embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The world also lost three former world leaders, two of whom—former Mexican President Luis Echeverría Álvarez and former Chinese President Jiang Zemin—died at advanced ages (100 and 96, respectively) after long political careers, and one of whom—former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—was assassinated at age 67 while at the pinnacle of political power in Japan.

Two other notable figures died this year and left behind complicated legacies: former al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who inherited leadership of the terrorist group responsible for 9/11 after U.S. forces killed its previous leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 and presided over its slow fade into irrelevance as it was eclipsed by the Islamic State; and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who inherited leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985 and presided over its rapid deterioration and ultimate collapse.

And, of course, there was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whose legacy is perhaps the most complicated of all the figures on this list.

Foreign Policy contributors marked the deaths of each of these figures, but five of our obituaries in particular stand out. 


1. Childhood Trauma Taught Madeleine Albright to Stand Up to Despots

by Margaret Warner, March 28

Albright was a firm believer in the idea that the United States—including its military—is a force for good in the world. A fierce advocate of U.S. foreign intervention during the Clinton administration, Albright was driven by her early childhood experiences fleeing first the Nazis and then the communists. Journalist Margaret Warner writes that Albright’s “early brushes with authoritarian threats instilled a passion for democracy that animated her entire public life.”

“I saw what happened when a dictator was allowed to take over a piece of a country, and the country went down the tubes. And I saw the opposite during the war when America joined the fight,” Albright said in a 1996 New York Times interview. “For me, America is really, truly the indispensable nation.”

Her understanding of—and dedication to opposing—autocrats continued right up to the end of her life, Warner notes. On Feb. 23, just one month before her death, Albright published an essay in the New York Times in which she warned that if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to invade Ukraine, it would be “a historic error.” 

Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance,” she wrote.

One day later, Putin invaded.  


2. How Shinzo Abe Changed Japan 

by Tobias Harris, July 8

Abe’s assassination at a public event in broad daylight by a man wielding a homemade gun came as a terrible shock to Japan—a country with some of the world’s strictest gun laws and lowest crime rates—as well as to the rest of the world, which certainly never expected the influential politician and global statesman’s life would be so abruptly cut short by violence. After all, it was only two years ago that Abe left office as Japan’s prime minister.

As Tobias Harris, a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, writes, Abe served a record-setting seven years and eight months as prime minister before stepping down in September 2020 for health reasons. 

During that time, Harris writes, Abe transformed the Japanese economy through a host of policies that came to be known collectively as “Abenomics,” reversing years of stagnant wages; boosting corporate profits, tax revenues, and tourist flows to record highs; and reducing unemployment to record lows. 

He also embarked on an ambitious project to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist Constitution to allow the country’s Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense and pursued “an ambitious foreign policy that not only strengthened the U.S.-Japan relationship but also deepened its ties with regional partners, such as India and Australia—laying the groundwork for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—as well as leading Southeast Asian countries.”

 Though Abe was no longer prime minister at the time of his death, Harris argues he nevertheless “stood at the pinnacle of power in Japan,” where “his leadership of the [Liberal Democratic Party’s] largest faction and his reputation as a leading global statesman gave him extraordinary power to influence the direction of the Japanese government.”  


3. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Legacy of Terror

by Daniel Byman, Aug. 1

To many analysts (myself included), the death of former al Qaeda leader Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike this summer simultaneously felt like both the end of an era and a bit of a nothingburger. 

Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, writes that as bin Laden’s longtime No. 2, Zawahiri played instrumental roles “as an ideologue and organizer, promoting and spreading jihadi revolution and terror” and helped bin Laden pursue their shared dream of building “a foundation of support for jihadis around the world to help them expel foreign invaders, topple their own regimes, and confront the ‘far enemy’—the United States and the broader West.” 

In that sense, then, Zawahiri’s death seemed to mark the end of an era for the organization that had been defined by the views and ambitions of these two prominent figureheads. 

Yet by the time Zawahiri finally died, the organization he led had also become a mere shadow of what it once was, having been eclipsed by an even more violent and nihilistic group, the Islamic State, which itself had been brought low in recent years.

“Al Qaeda propagandists still seek to inspire violence against the West, but it seems the threat of a spectacular top-down terrorist attack has diminished,” Byman writes. “As a result, the grandest visions of bin Laden and Zawahiri have failed to be realized at all. Al Qaeda itself is not popular among Muslims, who show little support for its extremist ideas. No Muslim-majority state is close to becoming the theocracy that al Qaeda envisions—with the exception of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, which was already in place until al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks disrupted it.”

For this reason, Zawahiri’s death lacked much of the drama and import of that of his much more famous and charismatic predecessor, bin Laden. As Byman concludes, “Perhaps a more charismatic leader could return al Qaeda to its glory days, but a steady decline seems just as likely.”   


4. Gorbachev’s Disputed Legacy

by Vladislav M. Zubok, Aug. 30

Gorbachev greets East German leader Erich Honecker during a visit to East Berlin in 1987.
Gorbachev greets East German leader Erich Honecker during a visit to East Berlin in 1987.

Gorbachev greets East German leader Erich Honecker during a visit to East Berlin for a meeting of Warsaw Pact countries on May 27, 1987.Mehner/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Gorbachev’s death in late August, like his tenure as president of the Soviet Union, came at a critical moment in Russia’s history and also provided a poignant reminder of a different—and in some ways more hopeful—era of Russian politics. 

As Vladislav M. Zubok, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and the author of several books, including Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, writes, Gorbachev “was a rare bright spot in the tragic, grim, blood-splattered history of Russia.” 

“Even at his worst moments, he exuded warmth and sparkled with optimism and humor. A passionate political animal, he refused to cling to power for power’s sake,” writes Zubok. “Such qualities gave Gorbachev the determination to push forward with the policies of perestroika and glasnost—to reform the Soviet Union’s top-down economic system, make its governance more transparent, and allow people more freedom and civil rights.”

“Those qualities,” Zubok adds, “also perhaps were the ones he needed to bring a peaceful end to the Cold War—his greatest achievement.”  

Yet Zubok notes that, in Russia, Gorbachev’s legacy is not as straightforward—nor is it entirely settled. “Russian nationalists and stalwarts of the old order generally view him as a dupe or a traitor, in large part because he oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union,” writes Zubok. “Other Russians and members of the former Soviet bloc praise him as a farsighted liberator who tried to free them from the yoke of corrupt totalitarianism.”    


5. A Queen for the Ages

by Robin Oakley, Sept. 8

Fans of the Netflix drama series The Crown may feel as if they already know the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s unexpected accession to the throne in 1952 at the young age of 25 and the various challenges she experienced, both personal and monarchical, over the first several decades of her reign.

Yet in his obituary of the late queen, who died in September at age 96, Robin Oakley, a former political editor at the BBC, the Times, and CNN, provides a portrait of her life and legacy that goes beyond the Hollywood-ized version. Oakley examines the realities the queen faced throughout her long life, as well as what her death means for the future of the monarchy and empire she represented.

Elizabeth “may be best remembered as a leader who provided a model of constancy in a rapidly shifting world,” writes Oakley. “She was admired by monarchists and republicans alike for her unswerving devotion to duty and her refusal to bend to the faddish expectations of critics.”

Jennifer Williams is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @jenn_ruth

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