Foreign policy signals to watch in 2011

January 5, 2011


I hope that 2011 will provide more cheerful foreign policy stories than 2010 did.

Consider this woeful litany: The ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, the jihadis and floods of Pakistan, a recovering but deeply troubled Iraq, a nuclear-bent Iran that crushed the “Green” opposition. Add a failed Mideast peace process, an increasingly aggressive China and regressive Russia, and a United States drawn inward by domestic economic woes. The list was depressing enough to drive a foreign-policy columnist into travel writing.

Yet, as the new year starts, there’s room for optimism (even if the facts don’t justify it). Here are some signs to watch for — abroad and at home — that would indicate 2011 might be a better foreign policy year.


This one’s tricky (see, I’m already hedging). As Gen. David Petraeus puts it, “You are not going to see big flips” in the situation as you did in Iraq, where Sunni insurgents turned against al-Qaida en masse. However, if the U.S. troop surge can stabilize large parts of the Afghan south and the east, where the Taliban is strongest, more Afghans may resist the militants.

Signs to watch for: Will U.S. efforts to help stand up Afghan village police and local courts bear fruit? This would enhance local security and address one of the prime issues that drive rural farmers toward the Taliban: the lack of local justice to resolve land disputes.

Two other signs: Will President Hamid Karzai finally create a government that is more inclusive — giving Pashtun leaders and local officials their fair share of power? And will Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Taliban — one of several militant groups — set up a political office in a third country, such as Turkey, and clarify whether the group is willing to break with al-Qaida and work within a constitutional Afghan government? That would make clear whether talks with senior Taliban are plausible, in pursuit of an Afghan political accord.


Signals from there will be most crucial for South Asia’s future. Watch to see whether the Pakistani military finally goes after Afghan Taliban leaders who shelter in their country. The Pakistanis must first be convinced that U.S. troops won’t leave Afghanistan in chaos, and that India won’t use Afghanistan as a base from which to undermine them. One sign of lowered Pakistan-India tensions would be renewed talks over Kashmir, with U.S. encouragement.


Watch to see whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gives too little power to Sunnis and too much power to the forces of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A good sign: if al-Maliki inks another security accord with the United States that leaves a small U.S. troop presence — to keep Kurds and Arabs apart, and train the Iraqi army. This limited force, along with expanded U.S. diplomacy, would hedge against undue Iranian influence in Iraq.


Last year a mysterious computer worm, along with accidents to key Iranian nuclear scientists, set back Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians blame Israel and the United States. Watch to see if sabotage continues to thwart Tehran’s efforts; that will dampen talk of a possible Israeli or U.S. air strike on Iran’s nuclear plants.


We all know Beijing is a rising power, but 2011 will show what kind of power it aspires to. Watch to see whether China remains aggressive about territorial disputes with other Asian nations, or grasps the wisdom of providing positive leadership in the region. One sign: whether Beijing does more to restrain its ally North Korea from dangerous behavior that could provoke war.


It’s hard to be optimistic after the 14-year sentence handed down last week in the Stalin-esque show trial of former oil tycoon and political opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signaled he will continue policies that crush Russian innovation, discourage legitimate investors, and keep the country dependent on oil. President Dimitri Medvedev — who speaks of the “rule of law” — dashed hopes that he might challenge Putin. The good news: Europeans, who are too dependent on Russian gas, have now received clear warning of Putin’s disdain for business contracts, so watch to see whether they diversify their supply sources.

The Middle East

Sorry, I can’t foresee any good news. The Israel-Palestinian peace process may limp along, going nowhere, but it is effectively frozen until some new explosion, which may be too late to revive it. Meantime, in the Arab world, Islamists wait in the wings until aging rulers too fearful to democratize pass from the scene.

The United States

Here’s a real sign of good news: The recent, bipartisan Senate approval of the New START arms treaty with Russia indicates that responsible Republicans will back President Obama on foreign policy issues essential to American security. If so, Obama can exert strong foreign policy leadership on many issues. If Republicans revert to the credo of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who says derailing Obama is the Republicans’ top goal, then chances for foreign policy good news dim.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Paul R Getto 7 years, 1 month ago

"If so, Obama can exert strong foreign policy leadership on many issues. If Republicans revert to the credo of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who says derailing Obama is the Republicans’ top goal, then chances for foreign policy good news dim." === Perhaps the key to it all. There was a time when 'politics stopped at the nation's borders' but that is long gone. If the R's see foreign policy as another way to stop the president from any successes, things won't improve much. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the keys, but I see little hope of transforming such ancient and tribal cultures into what we call 'democracy.'

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