A visual report card for U.S. foreign relations in 2013 (it looks pretty bad)

October 25, 2013

Presidents Obama and Putin at a June G-8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. (EPA/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/RIA NOVOSTI/KREM)

When President Obama gave his State of the Union address in January, he hinted at exactly one major foreign policy goal: diplomatic engagement with Iran. This year was to be one driven by domestic, rather than foreign, ambitions. But the world has a way of intruding, which it has done with such force in 2013 that the year is not even over and some foreign policy watchers are already calling it a disaster for U.S. diplomacy. Was it?

The year's strange turns were perfectly encapsulated this week in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's outraged call to Obama over allegations that the National Security Agency had monitored her cellphone -- not a great moment in U.S. diplomacy. It was just one of many setbacks traceable to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The United States also fared unusually poorly with this year's post-Arab Spring turmoil in the Middle East.

U.S. standing in the world has taken so many hits that political scientists Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore wrote a Foreign Affairs essay, "The End of Hypocrisy," arguing that the United States has forever lost its diplomatically advantageous ability to conduct openly hypocritical foreign policy. Foreign Policy executive editor Noah Shachtman asked on Twitter, "Is there any country on the planet with whom the U.S. has a better relationship 2013 than in 2012? Beside Iran?"

It's a fair question, so let's look at the map:


A rough, subjective estimate of the United States' diplomatic performance in 2013. Blue states saw improved U.S. ties, red states degraded ties. Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

The map above offers a quick snapshot of the most significant movements in the United States' foreign relations in 2013 so far -- a sort of visual report card. This is subjective stuff, so others might fairly reach different conclusions, but in the most general terms I was able to identify seven countries with which U.S. relations have improved this year (marked in blue) and nine with which relations deteriorated (marked in red). I've mapped those out above, further dividing them into "major changes," which we might define as cases where the U.S. relationship has improved or worsened in ways that are systemic and potentially long-term, and "minor changes."

Here's a rundown on each of those relationships and how they've changed, for better or worse, in 2013. The full picture does seem to lean negative. The United States saw some major diplomatic setbacks with the Snowden affair and, perhaps to a greater extent, with the power shifts in the Arab Middle East. (I've left Syria as status quo because the U.S. relationship with the Syrian state has not substantially changed, even if the challenge of Syria's civil war remains perhaps Obama's toughest.) But it's made some important gains, particularly in East Asia, perhaps the most important region for America's economic and strategic future. These are ranked, very roughly and subjectively, from the biggest gains to the biggest setbacks. And it's important to remember that these are relative: The United States still has a far better relationship with Germany than it does with, say, Iran.

Iran: Major positive change. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has aggressively sought to engage the United States, softening official rhetoric and signaling a willingness to resolve the nuclear dispute and, potentially, other issues as well. This could all fall apart in 2014, but it's a remarkably hopeful moment after decades of enmity.

Burma: Major positive change. The detente that began in 2012 has continued as foreign investment flows into the country and its political system opens. Long a Chinese client, Burma now appears to be throwing its lot in with the West and particularly the United States, which has been closely involved in the opening.

Israel: Major positive change. After a very rough 2011 and 2012, the U.S.-Israel relationship was repaired significantly after Israeli clashes with Gaza-based groups in late 2012, in which U.S.-supplied missile defense technology helped protect Israeli civilians. Obama had a successful trip to Israel in March, and his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears much stronger. Though they differ on Iran, Obama is clearly working to keep Israel on board.

China: Minor positive change. Though set back by revelations of extensive Chinese cyber-espionage against the United States, the relationship saw more upticks after the sour years of Obama's first term. New Chinese leader Xi Jinping has put a happy face on diplomacy with Washington, meeting with Obama for a California summit in June. North Korea's provocations this spring provoked rare outrage from Beijing, drawing it closer to the United States. Obama continues to be a big star on Chinese social media.

Vietnam: Minor positive change. The communist government continues to liberalize the Vietnamese economy, in which the United States is doing its best to establish a foothold. That's come in the form of major trade talks, a bit of diplomatic outreach and big trade deal on nuclear power. It's the slow work of ally-building in an increasingly important corner of the world.

South Korea: Minor positive change. The relationship went from good to a bit better after North Korea's provocations in the spring, which deepened Seoul's security cooperation with the United States. It also helped to reassure South Korean politicians and thought leaders who'd been worried about the U.S. commitment to the Korean Peninsula.

Cuba: Minor positive change. The Obama administration's very slow steps toward reopening relations with the long-communist enemy continued. The improving relationship was personified by a high-profile April visit by Jay-Z and Beyonce.


Afghanistan: Minor negative change. The United States tried to nudge the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai's government toward peace talks, but since everyone knows U.S. forces will be mostly leaving next year there's very little reason for Afghan political powers to take us seriously.

France and Germany: Minor negative change. French and particularly German officials expressed outrage over NSA spying programs revealed by Snowden. These European powers still share deep national interests with the United States, so there's no reason to expect long-term damage, but it certainly wasn't a great year for U.S. public-opinion standing in Europe or for Obama's personal relationship with Merkel.

Turkey: Minor negative change. Though Obama brokered a bit of Turkish-Israeli detente this spring, Turkey has taken some steps away from the U.S.-led Western orbit, buying up Chinese weapons systems and most problematically, according to the Post's David Ignatius, outing a ring of Israeli spies. Turkey also appears frustrated with U.S. inaction on Syria.

Brazil and Bolivia: Minor negative change. The Snowden affair resonated deeply in South America, both for the echoes of Cold War-era U.S. bullying and because Snowden was unable to reach the continent for asylum. The damage looks worst in Brazil and Bolivia. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington and denounced U.S. spying in front of the United Nations. Bolivian President Evo Morales had his plane grounded in Vienna over suspicions he was secretly ferrying Snowden, which Bolivia denounced as a U.S. plot.

Russia: Major negative change. That Russia is not at the bottom of this list should drive home how bad the other two are. The U.S.-Russia relationship was never great, but it fell apart this year, over Syria, where the two are openly at odds, and over Snowden, who now lives in Moscow despite U.S. protestations. Anti-Americanism appears on the rise in Russia, while Americans are paying more attention to anti-gay laws in Russia. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin canceled a planned summit, because why even bother?

Saudi Arabia: Major negative change. The diplomatic disintegration that began in 2011 with the Arab Spring accelerated this year. After decades of close agreement and cooperation on every major Middle East issue, not to mention on oil and Afghanistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia now differ on almost all of those. They are pursuing increasingly different objectives in the region; the marriage of convenience isn't over but it looks potentially headed in that direction.

Egypt: Major negative change. When the Obama administration announced it was cutting big chunks of the U.S. military aid to Egypt that has been a linchpin of the relationship since 1979, it was just confirming what 2013 demonstrated: that the United States has lost much of its pull in the Arab world's most populous nation. Washington's failed attempt to prevent the July 3 military coup began several truly awful months in the relationship. The country's new military openly disparages the United States, long Egypt's patron, and the country's rising nationalism has brought on waves of anti-Americanism. It's very difficult to see how this relationship can be salvaged.

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Max Fisher · October 24, 2013