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2011 Year In Review – U.S. Role in the World

2011 Year In Review - U.S. Role in the World

The Foreign Policy Association has asked the blog team to write year-end summaries and even provided a nice little template for us to follow. So, without further ado:

Summary of the Past Year

What an extraordinary year 2011 has turned out to be. The U.S. appears to have successfully navigated a year of extreme turbulence in international affairs, a year filled with both triumph and tragedy and a few surprises along the way.

In the triumph category we surely have to count the raid by U.S. special forces to capture and kill Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan in early May. The raid represented the culmination of a massive manhunt over two administrations to bring the mastermind of 9/11 to justice. There was no ticker-tape parade for the members of the secretive U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six credited with that raid, but they know they enjoy thanks of a grateful nation. The raid inside the borders of erstwhile ally Pakistan to target bin Laden’s apparently secure haven located a mere 800 yards from their national military academy (their West Point) and 60 miles north of the capital of Islamabad generated tensions on both sides and it would be no understatement to say that the alliance has never fully recovered. Still, there are few who would way that it wasn’t worth it.

In the tragedy category I have to note the famine in the Horn of Africa as well as the historic earthquake in Japan. In both cases, the U.S. actively provided support and aid that saved lives and provided both a visible and practical symbol of the U.S. role in the world. As this year ends the tragedy of those events is compounded by calls to greatly reduce U.S. foreign aid, making it doubtful that the U.S. will be able to respond as quickly to such disasters in the future.

As for surprises, I’m surprised that the U.S. role in the Libyan campaign went as well as it did.  And, I have to admit that I’m surprised that the withdrawal from Iraq is going as well as it is, although, as this report notes, attacks on U.S. forces are expected to increase in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal. Although U.S. troops will be coming home from Iraq, many of them will ultimately be deployed to Afghanistan, where the U.S. goes into 2012 with a new strategy and a new determination to ramp up to wrap up that war.

Most Unexpected Event – Back to Africa
In October the media breathlessly reported that the U.S. dispatched 100 advisers (mostly special forces) to help in the fight against the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa and aid efforts to kill or capture its leader, Joseph Kony. Many commentators seemed surprised at this turn of events. From the media reports one would assume that this was a dangerous and reckless expansion of the U.S. military presence into Africa and represented a new front in the war against terrorism. The reality was, of course, far different. At the end of 2008 the Foreign Policy Association asked the blog team to write a year-in-review post just like this one in which they considered several questions, including the following: What was the most under-reported event of the year? For the U.S. Role blog I noted the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command. Having lived in Africa years ago in a period in which the U.S. presence was waning, I viewed the new military command as a welcome sign that the U.S. once again appreciated the strategic importance of the continent. Since that time the U.S. has stepped up joint operations with local military groups, sending special forces advisers, funding intelligence sharing and training, and deploying drones as well as millions of dollars in military aid to combat al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked group in Somalia, and AQIM – an al-Qaida group that operates in the west and north of Africa. The “new” U.S. military presence in Africa was a surprise only to those who were not paying attention.

Person of the Year – Steve Jobs
Now, keep in mind that this blog is devoted to the U.S. role in the world and is not exclusively focused on diplomacy or defense. I’m providing this caveat so you won’t be too shocked as I nominate Steve Jobs as Person of the Year. I think a good case could be made (as I tried to do here) that Jobs symbolized the American Dream to the world at-large in a non-political manner that even those determinedly anti-American could appreciate. His death was a global event (as attested to by the throngs of well-wishers who gathered at Apple stores all over the world), that reminded people that in America the estranged son of a Syrian immigrant could, through hard work and determined focus, change the world and earn billions of dollars in the process.

Forecast for 2012
As the new year dawns the U.S. will set about the urgent task of repairing relations with Pakistan, a vital partner in the war in Afghanistan. Is it too late? Pakistan needs the U.S. as much as we need them and despite the great distrust that exists between us, self-interest should be enough to keep relations cooperative enough to continue the war next door in Afghanistan. I think the real story in 2012 will be the how well the U.S. can balance a rising China with our many Pacific allies that depend on the U.S. to maintain their security. I’m not one of those convinced that our relationship with China need necessarily become adversarial, we have many mutual interests, but China has long demonstrated a difficulty in understanding a country like ours in which their are multiple centers of power, and this lends itself to misperception and miscalculation. I would not be surprised if the year sees little progress in the Middle East peace talks (linked as they are to the Arab Spring), the effort to isolate Iran (Russia and China are certain to veto further sanctions even as Iran does a pretty good job isolating itself), and foreign policy initiatives in general because of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. And finally, as Europe continues to struggle with their debt crisis, I’m looking forward to next year’s G8 Summit in Chicago as an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate leadership at a time of global economic uncertainty.



Joel Davis

Joel Davis is the Director of Online Services at the International Studies Association in Tucson, Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Master's degree in International Relations. He has lived in the UK, Italy and Eritrea, and his travels have taken him to Canada, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Greece.

Follow U.S. Role on Twitter: @FPAUSRole
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Areas of Focus:
State Department; Diplomacy; US Aid; and Alliances.

Contact Joel by e-mail at [email protected].