Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief, dear readers, and our last newsletter of the year. What’s on tap today: a look back at the greatest national security stories of the yearand how they will define US foreign policy under the Biden administration.
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The (dumpster fire) year in review
This week, as we sip our eggnog and curl up on the couch to enjoy week 41 of the lockdown, we reflect on a crazy year in the national security world. Washington was in chaos, new showdowns with China and Iran, impeachment proceedings (remember?), Elections that tested the foundations of US democracy, and the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
To round out this crazy year, let’s take a look at some of the top national security stories: What we reported and analyzed when the news broke, and the long-term implications of Washington preparing for a January 1 change of power. 20, 2021.
1. Suleimani kills spark of war and economic turmoil
by Keith Johnson and Lara Seligman, Jan 3rd
2020 began with the Trump White House killing Iranian top general Qassem Suleimani in an air strike, sending shock waves across the Middle East and taking the US-Iran showdown to a new level. The dire predictions of a full-scale war between the United States and Iran failed to materialize, but Suleimani’s assassination set the stage for a year of tensions that dominated much of Washington’s Middle East policy.
With the entry of US President-elect Joe Biden into the White House in January, Iran signaled a wait-and-see approach to further confrontation. Both Tehran and the Biden team appear ready to get the Iranian nuclear deal going again. But the tough elements of the Iranian security company will not soon forget Suleimani’s assassination. On the anniversary of the murder, the US State Department ordered a temporary recall of embassy personnel in Iraq because of expected threats.
Such a threat could spell a final foreign policy crisis for Trump when he leaves the White House and the first for Biden when he enters the Oval Office.
2. Not guilty
by Amy MacKinnon and Robbie Gramer, February 5th
The impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump predictably ended when the Senate acquitted him – largely politically – of having abused power and obstructed Congress in early February. The impeachment process was a good example of how politics is no longer standing at the proverbial edge of the water and how US foreign policy – usually a bastion of bipartisan consensus – is increasingly being plagued by bipartisan fighting in Washington. This will likely be one of the biggest challenges for Biden when he takes office in January.
Top Republican lawmakers are not letting go of the underlying obsession behind Trump’s impeachment: Joe Biden and his son Hunter, a former board member of a Ukrainian energy company. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has called in a special adviser to investigate whether Hunter Biden’s relations with Ukraine pose a conflict of interest for the new president.
Suffice it to say, all of the controversies surrounding Trump’s impeachment process will not magically go away on Inauguration Day.
3. The next wave
by Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, March 23
The coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down this year. While developed countries are still affected by the pandemic that infected over 73 million people and killed 1.6 million people, an even worse story is developing in poorer countries. Some of the war and famine stricken countries of the world will be vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks in the years to come as rich countries stock the majority of the vaccines available.
The United Nations attempted to resolve this problem in late March and launched a preventive campaign to raise money for countries already facing conflict and humanitarian crises to fight the pandemic. However, the risk of fatal outbreaks in refugee camps or conflict areas remains high, and health experts believe this remains an onerous problem for international aid agencies.
4. The great decoupling
by Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer, May 14th
Trump spent much of his early years in office in a love-hate relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the beginning of 2020 he put tariffs and trade restrictions on China – before saying that relations with Beijing at the World Economic Forum in Davos have “never been better”.
The spread of the coronavirus from Wuhan, China changed all that. Trump threatened to “sever the entire relationship” and was suggested by Republican allies in Congress who accused China’s pandemic response to the pandemic of stalling global economic growth.
Trade appears to have recovered with the United States still dependent on China for critical inputs and China still dependent on many US goods. But Biden’s new cabinet, facing a Washington united in its dislike of Beijing, must decide how far back China should be pushed back after the pandemic – and whether America’s economic relations with China will be wholly or partially confrontational.
5. The White House interviews defense officials on the perceived loyalty test
by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, Jul. 3
When Trump’s re-election was in full swing after his impeachment, the government sought to weed out officials who were not sufficiently faithful to his agenda. The journey started slowly. The White House placed loyalists in the State Department and then attempted to reshape the Pentagon, removing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and pushing for the hiring of conspiracy theorists.
On the way to the door, Trump can still wreak havoc through an executive order calling on U.S. government agencies to potentially reclassify career workers, shatter trust between career and political staff, and further deepen the civil-military divide.
That’s it for today.
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