News organizations around the world have been looking at 2009's most important trends and events. RFE/RL correspondent Gregory Feifer recently sat down with Susan Glasser, executive editor of "Foreign Policy"
magazine, for her perspective. An influential voice in the U.S. foreign policy community, Glasser was previously assistant managing editor for national news at "The Washington Post." Earlier, she served as Moscow correspondent for the paper, together with her husband, Peter Baker. They co-wrote "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution." RFE/RL: "Foreign Policy" recently published a feature on the Top 10 Overlooked Stories of 2009. The two at the top of the list were the opening of Russia's arctic Northeast Passage and the resurgence of violence in Iraq. Can you explain why?
What we were aiming to do was to look at the stories, not that went unreported entirely, but that really escaped broad general notice because often those are the stories that have the bigger long-term impact. Those are the stories that you might be reading a whole lot more about in 2010.
, frankly, [was] so overwhelmingly and understandably dominated by a few big news stories: President Obama's first year, then the health-care fight, the war in Afghanistan, the ongoing turmoil after the election in Iran. These are understandably the big news stories of 2009. So what we do every year is make a tradition out of searching out those big, very impactful things that you might not have heard as much about.
And I do think the opening up of the Northeast Passage certainly qualifies as a major global event. It's going to rework not only how globalized commerce in the age of global warming works, but it's going to reshape the geopolitics of the world. Already, if you look at the competition for resources between Russia and Canada, the new focus [is] on who owns what underneath that melting polar ice cap, the resources and minerals that have been found and may now be exploited by different nations. This is a pretty big deal.
Same thing with the ongoing violence in Iraq. Is that something which will fall off the world's radar screen as we focus on Afghanistan, only to come roaring back into the news later? Other things on the list include the tensions between nuclear-armed China and India, which I think definitely bears watching...It doesn't get nearly the attention that, say, the conflict between India and Pakistan gets, for example.
But just recently it was reported that Chinese border guards stopped Indian road workers from building a road in the disputed region. The tensions are so serious that China and India this year for the first time agreed to install a nuclear hotline along the lines that the United States and the Soviet Union installed way back when.RFE/RL: Another story you highlighted was a failure of the so-called civilian surge in Afghanistan. Does that have implications for President Barack Obama's recently announced troop surge?
Absolutely. Remember in the end that the goal is to bring stability and therefore a functioning government and a functioning level of civil society to Afghanistan. That's where U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have consistently failed to measure up, in part because aid in the context of a lack of security ends up being poured down a hole. If you build a road that's then controlled by insurgents, you've built a road for insurgents. So that's the historic dilemma of aid in a conflict zone and you're certainly seeing some of that in Afghanistan.
It just also is simply true that the United States has failed to produce a level of civilian nation building -- for lack of a better word -- expertise. So within weeks of announcing the civilian surge, the Obama administration was forced to do exactly what the Bush administration before it did, which was to go to the Pentagon to fill those supposedly civilian jobs. RFE/RL: Another "Foreign Policy" story is the Top 100 Thinkers of 2009, and there were several surprising people in the rankings. Most noticeable was Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke at No. 1, above Barack Obama at No. 2. Can you explain that choice?
I think that if you look at the challenges that the world faced at the beginning of 2009 and the extraordinary -- and not necessarily off-the-mark -- concerns about the level of financial crisis the world was in at that moment a year ago, there was a genuine prospect of a new Great Depression as opposed to a great recession. When you see how Bernanke has steered not only the Federal Reserve, but more broadly has been a critical voice navigating through the crisis, I think it is a pretty clear-cut choice for me.
Where it's been controversial, and will continue to be controversial, is in the U.S. at least, where there's a growing call on Capitol Hill for more accountability at the Federal Reserve. In many ways, it's a very untransparent institution and there're a number of bills on Capitol Hill right now that seek to rein in the Fed at the same time that Bernanke and U.S Treasury officials are seeking to grant him more power. So there's a big political fight playing out there and, of course, a lot of people are looking for people to blame.
The lynch mob is out and there are a lot of comments on our site saying, "How could you pick Ben Bernanke? He's a tool of Wall Street." However, there are plenty of tools of Wall Street who occupy high government positions. This guy has been a scholar for his entire career and so I think that's the one thing that Bernanke is not. RFE/RL: No. 6 in the ranking are both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Can you explain that? Should we look at them as one entity?
Absolutely not. In our write-up, we gave very different accounts of why Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton individually are on that list, as well as why they're together.
To us it made sense for them to be together because they are quite simply the ultimate power couple and have been for a long time. I don't mean that in a positive or negative way. I think that although they operate in individual spheres right now, their work has overlapped in a consistently interesting way since Clinton's presidency.
They have different kinds of impact right now, but arguably they both make the list. RFE/RL: You cite Hillary Clinton for enacting "smart power," which brings me to your book "Kremlin Rising." I'm struck by the remarkably similar dynamics you describe in Russia under [then-President] Vladimir Putin almost a decade ago and what you see today under President Dmitry Medvedev. The same things being said, the same stress on the rule of law and fighting corruption.
First of all, on [current Prime Minister] Putin and Medvedev and whether there's any space between the two Russian leaders, you're absolutely right. There are some very interesting parallels. As people try to understand Vladimir Putin when he came to the presidency, there was a certain amount of what you charitably could call wishful thinking taking place.
And indeed, if you go back and look, you'll find striking similarities about what Vladimir Putin said about the need to rein in corruption and to introduce the rule of law into Russian society back when he first became president. And this is almost verbatim what Dmitry Medvedev has been saying over the last year.
I tend to smile when I read columns that say, see, Medvedev is against corruption. He's in favor of the rule of law. This means Medvedev is different. I would take that with a serious grain of salt. To me, the more interesting journalistic question is to try to look at what he has actually done in the year since he's been president and Vladimir Putin has been prime minister. Are there signs of major legal or structural changes?
Because in the end, Vladimir Putin -- as we argue in the book "Kremlin Rising" -- did systematically alter the fundamental Russian power relationships. He changed the law. When the terrorist attack at Beslan occurred, he used that as the pretext to eliminate the legal election of governors all across Russia. That is a serious structural and legal change that results in more power in the Kremlin. We haven't seen anything like that from Dmitry Medvedev yet.
RFE/RL: Obama's reset policy on Russia: naive or worth a shot?
The symbolic reset button presented by Hillary Clinton to her Russian counterpart in July
It's early days yet, there's no question. Barack Obama is dealing with many, many different things on his plate. Russia is not only just one of those, but probably not even in the top five in terms of Obama's foreign policy concerns. So the reset button also means many different things to different people.
I think one issue is whether the Obama administration has explained to people what it really means by the reset button. There are different schools and points of view probably even within the administration. Some people might say, no, we're not trading away our concern about democracy and human rights in Russia or in former Soviet space, but we're emphasizing where we have common national interests with Russia. So that's one version of the reset button.
But of course, there's a different version of the reset that says in fact the U.S. is setting aside those concerns -- not because it doesn't still care about human rights or democracy, but because it doesn't see anything useful coming out of that engagement with Russia. So I think before we can touch the policy we actually need to know a little more what it means.