2013's Most Portentous Developments

Developments that will shape the next year.

With 2013 approaching termination, it may be a good time to review the five most portentous events and developments of the year. These are events and developments that hold out high prospects for ongoing impact, will likely generate derivative events and developments, and will spawn indirect as well as direct consequences. This is a subjective exercise, with plenty of room for alternative perspectives and debate. But somebody has to begin the discussion, so here are my five most portentous events and developments of 2013.

The Decline of the Obama Presidency: A big contributor to this development, of course, has been the disastrous rollout of the president’s Affordable Care Act, which has sapped Obama’s political standing precipitously and placed his party on the defensive for the coming campaign year. But the administration’s decline is a product not merely of the Obamacare fiasco. The president’s inability to sustain a serious agenda thus far in his second term has rendered him hapless in the eyes of many Americans. In domestic policy, nothing of consequence is happening under the president’s leadership. True, he has a cantankerous House of Representatives eating at him constantly. But that is no excuse. Many successful presidents have had to contend with obstructionist forces in Congress and still managed to bring about significant accomplishments. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton come to mind. Obama has squandered any opportunity he may have had to sway Congress toward a positive presidential agenda, either through force of argument, going directly to the people, or exercising political cajolery mixed with traditional horse-trading and the subtle political threat. The result over the next three years is likely to be inertia, increasingly feisty political squabbling, and ever-growing voter angst.

In foreign policy, the president has demonstrated that he doesn’t really have one. His zig-zag effort to deal with Syria, his inability to direct his policy focus away from the Middle East and toward the Far East, his reactive approach to Russia and China, his fluctuation between expressions of Wilsonian idealism and cautious realism—all these reflect a foreign policy that lacks strategic coherence, vision and consistency.

I have written previously in these spaces that only three presidents have been reelected by a smaller margin that Obama’s, and all faltered in their second terms, followed by the opposition party taking the White House at the next election. The three are Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush. If Obama wishes to avoid their fate, he must demonstrate a level of leadership that has thus far eluded him. If he can’t do it, the decline of his presidency will become progressive, and the country will continue to suffer.

China’s Declaration of a Broad "Air Defense Identification Zone" in the East China Sea: This caused a significant flare-up in November when the United States first protested the move as a "destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region," then sent two B-52 bombers into the claimed airspace as a show of resolve in the matter. Other Asian nations also entered the airspace as a demonstration of solidarity with the American position.

But the Chinese move, which was accompanied by expressions of resolve to take "defensive emergency measures" against noncommercial aircraft entering the zone, was a significant provocation by any measure. It signified that the current Chinese government is coming increasingly under the sway of China’s nationalist factions, which want to project Chinese power more broadly in the region and force the United States into a less predominant role there than it has enjoyed since World War II. Said Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, "China has the ability to take effective management and control of the relevant airspace."

China did not seek to enforce its declaration when other countries ignored it, and thus the tensions unleashed by the China move began to wane as the holiday season approached.

But this is a serious matter that puts China on a course of increased aggressiveness in the region and figures to stir greater tensions with its neighbors and with the United States. As Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security put it in an interview with the Washington Post: "The Chinese aren’t going to back off. We’re not going to back off. So right now, the trajectory is that there’s going to be some kind of mishap in the next couple of years."

Perhaps some kind of mishap can be avoided. But this is indeed a portentous development that is likely to escalate in the near term.