The Geopolitical Agenda for 2013


Not even a month into the New Year, and politics are already dominating the headlines, thanks in large part to the wrangling in Washington over the United States’ finances. But while negotiations over reducing the federal debt will continue to attract attention in 2013, they won’t be the only big story. To find out what else we should expect this year, we asked Steven Clemons, The Atlantic’s editor-at-large and publisher of the popular Washington Note blog, to tell us what geopolitical issues he expects to take center stage. Never one to rely on conventional wisdom, some of Clemons’ predictions could surprise you.



A More Centrist Washington

Most observers think Washington is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War, but Clemons believes 2013 will see the U.S. capital filled with a renewed sense of bipartisanship. Given that the year started off with a failure by both major political parties to strike a “grand bargain” that significantly reduced the deficit, one could be forgiven for believing the spirit of compromise is dead. But Clemons argues the political pendulum is set to swing back to the center, spurred by what he believes will be a growing consensus among Democrats and Republicans that curbing spending is necessary. “We are not going to live in a Paul Krugman world or a Grover Norquist world,” he explains. Instead, upcoming negotiations over the debt ceiling and the sudden, drastic spending cuts known as sequestration will effectively force Washington into compromise.



The Pentagon Pivot 

Clemons believes the sizable drawdown occurring in Afghanistan will allow the U.S. military to continue its tilt away from the Middle East and Central Asia and towards the Asia-Pacific region. This strategic pivot, announced by President Obama more than a year ago, reaffirms the United States’ traditionally strong military presence in Asia. Last summer, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said he expected about 60 percent of the country’s naval fleet to be based in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. The Pentagon’s shift towards Asia comes as China makes its own case for regional military dominance by stepping up heated rhetoric regarding various disputed islands in the South China Sea.




Africa remains a vital national security issue for both the U.S. and Europe, especially with Islamist militants flexing their military muscle in both Algeria and the Sahel. The U.S. has taken steps to increase its influence on the continent over the past five years, and the 2006 creation of the United States Africa Command indicates that Washington believes the military has a role to play. But the U.S. has yet to develop significant traction in the region, especially compared to former colonial powers such as France.


Clemons believes the U.S. should take a page from the Chinese, who have become important investors in many African countries, and link its military strategy with ambitious trade policies. “If you are not also engaged economically, then your overall relevance decreases,” he explains.



China’s Cautious Swagger 

While China is growing into its role as a regional power, Beijing is still not ready to push its territorial claims into an all-out military conflict, says Clemons, who describes China’s power as a “fragile swagger.” He predicts the country will continue to build up its blue water navy, while remaining reluctant to put its military prowess to the test.

“As it stands the country has a constant fear of a real clash,” he explains.


On the home front, Clemons sees the Chinese leadership trying to put their domestic house in order. Xi Jinping, who will take over as president this year, has sent strong signals indicating he will curtail corruption and rebalance the Chinese economy to address the growing wealth gap. As for Sino-American relations, “(they) will continue to be a mixture of collaboration on economic issues and an undeniable show of strength (on military issues),” Clemons says.



Russia: An Ongoing Reset 

Because of its sheer size, abundant natural resources and military strength, Russia remains a power that cannot be ignored. U.S.-Russian relations have become so fraught, however, that President Vladimir Putin recently signed a controversial law banning the adoption of Russian children by American citizens. Clemons believes the bilateral setback could be forgotten if the two countries can cooperate with France, Britain, Germany and China to deal with Iran’s contentious nuclear program. “When it comes to Russia, you have to figure out how to turn losses into wins on other issues,” he says.



EU Debt Crisis — More Uncertainty Ahead

By agreeing to a number of reforms, including the launch of an EU-wide body to regulate financial lenders, Europe has given itself the tools it needs to fight the debt crisis. Still, it remains unclear how the EU will use these new tools. In addition, gloomy economic outlooks for France, the U.K. and other member states could help draw out the crisis.




Cuba: A Move to Loosen the U.S. Embargo?

With key members of the U.S. Congress calling for a loosening of the embargo on Cuba, and President Obama open to improving relations with the island state, Cuba could be this year’s big surprise, Clemons says.


Raul Castro has approved a series of economic reforms since taking over from his brother, Fidel Castro, including a new law easing travel restrictions on Cubans. The reforms have motivated some members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., to call for more dialogue with Havana. Newly elected Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has urged Washington to end the travel ban on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. Implementing reforms like these would have positive diplomatic repercussions far beyond Cuba, says Clemons. “Cuba is a nation of 11 million people with a strong echo effect. How we deal with Cuba is a positive indication of how the U.S. is going to deal and relate with other countries that have neither large economies nor armies but are part of the often ignored middle range of nations that should matter to us.”


Photos courtesy of Rob Wilson /; David Berry /