The Top 10 News Stories of 2013—as told by a World Affairs Council Program Officer

The views and opinions reflected in this post are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

The nuclear deal with Iran – will it work out?

Has Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear program or not—a question asked around the world for months. News stories have covered every angle. The deal is on. It’s off. It’s “derailed.” It’s on again! With all this confusion it’s reasonable to assume progress may actually be happening. Despite the back and forth, high-level Iranian officials are confident in a final nuclear deal. Stay tuned in 2014 as the story develops.

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Typhoon Haiyan

There have been deadlier environmental catastrophes in the Asia-Pacific in recent memory. For example, the Tohoku earthquake that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster claimed nearly 16,000 lives. For the Philippines, however, Typhoon Haiyan is the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the archipelago in its recorded history. The death toll has surpassed 6,000 and is expected to continue to rise.

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Hugo Chavez dies

Hugo Chavez died after serving as Venezuela’s president for nearly 15 years. Often critical of U.S. foreign policy—particularly in South America—Chavez was a polarizing figure. To some he was a beacon of an economic revolution within Venezuela, catalyzed by the formation of many state-owned cooperatives and leveraging the country’s nationalized oil industry. To others he was yet another South American strongman, wielding power and systemically persecuting those who stood against him. In April 2013, it came as virtually no surprise as his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, ascended to Venezuela’s top office. If you were surprised, then I have some beach front property in Missouri I’d like to sell you.

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Syria’s civil war rages

There are a sparse few more brutal conflicts in the latter day historical archives than the civil war in Syria. The Syrian government still stands under the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad, but a confederated band of rebels continues to fight against his regime and those loyal to it. There are a variety of actors and factors at play here, and simply defining the violence as a binary conflict over-simplifies an already extremely complex situation.

In August, a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb killed over 1,300 Syrians – many of whom were women and children. This sparked international outrage, and tension, over how to respond. President Barack Obama (U.S.) called for a harsh military stand and even prepped a few ballistic missiles to do the job. President Vladimir Putin (Russia), however, called for a more diplomatic approach. A compromise between the two international super powers left Assad in power while forcing him to relinquish his chemical weapons stockpile.

Why such a minor punishment for a violent attack that killed thousands, you may ask? Because no one knows who actually did it! Both Assad and the opposition blamed each other. A U.N.-backed chemical weapons team confirmed “chemical weapons were used” but didn’t assign responsibility. Peace talks are scheduled for January 22 in Geneva and Montreaux, Switzerland, but a solution isn’t likely. Assad has already said his regime will not cede power, and the opposition is calling for regime change. Meanwhile, over 100,000 have been killed and over 7 million are refugees or remain internally displaced. Calling this a humanitarian catastrophe is not an understatement in this context.

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ousted from power

Only a year after Egyptians ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak, loosely based democratic elections were held and determined that Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood would take over as Egypt’s next president. After a little over a year in power, Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military in response to more wide scale opposition protests in Egypt.

There wasn’t much optimism surrounding Morsi’s rise to power, or Egypt’s future. The cynics called it right this time. In the category of “Scenario That Presented Quite A Few Worst Case Scenarios,” they should all be awarded the “See, I Told You So” award.

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NSA scandal

Despite all of the technical jargon about whether or not the National Security Agency (NSA) is actually looking at all of the sites you explore on the internet, or monitoring the random things you do over the phone, it seems like the official end has been lowered on metadata programs like PRISM and XKeyscore. What’s metadata? Well, it’s essentially the billions upon billions of phone calls, numbers, and corresponding data that can be, and is being, tracked by the NSA. The purpose is to figure out if bad people who want to hurt Americans are contacting other bad people who want to hurt Americans, and determine how long and often they talked to each other. That may sound simple and relatively innocuous, but when über-geek-turned-vigilante Edward Snowden leaked all of this stuff to the American public, we weren’t entirely comfortable with the fact that it was happening. To some he is a hero, to others a traitor. He’s probably somewhere in between. This led to some fairly interesting discussion of what is permissible under the auspices of the U.S. Constitution. Reasonable minds can differ, but why be reasonable when there’s plenty of cable news air time from which to profiteer?

One thing is true though, all of the activities that the NSA performed were – and still are, technically – legal until decided otherwise by the U.S. executive, legislative, and judiciary bodies we have appointed to represent us. The whole issue is wrapped up in what is deeming to be a lengthy appeals process. However, it’s almost a certainty that President Obama will initiate some reforms, and the recent Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies made some recommendations that may or may not resolve the issue. Time will tell.  Whether you agree or disagree with those in power, I think it is safe to say the polls will be pretty popular this upcoming election season.

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Over the past year, there have been protests across every continent characterized by popular displeasure for a number of different issues:

  • Chile: Young people are protesting the rising costs of tuition (essentially arguing that all education should be free).
  • Europe: Young people are really upset with the high youth unemployment rates, which in some places are as high as 25 to 30 percent (the average youth unemployment levels in the Middle East and North Africa).
  • Egypt: Similar to the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians took to the streets in opposition to his successor President Morsi (See above). The Egyptian military has since removed Morsi from office.
  • Ukraine: Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in the central square of Kiev to protest what seems like Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to side with a Russian-led customs union over entry into the European Union.
  • Turkey: What started as a peaceful protest organized by youth opposing the destruction of trees in a popular plaza, grew to a larger movement against the leading Islamic government. Prime Minister Erdogan brought in water cannons to violently subdue the protesters—an act that sat well with neither the protesters nor the international community (thank you social media).
  • Thailand: Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protestors are looking to oust the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in 2006 and currently lives in exile. Despite the dissolution of parliament and a call for elections, many protestors argue supporters of the Shinawatra dynasty will end up in power continuing the era of corruption.

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Honorable mention

Senkaku-Diaoyu dispute: Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands; China calls them the Diaoyu Islands. Both countries argue the islands belong to them, and do not see any room for compromise.

The latest excitement in this notable debate came right around Thanksgiving when China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which covers the islands and intersects with Japan’s own ADIZ.

Russia’s growing influence: Vladimir Putin is back in power, and hasn’t wasted anytime placing the spotlight on Russia–and we’re not just referring to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Russia has been a key player in a number of international conflicts and disputes including both the Syrian civil war and the Ukrainian protests (both are mentioned above).

Elections: We can’t forget the numerous elections that took place in 2013. Some were expected outcomes (i.e. Chancellor Merkel of Germany), others were close races that ended in an upset (i.e. President Kenyatta of Kenya).

2013 National Elections:

  • Chile
  • Germany
  • Pakistan
  • Australia
  • Venezuela
  • Italy
  • Iran
  • Kenya
  • Czech Republic

By: Dan Law, Program Officer, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh