Foreign policy wasn't taking a back seat as the year ended and we started the third decade of this turbulent century. In Iraq, Iran-backed demonstrators chanting "Death to America" ransacked parts of the U.S. embassy compound. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un announced he would no longer abide by a testing moratorium that President Donald Trump had long trumpeted as a great diplomatic achievement.
But while Iraq, Iran, Korea and other crises are sure to demand Washington's immediate and focused attention, the coming year is likely to be dominated by two major realities in global affairs: the deepening antagonism between China and the United States and the growing conflict between authoritarianism and liberalism.
Although 2020 is starting off well for Washington and Beijing, with the announced signing of a phase-one trade agreement in mid-January, relations between the world's two largest powers will become increasingly competitive in the coming year for both domestic and geopolitical reasons.
From the very first days of his administration, the president seemed to have it in for the State Department and the Foreign Service officers who are its most important resource.
In Washington, China hawks are gaining strength, not only in the White House but also on Capitol Hill and in both political parties. Congress is looking to legislate an ever harder line against China -- both to punish Beijing for its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and to guard against Chinese commercial and military spying and the growing threat many now believe Beijing poses to national security. In Beijing, meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has also taken a hard line against domestic critics to ensure the Communist Party's unquestioned preeminence in Chinese society and pursued an increasingly nationalistic foreign policy that frequently paints the United States and the West as adversaries.
The domestic politics in both countries is feeding increasing sentiment to separate the Chinese and American economies and societies. One indication of this decoupling is the attempt to erect a technological iron curtain between advanced communications systems like 5G and even the internet. The urge to decouple also reflects a growing geopolitical competition for power and influence around the globe, with China using its newfound might to undermine a U.S.-led global order that has served America and its many allies so well for more than 75 years.
Increased competition between the United States and China is also apparent in the growing conflict between authoritarianism and liberalism more generally. China is increasingly promoting its own brand of state capitalism and authoritarian control as the best path for national development, pushing it as an alternative to Western views that increased economic and political openness best fosters such development. And it is having some success, as countries around the world opt to align with China and its large investments to promote their economic development. Even in the West, China's deep pockets and strong authoritarianism are gaining increasing support and some admirers.
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Now, much of the hope and optimism that flowed after the Berlin Wall fell has disappeared.
Yet, the competition between a new authoritarianism and the old liberalism is hardly over. Even as the White House has muted its traditional criticism of human rights abuses and authoritarian rule around the world, last year saw the emergence of a powerful counterforce to both as millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest the corruption of power and the failure of governments to meet the people's essential needs.
This confrontation between the people and those in power will very likely deepen in 2020. Even as Beijing has sought to tighten its grip, millions in Hong Kong took to the streets and the ballot box to declare their deep desire to decide their own future. They're unlikely to give up on their demands for more democracy and the big question is whether China will agree or, instead, respond with more repression and violence.
That same question now confronts leaders around the world -- for in Baghdad, Beirut and Tehran, in Caracas, La Paz and Santiago, in Paris, Rome and Warsaw, in Algiers, Johannesburg and Khartoum, and in so many other global cities, people in the millions have taken to the streets to demand change and a government that serves the people rather than the powerful. Even as authoritarians have strengthened their hold on power across the world, it would be foolish to dismiss the force that people can bring to bear in support of real change. Whether they will prevail in these confrontations is impossible to know, but they're bound to continue pushing their demands for change in the coming year.
The bitter experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have left Americans weary of interventionism, but this is not the same as wanting to retreat from the world.
We enter the '20s at a time when American power and influence continues to wane, China's is increasing and people all around the world are making clear that their voices need to be heard. It's times like these that call for farsighted leadership -- for leaders with clear visions on where to take their countries, who can see problems and forge strategies and build coalitions ready to solve them, and who can bring along the people without whose consent and support they are bound to fail. The big unknown for 2020 and beyond is whether the major powers in the world will have the right caliber of leaders to help all of us succeed.
Your favorite Napa Valley Register letters to the editor of 2019
We get hundreds of letters to the editor every year, but usually only a few stand out. These were your favorite letters based on total page views.
The family of a man who opened fire on a sheriff's deputy appeals for more mental health care.
A Napa resident says forcing developers to install public art projects is a bad idea.
A reader decries the Register's coverage of the Drag Queens of the Valley show