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A risky step back
Xenia Dormandy

Project Director, US, Chatham House

Is this “new” American foreign policy strategy temporary or permanent? Should we consider America’s backseat role in Libya and Mali a new direction or a brief aberration? Does President Obama’s reticence to act in Syria imply an avoidance of responsibility, a symptom of the domestic distraction of Washington politics, or a profound change in intention or tactics?

In conversations I have had from Paris to Tokyo and Brussels to Singapore, two sentiments have been most striking. The first is a sense of real disappointment that the ideal of the US as a shining city on a hill is no longer. Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the death penalty, lack of universal healthcare, guns and other such American phenomena have destroyed their dreams of a golden US to which they – and others – can aspire.

The second feeling is fear. Fear that America will no longer take primary responsibility for the global commons. Fear that it will no longer “have their back”. Fear that the perception of American weakness will embolden their adversaries. But is this image of a weak America true? Should we expect more reticence, avoidance of responsibility, or (if you’re feeling generous) even shyness from the US in 2014?

America’s actions are finally coming into line with its rhetoric over the past 20 years; it not only says it doesn’t want to be the world’s policemen but, when push comes to shove, it now resists stepping in. It is an America that, as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said at Chatham House in October, when America was asked what it was going to do in Libya, the response was “well, what are you going to do about it?”.

America will continue to lead when its vital national interests are engaged. Its capabilities have not diminished; nor – when it matters – has its will. But if it is not so important to the US, don’t expect to see it lead the charge.

Libya thus is an interim milestone. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi did not affect America’s vital interests so they let Britain and France take the lead. Yet when the Libyan terrorist Abu Anas al-Libi – allegedly responsible for the East African embassy bombings in 1998 – was found on the streets of Tripoli, a special forces operation was launched.

What does this mean for 2014? There are at least two immediate problems with this new doctrine. The first is that because the Obama administration hasn’t explained it with any clarity, its allies (and adversaries) are confused. This could lead to some very dangerous situations if America’s red lines are crossed and, against the odds, it reacts.

The other challenge stems from the resulting gaps from America’s less active foreign policy. As the situation in Syria has made clear, if the US doesn’t act no one else will either. As a result, the civil war goes on and the potential for conflagration across the Middle East rises.

So, for 2014, anticipate more confusion among America’s allies. Expect more muscle flexing from America’s adversaries as they test the boundaries of this new world. And look forward to more American internal dysfunction as those in Washington return to their favourite sport of partisan bickering without a thought to the international consequences of leaving the rest of the world in chaos.


International relations

Bloc building
Satoshi Ikeuchi

Associate professor at the University of Tokyo

It could be that 2014 is the year Japan wakes up from its pacifist-isolationism and asserts itself on the global stage. The key: an independent foreign policy strategy that doesn’t always look to the US for guidance. Nobody expects the US-Japan alliance to fall apart.

Nor is Japan likely to do anything radical. Rather, the shift is likely to come about in a more subtle fashion: starting as a creeping scepticism of US power in the minds of Japan’s foreign policy Establishment and ultimately leading to a new kind of diplomacy.

The trigger? Call it the Obama Shock of August 2013. When Barack Obama declared his intent to dispatch American forces to punish the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons, only to put that on hold and defer to Congress, it was a startling display of the limitations of US might that left Washington’s allies and security partners deeply shaken.

Policymakers around the globe rushed to adjust to this new reality. The surprises kept coming, with US-Russia talks on Syria and Washington’s possible rapprochement with Iran adding to a sense of uncertainty among US allies.

Japan was not immune to the effects. What happens in the Middle East might be repeated in the Far East. Who’s to say that the US wouldn’t abandon Japan to appease China? Japan has long pushed for a US rapprochement with Iran. Tokyo has even offered to use its own cordial ties with Tehran and act as a go-between – only to get the cold shoulder from Washington. In Obama’s first term as president, the US pulled the plug on Japan’s efforts at mediation. Later, in 2012, Washington’s push to tighten sanctions on Iran dealt a setback to Japan’s economic interests in Iran. Now the US is in direct talks with Iran; European countries and China are also at the table. Meanwhile, Japan has been shut out.

As the US adjusts its foreign policy priorities, Japan must think about taking control of its own future. With the long-awaited move by Japan to set up a National Security Council, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have a diplomatic brain trust to turn to. This should lead to a more ambitious and autonomous foreign policy. Their first task? Looking beyond the US-centric world view.

That’s not to say Japan should rush to kowtow to China. But why not strengthen ties with other abandoned or burned ex-US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey? Someone might want to come up with a name for this new bloc. I have a suggestion: the League of ex-US Allies, or LEXUS-A.


Property development

Home truths
Andrew Tuck

Editor, Monocle

The small house had been empty for almost a year. The previous owner, an architect, had died and his family had decided to sell. Deals fell through over the following months, the house came on and off the market but then one January day it was mine. When I got the keys and walked in you could still see on the carpets the indents from where his chairs and bed had once rested.

There was an orange breakfast bowl in a cupboard, boxes of light bulbs for various fittings all carefully labelled so you knew what went where, some brass keys that didn’t seem to fit any door, bottles of detergent under the sink. It didn’t feel as though the house was all mine just yet. In a very comfortable way, he was present.

On a shelf I found file after file of brown cardboard folders filled with papers. Each file recorded, in meticulous detail, the decisions he’d taken about the house in the 18 years that he’d lived here.

There was the planning consent agreement to add an extra floor, colour charts for every drop of paint that had been used, sometimes terse correspondence with local officials and difficult neighbours, and bills for anything and everything from washing machines to window cleaning. It was a history of the house in receipts and it revealed how much he’d cared about his home; how much effort and love he’d taken over every decision. I saw the house through his eyes, got to understand why everything looked like it did. I liked him.

It was a year before I had any money to tackle the house and remake it for my life: walls had to come down, a kitchen moved, windows replaced. It was time to take possession. But after a year I also didn’t want him all gone – it didn’t feel right to erase his connection completely or wipe away all his hard work. I found a letter in the files confirming delivery of a handmade number for the front door – that would not be unscrewed. He’d searched for ages to find the right hooks for the bathroom – they would stay too. Lamps were kept. Shelves that had taken him some time to design remained too.

As work on the house started I found ghostly echoes under the floors that predated both of us. You could see where fireplaces once stood. A staircase had been removed. Over the centuries there were lots of people who had once thought of this house – my house – as theirs. We were all just passing through. And this house would be remade many more times in the future.

Our homes, our neighbourhoods and our cities are all like that. One minute you feel part of the furniture, the next you are gone – luckily not too often in a box, usually just to a new ’hood. Few of us get to leave any legacy, to really make an impact on where we live.

Property developers and city planners do. So too can a good urban activist – the nascent Jane Jacobses of this world. With steel and concrete or the ink on a planning consent they can change our skylines and make our metropolises better, or worse, places to live for a very long time.

But as they make their plans, you hope they won’t erase all that went before. Whether it’s just following the idiosyncrasies of a street layout or leaving the bits of buildings that did work, keeping physical memories of the old and respecting what went before helps add depth, layers and meaning to our urban lives. It’s good to understand the merits and the mistakes of the past before ripping it up and starting again.


Data visualisation

Numbers game
Tim Harford


Design is cool. Statistics have become cool. What, then, could be cooler than beautifully designed statistics? Data visualisation has become the thinking person’s fashion – gorgeous images to salivate over and to share, all while embodying the highest standards of scientific and journalistic rigour.

I am not convinced. Graphics have always been used to persuade, even to deceive, as often as they have been used to inform. The dawn of “big data” has made graphical visualisations more glorious – and more indispensable – than ever. But we tend to assume the data that underpin them represent some kind of truth. Often they do not.

One of the early data visualisers was Florence Nightingale. She gathered data on deaths of British soldiers in Crimea, and plotted them in a striking, rather beautiful and yet alarming pair of diagrams – the “Coxcombs”.

Nightingale argued – correctly – that poor standards of hygiene in Scutari Hospital were responsible for the deaths of many British soldiers. She also argued that hospitals back home were in urgent need of improved hygiene standards. The Coxcombs were an elegant and compelling exhibit for Nightingale as she made her case against a sexist and defensive military and medical establishment. Yet as Nightingale’s biographer Hugh Small argues, the Coxcomb diagrams may be highly persuasive but they are also misleading. Nightingale wanted to argue that improved hygiene saved lives; the Coxcomb diagrams focus the maximum attention on that idea while neatly obscuring other possibilities.

The Coxcombs are two adjacent wheels, creating a “before and after” impression that the raw data do not really support; furthermore, the Coxcomb presentations effortlessly obscure the fact that the biggest killer of British troops may well have been “General Winter”. Nightingale not only invented the idea that beautiful data could persuade, she also invented the idea that part of that persuasive package would be some strategic misdirection.

Modern examples abound. A recent favourite is a teetering, golden inverted “Global Wealth Pyramid”. Buried somewhere in the visualisation is information about how many people own how much cash, and how that is changing. But it is lost in the overwhelming impression of injustice and – since the pyramid cannot possibly be stable – of instability.

Missing is an account of statistical niceties such as how negative wealth – that is, debt – could possibly be represented. It’s powerful stuff. But it is not analysis: it’s advertising.

This problem isn’t going away, because the data are only going to become harder to understand in raw form, and the need to play on our visual senses will intensify. But therein lies a trap: the more eye-catching the presentation of the data, the less our critical faculties tend to kick in. Websites such as WTF Vizualisations mock crass and clumsy graphics. That’s fun. But the smooth and elegant graphics are what we need to guard against.

The author David McCandless famously told us that “Information is Beautiful”. Quite so. But misinformation is beautiful too. And if information and misinformation look so similar, who is going to spot the difference?



Decision time
Sinan Ulgen

Think-tank chairman

Turkey is one of those rare countries that would have to be invented if it did not already exist. That is not because it is the cradle of many ancient civilisations but rather because Turkey has an enormous potential to solve one of the burning dilemmas of the modern world: Turkey is the country that most successfully combines Islam, democracy and modernity.

Turkey’s uniqueness is emphasised by the democratic struggles other Muslim countries have experienced since the Arab Uprisings began in 2011. The attractiveness of the “Turkish model” to a range of aspiring democracies in the Arab world was the essence of Turkey’s growing soft power in this critical region. Yet its regional soft power is now under threat by two dynamics that have a potential to undermine the country’s past achievements.

The Turkish brand of democracy is increasingly seen as too stifling by a growing number of middle class Turks. The Gezi protests that erupted in Istanbul in June were about aspirations for a more inclusive democracy. They were also about the protection and consolidation of the peaceful right of dissent. For many, Turkey’s democracy is in dire need of overhaul. Only a successful transition towards a more liberal and tolerant democratic rule respectful of minority views and minority lifestyles can really continue to uphold the popularity of the “Turkish model”.

The second challenge comes from the now boiling clash over Turkey’s true identity. For decades, Turkish political leaders have prioritised Turkey’s European identity. The aim has been to anchor Turkey firmly in the West and ensure that it remains a respected member of the Western community of nations. But this is increasingly under threat as Turkey’s new ruling elites have adopted a rhetoric that tends to accentuate Turkey’s differences from Western civilisation. The new narrative is about Turkey being an independent regional power and the leader of the Muslim world. References to a glorious Ottoman past are often used to underpin this “manifest destiny” of the new Turkey. This arguably has been a powerful narrative that captured the imagination of many Turks. The growing frustration of having to deal with an indecisive, divided and economically enfeebled Europe have also made it difficult to champion internally the cause of EU accession.

The country is now at a historic turning point; 2014 will prove to be a decisive moment for the future direction of the country. There will be at least two elections. Local elections are slated for March while presidential elections will take place in August. The outcome of these will determine whether Turks are more inclined to elevate their Islamic/conservative roots above their many other competing identities. These elections will also show how anxious they have become for upgrading their democratic standards. The result is very much uncertain. But their votes will have a resonance far beyond Turkey’s borders. A clear mandate for reforms and for a revitalised relationship with Europe can only help to elevate the attractiveness of Turkey. A different mandate would, however, weaken Turkey’s soft power and the relevance of the “Turkish model” at a time when, paradoxically, the world and the region is ever more needful of a truly successful blueprint for sustainable democratic and economic transition in the Muslim world.



Mind the gap
Musa Okwonga


In London it is a tradition that when looking to start a chat with a stranger you bemoan the country’s idiosyncratic weather. Thoroughly uncontroversial, it’s an excellent topic for small talk, since any complaint that you make will be greeted with slow, sympathetic shakes of the head. Weather: bringing London together.

Lately, though, there seems to be a new issue that is uniting Londoners like no other. Recently, I was at a friend’s 40th birthday party, for which his wife had made a group booking at a beautiful restaurant looking down on the Thames. As the guests mingled for pre-dinner drinks, gazing out over the city’s glittering skyline, the conversation wandered to the soaraway costs of living in London.

I was slightly surprised by this, since most of those in attendance were affluent members of the medical profession; they weren’t the type of people for whom, I thought, money would be more than an eminently negotiable concern. But here they were, talking about the fact that they couldn’t afford a decent place in this town. When the middle classes start taking this kind of tone, you know something’s up. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation and the Cripplegate Foundation, examining poverty in Islington – a thriving borough in the heart of London – has covered similar ground in forensic detail. It predicts that by the end of the decade a family will need to earn more than €105,000 to afford to live there. The result, contend the report’s authors, is that “this will leave Islington polarised – with very wealthy families at the top, a youthful, transient and childless sector in the middle and those on low incomes at the bottom, living in social housing”.

As Islington goes, so goes the rest of the capital; Londoners don’t need a detailed report to know about the high price of London life. You can see it in £5 (€6) pints of beer, one-day Travelcards nearing a tenner (€12) and – most shockingly – in a skyrocketing house market where prices rose this summer by 10 per cent in just one month.

Many might argue that none of this matters. That we live under the auspices of the free market, that no one is entitled to live in London and that those who wish to do so must simply find a means of paying for the privilege. Those who cannot must simply look elsewhere.
Perhaps. Then again, it does feel as though much of this city increasingly resembles a corporate auction, and that its unique diversity will suffer for it. What’s more, there is something worrying about the sheer speed at which all this change is taking place. This is not gentrification so much as acceleration. Each passing year, London accelerates sharply on two separate paths. The first is all skywards glass, crested by a Qatari peak here and there; the second is several leagues beneath the poverty line.

It is unsettling to have destitution – that most Victorian of realities – still with us as London moves swiftly through the 21st century. It may even be dangerous. Though this has always been a city of extremes, we are seeing signs that it may be, for the first time, growing hollow at its core: its prime assets devoured by desperation for status from above, and its scraps by desperation for survival from below. In the future, maybe the only small talk that will bring Londoners together, wealthy and poor alike, is the discussion that their town has nothing left on which to feed.


British foreign policy

A can-do attitude
Steve Bloomfield

Foreign editor, Monocle

Foreign policy is supposedly marked by doctrines and ideologies – ways of understanding a country’s position or a leader’s motives. Yet more often than we’d like to admit foreign policy is decided on an ad hoc basis, sometimes pragmatic, sometimes panicked, rarely principled.

Since the end of the Cold War this has only increased. The certainties of old fell away as the Berlin Wall crumbled, particularly so for the centre-left. As the world has changed, and changed again, the British centre-left has struggled to build a new foreign policy philosophy. Are they internationalists or protectionists? Do they believe in liberal interventionism or the easy comfort of humanitarianism? Do ethics count or is realpolitik more important? It is time they worked it out.

There have been attempts in the past two decades to solve this conundrum. In the late 1990s two of the UK Labour party’s biggest beasts laid out overlapping visions. Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, argued for a foreign policy with “an ethical dimension”, one where the government no longer did deals with dictators. A year later Tony Blair took this one step further and argued for “liberal interventionism”, making the case that Western democracies should be prepared to use force to protect and promote democracy elsewhere. It laid the groundwork for military action in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

Cook’s ethical dimension fell apart when it emerged that Britain was still selling jets to the Indonesian dictator, Suharto. Blair’s doctrine lasted longer, before the war of choice in Iraq – one led by neo-conservative Americans with their own very different agenda – helped to destroy the idea of liberal interventionism.

Which brings us to Syria, a crisis that serves to highlight just how confused the British centre-left’s attitude to the wider world has become. During the emergency parliamentary debate on Syria earlier this year the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, seemed keener on inflicting a defeat on David Cameron than finding a solution to a civil war. There was a collective wringing of hands and shrugging of shoulders, an attitude that is as understandable as it is troubling. With no underlying principles, foreign policy becomes a series of pragmatic day-to-day decisions, or non-decisions.

Despite these failures, I would argue that both Blair and Cook were right. Sometimes force has to be used. The ends really can justify the means. 800,000 Rwandans would have preferred a Western military intervention. Five million Congolese would too. Kosovars seem to think the 78-day bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic was worth it. Sierra Leoneans too, are pretty happy the Brits helped to get rid of Charles Taylor.

The issue is how that is decided – and who it is decided by. That means reform of the UN Security Council. China and Russia, two states with little love for democracy, should not be able to block action against fellow autocracies. It is time for additional permanent members reflecting the way the world is now and the end to the veto.

And foreign policy can be ethical too. Not always, perhaps. But on the issue of weapons sales there is no reason why not. Don’t sell arms to dictators. Never. Not a single tear gas canister or rubber bullet. It’s a simple policy and it’s right. And not just right, but right, as in “just”.

The arguments against such a move are appalling amoral: there are British jobs at risk; other countries will sell them instead so it might as well be us. Well, sod the jobs. When an uprising in Saudi Arabia is put down by British-made weapons, when people calling for freedom are shot and killed by guns made in British factories, is that really something the British manufacturing industry should be proud of? The argument is as simple as this: don’t give weapons to bad people.

Reform of the UN shouldn’t just be limited to how the organisation makes decisions. The UN charter states that there should be a standing UN army, ready to intervene in conflicts around the world as and when the Security Council decides it is necessary. In reality though, UN peacekeeping operations are underfunded, bureaucratic and military nightmares. They are made up of troops from such military heavyweights as Nepal, Bangladesh and Guatemala.

It is here that the UK can make a positive difference. Just as British special forces were able to pacify Freetown at a time when UN troops could not, a British-led UN intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo would be far more likely to have an impact than the current mix of developing world armies, many of whom often lack the right equipment.

This would have the added advantage of returning the British left to its internationalist roots. As arguments over immigration and frustrations over outsourcing have increased, the left has become afraid of seeing itself as part of a broader international movement. There is nothing wrong with a principled foreign policy. It doesn’t just have to mean a list of things a country won’t do. It can be positive. It can make a difference.



Country cheer
Michael Booth

Copenhagen correspondent, Monocle

The Danes are world champions of happiness, regularly topping international surveys since the early 1970s – most recently Columbia University’s World Happiness Report. This has prompted some bewilderment over the years, not least among Danes who, when you ask them about such surveys, sometimes seem like the victims of a practical joke waiting to find out who the perpetrator was.

As someone who has lived in Denmark for longer than is strictly necessary, I also struggle to reconcile the Danes’ reputation with the actualité. They do not wear their purported joie de vivre on their sleeves. Indeed, they can appear a fairly sullen, gruff bunch; civic manners are not their strong point.

Looked at objectively, they have little to be so cheerful about: they are among the heaviest consumers of anti-depressants and alcohol in the world, and are notably unhealthy and short-lived; they pay the highest taxes on the planet; have the highest levels of private debt; endure deeply enervating weather for at least 10 months of the year; and everything in their shops costs roughly two times more than it should.

Despite all this, the rest of the world sees Danes as happy – and that’s something that could be very valuable, says Meik Wiking, director of the Institut for Lykkeforskning (Institute for Happiness Research), based in Copenhagen. “For instance, when international students choose where to study or in terms of tourism or the ability of companies to attract international talent.

”Wiking and I met in a TV green room where we were waiting to discuss the Columbia University report on a live news programme: he because of his role at the institute; I because my new book about the so-called Nordic Miracle had just come out in Danish.

The presenters covered the usual ground: are we Danes really the happiest people in the world? Why? Wiking patiently summed up a recent report from his institute, then they turned to me: “Well,” I said, mustering my rickety Danish. “I prefer the word ‘satisfied’. But the odd thing is that the Danes are such extremists: public sector extremists, ‘hygge’ extremists [the special Danish notion of conviviality that pervades all social interaction here] and you work fewer hours than anyone else in Europe. I think a lot of it also has to do with denial,” I continued, on a bit of a roll now. The hosts’ brows furrowed.

“I don’t mean self-denial, but you are very good at ignoring difficult truths – your debt, your taxes, your health.” Cue ‘British journalist calls us extremists’ headlines and more media mischief-making in the ensuing days as I was invited on various other current affairs, news and chat shows.

Once the furore had died down, I caught up with Wiking. I had been thinking about his comments on the potential value of the Danes’ reputation and how it might be leveraged internationally.

“The most common reaction when people hear you are Danish is, ‘ah, the happiest people in the world!’. But we haven’t realised the potential of the brand,” he tells me. “Part of the reason is the Danes are very sceptical. Happy? Us? Really? But I think there is real potential for Denmark’s companies and government to export happiness solutions. Denmark should be more engaged in the international happiness agenda and better at leading the discussion.”

To that end, Wiking is planning a happiness conference in Copenhagen in the spring of 2014 and mapping happiness levels in Dragør [a small town close to the airport]. “We want to understand the drivers and barriers of happiness at an urban level, and what the authorities can do to create better conditions for people to increase their happiness levels,” he says.

The big question is, is Danish happiness transferrable? The national character has been formed by a unique set of historical and geographical circumstances that clearly are not replicable. Seeing their once mighty empire painfully dismembered over the centuries has left them a parochial and inward-looking bunch, although that does have its benefits (a high boredom threshold for one; a talent for ignoring awkward truths another).

But there are universal lessons here in terms of trust, social cohesion and a government’s role in fostering a sense of security. Importantly, the Danes have also figured out how to appreciate the small things in life: a nicely turned chair leg, an effective recycling system, a day without rain. A work-life balance tilted heavily in favour of long weekends in summer houses helps too; above all, they appreciate that whenever the opportunity presents itself, you should always take the chance to sit back, open up a bottle of something nice and watch the candles flicker.


Female leaders

Fond farewells
Sophie Grove

Senior editor, Monocle

This year the world has seen two of its most prominent women leaders withdraw from the limelight. In February, Hillary Clinton stepped aside and in June, Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard left the scene after an ousting from office she said hit her “like a fist”. Gillard may have lacked the poise of a political icon but I miss her gutsy presence. Similarly, while foreign wonks wrangle over her legacy, the expanse of so-often-male dominated delegations is no longer punctuated by Clinton – a chic, clever older woman in possession of one of the most powerful jobs on the planet.

These were not token women but they had symbolic punch. Clinton notched up nearly one million miles on the State Department jet and every bilateral meeting – president, colonel, general or sheikh – became a vignette and an icon of possibility. Saudi women watching her converse with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud would have seen a different paradigm. Gillard taking on a chamber of rampageous opposition led by Tony Abbott day after day may have reawakened Australian feminists who thought the job had been done.

These two women changed the vista of international politics and altered the nature of policy and its tone too. Clinton and her former chief of staff Melanne Verveer – who became the first US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues – were acutely aware of their symbolic and actual power.

Both were very careful not to set out their stall as different from men. They were no more compassionate, thoughtful or conciliatory than their peers. But since their office – and perhaps because of it – this has begun to change. Recently, US Senator Susan Collins spoke of the “sisterhood” that transcends party lines in Congress and of women’s more “collaborative approach”. (She and other female senators were credited with breaking the impasse over the US debt ceiling by convening over wine and pizza to talk compromise.)

This autumn, Gillard spoke at the Sydney Opera House of the rage that drove her to make her coruscating speech on misogyny in the Australian parliament, one that will go down in both political and feminist history.

She will be missed on the world stage – for this type of speech but also for the searing power having women like her in high office can bring. Let’s hope there are some waiting in the wings.


EU foreign policy

Tough act
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

Brussels correspondent, Monocle

It’s hardly the most appealing job advertisement. Wanted: new head of the European External Action Service (eeas), one of the most vilified posts in Brussels, which even the incumbent admits is like flying a plane while its wings are being built. To take that metaphor to its logical conclusion, it’s a project that is impossible to get off the ground and, if it ever does, is likely to crash and burn.

So why has jockeying already begun to fill the shoes of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton when she steps down next year? Her tenure has been marked by a drip-drip of unflattering stories. Criticism has ranged from petty and arguably sexist sniping in French media about the way she dresses to more serious gripes from auditors in the European Parliament, who concluded in a report that the eeas was top-heavy and encumbered in its decision making by layers of bureaucracy.

But this year there has been a sea change of opinion about Baroness Ashton and her brand of quiet diplomacy. In April, her tenacity resulted in a once unthinkable political deal between Kosovo and Serbia. As Egypt descended into chaos in the summer, she became the first foreign diplomat allowed to see the detained president, Mohamed Morsi. In October, nuclear talks she had been mediating between Iran and six world powers nudged towards a breakthrough after a decade of deadlock.

Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine hailed her as “Europe’s unsung chief diplomat”. Even the UK’s Daily Telegraph – hardly the most EU-friendly publication – ran a blog entitled “We were all wrong about Baroness Ashton”.

Potential successors are now laying the groundwork. Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, has built himself a profile outside his country, while his good friend, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, is reported to be taking French classes to broaden his linguistic skills in preparation for the post.

Ms Ashton, it seems, was able to build a plane that others are scrambling to fly in 2014.

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