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There was something ineffable in the air throughout 2009. At first, it was the prospect of change, a fuzzy promise that propelled candidate Barack Obama to victory in the November 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. His “yes we can!” slogan captured the imagination of U.S. voters and millions more around the globe.

That message mixed in equal parts optimism, the prospect of change and a shared sense of responsibility for determining the future. It was inevitable that the high hopes created by his election win would be deflated as the reality of governing set in.

The first year of Mr. Obama’s tenure was marked by the gap between his soaring rhetoric and the painstaking compromises of politics. On a host of issues, from nuclear disarmament to climate change to closing detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Obama managed to both infuriate his opponents and disappoint his supporters. A close reading of his record suggests that he has changed the tone of discourse and made real progress in every field of endeavor, but such a nuanced assessment is hard to come by.

The failure to discern those shifts may be a product of the fog created by the economic crisis. The worst downturn since the Great Depression shook the foundations of the global economic order, forcing a reassessment of the nature of the system — and of the prosperity it produced — that has been taken as a given since the end of the Cold War.

The economic crisis shifted attention away from grand endeavors and bold visions and refocused minds on the day-to-day task of just getting by.

One casualty of this new mentality was the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was supposed to have been discussed at the Copenhagen meeting on climate change. Greenhouse gases are most certainly in the air, and action that would help reverse the damage being done to the environment was always going to be expensive. But those costs took on new and alarming proportions in the aftermath of the economic crisis, lowering the tolerance of developed nations and raising the costs of amelioration for everyone.

The result was failure in Copenhagen to agree to anything more than a disappointing framework, with details to come later after the original deadline.

The search for scapegoats to blame for “COP-out 15” continues. One key player is China. Beijing went into the meeting with a new sense of confidence. This is one of the most important diplomatic head winds of 2009. China’s development has been driving Asia’s emergence as the engine of global growth for over a decade. But the country’s ability to shrug off the recession and resume its blistering trajectory inflated an already powerful diplomatic presence. Its voracious appetite for raw materials gives the country economic clout that complements the diplomatic status afforded by its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Beijing has shown no reluctance to use either of those levers of influence. This new reality emerged completely in 2009 and is transforming international politics.

Iran’s leaders must envy their counterparts in Beijing. China was able to suppress the slightest whiff of unrest in Xinjiang, while the mullahs in Iran continue to battle the democratic opposition that protests the suspected theft of national elections in June. Violence flared after the vote when activists refused to accept defeat in a ballot that, by many accounts, was stolen. Brutal and bloody repression stopped the demonstrations temporarily, but the demand for free and fair elections continues.

Protests erupted once again last week when reform advocates were killed. Those protesters are unlikely to turn back their government’s seemingly determined pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, another of the defining currents of 2009. Tehran has emulated Pyongyang, professing its desire to remain within the global nuclear nonproliferation regime while stretching the boundaries of that framework.

This year North Korea helped rip another plank out of the foundation of that order by exploding its second nuclear device. Many experts fear that Iran is not far behind and is intently watching the world’s reaction to North Korean misbehavior. Thus far, leaders in both countries must be confident that a disregard for international norms will be tolerated.

Nuclear concerns hung over Pakistan as that government faced off against an extremist movement that threatens the nation’s stability. In 2009, Islamabad finally recognized the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalists within the country, and its attempt to crack down on them has generated a vicious and bloody battle. Every week a new terrorist outrage claims innocent lives. The challenge for Islamabad in 2010 will be breaking the back of this movement and reclaiming control over all of its territory.

While security specialists focused on an emerging nuclear threat, a new danger appeared: swine flu. A powerful strain of influenza surfaced in Mexico and quickly spread around the globe. By June the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic; it claimed more than 12,000 lives by mid-December. While that number is alarming, it was a mere fraction of the potential number of fatalities that experts feared would occur. Once again the gap between the idea and reality was much larger than anticipated. Fortunately, in this case, that was good for the world, not bad.

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