The Top 10 Omnishambles of 2012

“Omnishambles” was the U.K.'s word of 2012. We consider the top omnishambles in international relations from the past year.
By: /
December 31, 2012

Selected by Oxford University Press as the United Kingdom’s “word of 2012,” “omnishambles” has been defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” It is based on the phrase “a shambles”, used to describe a state of “complete disorder or ruin” or “a total mess”. The term was coined by Malcolm Tucker, a character from the TV show The Thick of It, and made its way into mainstream lexicon after the U.K. Labour Party leader used the term to describe the budget fallout.

Since its inception, the word “omnishambles” has been used to describe everything from dysfunctional U.S. sports to the U.K.’s energy policy to Rihanna’s 777 tour. Looking back on 2012, it is clear that there have been relatively inconsequential cases of comprehensive mismanagement as well as serious and tragic ones of global significance. Let’s hope 2012 was a year of omnilessons learned.

* In no particular order, as befits a list of messy situations


Bailing Out Greece

Bailing Out Greece

Greece’s fiscal situation plunged the country into economic turmoil and ignited the euro debt crisis in early 2010. The Greek recession has dragged along since then: The human toll of the nation’s bankruptcy only worsened in 2012 as unemployment soared above 25 per cent.  The political scene was also a shambles for most of the year, with Greece’s parliament approving an unpopular bailout package that resulted in a May election in which citizens voted for parties that rejected the austerity package, only to find themselves back at the polls in June when attempts at a coalition government proved unsuccessful. The pro-bailout New Democracy party government came out on top, keeping Greece in the European Union. Calming the political upheaval in Greece was complicated by the pace of the EU’s bailout negotiations ­– it took until November of 2012 for the ministers of the EU to come together and release the $60-billion rescue package that had been blocked since June.

Canada's Response to the Vote

Canada’s Response to the Vote on Palestinian Statehood

Canada recalled mission envoys from Israel and the West Bank, as well as its United Nations representatives in New York and Geneva, after the UN vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a non-member state on Nov. 29. Canada was one of 8 countries that voted against the bid, along with Israel and the US.  Of concern to nations that voted in opposition is that an upgrade in status will prompt Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court and press for an investigation into violations of international law in occupied territories. Not only did Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird deliver a stern lecture prior to the vote, but he also responded to the result by scolding the assembly in a statement that cautioned that the Canadian government would be “considering all available next steps” and warned of “consequences.” Our eyebrow-raising performance at the UN was followed by a similarly disjointed one at home that left Canadians guessing as to the future of Canada’s aid to the West Bank.


Bahrain’s Refusal to Acknowledge Spring

The international community has paid relatively little attention to increasing tensions between the rulers and the ruled in Bahrain, and the growing costs of the country’s political deadlock. Inspired by the Arab Spring, demonstrations for reform began in the country in February 2011.  A predominantly Shia majority mobilized to seek increased transparency against corruption from a minority Sunni monarchy. The government repressed the demonstrators and opposition through force, bringing the situation to a standstill with little hope for progress. Since 2011, tactics have escalated, with Molotov cocktails, teargas, and petrol bombs featured during this year’s encounters between demonstrators and security forces. The absence of international mediation has contributed to the stalemate between the government and opposition forces. Repression of free speech is rampant across all forms of media. The longer Bahrain’s leaders continue to refuse to protect the human rights of their citizens, the greater the risk they will leave their country a shambles.

Mali and al Qaeda

Mali and al-Qaeda Militants in the North

A country that had been successfully democratizing since 1992, Mali’s stability was disrupted in March of this year when soldiers in Bamako overthrew the elected government of president Amadou Toumani Touré. The post-coup civilian-military coalition that now controls the South has been unable to project power into the peripheral northern region of the country, resulting in a vacuum and the creation of a region ripe for Islamist extremists, including several factions of al-Qaeda militants. The human rights violations in the North are heinous. The U.S. has focused on encouraging the African Union to take the lead in tackling this emerging hotbed of extremism, but multilateral responses to the situation have been limited due to other urgent crises in the surrounding regions. A major question that remains in this omnishamble is what the role of Algeria should be in any solution.

South China Sea

South China Sea Dispute

Disputes in the South China Sea over territory and sovereignty are deep-rooted and do not seem to have any viable short-term solutions. In April 2012, a report was released on the risk of an armed conflict in the South China Sea over territorial rights, which identifies the importance of this issue to the international community, and to the United States in particular. Despite the U.S. "pivot" to Asia, during this year’s ASEAN Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama was unable to engage the former Chinese premier in a meaningful way, revealing a lack of regional motivation to negotiate diplomatically on the issue. No progress was made on these disputes in 2012, and several tension-filled, highly publicized episodes between China and competing nations in the region only raised the stakes. A protest in Vietnam against Chinese bids for drilling rights in 19 blocks, a naval stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels in April near the Scarborough Shoal, and the demonstrations spurred by China’s new passports illustrates the country’s reluctance to withdraw its claim to have rights over the entire South China Sea. Future offshore shambles are likely to undermine international investments in East Asia and delay plans for regional development.


Romneyshambles of the U.S. Presidential Election

No list of IR omnishambles would be complete without mention of this trending pun, which encapsulated Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 electoral campaign. While it may be difficult to identify which incident initiated the series of campaign shambles, highlights include: a senior aide’s comparison of Romney’s positions during the GOP primary campaign to drawings on an “Etch a Sketch”; Romney’s trip to London in which he somehow managed to unite all of England against him; the "47 per cent" speech identifying nearly half of Americans as entitled victims; and Romney’s comment that he had “binders full of women” when he was governor of Massachusetts. And although many would like to forget his shamble-filled trip to Israel, we’re fairly certain his remarks will live on at Jerusalem fundraising events for years to come.

The F 35

The F-35 Fiasco

On Dec. 12, 2012, Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirmed that the Canadian cabinet has decided to "reset" the F-35 procurement. The defence procurement process is truly in shambles: Every time the government has reviewed what the F-35 purchase cost will be, a new date has been provided, the variables have changed, and the cost has been more than it was the previous time the question was asked. Compounding this mystifying process is the poor presentation to the average Canadian, which has left the Conservative government exposed to attack by opposition parties. Many have argued the purchase makes little sense for Canada. The economic climate also strains the ability of multilateral partners to continue to participate in the program – the multilateral purchase only becomes affordable if all countries participate. This includes participation by the U.S. – the program’s biggest partner. Any time the U.S. delays the project by reducing the requirement, the development portion of the program slows down and the omnishamble that is our current procurement policy becomes more difficult to ignore.


Benghazi and the U.S. Response 

On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was violently attacked, resulting in the tragic deaths of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. What followed the attack was a series of U.S. missteps beginning with public statements by government officials – namely, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan E. Rice’s mischaracterization of the incident on five Sunday morning talk shows as a reaction to the crude anti-Islam trailer, drawing a parallel to the response the film incited only hours earlier in Cairo. Later reports by the State Department confirmed that the attack was part of a premeditated terrorist plot, and not a spontaneous protest turned deadly. Republicans snatched the opportunity to accuse the president’s administration of providing Americans with misleading information about the assault, and to emphasize the regime’s failure to counter anti-American terrorist attacks abroad. In the three months that followed, Republican criticism of Rice, in particular, escalated and ultimately resulted in Rice’s withdrawal of her candidacy to replace Clinton as U.S. secretary of state. Rice’s former colleagues have sought to set the record straight. Three State Department employees resigned after an internal investigation report of the attack was released on Dec. 18, suggesting at least one bureau in a shambles. Finally, in a recent interview, President Obama referred to the "sloppiness" of State Department safeguards for missions abroad.



Pro-democracy protests began in Syria in March of 2011, with protesters demanding the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad following the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers in Deraa. Since Russia and China’s veto of a Security Council resolution in January, clashes between opposition groups and security forces, and the massacre of civilians, have expanded countrywide. In May, loyalist forces were accused of the murder of 108 people, including 49 children, in the village of Houla. The Syrian Arad Red Crescent estimates that 2.5 million people have been displaced within Syria during the conflict, and the UN has records of 400,000 people that have fled to neighbouring countries. A UN mission negotiated by Kofi Annan was deployed to monitor a ceasefire in April. The peace plan failed when violence escalated and UN envoy observers were forced to withdraw. With the number of casualties continuing to rise, international players unable to agree on how to prevent the further deterioration of the situation, and President Assad showing no sign of stepping aside (amid recent reports that U.S. Intelligence has reason to believe that Assad is preparing chemical weapons), this conflict has no clear solution or end in sight. There may have been no good options for the international community, but that is no excuse for the state of omnishambles that has characterized the debates over intervention.

President Mohamed

President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood

It was less than one month ago that Egypt’s first freely elected president was being lauded for successfully mediating a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. On Nov. 22, however, Morsi was again at the centre of media attention, this time over a serious omnishamble: a constitutional declaration granting the president sweeping executive powers and preventing judiciary oversight of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constitution-writing body that resulted in mass protests. On Dec. 9, following civil unrest that resulted in the death of at least seven people, the Egyptian president annulled the decree but pushed ahead with holding a first referendum on the draft constitution that took place as scheduled. On Dec. 15,, Egyptians in 10 of 27 districts voted on the draft constitution during the first phase of a two-part referendum, with 57 per cent of a meagre turnout approving the draft. The remaining 17 districts will vote on Dec. 22 in the second half of the referendum, which has been boycotted by an additional 2,600 judges (12,000 judges boycotted the first referendum). If the constitution is passed, national elections will take place early in 2013. The outcome of these referendums seems likely to exacerbate the socio-economic and religious divides in Egyptian society and deepen the public’s uncertainty and frustration. The hope is that additional shambles can be avoided if the second referendum and a possible election are co-ordinated in co-operation with all stakeholders.

Photos courtesy of Reuters