New Year’s Eve isn’t much here in Hollywood. At three in the afternoon you can watch the Eiffel Tower light up in Paris, and at nine in the evening you can watch that ball drop in Times Square. The fireworks over the Sydney Opera House light up the sky there just about when the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard – they get the New Year before we get most of the last day of the old year. It’s a bit discouraging. Everything is over when it hasn’t even started here yet, which may be why nothing much gets started here. We come late to the party, when all the good stuff is already over. Whatever we do out here is just a little sad.
On the other hand, living out here in one of the last time zones before each new day begins, and before each New Year begins, is oddly liberating. You can look back on what was done, and what happened, elsewhere, and consider its implications, while everyone else is sleeping it off, so to speak. Temporal dislocation can provide perspective, or at least provide time to think – but sometimes that’s not enough. What just happened, really? The first news reports of any event are always wrong, or at best incomplete, and then those reports are “spun” one way or another, sometimes intentionally – everyone has an agenda – and sometimes unintentionally – order and emphasis is imposed instinctively. Deciding what comes first – what’s put in the headline and its subhead – is still a decision. These things don’t write themselves. And then there’s what follows the report of what just happened – the comments on what it might mean.
That’s what everyone wants to know, and that’s what no one can know. One Ebola case in Dallas, badly handled, didn’t mean we were all going to die unless Obama resigned. Putin grabbed Crimea, but that didn’t mean he’d grab Estonia next, and then Poland, and then Little Odessa, the Russian-immigrant Brighton Beach neighborhood down by Coney Island on the south side of Brooklyn. It meant he grabbed Crimea, nothing more. And ISIS took Mosul. Isis took a lot of western Iraq and eastern Syria, and they took no more, and they won’t be occupying the Vatican and the White House any day now. ISIS is a real problem for that region and the world, but seeing a smooth linear progression from what they’re doing now to the end of the world as we know it is foolishness – the course of history is notoriously lumpy, not smooth – although people do love to imagine the worst. Some people also like to jump out of airplanes for fun. Danger is exciting. It can make you feel alive. It can also make you look stupid.
A bit of perspective can help with that, although that’s hard to come by, and even harder as the year ends, and this past year, 2014, was a loud mess of a year. Too much happened. How do you sort out what mattered from what didn’t? What were the major events? What will no one remember a year from now? That’s a problem, and one that pundits try to address at the end of each year, with lists of what mattered of all the things that merely happened – and people, having been slapped around by a very odd year, do want to know that. Everyone wants a bit of order and emphasis from those who have been pointing their cameras at this and that all year long. Okay, fine – but what really mattered and will continue to matter?
Each year Dave Barry offers a long column that makes fun of the whole idea that anyone can tell what mattered and will continue to matter, his annual Year in Review that’s full of lame jokes and some pretty clever ones, all indicating that humans are a funny mess stumbling along just doing fairly random stuff, most of which is a hoot. This year that’s more than obvious, as he opens his column with this:
A huge airliner simply vanished, and to this day nobody has any idea what happened to it, despite literally thousands of hours of intensive speculation on CNN.
Millions of Americans suddenly decided to make videos of themselves having ice water poured on their heads. Remember? There were rumors that this had something to do with charity, but for most of us, the connection was never clear. All we knew was that, for a while there, every time we turned on the TV, there was a local newscaster or Gwyneth Paltrow or Kermit the Frog or some random individual soaking wet and shivering. This mysterious phenomenon ended as suddenly as it started, but not before uncounted trillions of American brain cells died of frostbite.
An intruder jumped the White House fence and, inexplicably, managed to run into the White House through the unlocked front door. Most of us had assumed that anybody attempting this would instantly be converted to a bullet-ridden pile of smoking carbon by snipers, lasers, drones, ninjas, etc., but it turned out that, for some mysterious reason, the White House had effectively the same level of anti-penetration security as a Dunkin’ Donuts.
LeBron James deliberately moved to Cleveland.
Of course not everything that happened in 2014 was mysterious. Some developments – ISIS, Ebola, the song Happy – were simply bad.
Barry doesn’t get into the bad things – the rest of his long month-by-month sequential review of specific events is just a series of gentle what-fools-these-mortals-be jokes, and they’re pretty cool, but he’s a humorist and can get away with that. No one expects more of him. They expect that of professional pundits, who are paid to be serious and make sense of things –and to tell us what mattered of all that happened, because, surely, it all cannot matter.
ABC News tasked Meghan Keneally with that, and she came up with the obvious, like the Ebola scare, and the two Malaysian airliners – one just disappeared and the other was shot down by the Ukrainian rebels, or the Russians who were supporting them. These things happened, but a year from now they may not matter, although this might:
Heightened tensions following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens led to an exchange of rocket fire, resulting in a formal Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip called Operation Protective Edge. The rocket fire lasted seven weeks, with Israeli Defense Forces targeting Hamas rocket launchers that the group placed throughout the densely-populated Strip. The United Nations reported that 2,192 people were killed in the Gaza Strip, the majority of whom were civilians, while Israelis reported 72 casualties, only six of whom were civilians. The rest identified as members of the military.
Few may remember that now – other things keep coming up – but this will come up again. The start of the new Cold War, with Russia trying to split up the Ukraine and grabbing Crimea from them, is also a story which isn’t over. ISIS isn’t over yet either and all of these get top billing in her list of the major news stories of the year, along with the Republicans retaking Congress, which will cause no end of trouble for the next two years. She also cites the Sochi Winter Olympics and the World Cup in Brazil as major news stories, along with the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers – although she doesn’t mention Bill Cosby’s troubles with all those women letting America know he might be a serial rapist. All these were big news stories, but which may not matter in the greater scheme of things. That, however, is not her selection criteria. If it was a big story at the time, it was a big story. Her last two items – events in Ferguson and Staten Island, and elsewhere, creating a new civil rights crisis in America, with all the nastiness that comes with that – and Obama opening relations with Cuba after fifty years of absurd self-righteous pouting – are probably bigger stories than she thinks, even if she thinks these are very big deals now.
That was, however, the year. Between Dave Barry and Meghan Keneally you can get a pretty good sense of it, but perhaps not. George Friedman, the Chairman of Stratfor Global Intelligence, thinks there are other things that mattered more, and some items on his list are a bit unusual:
The single most important event in 2014 was one that did not occur: Europe did not solve its longstanding economic, political and social problems. I place this as number one because regardless of its decline, Europe remains a central figure in the global system. The European Union’s economy is the largest in the world, taken collectively, and the Continent remains a center of global commerce, science and culture. Europe’s inability to solve its problems, or really to make any significant progress, may not involve armies and explosions, but it can disrupt the global system more than any other factor present in 2014.
People should have paid attention to this:
The vast divergence of the European experience is as troubling as the general economic malaise. Experience is affected by many things, but certainly the inability to find gainful employment is a central feature of it. The huge unemployment rates in Spain, Greece and southern Europe in general profoundly affect large numbers of people. The relative prosperity of Germany and Austria diverges vastly from that of southern Europe, so much so that it calls into question the European Union’s viability.
Indeed, we have seen a rise of anti-EU parties not only in southern Europe but also in the rest of Europe as well. None have crossed the threshold to power, but many are strengthening along with the idea that the benefits of membership in a united Europe, constituted as it is, are outweighed by the costs. Greece will have an election in the coming months, and it is possible that a party favoring withdrawal from the Eurozone will become a leading power. The United Kingdom’s UKIP favors withdrawal from the European Union altogether.
There is significant and growing risk that either the European Union will have to be revised dramatically to survive or it will simply fragment. The fragmentation of the European Union would shift authority formally back to myriad nation states. Europe’s experience with nationalism has been troubling, to say the least – certainly in the first part of the 20th century. And when a region as important as Europe redefines itself, the entire world will be affected.
Damn – missed that – and so noted – but he has this to say about the Ukrainian and Russian crises:
Historically, tensions between Russia and the European Peninsula and the United States have generated both wars and near wars and the redrawing of the borders of both the peninsula and Russia. The Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II and the Cold War all ended in dramatic redefinitions of Europe’s balance of power and its map. Following from our first major event of the year, the events in Ukraine and the Russian economic crisis must rank as the second most important event.
Stratfor forecast several years ago that there would be a defining crisis in Ukraine that would be the opening to a new and extended confrontation between the European Peninsula and the United States on one side and Russia on the other. We have also forecast that while Russia has regional power, its long-term sustainability is dubious. The same internal factors that brought the Soviet Union crashing down haunt the Russian Federation. We assumed that the “little Cold War” would begin in the mid-2010s, but that Russian decline would not begin until about 2020.
We have seen the first act, and we continue to believe that the final act isn’t imminent, but it is noteworthy that Russia is reeling internally at the same time that it is trying to cope with events in Ukraine. We do not expect Russia to collapse, nor do we expect the Ukrainian crisis to evolve into a broader war. Nevertheless, it seems to me that with this crisis we have entered into a new historical phase in which a confrontation with significant historical precedents is re-emerging. The possibility of conflict is not insignificant; the possibility that the pressures on Russia, internally and externally, might not speed up the country’s own crisis cannot be discounted. Certainly the consequences of oil prices, internal economic dislocation, the volatility of the ruble and sanctions all must give us pause.
This is worse than anyone thought, and linked to this:
Europe is predicted to see little to no growth in 2015, with some areas in recession or even depression already. China has not been able to recover its growth rate since 2008 and is moving sideways at best. The United States announced a revision indicating that it grew at a rate of 5 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Japan is in deep recession. That the major economic centers of the world are completely out of synch with each other, not only statistically but also structurally, indicates that a major shift in how the world works may be underway.
That won’t be pretty:
The de-synchronization of the international system raises questions about what globalization means, and whether it has any meaning at all. But a major crisis is occurring in economic theory. The forecasts made by many leading economists in the wake of 2008 have not come to pass. Just as Milton Friedman replaced John Maynard Keynes as the defining theorist, we are awaiting a new comprehensive explanation for how the economic world is working today, since neither Keynes nor Friedman seem sufficient any longer. A crisis in economic theory is not merely an academic affair. Investment decisions, career choices and savings plans all pivot on how we understand the economic world. At the moment, the only thing that can be said is that the world is filled with things that need explaining.
And there’s that other matter:
Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot were British and French diplomats who redrew the map of the region between the Mediterranean Sea and Persia after World War I. They invented countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Some of these nation-states are in turmoil. The events in Syria and Iraq resemble the events in Lebanon a generation ago: The central government collapses, and warlords representing various groups take control of fragments of the countries, with conflicts flowing across international boundaries. Thus the Iraqi crisis and the Syrian crisis have become hard to distinguish, and all of this is affecting internal Lebanese factions.
This is important in itself. The question is how far the collapse of the post-World War I system will go. Will the national governments reassert themselves in a decisive way, or will the fragmentation continue? Will this process of disintegration spread to other heirs of Sykes and Picot?
This is a big deal:
This question is more important than the emergence of the Islamic State. Radical Islamism is a factor in the region, and it will assert itself in various organizational forms. What is significant is that while a force, the Islamic State is in no position to overwhelm other factions, just as they cannot overwhelm it. Thus it is not the Islamic State but the fragmentation and the crippling of national governments that matters. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is just a warlord now, and the government in Baghdad is struggling to be more than just another faction.
Years of chaos are coming, thanks to what happened in 2014 – and this has nothing to do with Bill Cosby’s wayward private parts.
Gideon Rachman, in the Financial Times, looks at other matters:
America returns to war in the Middle East: President Obama’s decision to use American air power against the jihadist insurgents, known as ISIS, meant that the US and its allies returned to war in Iraq in 2014, and also finally intervened in the conflict in Syria. These developments may have been an inevitable reaction to ISIS’ startling territorial gains. But they also represented a major reverse for Obama’s foreign policy, which has been constructed around trying to extricate the US from wars in the Middle East.
There is that, but Rachman thinks other matters don’t matter:
The problems of the euro turned into a chronic condition rather than an acute crisis in 2014 – although I think another major flare-up may take place in 2015. Scotland did not vote for independence. And the European parliamentary elections, although they featured striking gains for the political extremes, did not count as a major geopolitical event.
Africa and Latin America also fail to make the cut for 2014. The World Cup in Brazil passed off without major incident (other than the stunning 7-1 defeat of the home side by Germany) and President Dilma Rousseff was re-elected. In Africa, the outbreak of the ebola virus caused tragedy and panic. But it has so far not mutated into the global pandemic that so many feared.
The political turmoil in China caused by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive is a promising contender. But the underlying struggles are, for the moment, too obscure for me to pronounce confidently on their significance.
But some things did surprise him:
Obama’s many foes – and some of his friends – would be baffled by the idea that he has had a good year. For much of the year, the US president looked in trouble. As noted above, the return to war in the Middle East was a reverse – and the president was also accused (unfairly, I think) of mishandling the Ukraine crisis. In November, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections. But this electoral defeat appeared to liberate Obama. He ended the year with a bold announcement on immigration reform and also by announcing the normalization of American relations with Cuba. All of this took place against a background of positive economic news, with the American economy growing at its fastest pace for more than a decade.
That was a surprise, but there’s more to the world than Obama’s efforts:
The big picture remains the movement of economic power from west to east and within that, the rise of China. Interestingly, neither the Chinese nor the Americans wanted to make too much of the IMF’s judgment, announced in October, that China is now the world’s largest economy. But it still surely ranked as a historic moment.
Well, yes, there is that – and it was quite a year. And the new Pope keeps infuriating our Republicans, and the Europeans landed a probe on a comet, and Taylor Swift took over the world, or at least the part of the world that pays no attention to any of this.
Okay, here it is, almost midnight in Los Angeles, where the New Year arrives late. It will be 2015 in a few minutes, and 2014 still doesn’t make sense, even with all the extra hours to think about it.