Whenever the world goes to hell in a family-size hand basket, we're always surprised that something so surprising has happened. Yet somehow, we find ourselves turning back to the confident graybeards on TV telling us what will or won't happen next, even though they're the same old white dudes who failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, the financial crisis, and the Arab Spring. In fact, the very people who bob their heads around on cable news, making grand predictions about the direction the world will spin next, are the ones who keep getting proved wrong by actual events.
In 2014, geopolitics turned out to be predictably unpredictable. Big powers behaved weirdly, regions that seemed to be on track fell apart, and global markets moved in mysterious ways. Here's what we learned:
VLADIMIR PUTIN IS VERY, VERY HUNGRY
Tanks rolling across international borders, armed men storming police stations, and great powers battling over the future of Europe—it all sounds like the script of a History Channel special. In fact, it was Ukraine in 2014. The crisis began last November, when pro-Western Ukrainians took to Kiev's central square to protest a government they considered too corrupt, too authoritarian, and too interested in its own self-preservation at the expense of national interest. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, had refused to sign an agreement to build closer ties with the European Union and instead accepted a $15 billion bribe from Russia. By late February, as winter athletes competed in a snowless Sochi, some 100 demonstrators had been killed in Kiev. Before the Olympic flame went out, the opposition had taken power in Ukraine, and Yanukovych had fled to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn't happy about what he saw as a conspiracy to thrust Ukraine into the West's orbit. So he did what any reasonable strongman would do: he grabbed Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine that was already home to a Russian naval base and an ethnic Russian majority eager to secede. Then, he played on local grievances to stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists declared their own confederation called "New Russia," and almost certainly shot down Malaysia Airlines' second lost plane of the year. They were backstopped by thousands of Russian forces crossing the border in unmarked vehicles. Absurdly, the Kremlin has refused to admit their presence and has buried its dead soldiers in secret.
The main lesson here is that Putin is a bigger risk-taker than almost everyone expected. It's worth asking, however, whether he was provoked. Russians argue that the West has been expanding the NATO military alliance and the European Union up to Russia's doorstep, and some say his reaction was predictable. But Europe was supposed to have moved past this kind of old-school realpolitik, and Russia's thuggish behavior is very hard to justify. For the people living in Putin's war zone, the question is irrelevant: despite Western sanctions against Russia and an official ceasefire between Moscow and Kiev, the fighting grinds on.
JUST WHEN IT LOOKS LIKE THE MIDDLE EAST CAN'T GET ANY BLOODIER, IT DOES
The turmoil in the Middle East also looks like it belongs to another century, but a much scarier, bloodier one. Jihadists in Syria, not content to merely hijack the revolution against Bashar al-Assad, linked up with their Sunni brethren across the border in Iraq and declared a caliphate they called the Islamic State. The terrorists gained territory at lightning speed, taking over hundreds of square miles and even managing to get within 16 miles of Baghdad International Airport. In addition to killing untold numbers of Iraqis and Syrians who resisted its rule, the Islamic State beheaded three Americans and shared the videos on social media.
President Barack Obama, who wants desperately to rid himself of the mess his predecessor left behind in Iraq, has responded reluctantly. Over the spring and summer, the Islamic State's victories awakened Republican hawks in Congress, who called for an aggressive intervention. It took until August, after the Islamic State drove thousands of civilians up a mountain range in northern Iraq, for Obama to relent and jump back in Iraq. He authorized airstrikes against the Islamic State, humanitarian aid for civilians, additional support for the Syrian rebels, and military advisers to train Iraqi troops.
Now that the GOP has taken Congress, Obama will have even less room for backing out of the Middle East. And so a president who campaigned on ending the war in Iraq will likely leave office with that war still raging—to say nothing of the growing chaos in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Somewhere in the White House, Obama is having a Michael Corleone moment: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
EBOLA ISN'T THE WORST OF AFRICA'S PROBLEMS
While the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone made the biggest Africa headlines this year, a longer-running and equally deadly crisis reached new heights in Nigeria. There, as in Iraq and Syria, Islamic extremists made life miserable. Like other countries at its latitude, Nigeria—Africa's most populous country and its largest oil exporter—suffers from a split between a politically powerful Christian south and an alienated Muslim north. Enter the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, whose name translates as "Western education is forbidden." It imposes sharia law from town to town and picks fights with government security forces, which have a well-earned reputation for responding indiscriminately. Although the conflict has simmered for years, the death toll shot up in 2014, with more than 10,000 people killed.
Most Americans heard about the mess only after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in April, spiriting them away into a forest and shrouding them in black and grey robes. The tragedy spawned the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls—and a shambolic response from the Nigerian government. President Goodluck Jonathan waited three weeks after the abduction to mention the girls in public, and his wife, Patience, outed herself as a Chibok truther when she insinuated that the whole thing was fake. There have been several false reports of the girls' imminent release, but as of mid-December, they remain in captivity, "married" off to fighters.
OIL CAN GET CHEAP
Most industry experts didn't predict it, but since June, global oil prices have been tanking, falling 40 percent to a five-year low at the beginning of December. The reasons are varied: US supply has increased (yes, thanks in part to fracking), Asian demand has cooled, and oil-producing states (led by Saudi Arabia) have refused to cut production to prop up prices. At the pump, the average gas price in the US started 2014 at $3.26 a gallon and now stands at $2.63. Consider the savings an early Christmas present.
Unless you live in Houston. American oil producers are panicking, because the price for a barrel of oil has dropped so low that it might not be profitable to pump it out of the ground, especially in the case of harder-to-get-at shale. Already, Big Oil has started scaling back investments and laying off employees.
If American oil producers are starting to sweat, petro-states like Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia are positively shvitzing. Their budgets depend almost entirely on oil revenue, and spending cuts won't keep the people happy, raising the risk of instability. The scariest prospect is the collapse of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom paid off its inhabitants to stave off revolution in 2011, but if oil prices stay low, it might not be able to afford to do the same thing next time. Many Russians support Putin because he improved their living standards, and with the Russian economy poised for a recession, he will have little reason to abandon his popular Ukraine gambit. Venezuela's economy, meanwhile, is in a tailspin, as is its president's approval rating. Your flight to Caracas will be cheaper, but you might not want to get off the plane.
CHINA CAN GET PRETTY AGRO
America's biggest rival wasn't messing around in 2014. At home, China's leader, Xi Jinping, ordered a crackdown, sacking high-ranking Communist Party officials in the name of fighting corruption, rolling out new laws restricting Internet freedom, denying visas to foreign reporters, and clearing out Occupy Hong Kong protesters. Abroad, he has literally redrawn the map, making aggressive maritime claims off China's coast. This May, China sent Vietnam into hysterics by sending a fleet of ships to accompany an oilrig operating in disputed waters. In June, Chinese fighter jets set off an international incident by flying within 100 feet of Japanese surveillance planes.
China didn't manage to overtake the US this year, and there's little chance it will do so anytime soon—the Chinese navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier (a Ukrainian hand-me-down) in 2012, something the US Navy accomplished 90 years earlier. Still, the close calls in 2014 came at the same time that the Obama administration was trying to "pivot" toward Asia, raising the odds of a scuffle. No one wants a naval war in the Pacific, but as China continued to translate its economic power into military muscle, it looked like even minor dustups might escalate into an all-out international crisis.
NOT EVERYTHING IS AS TERRIBLE AS IT LOOKS
As bad as the world appeared to be in 2014, every terrifying lesson had a silver lining. Putin's power play in Ukraine was really an act of weakness, a reaction to the desire on the part of most Ukrainians to abandon Mother Russia and join the West, where the future looks brighter. The Middle East got ugly and bloody, but any 18th-century Frenchman will tell you that such is the journey from dictatorship to democracy. The violence in Nigeria (and the viral outbreak to its west) should not obscure the economic progress that much of the continent is making. Low oil prices, adding to the bite of sanctions, may keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table. And China, despite the racket it's been making among its neighbors, has no reason to stop buying into the global capitalist order.
Plus, when it comes to geopolitics, it's all about the long game. And in that sense, things didn't look so bad in 2014: Cars are more fuel-efficient, computers are faster, and humanity is healthier, richer, and freer than ever before. Keep that in mind when 2015 starts getting real.
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