Nobody should kid themselves – from a geopolitical standpoint, 2014 will go down as a pretty shitty year. If you value stability, peace, prosperity, or predictability – well, it goes without saying that you were sorely disappointed. The agents of chaos must be sitting pretty; their work in 2014 was once-in-a-generation stuff.
So, what the hell happened?
2014 was the culmination of a lot of geopolitical trends that have been building for quite some time now. From Islamists finally getting an “Islamic State” to the Russians gathering their armies for one more go at Europe to the price war over oil unleashed by the Saudi and Emiratis, nothing in 2014 happened just because this was 2014, but because this year the storm finally got perfect.
One huge factor in all of this is America’s paralysis. The sole superpower is no longer willing to pick winners and losers worldwide, as has been its omnipotent role since the death of its only balancer, the USSR, in ’91. Mired in debt after the Great Recession, full of divided, angry, and quite frankly immature voters, and led by politicians happy to play the populist card on just about every subject imaginable, the U.S. was not an effective or a responsible power in 2014. Its contentment to let regional tensions sort themselves out has if anything accelerated the chaos. And what were those tensions? Well…
January set the tone with a civil war in South Sudan, civil unrest in Iraq, and an autocrat’s rise in Egypt
In South Sudan, the international community had tried ever so hard to build a state out of the morass of tribalism and corruption that has accompanied any state birthed too quickly. The result was predictable and still not fully settled: a tribal-fueled civil war, in which each tribes’ Big Man tried to grab as much wealth and power as possible. This was greed unfettered and unbalanced, and the disinterest of the international community in choosing a side only let it get worse.
Meanwhile, the too-soon withdrawal of American troops in Iraq was another fine example of a state set free long before its elites had learned to govern properly. The Shi’a prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, ran the state as his own fief, doling out jobs and positions to Shi’a supporters and happy to indulge in a bit of vengeance against the Sunnis. In January, with bases in Syria, Sunni Islamists seized power in Fallujah. Unable to govern outside of his narrow Shi’a base, al-Maliki couldn’t mobilize his army to crush them. The stage was set for the events of the summer.
While in Egypt, the tone went from chaos to stability at any cost. With the army having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, the people of Egypt were content to vote in a constitution that opened the door to a return of indirect army rule. The Deep State had triumphed, but at great cost. An Islamist insurgency in the Sinai went from a simmer to a full boil.
February brought a protest movement to power in Ukraine and began Europe’s biggest crisis since World War II
For years the pot had been a-bubbling in Ukraine as Ukrainian elites tussled over whether to seek protection and prosperity in the arms of the EU or Russia. That all came to a head when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president failed to crush an uprising in Kiev and instead fled to Moscow. This was the cue to bring about the scariest thing to happen in Europe since the Cold War. On February 26, Russian troops moved into Crimea, occupied the territory, and, the following month, oversaw their annexation of the region.
Word was out: borders could be changed. Woe now to the states too weak to defend themselves.
March was a time of tension in both Europe and the Persian Gulf as allies tried to redefine relationships
Europe was divided and uncertain over how to deal with Russia’s invasion, with some casting Putin as Hitler and others hoping to God that somehow the invasion of Crimea was a good thing.
Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, tensions came to a head between the Gulf Co-Operation Council member states over the role of political Islam in the Arab world. Qatar, Islamism’s champion, found itself on the wrong side of history as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates clamped down on Qatar diplomatically. Rumors abounded of a coming siege, and already stung by poor press regarding the treatment of laborers in its World Cup work camps, the Qataris desperately tried to find a way out of the impasse.
Too bad for them little states always lose against bigger ones. By fall, Qatar had caved on just about every demand made Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
April and May gave time for things to settle into an odd unease as Russia consolidated power and the West organized its response to the invasion
While Putin signed a historic $500 billion energy deal with China to shore up Russia’s always vulnerable Asian flank, Western powers led by NATO imposed some sanctions on Russia in response to the Crimean invasion. Meanwhile, in eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed rebels began a civil war in an attempt to repeat the Crimean conquest. But this time, Kiev fought back. By winter, the war still hadn’t been settled, but Putin’s overriding goal of keeping Kiev out of NATO had succeeded – for this year, at least.
In Nigera, #BringBackOurGirls failed to bring back any girls, because at the end of the day people with guns don’t give a shit what’s said about them on Twitter. Once more, failure to use real power failed to get real results.
In June, the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant suddenly became a household name, and so came the Islamic State
Since the 1950s, jihadi intellectuals have dreamed of building a “pure” Islamic state, and 2014 brought conditions just about perfect to give it a go. Syria’s utter collapse, and the failure of any outside backer to bring to bear enough force to allow one faction to triumph, had given a base to extremely nutty Islamists in the form of ISIS. Top that with Iraq’s complete failure to govern its Sunni half as Shi’a elites made bad decisions and alienated people, and the June blitz that brought ISIS to the gates of Baghdad makes a lot more sense in retrospective.
Terrifying just about everyone, the summer blitz has yet to be rolled back, despite the belated intervention of the United States on behalf of the rump Iraqi state. Meanwhile, the states of Syria and Iraq have a new neighbor that will not go quietly into the night.
Late summer brought yet another (ugh) war between Israel and Hamas, while rebels in Ukraine downed a passenger jet and America went to war against the Islamic State
The most recent round of war between Israel and the hemmed-in Palestinians in Hamas resulted in just about no victors and everyone looking like a dick. Worst of all, there was no reason to believe it would be their last war.
In Ukraine, Russia’s rebels (most likely) shot down a Malaysia Airways jet, putting that airline in the cross hairs for bankruptcy and galvanizing European opinion into finally putting stronger sanctions in place.
As if nearly overrunning Baghdad didn’t scare the U.S. enough, the Islamic State really went out of its way to brutally murder as many people on camera as possible, spooking a wary American electorate into supporting what can only be described as an open-ended war that nobody seems too interested in finishing.
The fall was filled with scores not being settled as the world finally came to grips with the chaos unleashed
Never you mind the price war between the Saudis and shale oil men of the United States, which in other years would have been a headliner. Fall allowed everyone to take a breath and realize just how much work had to be done to reorder things.
The Russians bullied Sweden, hoping to scare the Finns out of joining NATO; the U.S. bombed the Islamic State to little effect; and the fat man running North Korea disappeared for a while, causing everyone to speculate that maybe he’d been killed, overthrown, or had finally let diabetes get the best of him. His return was followed by all sorts of scandal and threats against Sony, which had unwisely chosen to antagonize a rogue state with a film about killing its leader.
An election in the U.S. changed just about nothing, meaning more feckless American policy until at least Obama leaves power in 2016, and possibly longer.
And December was the only bit of good news geopolitically as Obama decided to at last ease the blockade on Cuba
Ending this relic of the Cold War was almost the only smart move America made this year. Most everywhere else it was happy to let local actors settle disputes – with predictably disastrous results.
2015 is ready to go, and it will be bloody
Nobody is going into the upcoming year believing things are going to get better. The Russians will fight on in Ukraine until a pro-peace party either threatens to oust Putin or actually does; the Islamic State will remain a powerful propaganda outlet able to replace its losses, threaten governments, and inspire bombings and knife attacks until someone’s army settles affairs in Syria.
Meanwhile, the economic miracle of China is coming to a close. Will the Chinese take it in good graces and get through their first capitalistic recession without much undue anarchy? The tea leaves say not, as the Politburo will see advantage in flirting with war throughout the Pacific. Thankfully, the U.S. remains interested in its allies in the Pacific, something that can’t be said of other places.
From the Russians who know America can do nothing to stop them militarily to the Islamic State that doesn’t care if the U.S. tries, you’d better buckle up
America is already stretched thin, but more than that, no unified consensus exists in the government to let a president make smart choices. Republicans will spend the next two years posturing for the 2016 election; so too will the Democrats. The age of the deeply selfish politician is reaching crescendo, and they will be rewarded by an equally selfish electorate until the geopolitical threats worldwide multiply to a true crisis.
The U.S. can let Ukraine burn and the Islamic State butcher for now; places like Africa should be lucky to get any press in American cities in 2015. Only when a state grows powerful enough, or irrational enough, to truly threaten close American allies will politicians in America wise up and use the U.S.’s still-unparalleled power to reorder the world. We’ve seen this before; the fall of France created an interventionist movement where before there were only isolationists. Will 2015 see something like that? Only time will tell, but 2015, 2016, or further on, something like it will wake Americans up to their global responsibilities once more.
Here’s to secure borders and peaceful competition between great powers – we hardly knew ye!
They are buried in the memories of this hard year. 2014 was bad; many signs point to 2015 being worse.