The main purpose of year-end reviews, of course, is to hold the ads apart. But they can also serve as a kind of annual check-up on the political health – and also on the economic, demographic and even physical health – of the planet and its teeming human population. So imagine that we are a panel of high-priced medicos reviewing the health status of our most important client, the human race.
The first thing to note is that the client is still piling on weight at an alarming rate – up from two billion units to seven billion in the past seventy-five years – but continues to thrive, for the most part. And most of the ailments that it worries about are mere hypochondria.
Take, for example, the widespread concern (at least in the media and among what Bob Fisk calls the “think-tank mountebanks”) that the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in the no man’s land between Iraq and Syria will lead to catastrophe. There will allegedly be a surge in terrorist attacks around the world, a Sunni-Shia religious war spanning the entire Middle East, or even a global religious war between Muslims and everybody else.
The Sunni fanatics and the Shia fanatics are far too busy trying to kill each other to have time to spare for attacking non-Muslims. (Besides, most Muslims don’t want to attack anybody; they just want to be left in peace.) Quite a lot of the slaughter in Iraq and Syria is driven by religion, but we are still a long way from a religious conflict that directly involves the really important states of the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.
Even the anticipated surge in terrorist attacks outside the region is not likely to come to pass. The only strategic purpose for such attacks by any organised group of Islamist extremists is to gain support and recruits within their own region. If they can lure Western powers into killing lots of Muslims in their region, then their cause will prosper locally.
As it turns out, Islamic State has not even needed to carry out terrorist attacks in the West to achieve this goal. Videos of Western hostages being beheaded have been enough to get the bombing going again, and Western governments are no more troubled by the sheer pointlessness of the bombing than they were in the past. Both sides are playing for the home audience, and really don’t care much about the impact of their actions on the alleged enemy.
The whole “Islamic State” panic is a tempest in a fairly small teacup. The casualties are small, and the entire region matters little economically or strategically except to its own inhabitants. Even in the unlikely event that a Sunni-Shia religious war should engulf the whole of the Middle East, it would have no more effect on the rest of the planet than the European wars of religion four centuries ago had on the Middle East. That is to say, hardly any.
So in terms of the global system’s health, the rise of radical Islamism is not a life-threatening disease. It’s a local infection that will probably have to run its course. If it really gets bad, some quarantine measures may be needed, but this is not Ebola.
Speaking of which, the Ebola outbreak in Africa seems on the way to being contained, although it will probably remain as a low-level chronic problem in the three West African countries where it reached epidemic status: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. There is a small risk that Ebola might take root in a densely populated country whose people travel widely, like Nigeria or, even worse, India, but so far, so good.
The other great shock of 2014 was a war in Europe. The Ukrainian revolution of last February was a messy and complicated business, but it need not have ended in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and in a Russian-backed separatist war in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces.
We owe that mainly to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s world-view as a former agent of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, which (as the old saying had it) thwarted ten anti-Soviet plots for every one that actually existed.
The KGB was full of very clever people – indeed, it was the most intelligent and best informed part of the old Soviet regime, one of the world’s strongholds of institutionalised stupidity – but it was also a nest of paranoid fantasists. You may debate to your heart’s content whether this was a Russian cultural phenomenon or an extreme case of the disease that infects every great-power spy agency, but that’s why Putin reacted the way he did.
Western European governments are so divided and introspective that they could not come up with a credible plan to boil an egg, and they care very little about the parts of Eastern Europe beyond the European Union’s borders. The only section of the American population that sees President Obama’s administration as capable of hatching a plot is the extreme right, and they think he’s a foreign-born Communist plotting the overthrow of the United States.
Various Western politicians showed up in Kiev to cheer the protesters on, but these were just the usual suspects taking advantage of a good photo op. Their real intended audience, as usual, was back home. As for NATO, it is another Cold War institution that has long outlived its purpose, but it no more wants to bring Ukraine into the fold than it longs to recruit Mongolia as a member. Too much trouble, and no profit whatever.
There was no Western plot, but Putin is driven by the belief that there was. He has taken Russia into a confrontation with the West that it cannot win, and the country’s economy is already crumbling under the twin strains of coping with Western sanctions and the collapse of the oil price. He is finding it almost impossible to back away without losing face, but he has nothing to gain by continuing the conflict either. Risk of a new Cold War: minimal.
So far the patient’s health is looking pretty good. There is the usual clutter of minor ailments – a mini-civil war here (Libya, South Sudan), civil rights protesters under attack there (Hong Kong, Missouri) – and there is a significant possibility that next year will bring another recession. That’s as inevitable as catching a cold once in a while. But there has been nothing really out of the ordinary this year, nothing that sets off alarm bells.
The only big worry the doctors have is the same one that has bothered them for the past twenty-five years: the patient simply won’t stop smoking. Their increasingly grave warnings are met with empty promises to cut back or quit entirely, but not right now, just some time far in the future. Maybe.
The news flows in endlessly, and some of it has significant impact on many people’s lives – a billion people’s lives when India elects a new prime minister or China gets an (unelected) new president, both of which happened this year. But truly fundamental change is much rarer than people think (and than the media encourage them to think). Now that the threat of large-scale nuclear war has died down, only one thing qualifies.
Climate change is the spectre at every feast, the unstoppable rot that undermines every positive development. The failure at Copenhagen in 2009 bleeds indistinguishably into the fudge at Durban in 2011 and on into the feeble compromise in Lima in 2014, which sets us up for the bigger disappointment of Paris in 2015. And even if by some miracle we get a useful agreement in Paris next year, nothing will actually be done until 2020.
The patient thinks there’s still plenty of time to quit. There isn’t.