We didn’t start the fire: A review of foreign affairs in 2014

Thursday, January 1, 2015

 

Back in 2012, there was a ‘belief’ that the Mayans predicted that year as the end of the world. Of course, this apocalyptic predication was rather debunked, however when looking back at international events in 2014, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the Mayans may have just been out by a few years.

 

The year after all saw a war in Ukraine, the brutal rise of Isis, violence in Gaza, and the devastating spread of Ebola, which has claimed the lives of over 7,800 people in West Africa. Even the entertainment world didn’t escape, as The Interview raised the menace of international cyber warfare. 2014, then, has been a year of international crises defined not only by their number but also their complexity. It is with some trepidation then to look back at a year whose issues, in the absence of decisive global action, will continue as the New Year progresses.  

 

This troublesome year began with Ukraine, the first conflict in Europe since the fall of Yugoslavia. Caught between closer ties with Europe and Russia, rioting led to the removal of government, the annexation of Crimea and the split between Ukrainian forces and separatists seeking closer ties with Russia, whose involvement in the conflict remains decidedly murky. Among its victims include the 298 passengers of flight MH17, shot down in what has been a devastating year for air travel.  The fighting now bears a striking resemblance to that of the Cold War, with forces backed by opposing sides with each not sure how to progress further.

 

In May, I visited Russia, travelling from St Petersburg to the Siberian capital of Irkutsk, and found Russians very prepared to talk about politics, with one stating outright that “Russia and Ukraine are one people”, while another supported the Crimean annexation due to its importance in Russian history. This showed a key attitude I observed when there, which was the sense of nationalist pride in the country and the importance of strength as a national characteristic. This represents a problem for the West. For, in attempting to exert pressure through sanctions, this emboldens Putin to dig in and show the sort of strength Russians wish to see. Coupling this with almost universal control over the media and it is little wonder that Putin’s popularity at home has soared to a dizzying 82%. Whether he can keep this with their recent economic woes is not clear, but for now Putin has found confidence in acting internationally in 2014 and those opposed to this will need to find ways to derail him if there is to be a satisfactory resolution in Ukraine in the New Year.

 

While armed struggle in Europe is unusual, sadly the same cannot be said about the Middle East. Five years on from the previous invasion, tensions between Israel and Hamas led to Operation Protective Edge in July. Designed to cripple Hamas’s capability, the conflict weakened their infrastructure but also saw further devastation to the beleaguered residents of the strip. War may halt Hamas now but it also breeds hate that drives the group on. So while Israel may be safer now, a longer term issue is that continued war creates of a cycle of hate, revenge and further grievances that will likely fuel further violence. Fighting in Gaza may be sadly familiar, but what was new was the emergence of Isis.

 

Born out of the ongoing Syrian conflict, the group swept through Iraq and Syria with Blitzkrieg-like speed, bringing brutal rule and the sickening beheadings of captives. Nor are they a localised concern, for fighters across the globe have joined their caliphate, increasing the risk of the sort of home grown terrorism already seen this year in Ottawa and Sydney. There’s no doubt the world was caught off-guard by Isis, but air strikes by the US and her European allies and, more significantly, other actors in the Middle East have halted the group’s spread. Now though comes the tricky part. For while Isis is now on the run, rolling back the territory it has acquired will be a much tougher task. It seems improbable that there will be western boots of the ground, so much of the fighting in 2015 will fall on the Kurdish forces in Iraq, whose ability is far from certain. In Syria though, the situation is even worse, for supporting the weakening of Isis emboldens Assad’s Syrian Army, who the West were planning to attack not so long ago. The key question of 2015 will be whether there is a middle way between Isis and Assad. Finding an answer to this is no easy task.

 

So as 2015 arrives, it may feel like positives are hard to come by, but they are there if you look hard enough. The bravery of medical professionals across the world in tackling Ebola has been truly commendable and are worthy winners of TIME Person of the Year. Believe it or not, 2014 was also the most democratic year ever as 1.5 billion people made their voice heard. It may stumble, but still democracy continues to stride forward. Plans to normalise relations between the US and Cuba show that positive change in relations remains possible amidst the carnage and while human errors are clear, so are its extraordinary technological achievements. Nowhere was this seen more than the Philae probe, whose landing on a speeding comet was the result of ten years of co-operation across nation states. It may not be quite the 2015 famously imagined in Back to the Future Part II, but still, progress nonetheless.

 

What 2014 does demonstrate though is that the international community is very much divided and devoid of much leadership. Bludgeoned by the role, America has continued to take a back seat in marshalling world action, but while they may like some of their partners to share the load, it is other regional actors who have been emboldened by the vacuum this year. Among these has been Russia, who in 2015 may well act further if there is fear of trouble at home. Iran and Saudi Arabia are among those who could likewise come more into play, for they still may be able to hold the role of kingmaker in their war torn region. What this shift towards regional actors means longer term is not yet clear, but what this multiplicity rather than global leadership means is that the international arena is now as uncertain as ever as the New Year rings in.

 

By Daniel Kibble

 

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