2003 Year-Ender

23 December 2003

2003 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

2003 was a year defined by one war. It wasn’t the biggest war of the year (that honour would go to Sudan or Congo, though both those wars may now be ending), nor the fastest growing war (that prize certainly goes to Nepal), and it was certainly not the oldest (probably Colombia, though there have been intermittent cease-fires over the years). It was a short, low-casualty war whose outcome was never in doubt, since the defence budget of one side was 240 times bigger than the that of the other side. But 2003 was the year of the US-Iraq war.

It was important because the United States is the greatest power in the world and everything it does is important. It was important because Iraq floats on an ocean of oil, and because it is an Arab and predominantly Muslim country: the spectre of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ haunts these events. But above all, it was important because for the first time in almost sixty years a major country has mounted a deliberate challenge to the authority of the United Nations and the international rule of law.

Indeed, the United States is challenging the whole system of rules that has governed relations between the great powers since the Treaty of Westphalia in1648, for it is declaring a doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’ far more sweeping than the one that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decreed for Soviet satellite regimes when he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1970. The Bush administration has made it clear that no nation which Washington suspects of backing terrorists or developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is safe from American military intervention. Washington will decide alone — and you don’t get your money back if it turns out afterwards that there were no terrorists or WMD.

All of this was unleashed by the terrorist attacks on the United States twenty-eight months ago. The actual level of terrorist activity around the world in 2003 remained low, and the deaths attributable to the Islamist terrorists associated with al-Qaeda very low indeed: fewer than a thousand people killed in twelve months in a dozen different countries, none of them in the Western heartlands that are the terrorists’ prime targets. Compared to the eight thousand people a day who die from AIDS, this is an utterly insignificant number. But since Osama bin Laden’s few thousand militants have managed to hijack both the US and the international agendas, they must rank as the most successful terrorist operation of all time.

It is hard to imagine that they realised they were going to unleash an American drive for global hegemony, and even harder to believe that they saw the real danger in this. The truth of the matter, though few governments outside the United States are willing to admit it in public, is that most people around the world would be willing to live under a global American hegemony that guaranteed their security and prosperity if American citizens were really willing to pick up the tab for it. The problem is that hardly anybody outside the United States (and few experienced people inside it) believe that the US has the resources and the will to impose the ‘Bush doctrine’ around the world for decades to come.

The risk is rather that current American behaviour, epitomised by the unprovoked and illegal invasion of Iraq, will destroy the international system of multilateral cooperation that has been the goal of most statesmen since the founding of the United Nations. It made very significant progress in the decade between the end of the Cold War and 2001, but by the time the American public finally rebels against the costs and casualties of attempted global hegemony, there might be no multilateral system left. Instead, the world would revert to the rival alliances and balance-of-power strategies that prevailed before the First World War, which would be bad for everyone’s health.

That was the worst-case scenario at the beginning of 2003. The war turned out to be even easier than expected for the US forces, who did not have to fight their way into Baghdad after all, but the aftermath has been much harder. At year’s end, despite the capture of the fugitive Saddam Hussein in December, the armed resistance to the US occupation has become a serious political problem for the Bush administration. As a result, the outlook for the US adventure in global hegemony is growing significantly darker, and the prospects for the survival of the multilateral system are improving. Good — but none of this would even be bothering us if not for the terrorist attacks that came out of the blue two years ago and knocked the world off track.

The potential for a US drive for unilateral global power has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union twelve years ago removed Washington’s only serious rival, but it might never have happened without 9/11. The people who plotted that attack were clever and patient, but a single blunder could have led to the arrest of the wrong person at the wrong time and then the whole plan would have had to be abandoned. We are living through the consequences of a rather remote contingency that has become our new reality.

But it may all go away again, in which case we get our old reality back. What has happened in the 95 percent of the world that still lives most of the time in the old reality, where events are unfolding in ways that are, if not fully foreseen, at least familiar in their broad outlines?

Quite a lot, actually, and more good than bad.

In Asia, the most striking events were the passing of power to the next generation (or half-generation, anyway) in the Chinese Communist Party, and the growing rapprochement between India and Pakistan, which included a cease-fire in disputed Kashmir in November. Neither of these events necessarily means real change in stubborn realities that have already lasted for decades, but there were those who found hope in them. The game of bluff and double-bluff continued between China and Taiwan, with no serious probability of ever spilling over into a war. Malaysia’s long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed finally retired in October (though it’s hard to believe that he is relinquishing all control over the country’s affairs after three decades in charge), and Philippines President Gloria Arroyo easily survived an attempted military mutiny in July.

Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi narrowly won re-election in November, ensuring (once again) that nothing much will change in Japan. The over-inflated crisis over North Korea’s supposed nuclear weapons lurched onward, never resolved but never getting closer to war. (Well, of course not: North Korea is an impoverished, starveling state that lacks the strength to attack anybody, and the US is afraid of the nuclear weapons that the North Koreans say they have.) In May, the generals in Burma massacred mobs of people who had come to hear pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kji (who is now back under house arrest), but the only serious wars currently underway in a continent containing half the human race are the Maoist insurgency in Nepal and Indonesia’s war against separatist rebels in Aceh in northern Sumatra. The cease-fire in Sri Lanka’s long civil war was briefly endangered by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, opposed to the peace deal, who tried to wreck it with a declaration of national emergency in November, but it’s still on track.

Europe saw a major split between governments that backed the US invasion of Iraq (Britain, Italy, Spain and some ex-Soviet satellites in eastern Europe) and those that did not (France, Germany, Russia and most of the rest). But the split was less deep than it seemed, in the sense that popular opinion opposed the invasion by large majorities in most countries on both sides of the divide, reaching close to 80 percent in both Italy and Spain. Only in Britain was public opinion more or less evenly split, but a lengthy public inquiry into how Prime Minister Tony Blair had manipulated the truth in order to talk Britons into the war left his reputation badly tarnished.

The expansion of the European Union continues on schedule, with ten candidate countries from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus completing final arrangements, including referenda in most cases, to join the EU next April. Progress on a constitution for the new 25-member EU was stalled at year’s end by a bitter quarrel over whether middle-sized Spain and Poland should have almost the same voting weight as the Union’s biggest members, but this sort of problem tends to get sorted out by late-night horse-trading sessions in the end. It was normally sleepy Sweden that provided the biggest shocks: foreign minister Anna Lindh, widely tipped to be Sweden’s next prime minister and a future EU president, was killed in a Stockholm department store in September by a lone knife-wielding madman, and a week later Swedish voters roundly rejected membership in the euro, which aspires to be the EU’s common currency.

In March, the citizens of tiny Liechtenstein voted to give their hereditary ruler, Prince Hans-Adam, absolute power, and in August Iceland resumed whaling after a 14-year break. Russia drifted a bit further away from genuine democracy with a December parliamentary election in which almost everything was rigged except the vote itself, but even that was better than the ‘election’ in rebellious Chechnya that supposedly legitimised a collaborationist regime there. And all the chickens in the coop fluttered furiously when President Putin’s chief of staff suggested in October (presumably in jest) that Russia might bomb Ukraine if it did not back down in a dispute over a small island in the Black Sea. No war followed.

In the far south-eastern corner of Europe, the great surprise was the non-violent democratic revolution in Georgia that overthrew long-ruling President Eduard Shevardnadze in November, which is to be followed by new elections next month. This was followed by popular demonstrations against unpopular regimes in Moldova and Ukraine, but the difficulties of getting genuine democracy up and running were illustrated by Serbia, which failed to elect a president in November for the third time in a year because too few people bothered to vote. Turkey managed to avoid getting involved in Iraq despite intense US pressure and simultaneously opened the door to eventual EU membership by dropping anti-democratic elements of its constitution. Even long-divided Cyprus may be heading for reunification after this month’s election in the Turkish-occupied north of the island resulted in a draw between pro-reunification forces and the separatist supporters of long-ruling Rauf Denktash..

In the Americas, the most noteworthy changes were the advent of Brazil’s first socialist president, Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, in January, and the changing of the guard in Canada in December, with Prime Minister Jean Chretien retiring after a decade in office to make way for the rival he always hated most (though he is from the same Liberal Party), Paul Martin. ‘Lula’ got away with being a socialist by following rigorously orthodox fiscal policies in his first year in office. Chretien got away with not sending Canadian troops to Iraq and even openly criticising the invasion because other NATO members like France and Germany were higher on Washington’s hit-list (and besides, Washington knew that Martin was on the way). In the United States, a largely jobless economic recovery failed to cancel out the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war, and credible Democratic contenders emerged to threaten the once-unchallengeable lead of President George W. Bush in next November’s presidential election.

Venezuelan populist president Hugo Chavez survived another turbulent year in office, but a recall petition signed by almost 30 percent of the population was seriously threatening his presidency at year’s end. In October Bolivians ousted their 73-year-old president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, known as ‘El Gringo’ for his closeness to the US, after a month of violent clashes in the streets. The most powerful man in the country now is peasant leader Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, who advocates socialism and indigenous autonomy and defends the right of Bolivian farmers to grow coca against the US-backed ‘drug wars’ attempts to eradicate the coca industry.

There was more good news than bad from Africa for a change, with a fairly honest election in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, returning President Olusegun Obasanjo to office for a second term and Africa’s two biggest wars going into remission: a shaky cease-fire held across most of Congo (former Zaire), and the three-decade-old civil war in Sudan seemed headed for a genuine peace settlement as negotiations reached a point of no return in late December. Former dictator and genocidal monster Charles Taylor of Liberia was persuaded to go into exile, giving that devastated country a chance at recovery, and former president Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, only one year out of office, is facing trial on corruption charges over the fortune he amassed while in power, a fate hitherto unimaginable for Africa’s ‘big men’.

The 52-nation African Union, created last year to replace the largely discredited Organisation for African Unity, elected its first president, Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, at a summit in Mozambique in July. The AU may be as far away from real European Union-style insistence on the defence of human rights and democratic norms in Africa as its member states are from European levels of prosperity, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. And the South African cabinet at last forced President Thabo Mbeki to end his lethal opposition to making life-saving anti-retroviral drug treatments available to the country’s 5 million or more HIV-positive citizens and AIDS sufferers.

There remains the wilful destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy, free press and civil rights by ageing president Robert Mugabe, the alarming signs that Namibia’s president Sam Nujoma is heading in the same direction, the long drought that has reduced parts of six countries in central Africa to near-famine, the signs of approaching famine in Ethiopia, and the quiet desperation in which at least half of the continent’s people lead their (increasingly foreshortened) lives. But there are at least some tangible signs of hope.

And so, inevitably, to the Middle East, where pro-Western Arab regimes successfully rode out popular anger over the invasion of Iraq, but remain in a rather fragile condition as events there unfold. Most precarious, probably, is the regime in Saudi Arabia, where shoot-outs between police and suspected terrorists have become almost weekly events, but neither Syria nor Egypt looks particularly stable. On the other hand, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadafy has completed his long journey back into the West’s good graces with a much-ballyhooed renunciation of his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. (About as meaningful as Mozambique renouncing its space programme, since he never really had any worth speaking of.)

In the Israel-Palestine arena, where political incompetence and sheer bloody-mindedness on both sides consigned the so-called ‘roadmap’ to the same garbage dump as the Oslo accords, all the political posturing was overshadowed by the harsh fact of the new Berlin Wall being built in the West Bank. Despite the ritualistic insistence by the Israeli authorities that it is only a temporary security fence, it has the look and feel of a permanent border that includes almost all the larger Israeli settlements on the West Bank, locks the Palestinians into easily controlled cantons, and obviates any real need to negotiate with them. The prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace that would make Israel an accepted part of the Middle Eastern landscape, once seen as practically a done deal, is now drifting out of sight.

The US space shuttle Columbia tore itself apart on re-entry in February, putting the completion of the International Space Station on hold as the entire American shuttle fleet was grounded indefinitely, but Russian rockets continued to visit the ISS and in October China launched its first spaceman into orbit. Between March and May over 800 people died of SARS, the first new global epidemic of the 21st century, but it was successfully contained by isolation measures despite the lack of any vaccine or reliable cure. The Cancun summit of the World Trade Organisation broke up in disarray in September after a coalition of Third World countries led by Brazil, India and China rejected rich-country demands for investment access overseas and agricultural protectionism at home. The Kyoto deal on combatting climate change, already gravely damaged by US opposition, faced new threats as Russia, whose ratification is now indispensable for the treaty to come into force, tried to use its position to extort new concessions from other countries.

The euro soared past the US dollar, but the long-anticipated collapse of the latter is still merely a prediction despite the enormous American budget deficit and foreign trade deficit. In December one of Japan’s leading bureaucrats, Hiroshi Watanabe of the Finance Ministry, floated the idea of a common currency for Asia that would include China, the world’s fastest-growing economy, by the end of this decade.

New genetic evidence confirmed that virtually the entire original human population of southern Asia was wiped out 74,000 years ago by the explosion of a mega-volcano at the current location of Lake Toba in Sumatra which caused a six-year ‘nuclear winter’ and covered the entire Indian sub-continent in a layer of ash between one and three metres (four and ten feet) deep. And after 115 successes in discovering gigantic super-planets orbiting distant stars, astronomers announced in July that they had found a planet resembling our own Jupiter orbiting a Sun much like our own some 90 light-years away. The idea that solar systems like our own are as common as dirt in the universe grows more credible with each passing year.

Six billion human beings; literally millions of projects, plans and rival agendas; almost two hundred countries; another busy, busy year. And yet it’s unlikely that anybody else in the universe even knows we are here.


This article is 3,000 words. Potential cuts for radical reduction of length include paragraphs 3-7 (“Indeed…track” — 700 words), or paragraphs 14 (“In March…followed”), 17 (“Venezuelan…industry”), 19 (“The 52-nation…sufferers”), and 23-25 (“The US space…passing year”), for a total of a further 700 words. Other cuts may be made in accord with the regional priorities of your readers.