2004 Year-Ender

24 December 2004

2004 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

The world has been on hold this year. Interesting and important things have happened in many countries, and most people have scarcely noticed that international politics is becalmed — but it is. The normal business of the planet has pretty much slowed to a halt and we are all gently drifting downstream together while we wait to see what becomes of the United States — and, as a result, of the rest of the world, for the US is still a key player in almost every game. We may be waiting some time.

The war in Iraq is not really very important, because Iraq itself is not all that important in the global scheme of things, any more than Vietnam was a generation ago. What matters is the way that this war is shaping America’s relations with the rest of the world, and in that sense Iraq has the potential to be a far bigger turning point than Vietnam ever could have been.

Vietnam, like Iraq, was a war undertaken for the wrong reasons and close to unwinnable from the start, but the Vietnam conflict happened in the middle of the Cold War. No matter how Vietnam had come out, the basic alignments in the world would not have changed: the rival alliances were practically carved in stone at the time. Iraq is different, because it is happening in a world where those alliance confrontations have dissolved and the new norm is multilateralism: the great powers are supposed to be running the world by consultation and consensus. But that world is now fundamentally at risk,

Two popular perceptions of what is happening dominate the world at the moment. One, held mainly by Americans, sees a world beleaguered by such a huge terrorist threat that all the old rules have to be abandoned. The United States, they believe, is carrying the main burden of this “war against terror” while other countries shirk their share of the load. (Despite all the talk of a fundamental clash of values in the recent US election, both parties basically held the same view on this issue.)

Most people in other countries, and most of their governments, too, see terrorism as a much smaller threat. Certain measures need to be taken to contain it, but it is nowhere near big enough to justify scrapping all the rules of international behaviour we have painfully built up over the past half-century.

A lot of the governments also believe (in private) that the Bush administration is deliberately pumping up the fear of terrorism in order to justify a unilateral strategy that really aims at establishing American hegemony worldwide. The popular American belief that the United States has the right to go anywhere and attack anybody if it feels itself threatened — “we do not need a permission slip from the UN,” as Vice-President Dick Cheney frequently puts it — predates 9/11, but it has been greatly strengthened by the rhetoric of the “war on terror.”

Most of the other great powers on the planet are coming to see the United States as a rogue superpower. (Britain is formally an exception under Prime Minister Tony Blair, but even in London the concern is palpable at lower levels of government.) Yet everybody is deeply reluctant to confront the United States directly, since that would just hasten the collapse of the multilateral order they still hope to save. The result has been a lengthy pause in which most other major powers refuse to approve or assist the American adventure in Iraq, but avoid any open defiance of American power.

Instead, they are waiting. They waited for American voters to repudiate the Bush strategy in last month’s election (though they were well aware that the strategy of a Kerry administration would not have been radically different). They continue to wait for the resistance war in Iraq to grow into a second Vietnam that will turn the US public against the whole neo-conservative project (but they cannot be sure that that will happen before their own public opinion loses patience and demands that they move to contain rampant US power). They half-dread the collapse of the US dollar, but half look forward to it as a blow that might shift American policy.

They are on hold, in other words, and they will stay that way as long as they possibly can — because the alternative is to start creating alliances and building up their own military power in order to contain the United States. Do that, and you have started to lay the foundations for World War III, so nobody wants to go there.

Nobody should go there. The United States no longer dominates the international system except in terms of hard military power, and that is an instrument that often breaks in the hands of American governments because the US public hates casualties. Sooner or later American voters will rebel against the human and financial cost of trying to be Globocop. so just wait it out, and sooner or later normal service will be restored in Washington. That is the right strategy, and there is at least a couple of years’ worth of patience in other capitals before anybody gives up on it. With luck, that may be enough.

In the meantime, everybody tries to get on with their lives as if there were not some potential calamity looming over us all. And though the big picture is menacing, the fine detail is a bit more encouraging.

The great event in Europe was the “big bang” expansion of the European Union from 15 to 25 members on 1 May. This had originally been intended to close the candidates’ list for a long time while the EU dealt with a new constitution, spread the use of the euro to the new members, and generally “deepened” the ties binding the members together, but by May there were already three more countries scheduled to join the EU in 2007: Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. By year’s end 70 million Turks had also joined the queue.

It’s neither a federation nor an empire, but it’s much more than a customs union; something significant is happening in Europe. In fact, although Ukraine still has no promises from the EU, the popular hope that it might eventually become an EU member provided much of the fuel for the demonstrations in late November and early December that undid a rigged election, unseated a corrupt post-Communist oligarchy, and set the country on the road to democracy. Something similar, though less dramatic, happened in Romania in December.

Russia continued its drift back into authoritarian rule, with President Vladimir Putin winning a second term in March thanks in large part to terrorist attacks by Chechen fighters in a war that he himself did much to trigger. He successfully portrays this Chechen independence war to his own people as part of a generalised “Islamic” assault against the “civilised” countries, and used the school siege that killed 331 people in Beslan in September as a pretext to proclaim an interventionist doctrine that mirrors the US doctrine of “preemptive war”. Russia, his advisers announced, henceforward claims the right to “liquidate all terrorist bases in any part of the world.” (But it couldn’t protect its own puppet ruler in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May.).

By contrast, the big Western European countries had a year so tranquil that even Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s umpteenth miraculous escape from conviction on corruption charges ranked as big news. But there was one exception: Spain, where terrorist bombs on commuter trains in Madrid killed 190 people in March. Yhe Spanish (who had opposed their government’s support for the US invasion of Iraq by almost four-to-one) responded by voting the conservative People’s Party government out three days later. The newly elected Socialist government ordered the 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq home as soon as it took power in April.

On the peripheries of Europe, long-awaited things almost happened but didn’t quite. Northern Ireland came very close to a power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Catholics that would allow the restoration of self-government in the province, only to fall at the last hurdle — but there will be no slide back into war. The Basque separatists of ETA, its senior ranks decimated by a wave of arrests, came close to declaring an end to violence — only to shy away from it at the last moment with a string of bombs in Madrid this month. The Greek-Cypriots, offered a UN-brokered deal on the reunification of their island, overwhelmingly rejected it even as their Turkish-Cypriot compatriots voted yes.

And in the Netherlands, the spiritual home of liberal tolerance, something went dreadfully wrong in November. The murder by an Islamist fanatic of radical Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, who had made a movie condemning violence against women in Muslim societies, was a deplorable but isolated event. The subsequent displays of hostility and outright violence both by Dutch-born Muslims and by Christian or post-Christian Dutch who used to preach tolerance were shameful and deeply worrisome — and the further east you go in Europe, the worse it gets. The continent is still a long way from the Promised Land. Speaking of which…

The dominant motif in the Middle East during 2004 was the US war in Iraq, from the repeated sieges of Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala to the disgusting images from Abu Ghraib prison, but the single great event was the November death of Yasser Arafat, the embodiment of Palestinian aspirations for the past forty years. But it was a measure of the success of the US-Israeli strategy for rendering him irrelevant that his death actually changed very little in terms of the realities and possibilities of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

A successor (Mahmoud Abbas) is to be elected chairman of the Palestinian Authority on 9 January, but the notion that this represents a “fresh opportunity for peace” in the region is fantasy. The course of events was set for some time to come by the Israeli-American summit last April, in which President Bush declared that “new realities on the ground” make it “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status (peace) negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” In other words, Israel can keep most of its settlements in the occupied West Bank — 37 years of American foreign policy scrapped in a sentence.

This was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s reward for declaring a unilateral withdrawal from the few indefensible Jewish settlements in the densely populated Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the “security fence” that has been carving its way through the West Bank underlines the new territorial settlement that is being imposed on the ground. Arafat’s death was awkward for Sharon, who lost his favourite excuse for claiming that there was nobody to talk to about peace on the Palestinian side, but the main outlines of his plan for a “unilateral disengagement” are already in place.

As Sharon said himself, “My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There’s no Palestinian state in a unilateral move.” His senior adviser, Dov Weisglas, was even blunter, saying that “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process.” And with the opposition Labour party set to enter Sharon’s coalition government early in the new year, that is where things are likely to remain so long as the current American hegemony in the Middle East endures.

Elsewhere in the region, Libya’s loony dictator Muammar Gadafy formally renounced the nuclear weapons programme that he never really had (allowing the US and Britain to claim that their invasion of Iraq had scared him out of it), and Iran was persuaded at the end of November to put its uranium enrichment programme on hold for the moment. But it will not have escaped Tehran’s notice (or Pyongyang’s, or Damascus’s, or anybody else’s) that the main reason Iraq got invaded was its failure to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction.

Events in Asia unfolded a good deal more smoothly, as they generally do these days. The surprise victory of Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party in India’s May election was followed by an orderly handover by the outgoing Hindu nationalists of the BJP, although Mrs Gandhi, being foreign-born, chose to make Manmohan Singh prime minister rather than taking the job herself. Things got nastier afterwards, with the BJP boycotting parliament and the new government planning to re-rewrite textbooks that it said had been distorted by the BJP to emphasise India’s Hindu heritage at the expense of its Islamic history. But the world’s biggest democracy continues to get the most important things right

China, which lays no claim to being a democracy, had its own orderly hand-over of power, with 78-year-old former president Jiang Zemin relinquishing his last lever of power, his control of the Central Military Commission, to his successor, President Hu Jintao, at the Communist Party’s Central Committee meeting in September. The main focus of the year, however, was China-Taiwan relations, which grew more tense with the re-election of Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian (who narrowly survived an assassination attempt a day before the vote).

Beijing, which sees Chen as a dangerous radical committed to Taiwan’s formal independence, started talking darkly about war, but US Secretary of State Colin Powell took some of the heat out of the crisis in October by declaring in a Hong Kong radio interview that “there is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty.” But Beijing was still alarmed, and at the end of the year it was planning to pass a new anti-secession law that would, as the pro-Beijing Hong Kong daily Wen Wei Po put it, “leave Taiwan independence forces with no ambiguity to exploit.”

So much for two-thirds of Asia (as measured by population). In most of the remaining third, the economic crisis of the late 90s was long past and prosperity was returning even in Japan, which showed tentative signs of emerging from its ten-year recession. Indonesia elected a new president in July — the first ever to be chosen by a direct popular vote — and Malaysia also became much more democratic when Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi won a landslide victory in the March election.

The impression that Badawi was quietly repudiating the long period of authoritarian rule under recently retired ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamed grew stronger when he allowed the courts to release Mahathir’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, jailed six years ago on trumped-up sodomy charges after he challenged Mahathir’s economic policies. But there was no similar sense of glaciers melting in Singapore in August when Lee Hsien Loong, 52-year-old son of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who has dominated the prosperous city-state since 1965, formally took over as the new prime minister.

In October, hard-liners in the Burmese junta removed the closest thing to a moderate in their midst, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, in what amounted to a mini-coup. Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo surprised absolutely nobody when she declared in August that the country was in a fiscal crisis. Cambodia changed kings, Thailand blundered into an insurgency in its Muslim-populated southern provinces, the ceasefire in the long war between Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and its Sinhalese majority sort of held, and Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf was still in the saddle at year’s end despite widespread anger that he had broken his promise to give up command of the army this year.

We never did find out how much Pakistan had aided North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme because Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, disgraced ex-chief of Pakistan’s own nuclear bomb project, has been pardoned by President Musharraf for selling nuclear secrets and technology abroad and is still not available for interview by foreign intelligence agencies. Hamid Karzai won the much-postponed Afghan presidential election in October, though his power still does not extend far from Kabul and parliamentary elections have been postponed until next year. And Australian Prime Minister John Howard, “America’s deputy sheriff” in the region, won a historic fourth term in the same month.

Africa presented its usual deceptive face to the world — a mini-genocide in Darfur in Sudan, civil war in Ivory Coast, civil and religious strife in Nigeria, the threat of renewed war in eastern Congo — as if Africa’s main problem was war. It is not, and it isn’t AIDS either. It is poverty, which is mostly the result of catastrophically bad government. So the important news from Africa is that there are increasing numbers of good governments, democratically elected, that serve the whole population rather than some narrow tribal base. In just the past month there have been two elections, in Ghana and Mozambique, that returned that kind of government. Things are bad in Africa, but not without hope.

Which leaves Latin America, the media black hole from which only occasional news of disasters reaches the outside world. We had the usual ration of that this year, with excited reports of the not-quite-coup that unseated President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in February and of left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s near-death experience in the August referendum on his rule. We hear far less about the miraculous recovery of the Argentine economy, about the remarkable progress that Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva has made in shifting resources towards the poor while building Brazil’s influence abroad, and about the South American Union (optimistically modelled on the European Union) that was launched in Ayacucho early this month.

One continent at a time, it all makes for a somewhat more hopeful balance-sheet than the one we usually see. It’s the big-picture stuff that is really worrisome. Oil hit $40 a barrel in May and has stayed above that price ever since. Climate change is galloping up on us faster than ever (though at least Russia ratified the Kyoto accord, which finally brings the treaty into effect). The whole international system that has kept great-power war at bay for the past six decades is now under challenge. The pessimists are starting to fear that things are spinning out of control. So a sane and happy New Year to us all.


This article is 3,000 words. To shorten to 2,250 words, omit paragraphs 3, 10, 16, 17, 22, 25, 27 and 29. (“Vietnam…risk”; “Nobody..enough”; “On the peripheries…of which”; “Elsewhere…destruction”; “Beijing…exploit”; “The impression…prime minister”; and “We never…month”) Further cuts can be achieved by pruning or omitting regions that are of lesser interest to your readers.