Every year has its share of significant world events. Two thousand fourteen is no exception. Here is my list of the top ten most significant events of the year. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories could continue to dominate the headlines in 2015.
10. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Disappears. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a mystery for the ages. How does a plane just vanish? Especially in an age of instant global communication? Nine months after the plane carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared we are no closer to any answers. It might have been a tragic accident. Or it might have been hijacked. No one knows. The plane lost contact with air traffic control over the South China Sea, where territorial disputes abound. Nonetheless, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and the United States all contributed to the search effort, making it a great instance of international cooperation. That’s not to say everyone was happy with how things unfolded. China in particular criticized Malaysia’s efforts to find the plane, accusing the Malaysian government, which operates Malaysia Airlines, of stonewalling. It didn’t help that the search shifted from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean after investigations showed that the plane might have flown on autopilot for five hours after it lost contact with air traffic control. Because coverage of the plane’s disappearance dominated the news media, people around the world learned that floor of the Indian Ocean is poorly mapped and that modern technology still can’t find everything on the seabed. The disappearance of MH-370 has prompted calls for better technology to track the location of planes around the world. We may never know what happened to MH-370. But answers might come with time. An Air France plane disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. It wasn’t located until 2011.
9. Scotland Votes to Remain Part of the United Kingdom. When British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed back in 2012 to allow Scotland to hold a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, he expected that the “Better Together” campaign would win in a runaway. He was wrong. Britain had a near-death experience this summer as pro-independence sentiment surged in Scotland. Serious discussions began on how the break-up of the Union would proceed and what the consequences would be for England. That talk became moot when Scots voted 55 percent to 45 percent on September 18 to remain in the 307 year-old Union. But the price of victory was high. In the run-up to the referendum, Westminster promised to give Edinburgh substantial new powers if Scots voted no. Now, Cameron must make good on those promises, as well as deal with their ripple effects. Voters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are asking for special deals like the Scots will get. Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is now riding a new wave of popularity that might break the Labour Party’s hold on Scotland’s seats in the House of Commons come next May’s parliamentary elections. That would shake up British politics considerably. There’s at least one place in Europe saddened by Scotland’s no vote: Spain’s Catalonia region. Catalans had hoped that a yes vote in Scotland would put pressure on Madrid to allow them a similar vote. Catalonia held an informal independence referendum last month, and a majority voted for independence. Madrid didn’t recognize the vote as legitimate, though, and the status quo holds for now. But expect Catalonia to continue to push for independence.
8. Eurozone Economies Falter—Again. Things aren’t looking great for the eurozone. European economies look poised to slide into their third recession in five years. Overall eurozone growth was only 0.2 percent between July and September. Italy is already in recession, and France and Germany are teetering on the brink. Some reports are more optimistic than others, with third quarter growth rates up. Greece looked to be emerging from its recession, but then a call for snap elections sent the Greek stock market crashing last week. Even if Europe as a whole manages to stay out of a recession, sluggish growth isn’t enough to bring down high unemployment rates, and the even higher youth unemployment rates, plaguing most eurozone countries. The European Central Bank may propose a new stimulus plan, but the details aren’t settled yet. If Europe doesn’t see robust growth soon, the nationalist, populist, and outsider parties that did so well in the European Parliament elections last May will likely grow in strength. If so, you can write off efforts to negotiate a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed trade deal between the EU and the United States.
7. Pro-Democracy Protests Erupt in Hong Kong. “One country, two systems” has been the operating principle for Chinese rule of Hong Kong since the British returned the city to Chinese control in 1997. The “special administrative region” of seven million people is promised certain privileges not afforded to other Chinese citizens. However, Beijing has not always held up its end of the bargain. Tensions rose this summer after Beijing’s harsh response to a June demonstration commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the riots in Tiananmen Square. Beijing added fuel to the fire in August by announcing that only candidates it approved would be allowed to run in the 2017 election for Hong Kong chief executive. The “Occupy Central” protests demanding that Beijing allow democratic elections in Hong Kong took off. The protesters were met with tear gas, which only prompted more people join the demonstrations. Participation in the protests peaked in early October, and under pressure from authorities the number of protestors dwindled to several hundred. On December 3, three protest leaders surrendered themselves. After that, police cracked down on the remaining protest camps. As of today, all of the camps have been cleared. That hardly signals that Hong Kong’s dissatisfaction with Beijing’s decisions has dissipated. So keep an eye on Hong Kong in 2015.
6. Narendra Modi Wins in India. Narendra Modi, the son of a poor tea seller, led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a historic victory in India’s May parliamentary election, making it the first party in thirty years to win an absolute majority of seats. Modi ran on his record for bringing economic development to the Gujarat state when he was its chief minister. Indian voters hope he can bring the same success to India as a whole. But he faces two immediate problems: political power is decentralized in India, meaning that his opponents will have many ways to derail his plans, and the overall global economy is slowing, meaning that the Indian economy might underperform even if he does everything right. Not surprisingly, Indians have yet to see significant economic results. Modi has focused on taming inflation and improving India’s dilapidated infrastructure, efforts that could take years to pay off. He has also made progress on trade, reaching an agreement with President Obama in November that may lead to the implementation of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. Although the economy is job number one for Modi, he devoted plenty of time to foreign policy during his first six months in office. He took a hard line on Pakistan, which alarmed some critics. He also tried to raise India’s visibility on the world stage. In September, he spoke at the opening of the UN General Assembly, stopped by Madison Square Garden to address a crowd of almost twenty thousand cheering fans who chanted his name, and attended a state dinner at the White House where he fasted while his host ate. The international buzz Modi has generated could help him in his goal of making India more attractive to investors. Indians may be more impressed, however, with one of his domestic innovations: a website that allows ordinary Indians to track the comings and goings of more than 50,000 Indian public servants. So much for long lunches, short work days, and three-day weekends.
5. Negotiations on Iran’s Nuclear Program Stall. Optimism ran high in November 2013 when the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) struck an interim deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. A year later that optimism is giving way to pessimism that a comprehensive deal will ever be reached. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may be more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he has been just as unable to get Iran’s hardline elements to concede on the country’s nuclear ambitions. In January 2014, a six-month joint plan of action was launched in an attempt to conclude a negotiations process that has been on and off since 2002. As part of that joint plan of action, the United States began to unfreeze some Iranian assets. When the negotiations hit the initial six-month deadline in July with no deal in place, the parties cited the progress they had made and agreed to extend the talks for another four months. Despite a last minute push, the negotiators didn’t reach an agreement by the November 24 deadline either. So they kicked the deadline back to July 1, 2015. The main sticking points in negotiations are how much uranium Iran will be allowed to enrich and the speed at which Western sanctions will be rolled back. Iran maintains that its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes and has called Western demands “excessive.” The United States, which contends that Iran is seeking nuclear weapon capability, is “disappointed” with Iran’s hardline position. A deal, if one is to be had, likely won’t come until negotiators are faced with the next impending deadline.
4. Oil Prices Crash. What goes up can come down. Case in point: oil prices. Back in July oil cost over $100 a barrel; today that barrel costs just $60. Some experts predict that prices could soon drop to $50 a barrel and stay there for a while. Oil prices have dropped in part because supply is increasing; the advent of hydraulic fracturing has sent U.S. oil productions soaring, Libyan oil has come back on line, and OPEC can’t agree on production cuts. The other side of the equation is that demand is falling as growth slows in many parts of the world. Lower prices is great news for consumers and importing countries. Money not spent buying gasoline can be spent or invested on other things. But lower prices is bad news for oil producers. They make less money, and if prices fall far enough, they will even lose money. Oil producing countries like Norway and Saudi Arabia that have built up ample rainy day funds during good times should be able to ride out a sustained period of lower prices. But countries like Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela, which don’t have substantial rainy day funds and which rely heavily on oil revenues to fund government programs, could be in a heap of trouble.
3. Ebola Strikes West Africa. Few people noticed when outbreaks of Ebola were officially declared in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone in March. Perhaps because in the twenty-four previous outbreaks, the death toll from the disease, which was first discovered in 1976, seldom exceeded a few dozen victims and never exceeded three hundred. So far in 2014, more than six thousand people have died from Ebola, and a few isolated cases have appeared in Europe and the United States. This year’s outbreak was different partly because it began in a more densely populated area and partly because the international response was slow. Doctors Without Borders, which has had its teams on the ground since the beginning of the outbreak, called the response to the outbreak “lethally inadequate” and “slow and uneven.” The eventual international response has made some difference. Liberia has made progress against the virus, though more cases are being reported in Sierra Leone. There are major dangers in declaring victory too soon. Researchers around the world are scrambling to produce a vaccine, but it will be a long time before it is ready. And the economic costs of the epidemic could persist long after it ends. The World Bank reports that economic growth is rapidly decreasing in all three Ebola-plagued countries and food shortages in the region are becoming increasingly worrying. (For continuing coverage of the outbreak check out eboladeeply.org.)
2. ISIS Declares an Islamic Caliphate. When the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq in December 2011, Americans thought they had closed the book on Iraq. But the emergence in 2014 of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or simply the Islamic State, showed otherwise. Formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS has acted so brutally toward its enemies that al-Qaeda has denounced it. But despite that brutality, or perhaps because of it, ISIS took control of a considerable swath of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Then on June 29, ISIS declared itself an Islamic caliphate. While ISIS clearly threatens the people living under its rule, disagreement exists over how much it threatens the United States. Americans in the region certainly are at risk. ISIS beheaded three Americans in late summer and early fall. That prompted President Barack Obama to order air strikes first against ISIS targets in Iraq and then in Syria. Obama also dispatched some 3,000 U.S. troops to Iraq to advise the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga on how to regain the territory that ISIS has taken. Iran launched its own air strikes on ISIS earlier this month, making it and the United States uneasy allies. The air strikes have slowed ISIS’s advance, but the group still controls a sizeable amount of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. ISIS also continues to draw pledges of allegiance from other jihadi groups, and foreign jihadists, including some Americans, continue to flock to Syria to join ISIS. Stay tuned.
1. Russia Annexes Crimea and Threatens the Rest of Ukraine. Russia’s mid-March annexation of Crimea raised the specter of a new Cold War. The crisis was triggered by the collapse of the government of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich. He resigned from office in February and fled the country in the wake of protests that began three months earlier over his decision not to sign a much anticipated trade deal with the EU. Ukraine, which has been caught between the East and the West for much of its history, quickly found itself at the mercy of its much larger Russian neighbor once again. On February 27, pro-Russian militants, in all likelihood acting at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seized the Crimean capital. In a questionable referendum, 95 percent of the Crimeans who voted favored rejoining Russia, which had controlled the peninsula before 1954. Moscow’s efforts did not stop there. In May, pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine declared independence; six months later they held their own elections. Meanwhile, the rest of Ukraine elected pro-Western “chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko in May as its new president. The West immediately recognized Poroshenko’s victory. Western criticism of Moscow’s aggression was more bark than bite until late July when a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over rebel-held territory. The United States and EU responded by ratcheting up sanctions against Russia. The moves did little to change Russian behavior. Conflict persists despite a ceasefire agreement reached in September. So far more than four thousand people have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Even if the crisis ends soon, we will be living for years with its fallout: increased tensions between Russia and the West that could potentially remake the geopolitical map.
So that’s my top ten world events of 2014. You may have a different list. If so, please use the comments below to let me know what significant event you think I left out or how you would reorder the list.
Rachael Kauss and Corey Cooper helped prepare this post.