National Opinions

Let's take 2014 resiliency into this new year

By Daniel W. Drezner

'There have been worse years in recent history," New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, "but 2014 definitely stands out for the sheer variety of awfulness."

That sentiment captures the popular perception of a year that can't seem to end soon enough. In many ways, it would be hard to disagree. In the United States, political and racial polarization seemed especially deep, and across the globe things got pretty scary. Russia annexed Crimea and sent its forces into eastern Ukraine in an effort to undermine the new Western-oriented government in Kiev.

In the Middle East, the Islamic State displaced al-Qaida as the region's bad guy. The euro-zone economies stagnated. Ebola terrorized Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and threatened many more countries.

As the year closed, two cops in Brooklyn were fatally shot, and the Pakistani Taliban committed a heinous massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar. And a boy dictator in Pyongyang even threatened to prevent us from weakly laughing at Seth Rogen.

It's not that there was no positive news — the fall in global energy prices put more money in people's pockets, and U.S. crime continued to decline. Still, the bad seemed to crowd out the good.

But what if 2014 turned out better than expected? After all, an awful lot of smart people predicted a lot of even-more-terrible things. And these averted catastrophes point toward some interesting ways to think about 2015.

Perhaps the most important nonevent was that war did not break out in the Pacific Rim. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there was a lot of chatter that a century after the start of World War I, the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would lead to a similar conflagration. Some of that talk came from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, so there were valid reasons for worry.

The tensions in the region seemed less severe at the end of the year. A successful Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit led to an outbreak of comity when China and Japan agreed to disagree. Also, bilateral deals on climate change and trade illustrated a robust Sino-American relationship.

Another nonevent was the next U.S. recession. After growth slowed in the fourth quarter of 2013, the economy shrank by more than 2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. The surprise slowdown prompted a lot of concerns that the economy, which had been expanding since 2009, was going into recession.

As it turned out, the initial explanation for the one-quarter contraction — the horrible winter weather — proved accurate. Both gross domestic product and employment accelerated, with the economy generating more than 2.5 million jobs, the best year of job creation since the 1990s.

Even in the parts of the world where bad things happened, the worst-case scenarios did not materialize. There was a lot of concern that the Ebola epidemic would spread into Nigeria, the most populous and interconnected country in West Africa.

Fortunately, Nigeria contained its one outbreak, and the pandemic has not returned to that country. There were only a handful of Ebola cases in the United States. And there was a much higher survival rate here compared to Africa, offering hope to health experts that the disease is more amenable to treatment than originally thought. Meanwhile, the number of new cases has stabilized in Guinea and has declined in Liberia.

Even the most belligerent global actors have found themselves on the defensive as 2014 drew to a close. After the Russian Federation gobbled up Crimea, high-ranking officials and commentators worried that Vladimir Putin would grab land in Moldova, Kazakhstan and the Baltics.

Today, however, Moscow has far bigger concerns than territorial expansion. Its oil-based economy is imploding, its currency is collapsing, and its banks need bailing out. Not coincidentally, Putin and his foreign minister have tamped down their anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. In 2015, the bigger threat from Russia will come from its weakness, not its strength.

Similarly, when Islamic State militants declared a caliphate as they overran Syrian and Iraqi forces, fears emerged about the fall of Baghdad and the disintegration of Iraq. A few months later, however, the group finds itself less powerful than it was six months ago. U.S. and allied airstrikes have taken their toll on its forces and supplies.

More important, the crisis triggered a change of government in Iraq. New Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is proving more conciliatory than his predecessor; he has secured a new oil-revenue-sharing agreement with the region of Kurdistan, reducing the chances of secession and bolstering the country's fight against the Sunni extremists.

So yes, a lot of the predicted bad stuff didn't materialize, but are these nonevents enough reason to be optimistic for 2015?

This depends on whether one believes resiliency is an exhaustible or a sustainable resource. If you think that our reserves have been used up averting one disaster after another, then 2014 is simply a harbinger of doom.

The other way to think about it, however, is that resiliency is like aerobic exercise — the more you have to adapt to negative shocks, the better you get at coping.

President Barack Obama seemed to make this argument in his final news conference of the year in which he outlined some crises averted: "And, you know, part of what I hope, as we reflect on the new year — this should generate... some confidence. America knows how to solve problems."

Here's to a resilient new year.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and author of The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression.