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Not a bad year

Crisis, tragedy and looming war clouds in Asia were not the whole story

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To begin on a happy note, the world didn't end last year. Dec. 21 came and went without a sign of the Four Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of prediction -- but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is keeping score.

So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the year past, why don't we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? For example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past 12 months.

On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited from the old regime dismissed the lower house of parliament on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president retaliated by ramming through a new constitution that entrenched conservative "Islamic" values against the will of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half-full or half-empty?

 

On one hand, Libyans managed to hold a free election even though the country is still overrun by various militias, and Yemen finally bid farewell to its dictator of 30-odd years. On the other hand, Syria has fallen into a civil war, with government planes bombing city centres and 40,000 dead. Did the "Arab Spring" succeed, or did it fail?

Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise in a world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been broken and already half of the world's Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.

The political game is being played pretty roughly in some Arab countries, but that's quite normal in new democracies -- and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the transformation will deepen, amid much further turbulence, and most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly imperfect democracies. Just like most of the world's other countries.

The European Union staggered through a year during which the common currency of the majority of its members, the euro, tottered permanently on the brink of collapse. The financial markets have been talking all year about "Grexit," the expected, almost inevitable withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone, and speculating on which country would leave next.

They thought it would be Spain for most of the year, but Silvio Berlusconi's decision to run for office again -- The Return of the Undead, one European paper called it -- switched the spotlight to Italy in November. The possibility that the common currency might simply fall apart, and take the political unity of the European Union with it, could no longer be dismissed.

Meanwhile, secessionist movements flourished in major EU states. In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque region elected provincial governments committed to holding referendums on independence. The United Kingdom and the recently devolved Scottish government agreed on the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence in 2014. And in Belgium, Flemish threats to secede seemed more plausible than usual.

It's a mess, in other words, and Europe certainly faces years of very low economic growth. But the EU was always mainly a political project, intended to end centuries of devastating wars in Europe, and the euro was invented to reinforce that political union.

That project still has the firm support of the political elites in almost all EU countries, and they will pay whatever price is necessary to save it. Even in the regions considering secession from their current countries, there is no appetite for leaving the EU. Indeed, the strongest argument of the anti-secessionists is to say that those regions would have to re-apply for EU membership if they got their independence, rather than just inheriting it automatically.

So the European Union will survive, and will even recover its financial stability eventually. It will also remain a major economic player in the world, although the centre of gravity of the global economy will continue to shift toward Asia. There is even reason to think Asia's triumph will arrive somewhat later, and in a rather more muted fashion, than the enthusiasts have been predicting in recent years.

In the last months of 2012, China went through the 10-yearly ritual in which power is handed to a new generation of leaders, and both Japan and South Korea elected new right-wing governments. North Korea, the nuclear-armed rogue state that lies between them, put its first satellite into orbit, thus demonstrating its ability to build long-range ballistic missiles. And China was almost continuously embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia) in the South China Sea.

The cloud on the horizon is still "no bigger than a man's hand," but it is definitely there. We can hope the world works differently nowadays, and in some ways it really does, but the fears, the nationalist passions, and even the strategic relationships in Asia are coming to resemble those in Europe a century ago, on the eve of the First World War.

Even if an equivalent war never happens in Asia, a growing share of the region's resources may be wasted on military spending. And if there ever were a real war, the destruction would be so great, given current weapons technologies, that the region could lose several decades' worth of growth. But it will be some years yet before we know if the region is really drifting in that direction.

The world's drift toward global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the U.S. Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.

September saw Arctic sea ice cover fall to its lowest level ever: only half of the total area covered by ice in September 10 years ago. And October saw hurricane Sandy devastate much of the U.S. east coast, causing 100 deaths and $30 billion in damage. It was the second-costliest tropical storm in American history (after Katrina, in New Orleans, seven years ago).

Yet the global response is as feeble as ever. The annual round of global negotiations on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, held in December in Qatar, merely agreed that they would try to get some sort of deal by 2015. Even if they do, however, it won't go into effect until 2020.

So for the next eight years the only legal constraint on warming will be the modest cuts in emissions agreed to at Kyoto 15 years ago. Moreover, those limits only apply to the old industrial powers. There are no limits whatever on the rise of emissions by the fast-growing economies of the emerging industrial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even lemmings usually act more wisely than this.

November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the tit-for-tat has been going on for so long it's pointless to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.

More worrisome was the threat of Israeli air strikes on Iran, supposedly to stop it from getting nuclear weapons. That would be a very big war if it started: The United States would almost inevitably get dragged in, the flow of oil from the Gulf states would stop and the world economy would do a nosedive.

But there is no proof Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons (the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services both say no), and mere air strikes would not cripple Iran's nuclear industry for long. So the whole issue is probably an Israeli bluff.

A bluff to what end?

To get the rest of the world to impose severe economic sanctions against Iran, in the hope they will cause enough pain to get Iranians to overthrow the present regime. The damage is certainly being done -- the value of the Iranian rial collapsed last year -- but the power of the ayatollahs is unshaken. They will not be overthrown, and there will not be a war. I think.

And then there's the United States, where President Barack Obama, having accomplished little except health-care reform in his first presidential term, was re-elected anyway. The Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Obama's slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in 70 years (which had been caused by the previous Republican administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn upward for Obama.

The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming year (unless the U.S. falls off the "fiscal cliff"), and strong growth will give Obama enough political capital to undertake at least one big reform project. The highest priority is obviously global warming, but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away on hot-button issues such as gun control.

So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes such as Myanmar's gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between government and guerillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in growing areas of anarchic Somalia.

Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in half in April, the pogrom against Myanmar's Muslims in July, and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in August.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is probably dying of cancer, and the rules for choosing his successor are in dispute. Russia's President Vladimir Putin faced unprecedented public protests after the elections last March, but his power still seems secure. The Mars rover landed successfully in August and is now busily trundling across the Martian landscape. The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed (or at least tentatively confirmed).

Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn't a particularly bad year; if you think it was, you've been reading too many newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give you the worst news possible. It wasn't all that great a year either, but never mind. The new one is here.

 

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2013 A1

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