Photo: Olga Yakimovich/Reuters
Photo: Olga Yakimovich/Reuters

The loss of order

The salient events of 2014 aren't unusual. It is the combination of these events that imparts a sense of foreboding

Pick any year of the 21st century and you will find some part of the world or the other has been in a state of disorder and disarray. Wars, coups, pestilence and economic crises are nothing new. From that perspective, the salient events of 2014—Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its salami tactics with Ukraine, China’s tensions with its neighbours, the rise of the Islamic State and the continuing weakness of the global economy—aren’t unusual. It is the combination of these events that imparts a sense of foreboding.

Through the year, commentators and analysts pointed to disturbing parallels with Europe in 1914 on the eve of World War I. Some similarities were indeed troubling. Then, as now, no country was in charge. An each-for-himself mentality pervaded. In 1914, there were no multilateral institutions designed to keep order. The ones that exist today, such as the United Nations, are ineffective. More troubling is the inability, or unwillingness, of countries manning the global system to undertake the tasks of leadership. Here, the parallel with 1914 ends. In that year, no country could take charge. In 2014, the preeminent power, the US is unwilling to check the slow slide towards anarchy.

Over and above this layer of political turbulence is the shaky state of the world economy. Structurally, the world’s four economic engines—the US, China, Europe and Japan—are all in trouble. It isn’t clear what will work. Every possible remedy has been tried. From unconventional monetary policies to spending stimuli, nothing appears to be a good fix. Japan under Shinzo Abe is an example of how even a combination of unorthodox policies isn’t working.

Each contributor in this issue tells a story set against this background. If Raghuram Rajan has a warning on what to expect from the global economy in the years ahead, Yuliya Tymoshenko and George Soros tell the story of darkening clouds on Europe’s eastern horizon. Much farther to the east, Chris Patten and Yoon Young-Kwan view China’s rise from very different perspectives.

There are positive prescriptions and hope as well. Business and technology leaders such as Eric Schmidt and Dominic Barton have happy messages. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has a menu of what the world needs to do to get growth back.

So how should one view 2014? The confusing mix of events during the year does say something. One hint comes from a very old and, now, unfashionable, theory. In 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder, a British geographer, warned of the dangers to the world from an unchecked Eurasian power lording over a huge swath of territory from the forests of north-western Europe to the steppes of Central Asia and farther east. The long peace since 1945 had much to do with the pre-eminence of a non-Eurasian power, the US. That has been ebbing since the start of this century. Since then, there has been no stopping Russia. When one adds China to this combustible mix, the term Asian Century takes a darker hue. Mikhail Gorbachev’s piece, read along with Kofi Annan’s, is a neat and contemporary narration of this story. Shinzo Abe and Yuriko Koike round off this narrative, if one may say so, from the far eastern shores.

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