Gusty head winds in 2014

The year 2014 promises to be a year of tests. It will challenge leaders around the world, the political systems they preside over, and the institutions that have been created to provide rules and order. Legitimacy will be in question, and instability may well follow.

In Japan, the pre-eminent question is whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will continue to confound the skeptics or, by reining in his most conservative instincts, focus on the economic issues that will determine the ultimate success or failure of his administration. “Abenomics” will meet its test when the consumption tax increases in April. A strong and sound economy could provide a foundation for policy initiatives that follow as well as the prime minister’s credibility in all other matters if his thinking and decisions are rational and reasonable.

In the United States, President Barack Obama must regain his flagging popularity, credibility and legitimacy. An expanding economy, coupled with successful implementation of his signature health care program, will restore the shine to his administration. An economic slowdown and a botched health care plan could cripple the White House and marginalize the U.S. for the last two years of his term.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces no similar political challenge; there is no opposition so to speak in China. But Xi continues to consolidate power, and as he does so, the responsibility for success and failure will be clear.

It has traditionally been a sucker’s bet to short China, but stresses in Chinese society and the economy are mounting and there are precious few safety valves. One of the biggest tests will be reassuring the public that Communist Party leadership is not just a smokescreen for self-enrichment by officials and their families. It is not yet clear how domestic and foreign policies will interact in Beijing, but troubles at home could push China to be more aggressive when dealing with its neighbors. The record is not assuring.

Those same stresses are at work in North Korea and testing the young leader, Kim Jung Un. Kim has shown a flair for the unpredictable gesture and little inclination to think about the implications of those actions. More instability and provocations are on tap for 2014 and regional leaders need to prepare.

Political leaders elsewhere are being tested, although in many cases the real issue is the viability of the larger political system. In Thailand, Ukraine and Egypt, elected governments are under assault from opposition forces that have shown a predilection for extra-parliamentary action.

While the outward circumstances in each case are similar — a tone-deaf government clinging to power — the sympathies of outsiders differ.

In Thailand, a political party that has won every recent election continues to be obstructed by a determined minority that clings to its privileges.

In Ukraine, a democratically elected leader who jailed his opposition defies the will of the majority in order to protect his family and supporters.

In Egypt, a government installed on the back of a coup hounds its opposition in the name of protecting a secular order.

In each case, the country is sharply divided. A culture of compromise is the essence of democracy, yet neither winners nor losers seem to accept the need to meet their opponents halfway.

Those same pressures are visible in the U.S., and will mount as congressional elections scheduled for November approach. The prospect of a genuinely divided government is real — with Democrats holding the White House and Republicans claiming majorities in both houses of Congress — which would make the political battles of the last five years look like skirmishes. U.S. credibility and influence will suffer badly if the country is reduced to internecine political feuds.

India will hold the world’s largest democratic pageant when some 800 million voters go to the polls in May. A change in government is likely, with the ruling Congress party exhausted and out of ideas. Its successor is not yet clear, but the prospect of a victory by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which ruled from 1998-2004, worries those who fear that its presumptive leader, Narendra Modi, is a Hindu chauvinist.

Democracy will be tested in Europe, too, when elections for the European Parliament are held in May. Traditionally these ballots have been afterthoughts, but the eurozone crisis has made clear to voters across the continent both the value (positive or negative) of the Union and the importance of their vote.

The economic crisis has abated, but skepticism about the entire European project remains. A turn against the EU could have profound implications for global governance.

On a smaller scale, voters in Scotland and Catalan will have a chance to decide if they prefer membership in a larger entity, Great Britain and Spain, respectively, or would rather venture out on their own. Mapmakers prepare.

Finally, one other important initiative may flower in 2014: the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The outcome of these talks is anything but assured, but success would cap a real threat to the global nonproliferation order and could reshape Middle Eastern politics if it leads to a larger rehabilitation of Iran. It is a long shot, but one well worth pursuing.

Complementing the political spectacles will be the 22nd Winter Olympic Games that will be held in Sochi, Russia in February and the 20th FIFA World Cup finals that will take place in Brazil during the summer. Both of these events have political overtones, but there will be enough to watch just sticking to sports. The year promises to be complicated enough.