The year 2005 is likely to be remembered as a bitter one in which many dreams were battered and many cherished ideals tarnished. For sure, there were high points, but they were overshadowed by the many disappointments.

The year began and ended with good news from Aceh, Indonesia. In the aftermath of the devastating Dec. 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami that claimed as many as 250,000 lives and left millions homeless, there was an unprecedented outpouring of support around the world. For once, the initial show of concern was no temporary surge; international attention stayed on the impoverished province and efforts continued throughout the year to mitigate the horrific damage that was done. The disaster also provided an impetus for the Acehnese guerrillas and the government to end their decades-long civil war: At the end of 2005, the rebels disbanded their armed wing and committed themselves to the peaceful resolution of political grievances with Jakarta.

Sadly, 2005 also witnessed natural disasters and the response to them was less uplifting. Hurricanes slammed North America, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. In October, a huge earthquake struck South Asia, killing more than 85,000 people and leaving millions homeless. Unfortunately, the world did not respond to that calamity as it did to the one in Aceh. The chaos created by Hurricane Katrina was especially troubling. Despite ample warning of the possibility of such a storm, the U.S. response was dismal and chaotic at every level.

The U.S. image was even more damaged by missteps in the war on terror. Reports of a network of secret prisons and the seeming determination of the Bush administration to carve out an exception to international rules and norms that prohibit the use of torture were not fitting for the nation that led the free world during the Cold War and has consistently held itself to higher standards. The defense of its right to torture suspects is an ugly blot on the moral authority of the United States. Of course, the Bush administration would only make that claim in exigent circumstances, and 2005 provided them. Suicide bombers struck London, New Delhi, Bali (again) and Amman. U.S. forces in Iraq sustained their 2,000th death as the war there passed its 1,000th day.

The news from the Middle East was not bad, however. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has gone on trial, the first time an Arab leader has been publicly held accountable for abuses committed while in office. Iraq held democratic elections that were the freest in its history; the steady progress toward the resumption of self-rule and the determination of the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny was one of the high points of the year. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the formation of a new political party by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and signs of a generational transition among Palestinian politicians also hold out hope for a breakthrough in that long confrontation.

In Europe, progress toward a tighter union was put on hold when France and The Netherlands rejected the EU draft constitution. The EU managed to overcome differences in December to agree on a budget, but the near doubling of the size of the union has created strains that the EU is ill prepared to handle.

For the time being, EU governments are more likely to focus on internal affairs. Violent rioting by immigrants or their French-born children shattered France’s belief in “equality and fraternity” and unnerved many Europeans about the ability of their societies to absorb large numbers of people — predominately Muslims — searching for opportunity. Ethnic clashes in Australia proved that the problem was not Europe’s alone.

Other institutions were battered, too. The United Nations was rocked by scandal in its Iraq “oil for food” program, and hopes for a transformation on its 60th anniversary were dashed by the rancor and suspicion among members that the U.N. was intended to overcome. Global trade talks designed to help the world’s poorest citizens reached a last minute agreement but it may yet unravel as negotiators tackle details. A commitment to help the poor at the expense of cosseted agricultural lobbies is still lacking. The global nonproliferation order is showing signs of strain as North Korea and Iran challenge the idea that fewer is better when it comes to nuclear-weapons states.

Most Asians are worried about other dangers. Most immediately, there are fears of a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions of people. There is little faith in the ability of regional governments to come clean about the threat posed by this virus, yet without full disclosure the chances of defeating it are slim. Over the longer term, there is concern about deteriorating relations between Japan and China, and the prospect of a regional cold war between them. Those tensions undermined hopes that the inaugural East Asian Summit would herald the emergence of a new Asian community. Yet another in a long list of disappointments in 2005.

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