Historians like to say that “history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” That would explain the feeling of familiarity that many experienced throughout 2008. While there was one truly unprecedented event — the election of Mr. Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States — there was also an odd sense of deja vu throughout the year. All too often, we had a vague feeling of having experienced these things before — and sadly, once would have been more than enough.
In Japan, the political class was again ineffectual in the face of mounting challenges. As prime ministers came and went with alarming regularity, it felt like a return to the “karaoke politics” of the past. As in the beginning and end of the 1990s, Cabinets operated with revolving doors, in which ministers would surface, take a quick turn as head of a ministry and then depart, too often ignominiously. In contrast to the fleeting presence of those politicians, Japan’s problems remained and grew to alarming proportions. The year ahead promises little better.
Russia, too, seemed to be reliving its past as the Putin era entered its second phase. In early 2008, then President Vladimir Putin handed over the presidency to Mr. Dmitry Medvedev, his handpicked protege, who promptly named his benefactor his prime minister and gave him, so it seems, much of the powers of the head of state. Rumors abound that Mr. Putin will engineer a constitutional revision that will allow him to return to the presidency for an even longer term. His rule has been characterized by the steady concentration of power in the hands of the Moscow government and the security services. That process has been accompanied by the undermining of the rule of law and democracy. This heavy-handed approach to domestic dissent and Russia’s muscular and assertive foreign policy are reminiscent of the Soviet years, if not the age of the czars. It is a worrisome development, and one even more notable for the popular support Mr. Putin enjoys.
In another troubling repetition of history, Afghanistan is again spiraling into lawlessness. Six years after being driven from power, the Taliban are resurgent and threaten the government in Kabul. NATO governments and other concerned nations fear that their intervention may end up like that of the Soviet Union, which withdrew ignominiously three decades ago. Some see parallels to the situation over a century ago when Britain lost some of its finest troops there.
Instability in Afghanistan will shake the region and the world. After all, the Taliban offered sanctuary to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden as he plotted attacks on the U.S. and afterward. More ominous, however, is the fact that a power vacuum will invite competition from Pakistan, India — two nuclear powers — and Iran for influence in Kabul. The Great Game could begin again with even more alarming consequences.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict appears to be ratcheting up again. Not only has there been no progress in the implementation of the road map that is supposed to serve as a guide for peace in the region, but Gaza again teeters on the brink of economic collapse and militants are launching rockets into Israel. And Israel has retaliated. The resignation that has greeted these developments is an indication of how inured the world has become to this tragedy. The next U.S. administration will have to step up efforts to serve as a credible mediator, forcing both sides to compromise in the name of peace. But history offers little grounds for solace.
On the economic front, the big question is whether the crash of 2008 will match that of 1929. Will there be another Great Depression? As the future is shaped, the past may be prologue in this case. Key decision-makers around the world have studied that dark period and know well the mistakes that were made. Rhetorically at least, they are determined not to repeat them. But the parallels are alarming and impossible to ignore. Politics may yet prevail over common sense.
Earlier in the year, as energy prices climbed to historic highs and some contemplated the prospect of oil selling at $200 a barrel, memories drifted back to 1973 and 1979. Then, political shocks lifted oil prices to record levels; in fact, the prices recorded in April 1980 was not matched in real prices until March 7, 2008. Those shocks seared their way into public consciousness, shifted the balance of global economic power, and forced painful readjustments on industrialized nations. Prices have declined since they peaked this year — due to the global slowdown amid shrinking demand — but the structure of global supply and demand has shifted. When growth returns, the energy squeeze will too.
In one more, almost ironic, repeat of history, there is the spectacle of piracy threatening vital shipping lanes. It may seem laughable that, in the era of precision-guided weapons and “shock and awe,” motley crews of armed bandits on inflatable boats can commandeer huge cargo ships and hold modern navies at bay in the process. But they do — with alarming regularity.
It is estimated that piracy worldwide costs $13 billion to $16 billion a year. The United Nations Security Council has passed four resolutions to deal with this menace, and a large international flotilla is now plying the waters off the coast of Somalia to protect shipping. But that effort is unlikely to succeed unless the international community focuses on Somalia itself, rather than the waters offshore. That is another lesson of history, one well worth remembering.
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