LONDON – If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.
This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when World War II was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War III (though the public didn’t realize it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.
Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.
The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian Army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.
That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders
There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.
Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.
The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.
There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.
The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the 50 African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.
This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Nevertheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.
That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for U.S. president, has proposed that the U.S. should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.
The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.
The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighboring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behavior of other Western countries.
Enough on the Middle East — except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defense intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East. …He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.
In Asia, Myanmar’s election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.
The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.
So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Jacob Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.
Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.
The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.
But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians among them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.
Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.
There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.
In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the U.S. embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.
And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost 10 years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.
However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.
They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).
They held their mock election for next year last month — and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian based in London whose articles are published by over 175 papers in some 45 countries.
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