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10 ways the world changed in 2014

From the rise of the Islamic State group to the truculence of Vladimir Putin, new tensions surfaced that may presage global shifts in power and prosperity in 2015.

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    This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria.
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    In this Sunday, Feb. 23 2014, file photo Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia.
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Lots happened in 2014. The news was a daily parade of discrete events. Here are some, picked (almost) at random: Afghan opium production hit a record high, calling into question government control outside Kabul. More investment cash flowed out of China than in, showing how important Beijing has become to global prosperity. Men favored Republicans by 16 points in the US midterms, a gender gap that helps explain the GOP’s big election gains.

Also, President Obama pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey. Sasha and Malia were there. Then a GOP aide snarked on Facebook about the first daughters’ demeanor, and cable news went to DEFCON “Geraldo.” Moral: Think before posting. The job you lose could be your own.

Is there meaning in this annual procession of stories? Are there songs in the noise or just trumpets blaring random notes? That’s the question facing the person staring at the screen, or less frequently nowadays, the newsprint. On the Web it’s easy to skitter from one unconnected piece to another. You end up dissatisfied, sometimes even confused.

But pull back and some patterns become apparent. They aren’t always permanent. Some people see things with different connections. But the patterns are a way of trying to understand the onward march of our world. Here are 10 we picked out from this year.  

DEADLY START-UPS

It’s an activity long dominated by big legacy organizations. But younger, agile competitors are surfing the chaos of new markets. They’ve harnessed the power of social media to push their message and attract new recruits.

That description could fit industries from media to medicine. But in this case we’re talking about terrorism. Al Qaeda is the symbol of the old guard. Islamic State is the most prominent of a number of rising spinoffs.

It was a big year for the brutal IS: It seized territory across a broad swath of Syria and Iraq. US intelligence says IS operatives are now the best terror propagandists in the world. They spread horror in the West with videos of beheadings while attracting foreign fighters with slick recruiting pleas.

IS controls its own “state” in large part because of the collapse of local authority. Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s sectarian divisions opened the door for IS forces to roll in. That same vacuum of disorder exists across a crescent from North Africa, through the Middle East, and into South Asia. Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan are some of the nations at risk.

There are perhaps 11 separate Islamist extremist groups in this crescent, according to the US director of national intelligence. They help local insurgencies and exploit governments’ inability to fight back. Collectively they’ve passed what remains of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership as the top worry of US counterterrorism officials.

“The threat now comes from a decentralized array of organizations and networks. [IS] is only one of the groups that we’re concerned about,” said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, in an appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington this fall. Right now these local extremists are focused on local fights. Eventually they might turn to more direct confrontation with the West. But for them, will “eventually” ever come? 

The National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends” report holds that the era of Islamist terror may be receding. Ultimate US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan will deprive the movement of energy, goes the thinking here. Plus, IS and other groups may be overextended. They’re vulnerable to counterattack if central governments rally. 

BORDERLINE CALLS 

Nations aren’t immutable. That’s one big lesson taught by the events of 2014. Some potentially historic divisions didn’t happen: Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom. The IS “nation” carved from Syria and Iraq will likely collapse in the end. But Iraq itself is showing fissures as the Kurds press for greater and greater levels of autonomy. And the Russian-backed redrawing of Ukraine’s borders could transform the geopolitics of Europe and the West. 

“The United States and Europe have yet to address the growing threat that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s revanchist ambitions pose,” writes Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a report called the “CSIS Global Forecast 2015.”

Scotland’s almost-independence was something of a surprise. The “no” side seemed comfortably ahead in the months leading up to September’s referendum. But a funny thing happened on the way to the status quo: As the vote approached, surveys showed it too close to call. A panicked British government promised Scots yet more devolved powers.

In the end tradition prevailed, 55 percent to 45 percent. It’s just a matter of time until the Scottish National Party renews its separatist push, however. And similar movements in other democratic nations are surely taking note of how much the Scots have already won.

The rumbling in Iraq, in contrast, was easily foretold. The 2003 US invasion loosed sectarian tensions long bottled up by the Saddam Hussein regime. The Shiite Arab-led government in Baghdad has to this point shown only halting interest in placating Sunnis and Kurds – one reason IS was able to roll easily into Iraq’s western Sunni heartland. Perhaps new Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi will do better. He’s already settled a long-running dispute with the Kurds over sharing oil revenue. But he struck that deal under immense US pressure.

“Will this good news be built on? The history of Iraq since 2003 is far from filled with examples of sectarian and ethnic compromise,” wrote the Monitor’s Dan Murphy this fall.

Meanwhile, the Russian flag flies over Crimea. Russian-backed separatists are dug in throughout eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin gives every impression that he considers this state of affairs permanent. It’s all so retro – cold war, redux.

Will Putin really sacrifice Russia’s ties with Germany, et al., for renewed influence in a small slice of the old Soviet Union? Maybe so. Sanctions, plus the falling price of oil, are now pushing Russia into recession. Perhaps Putin has bet on nationalism to maintain his popularity at home (see below).

RETURN OF THE POTENTATES  

Putin’s push into Ukraine smacks of the personality-based diplomacy of the past. When he returned to Russia’s presidency in May 2012, he faced a choice: Broaden the economy with structural reforms, or protect his crony’s pocketbooks. He picked the latter and tried czarist-like appeals to traditional Russian values to maintain his popularity at home.

Western sanctions might actually help him here. They’ll be an excuse for Russia’s economic troubles and a symbol of adversaries abroad. 

“Putin clearly has made a Faustian bargain with Russian nationalism and oligarchic predators with unpredictable consequences for Russia’s neighbors, regional security, and the Russian people,” writes Andrew Kuchins, director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program, in “Global Forecast 2015.”

But Putin’s worried about more than NATO rolling up to his western borders. In the east he’s suddenly facing a tough authoritarian much like himself: China’s Xi Jinping. 

In the past 20 months Mr. Xi has rolled up rivals in a vast anti-
 corruption campaign while squashing civil society. He’s aggressively asserted Chinese territorial claims in the Pacific vis-à-vis Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the US, wrote the Monitor’s Robert Marquand in October. And he’s pushing a “China dream” of wealth and status designed to appeal to the nation’s growing middle class.

“Not since Mao has a Chinese leader pushed so complete a program of old-style Communist Party values and blunt force,” wrote Mr. Marquand.

Moscow is worried that Beijing’s rapacious appetite for natural resources will eventually collide with Russia’s interests in Siberia and its own far east. Xi, for his part, has more than Putin on his mind. He’s also concerned about relations with yet another rising dynamic leader: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who assumed office in May.

China and India are historical rivals. But Xi and Mr. Modi have expressed interest in burying the past and combining their economic strengths to the betterment of both countries. 

“The combination of ‘the world’s factory’ and ‘the world’s back office’ will produce the most competitive production base and the most attractive consumer market,” Xi said in an opinion piece in The Hindu during a high-profile trip to India in September.

If that happened it would drive Putin crazy – and have important economic implications for the US.

NEW WORLD ORG CHART  

Get ready for a shock, America: You’re now No. 2. That’s right, the runner-up. A silver medalist. In 2014 China passed the US to become the world’s biggest economy, by one measure.

Adjusting figures for purchasing power parity, China in 2014 produced $17.6 trillion in goods and services, according to the International Monetary Fund. The US produced $17.4 trillion. The last time the US was second in world economic rankings presidents still wore beards. 

This “could very well be the Chinese century,” Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, said at the DealBook Conference in New York recently.

The caveat here is that purchasing power parity isn’t a perfect way to compare gross domestic products. It adjusts for the fact that prices are different in different countries. A Big Mac in China costs a lot less than the same burger in the US. So PPP gauges how much stuff a nation’s people and companies could buy at home.

By the more traditional nominal GDP measurement, the US is still way ahead. It annually produces almost twice as much as China in terms of world market value: about $17 trillion versus $9 trillion.

But PPP is a useful gauge of how an economy affects actual people. It reflects what’s happening to their standard of living. In that context China’s rise is good news. It’s a powerful indicator of the ascending world middle class.

Middle classes are poised to explode in developing nations in coming years, according to the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2030.” The number of people with middle-class incomes will go from 1 billion to more than 2 billion in the next 15 years, according to the NIC.

This could represent a tectonic shift in affected societies.

“The hundreds of millions of entrants into the middle classes throughout all regions of the world create the possibility of a global ‘citizenry’ with a positive effect on the global economy and world politics,” writes the NIC.

SAUDI AMERICA? 

Yes, China’s a huge economic power on the rise. But the US might be a surprise No. 1 in an important subcategory of world production. Some analysts say America has passed Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the biggest oil baron on the planet. That’s the result of the fracking boom.

In July, a Bank of America report said US daily petroleum output exceeded 11 million barrels per day in the first quarter. That would be a touch higher than the 10 million b.p.d. output of Saudi Arabia, long-reigning production champ. Much of the increase for the US is centered in Texas and North Dakota, which together account for about half of the nation’s oil output. Those states are the epicenter of US fracking, the use of high-pressure fluids to fracture oil shale rock. 

Not everyone thinks US oil output has reached the 11 million b.p.d. level. The Energy Information Administration judges that the US monthly production average has been closer to 8 million b.p.d. this year. But it’s clear that 2014 was a big year for US energy. If the US isn’t No. 1 yet, it may be soon.

The upshot of increased US production is now visible at the pump. Beginning in June, oil prices began to collapse because of newfound supply and tepid demand. Average US gas prices are now at levels not seen since 2009.

VANISHING SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS 

It’s the end of a political era in the US South. In 2015 the region won’t have any more Democrats in high political positions. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana was the last of the class, and she lost a Dec. 6 runoff election to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. That means no more Deep South Democrats in the US Senate or governor’s chairs. Similarly, Southern state legislatures are now 100 percent GOP-controlled.

What happened? Partly it’s the result of President Obama. He’s very unpopular in Louisiana in particular and the South in general. Incumbent Democrats who’d voted for his important policies were soundly defeated. Ms. Landrieu wasn’t the only one dragged down. Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor lost in Arkansas. Sen. Kay Hagan lost in North Carolina (which, to be accurate, is more purple than Dixie as a whole).

More broadly it’s the endgame of longstanding racial trends. 

“White Southerners have been moving to the GOP for decades, starting with the civil rights era of the 1960s,” wrote the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann in December.

Social issues still loom large in the South, according to Ms. Feldmann, and many whites in the region don’t agree with the Democratic positions on guns, gay rights, abortion, etc. Compared with the nation as a whole, Southern whites are 48 percent more Republican today than in 1976, according to a Washington Post analysis of exit polls. 

That shift was clear in Landrieu’s loss. Six years ago she got 33 percent of the white vote. In 2014, she got 18 percent.

Finally, there’s the personal angle. Or rather the lack of a personal angle. Some political scientists say that today Senate and House candidates’ experience and personal qualities matter much less than they used to.

That’s due to polarization. With voters more firmly sorted into Republican and Democratic camps, they’re more prone to vote straight party tickets, and less likely to care that an incumbent won federal funds for a town bridge.

Well-known Democrats used to win high office in the South even in years Republicans carried their states at the presidential level. In 1988, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas cruised to reelection while the Michael Dukakis/Bentsen presidential ticket was simultaneously crushed in the Lone Star State.

That kind of split ticket vote now seems gone with the wind, and not just in the South.

“Many fewer voters were willing to go against their presidential party preferences in 2014 than they were in 1988,” wrote Brian Arbour, an associate professor of political science at John Jay College, City University of New York, in the Monkey Cage poli-sci blog.  

FERGUSON FALLOUT

On Aug. 9, an unarmed black 18-year-old named Michael Brown was shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. That – and the riots afterward – made the old fissure of race perhaps 2014’s biggest public issue. Many blacks don’t trust cops, polls show, while most whites do. Black mistrust is rooted in experience – they’re far more likely to be stopped by police for even minor infractions. Meanwhile, whites still control political power in lots of towns like Ferguson where minorities are becoming the majority. African-Americans are tired of feeling the justice system is stacked against them.

Subsequent events made the racial rift starker. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Mr. Brown. A Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white policeman who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold. In Cleveland, a rookie cop shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for brandishing an air gun that fires plastic pellets.

This is a “systemic problem ... black folks and Latinos and others are not just making this up,” said Mr. Obama in an interview with Black Entertainment Television in December.

The good news is there is progress, noted the president. Overt racism has declined while more subtle forms of discrimination remain entrenched. Younger people have evolved on race amid much greater exposure to multiculturalism.

Ferguson and other cases should lead to specific reforms. There will be more police wearing cameras, fewer militarized police riot units, and more minority faces in uniform.

But America’s racial rift remains a challenge in a country where 80 percent of blacks said the Brown shooting raised important issues about race, according to a Pew Research Center poll, while only 37 percent of whites agreed.

In that context the impact of the Garner case in Staten Island may turn out to be larger than that of the Brown case in Ferguson. Both whites and minorities say they’re disturbed about the facts of that case, in large part because of the presence of a video that shows Mr. Garner saying he “can’t breathe” while being subdued. 

“Mr. Brown’s death largely divided Americans along racial lines and political lines. The early reactions to the Garner death suggest that Americans are far more united in their response,” wrote the Monitor’s Feldmann.

THE EARTH AS A SAUNA 

The Northern Hemisphere can be pretty frosty this time of year. But the depths of December in Baudette, Minn., or Friendship, Maine, can be deceiving. In fact, 2014 is on pace to at least tie for the warmest year in recorded history, according to the United Nations World Meteorological Organization

WMO data shows the global average temperature from January through October was 1.03 degrees F. above the average of the temperatures of 1961 through 1990, which scientists use as a baseline. That’s the same as the reigning hottest year of 2010.

Much of this spike is due to higher-than-average ocean surface temperatures, according to the WMO. If those temperatures persisted in November and December – and it’s likely they did – then 2014 will enter the books as the hottest year on record.

“The provisional information for 2014 means that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud in early December. “There is no standstill in global warming.”

The scientific consensus is that this trend is man-made. The concentration in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, is now 42 percent higher than it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

This sets the stage for coming climate negotiations. In Paris at the end of next year, world representatives are supposed to meet to hammer out a sweeping new agreement on greenhouse gas limits.

The US, the European Union, and China have all pledged new restrictions of their own. But India, Russia, Japan, and some other big nations haven’t. How this plays out – and whether the US, the EU, and China can translate their commitments into action – may develop into one of the biggest geopolitical stories of 2015.

TELEVISION’S NEW MENU 

Is cable television doomed? Is the network schedule a thing of the past? Will these old war horses be replaced by new streaming services that deliver shows when and where viewers want?

We’d say “stay tuned,” but nowadays that’s an anachronism. Nobody wants to wait to find out what happens next. Binge watching and time shifting rule. That’s the point of TV’s changes.

Web streaming has been big for years, of course, but 2014 might be the year it started to become the norm. In the fall both HBO and CBS announced they’ll launch their own Internet program delivery efforts. Neither will require a subscription to cable or satellite TV. Eventually the CBS service could eliminate the need for local broadcast affiliates.

We’ve seen the future, and it’s buffering.

“More and more networks and production companies will be following suit very fast – or slowly to their own peril – experts say,” wrote the Monitor’s Daniel B. Wood when the news broke.

“CBS All Access” enables viewers to watch current network hits such as “The Big Bang Theory” and thousands of old series episodes for about $6 a month. HBO hopes to launch its new service in time for the next season of “Game of Thrones.”

Will consumers be better off in a world of a la carte entertainment? It’s true they’ll no longer have to pay for a cable bundle that includes lots of channels they don’t watch. But at $6 or so per month, the cost of assembling a custom TV entertainment suite will add up quickly. Any savings will depend crucially on what, and how much, individual households watch. 

BILLIONAIRES AND THEIR SPORTS TOYS 

This was a tough year for professional sports. Basketball kicked things off with the Donald Sterling debacle. Remember that one? The now-former billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers got in big trouble last spring for making racist statements to his girlfriend. New National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver banned Mr. Sterling for life and forced him to sell the team.

Then in September Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson revealed that he’d sent e-mails implying white fans were more valuable than black ones. He says he’s selling his majority stake in the team.

At least in the NBA things happened quickly. The National Football League kind of muddled around. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell faced tough criticism in 2014 for the league’s handling of domestic abuse allegations. Consider the Ray Rice case: The now former Baltimore Ravens running back initially received only a two-game suspension after admitting he’d knocked out his fiancée in a casino elevator.

After shocking video surfaced of Mr. Rice actually throwing the punch, Mr. Goodell hastily banned Rice indefinitely. An arbitrator later overturned the decision, saying it was “an abuse of discretion,” since Rice had never misrepresented what happened in the incident.

Trying to recover from this self-inflicted sacking, the league in December unveiled a new domestic abuse policy that includes many reforms embraced by forward-thinking employers, the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius wrote. 

“League owners endorsed a policy that includes clearer guidelines, funds for counseling, expanded services for victims and violators, and – perhaps most significantly, experts say – a new special counsel for investigations and conduct,” wrote Mr. Bruinius. 

 
 
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