“There have been worse years in recent history,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “but 2014 definitely stands out for the sheer variety of awfulness.” That sentiment captures the popular perception of a year that can’t seem to end soon enough.
In many ways, it would be hard to disagree. In the United States, political and racial polarization seemed especially deep, and across the globe things got pretty scary. Russia annexed Crimea and sent its forces into eastern Ukraine in an effort to undermine the new Western-oriented government in Kiev. In the Middle East, the Islamic State displaced al-Qaida as the region’s bad guy. The eurozone economies stagnated. Ebola terrorized Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and threatened many more countries. As the year closed, two cops in Brooklyn were fatally shot at point-blank range, and the Pakistani Taliban committed a heinous massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar. And to top it all off, a boy dictator in Pyongyang even threatened to prevent the rest of us from weakly laughing at Seth Rogen.
It’s not that there was no positive news – the fall in global energy prices put more money in people’s pockets, and crime continued to decline in the United States. Still, the bad seemed to crowd out the good.
But what if 2014 turned out better than expected? Thinking about what actually happened this past year may not be the best way to judge it. After all, a lot of smart people predicted a lot of even-more-terrible things that never came to pass. And these averted catastrophes point toward some interesting ways to think about 2015.
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Perhaps the most important nonevent of 2014 was that war did not break out in the Pacific Rim. This was far from guaranteed at the beginning of the year. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there was a lot of chatter that a century after the start of World War I, the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would lead to a similar conflagration.
The tensions in the region seem less severe at the end of the year, however. A successful Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit led to an outbreak of comity when China and Japan agreed to disagree. Also, bilateral deals on climate change and trade illustrated a robust Sino-American relationship.
Another nonevent in 2014 was the next U.S. recession. After growth slowed in the fourth quarter of 2013, the economy shrank by more than 2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. The surprise slowdown prompted a lot of concerns that the American economy was about to go into recession.
But both gross domestic product and employment accelerated for the rest of 2014, with the economy generating more than 2.5 million jobs – the best year of job creation since the 1990s. All of this occurred with persistently low levels of inflation and as the Federal Reserve turned off its quantitative easing program.
Even in the parts of the world where bad things happened, the worst-case scenarios did not materialize. In the case of Ebola, the apocalyptic scenarios turned out to be groundless.
Even the most belligerent global actors have found themselves on the defensive as 2014 draws to a close. Moscow has far bigger concerns than territorial expansion. Its oil-based economy is imploding, its currency is collapsing, and its banks need bailing out.
Similarly, when Islamic State militants declared a caliphate as they overran Syrian and Iraqi forces, fears emerged about the fall of Baghdad and the disintegration of Iraq. A few months later, however, the group finds itself less powerful than it was six months ago.
Resilience is like aerobic exercise – the more you have to adapt to negative shocks, the better you get at coping. The fact that 2014 could have been worse should offer some hope.
Here’s to a resilient new year.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.