When the year 2014 began, many could not resist comparisons to 1914. After all, the outbreak of the First World War brought what had been a nascent form of globalisation to a sudden and violent end; prompting many to wonder about the stability of our own system which has been similarly crafted over the last twenty years. Of course, this does not seem to have come to pass, but then again that is hardly surprising. History rarely repeats itself, though as some have noted, it does have an uncanny tendency to rhyme; and 2014 has been poetically tragic in its ability to upend every assumption about globalisation and world unity that we have complacently taken for granted since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Take Europe for starters. Considered until recently to be a net producer of security and a beacon of stability throughout the world, its whole fabric now seems to be coming apart. The Euro has managed to avoid immediate annihilation, though this is small comfort for the many countries devastated by the cost of saving it and the overall tension between national sovereignty and the practicality of maintaining a single continental currency remains disturbingly unresolved. Even assuming it can be saved however, the Euro is not the only thing dividing the region. Viktor Orban’s Hungary has become increasingly authoritarian in character, as has Erdogan’s Turkey; and across the continent as a whole, far-right parties that once would have never been given the time of day are now sweeping elections across the whole of the continent. Disillusionment with the EU is growing and the promise of unity that it once provided now seems increasingly hollow. As the continent’s economies founder and its people grow ever more nationalistic, it has now become difficult to conceive how the 28 very different nation-states of the EU can fulfil their own dreams without trampling upon those of their neighbours. Europe may not be at war, but its nations are growing further apart from another with every new election.
The Middle East has been an even greater disaster. The promise of the Arab Spring has turned to ashes in the mouths of former protestors as the region is wracked by old hatreds. The prospect of a restored Iraq has disintegrated with the sectarian politics of Maliki and the rise of ISIS. The prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace has become an even bitterer joke than usual with this year’s war in Gaza and the whispers of a new uprising in the West Bank. The US-Iranian nuclear deal that once seemed so promising is now floundering due to the domestic politics of both nations and its passage seems ever more distant even in the face of the ISIS threat. The Kurds, who once sought rapprochement with Turkey, have become embittered by the experience of Kobane and Ankara’s failure to help them. Syria and Libya no longer exist. The Middle East may not have always been peaceful, but the fragile stability that defined its state system has been irrevocably broken and it is now beyond the power of any foreign intervention to correct what may prove to be a very bloody collection of regional conflicts.
Beyond these regional crises however, the global picture may prove even worse. The sanctions the West took against Russia over Ukraine may have succeeded in the short term, but it may have also laid the foundation for a broader collapse in the long term. Sanctions against Russia have reawakened the long-held dream of certain countries to rid themselves of the dollar’s dominance as the world’s primary currency reserve. As the BRICS found a new development bank and the most powerful BRIC by far, China, seeks to insulate itself from Western sanctions against its future crimes; the foundations for the erosion of the dollar may truly be coming together. Without the dominance of the dollar, the United States can no longer afford to borrow at the level it does, and because of that, it can no longer afford to sustain the level of engagement that it has taken for granted. If the dollar falls, American hegemony cannot be far behind.
But if that is so, who replaces the Americans? For all the domestic problems the United States faces, China’s are even worse and none of the emerging powers come even close to the heft that China can presently wield. Europe is disunited, India and Brazil are fundamentally regional powers, and Russia in spite of its pretensions cannot muster the resources necessary to restore its superpower status. A Sino-American condominium may hold the best hope for stability, but given China’s insistence on dominating its neighbours and the United States’ open denial of its declining position, such an accommodation will be a long way away.
Thus, as 2014 draws to a close, we find ourselves in a world whose peoples seem more distant from each other than seemed possible even a few years ago. Globalisation, which we treated as inevitable, is now threatened like never before as regional powers entrench their positions and global powers lose the might they once held. The fiscal problems of the United States brought on by the financial crisis, the erosion of the dollar, and the greying of its population will not go away anytime soon and neither China nor any basket of regional powers and currencies are in a position to replace that system. 2014 may not have ended in catastrophic war, but the effect may prove to be nearly the same. At the beginning of 1914, few in Europe regardless of political affiliation believed that the Great Powers could actually go to war; that the unity of trade, Marxist class consciousness, or the enlightened cosmopolitanism of Europe could so easily give way to the chaos and retrenchment that followed. The world may have changed a great deal since then, but the danger of global fragmentation still exists and if we continue to ignore globalisation’s inherent fragility; 2014 may be remembered by future generations in the same vein as 1914 after all.