2014 may be remembered for various reasons. Perhaps most significantly, it has been a year of political turmoil, both at home and on an international scale.
The beginning of autumn witnessed a culmination of the existencial debate in the 307-year-old United Kingdom. Scottish call for independence, dating back to as early as the mid-1800s Home Rule movement, led to a referendum on 18 September.
Yes Scotland ran on a widely familiar ground. Its promise of a wealthy Scotland based on the North Sea oil mirrored the appeal made by the Scottish National Party back in the first devolution referendum of 1979. Independence supporters were not simply patriotic. The Eurosceptic and conservative mood of England, the looming prospect of the privatization of the NHS and a bad aftertaste of the “illegal” Iraq war fuelled anti-union sentiments.
The race had its share of celebrity involvement, and J. K. Rowling became the biggest individual donor by giving £1 million to Better Together. It brought together UK’s three largest parties and their leaders, with David Cameron playing the “hip” leader and scoffing the “effing Tories”. The campaigners united over a common enemy: during Nigel Farage’s speech in Glasgow, the pro-EU Scots outside chanted: “Yes or No, UKIP must go”.
On 19 September, Britons awoke to a still standing union. However, the campaign changed the face of the UK politics. 1.6 million Scotts voted for independence, and 64 million Britons will be affected. The devolution pledge means that the Scottish parliament will be granted more control over education, welfare, and tax rates, while maintaining higher funding levels. For the unitary Britain, such changes will pose constitutional problems.
Thanks to the referendum, everyone in the UK now knows the advantages Scotland gets – and they want the same. The West Lothian question is once more on the top of the agenda. Most importantly, the campaign revealed high numbers of politically engaged population, ranging across all age groups, and the decreasing ability of the mainstream parties to represent their interests.
A year does not go by without a major crisis taking place in the Middle East. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni extremist group, has become the “it” target of 2014 on the Western counter-terrorism radar.
ISIS rose in the anarchy of Iraq and Syria. President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and inaction in Syria, and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s proto-dictatorial Shia regime, aided the “Jihadi Spring”.
ISIS has set new standards of cruelty and terror amongst jihadis. Its method – terrifying people into submission – involves kidnappings, stonings, beheadings and crucifixions. Disregard for Muslim civilian casualties led Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, to criticize ISIS for giving a “bad name” to his organisation.
ISIS is distinctive in that it established a self-proclaimed caliphate, in which it collects taxes and imposes its own brand of justice. The so-called Islamic State forbids smoking, football, music, and unveiled women, and is determined to establish universal Sharia rule.
The seized oil fields in Iraq and Syria earn ISIS up to $3 million a day in black markets. It helps to pay wages: ~$500 a month for a fighter and ~$1,200 for a military commander, an attraction not only for indigent locals, but also Western radicals. By November, ~15,000 foreigners had joined ISIS.
With the first air strikes in Iraq on 8 August, Obama became the 4th American president in succession to bomb Iraq. The anti-ISIS coalition, which includes countries like US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Australia and Turkey, is back where their predecessors started: fighting to destroy terrorist networks and create stability in the region.
Not a single nation has recognised ISIS as a sovereign state. It has made it clear about the plans to one day target Europe and America. In the mean time, a question to be answered is: how will another intervention solve a problem that the previous one only fueled?
However, 2014 will most likely be remembered as the de facto start of the new Cold War. Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea triggered the resurgence of a tense East-West relationship, resemblant of that in the 20th century.
2014 witnessed a series of widely familiar events. Tanks invading a satellite state, heated diplomatic exchanges, tit-for-tat expulsions of alleged spies, projections of fault on the opponent, not to mention the Ukrainian plans of building a 1,000-mile-long wall along its land border with Russia – all worrying signs to the world that seemingly just left the Cold War behind. According to a report by European Leadership Network, close military encounters between Western forces and Russia reached Cold War levels, with ~40 since March.
Nevertheless, Cold War 2.0 seems to differ both in scope and range from its predecessor. To begin with, it is unlikely to develop into a global conflict. The world is no longer bipolar, and there is little incentive for key actors like China or India to get involved in a conflict that is largely seen as a US-Russia confrontation. Furthermore, the ideological struggle of Marxist communism and free-trade capitalism has been replaced by a contest of values.
Most importantly, contemporary Cold War has an important economic dimension to it. Western sanctions – asset freezes, transaction bans, trade restrictons, suspension from G8 – are focused on isolating Russia from the international community. In retaliation, Russia introduced an embargo on imports of most of the agricultural production, and closed down 4 McDonald‘s restaurants in Moscow.
In the light of the recent developments, it has become clear that the relationship between the Western countries, particularly the US, and Russia is one of adversaries. The top priority should now be containing the conflict. Otherwise, it could divert the attention from major international security challenges, such as the new wave of terrorism.
None of the politically significant events of 2014 have been resolved. It will take 2015, and possibly years beyond, to properly evaluate the underlying implications of such changes, and arrive at effective solutions.