Why 2014 Wasn't So Terrible

Get the Full StoryIn bidding farewell to 2014, most of us gave the year a swift kick in the rear end as it exited the calendar. On foreign policy in particular, few people had nice things to say about the recently departed.

After all, it was a banner year for all manner of evils. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa dominated the headlines, and the trumped-up fear of the disease's spread to the United States even helped boost the vote totals of a few Republicans in the party's mid-term sweep. The rise of ISIS and its filmed beheadings, as well as the kidnapping rampages of Boko Haram in Nigeria, gave a shot in the arm to "the war on terrorism." The triumph of activists in Kiev turned into a renewed Cold War confrontation between a passive aggressive West and an aggressive aggressive Russia. And the Chinese authorities eventually forced activists in Hong Kong to roll up their umbrellas and go home.

Negotiations went pretty much nowhere between the United States and Iran, and things went from bad to worse with North Korea thanks to Seth Rogen and James Franco. The apparent mass murder of 43 students from the city of Iguala introduced many Americans to Mexico's appalling nexus of corruption and organized crime that has led to the disappearance of more than 20,000 people since 2006.

Have I missed anything else? Yes: some missing planes, some missing chunks of Antarctica, and some activists gone missing in Egyptian jails.

Bad news produced all the memorable visuals from 2014 as well as all the grimly amusing political cartoons. And bad news stayed in the headlines for weeks on end -- months, in the case of Ebola and ISIS. Good news, on the other hand, tends to be fleeting. We cheer for a few hours when something positive happens, and then it's back to feeling as though the globe is going to hell in a Hellfire missile.

Last year, for my first column of 2014, I gave three reasons to be cheerful: a dip in U.S. militarism, an uptick in diplomatic initiatives, and a resurgence of concern about economic inequality. This year, in a similar burst of early-January optimism, let me give you three more reasons to be cheerful.

If we're lucky, these bright spots from 2014 will endure even after Ebola retreats, ISIS withers away, and Russia backs off.

Presidential Backbone

On top of the list of things to celebrate is the year's surprise awakening: President Obama suddenly remembered that he was president and not just a pincushion for the Republican Party's jabs.

In the most amazing foreign policy story of 2014, the cold war between Cuba and the United States ended practically overnight. The president could have settled for a mere prisoner exchange. But he went big instead.

Sure, the embargo remains in place, congressional hardliners are refusing to move on, and American financiers are probably making plans as we speak to head to the island to recreate 1958-style casinos and brothels. But here was a diplomatic change that won near-universal support from the Obama administration, the Castro administration, the Cuban people, and the American electorate.

Another sign of executive oomph was the president's immigration order, in which Obama, as I described in an earlier column, cut the Gordian knot of Washington politics. Here was a clear case of a president combining social justice protecting the country's most marginalized , family values keeping families together , and good economic principles making it easier for skilled immigrant workers and entrepreneurs to do their jobs . It should have been an easy purple victory, and it should have won plaudits from the very pundits who usually decry gridlock. That the president went through with the initiative without widespread bipartisan support speaks highly of his political instincts and poorly of the political atmosphere in Congress.

Finally, Obama promised as a presidential candidate to close the detention facility in Guantanamo. Congress refused to implement his order. So, instead, the president has gradually been reducing the population of the facility. Still left at Guantanamo are 127 prisoners, approximately half the number who were there at the beginning of Obama's term. A flurry of releases came at the end of 2014: seven in November and then 15 in December. Of the remaining prisoners, 55 have been cleared for release. Whittling down the population in this way doesn't deliver the wallop -- or provide the justice -- of a one-time closure. But backbone is sometimes demonstrated by courage over the long-term and not just one-time decisions.

Yes, I know, we're talking about a president who has presided over a disturbing expansion of the national security state. Still, we'd better appreciate his good sides while we can. His most likely successor, from either party, wouldn't exercise presidential authority in the foreign policy realm with anything close to this kind of creativity.

When Votes Count

Elections are often ho-hum affairs, the results easily predicted way in advance. But elections in Europe these days are anything but predictable. In a number of countries, far-right parties are shouldering aside the conservative standard bearers. The National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, and the People's Party in Denmark are all threatening to upend the status quo.

But in Greece, the political winds have shifted in the other direction. The top leadership of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is in jail, with all 18 MPs awaiting trial on felony charges. The parliamentary elections are coming up at the end of this month, and the leftist Syriza party current tops the polls, 3 percent ahead of the conservative New Democracy party. Syriza rejects the austerity economics that the European Union and the IMF have insisted on as terms for lending money to Greece. This is not just a question of Greek politics. If Syriza renegotiates the terms for Greece, other indebted countries will insist on similar packages, undermining the dominant model in Europe for dealing with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Another election that proved influential in 2014 actually took place in 2013: the Chilean presidential election that brought Michele Bachelet back to power. Last year, with the support of students who went out onto the streets in 2011, her party pushed through new educational and tax reforms last year that will make Chile a considerably more equitable country. As Sebastian Rosemont wrote in FPIF in December, "By focusing on tangible demands, making broad partnerships, and linking to the larger platform of economic inequality, Chilean protesters changed the rules of the game."

A final election of note, which actually did take place in 2014, was in Tunisia. More important than the party that won was the party that lost: Ennahda. Contrary to the dire predictions of many, the Islamist party calmly handed over the reins of power to the secular party that won both the presidential and parliamentary elections, Nidaa Tounes. It took the Arab Spring protests to convince people that Islam and democracy were compatible. The recent elections in Tunisia should likewise convince people that Islamism and democracy are compatible as well.

Climate Turns the Corner?

The long-term prospects for the planet don't look so good from the point of global warming. But in 2014, there were three positive signs on the climate front. First was the outpouring of civic activism. Protestors hit the streets to protest specific projects, from fracking to the Keystone pipeline. And then in September more than 300,000 people mobilized in New York for the largest-ever demonstration on the threat of climate change.

Also encouraging was the deal that Beijing and Washington struck when Obama was in China in November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. True, it's a tepid agreement, but it also offers some hope of bridging the gap between longtime polluters like the United States and late-bloomers like China.

And then there's Pope Francis, who also played a key role in the backchannel diplomacy between Havana and Washington. In 2014, the Pope took steps to harmonize the relationship between religion and science by essentially endorsing the Big Bang and evolution. In May, in an early indication of his position on climate change, he announced that "if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us." Later this month, word has it that he's planning a major encyclical on the subject.

It's not just words. Like the Pentagon, the Church can have a profound impact on the market if it changes its purchasing pattern. "With its network of hospitals, schools, parish centers, seminaries and other institutions, the Church spends billions for its energy use," notes Rhodi Lee in Tech Times. "The Pope's position on climate change could lead to installations of renewable energy sources, such as solar systems in establishments and institutions that the Church has stakes in." With oil prices falling, we need all the institutional pressure we can get to support renewable energy.

These weren't the only good news stories from 2014. The new BRICS Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa bank may transform the structure of the international financial system. Protestors in Burkina Faso ejected their dictator of 27 years, Blaise Compaore, and the country is preparing for democratic elections later in 2015. Voters elected a new governor in Okinawa who opposes the construction of yet another U.S. military base on the island. War did not break out in the South China Sea, or between India and Pakistan for that matter.

Perhaps you have your own reasons to believe that this glass-half-full analysis is overly optimistic. The Four Horsemen of war, pestilence, famine, and death continued their gallop around the globe in 2014. But if we can't find some tentative good news to kindle like a guttering flame, then we might as well declare an end to activism -- and reserve front row seats for the apocalypse.

Cross-posted with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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