Looking back at 2014, some actors on the international scene, both state and non-state, notched up significant achievements and advances. Others didn’t do as well. In developing our list of the world’s biggest winners and losers in the past year, we didn’t make moral judgments. This is a realist calculation, looking at who gained power during the year and who lost. And it isn’t predictive; Vladimir Putin was our biggest winner in 2014, but he isn’t on this year’s list.1) Xi Jinping2014 wasn’t the best of years for China, but it was an excellent one for President Xi Jinping. Xi finishes the year as perhaps the most powerful man in China since the death of Mao, and no list of the year’s big winners would be complete without him.Xi seems to have absorbed the complicated lessons of Bo Xilai’s rise and fall and developed a power strategy to fit what he sees as a fraught time in Chinese history. Bo’s meteoric rise was a sign that the system of collective leadership established after the death of Mao was too bloodless and bureaucratic to survive unchanged. As life becomes stressful and the economic outlook turns more complicated, the Chinese people don’t want to be ruled by a faceless and bland committee. Bo, for all his many faults, was a charismatic human being who gave ordinary people the sense of a connection with the leadership.At the same time, the status quo forces in China have become very strong. The princelings, the rulers of state owned enterprises, the local officials whose vast incomes stem from a blending of government and business for which “corruption” is a very weak and imprecise term: all these people want things to go on unchanged, and they have tremendous power to block change.Inertia, as much as anything else, defeated the obviously hungry and ambitious Bo. Too many powerful people reached the conclusion that Bo was a threat, and they were able to block him in time. Xi was much smarter, and gave no hint of wanting to change things until he’d reached the top. He then introduced measures that reassured many of the hardliners and stand-patters: ideological rectification campaigns, party-building measures and the anti-corruption drive in its early stages all looked quite benign and reassuring to senior party officials. They cheered and supported him until, quite suddenly, they came to realize that they could no longer keep him leashed. The party purge which began with their backing soon escaped their control, and since virtually everyone in the Chinese system has done something that is at least formally illegal, the purge now rages wherever Xi wants the fire to burn.Today in China, President Xi has the power that Bo dreamed of. If Xi likes you, you can keep your money and your life. If not, well, you’ve got trouble.It is difficult to read these things from the outside, but it appears that Xi doesn’t yet have (and may not aspire to) the kind of power that Josef Stalin or Fidel Castro once wielded. We will know the power struggle has ended only when the purge subsides.Only then will we discover what Xi’s agenda really is. He may genuinely want to continue on a path of moderate reform, and is smashing his rivals to clear the path for a modernization of Chinese governance. Still, with 10,000 people being disciplined each month, and no end or even slowdown in view in what appears to be a still-accelerating purge, he is creating a new reality in China that will limit his future choices.For now, President Xi seems to have decided to follow a quieter course internationally, pulling back from confrontations with Japan and other neighbors. That’s a good thing as far as it goes, but this must in part reflect his calculation that he needed to consolidate power at home before undertaking any risks abroad. President Putin in Russia followed a similar course and pursued an unadventurous foreign policy until he felt secure at home.2) The United States of AmericaThe United States ended the year looking strong. In the Pacific, For one thing, China for now has retreated from the assertive stance it assumed when the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 led some excitable Chinese analysts to conclude that the U.S. had been so weakened that China’s hour in the Pacific had come. That turned out not to be true, and in the fall of 2014 China pulled back, softening its stance toward Japan, cooling its relationship with Pyongyang, and generally looking for less disturbing (and dangerous) ways of managing its relationships with its neighbors and with the U.S. This was big; if China had joined Russia and Iran in their challenge to the U.S.-based world order in 2014, the world would be white-knuckling its way into 2015.What seems to have changed China’s mind was the renewed economic strength of the United States. China is rediscovering something that observers often forget: while the American economy has its ups and downs, it is resilient. Shocks, scandals, and financial collapses marked America’s path to world power in the nineteenth century; rather than marking the decline of American strength, bouts of economic instability testify to the power of the technological forces driving the American economy towards new levels of productivity.In 2014 the United States didn’t just accrue power; the political balance inside the country changed in ways that make it more likely that U.S. Presidents, including the incumbent, will be more able to call on American power in the service of an active foreign policy. 2014 was a year when Jacksonian America began to refocus on foreign policy. Videos of ISIS fighters beheading captured Americans led to a surge in public support for a more active and defense-minded foreign policy; the impact will be felt on everything from defense spending to debates over intervention and other foreign policy issues.2014 was also the year in which America’s new hydrocarbon boom began to change world politics. Falling oil prices through the year pressured revisionist countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. The Saudi decision to keep up oil production in the face of falling prices accelerated the decline in world oil prices, and intensified the pressure on the revisionists. The fall in prices will no doubt slow the growth in U.S. oil production, but it will not change the new geopolitics of oil. Hydrocarbon-based prosperity at home is likely to strengthen and invigorate American society, even as the new ability of the U.S. to help shape the global energy markets boosts our position worldwide.3) JapanJapan’s interests are closely linked to those of the United States, so it should not come as a surprise that a year that was good for the U.S. was also good for Japan. China’s decision to pull back from a policy of confrontation in East Asia in the face of Japan’s continuing assertiveness was a huge victory for Tokyo. Early in 2014, it didn’t look as if this would happen and the atmosphere in East Asia was heavy with the sense of an oncoming storm. At one point, an opinion poll showed that majority of Chinese people saw a war with Japan as inevitable. But after Chinese President Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe met at the regional ASEAN conference (a victory in itself for Tokyo), Chinese territorial policy in the hotly disputed East China Sea shifted away from escalating violence and threats. Beijing has apparently recognized that despite its huge advances, in the short term China loses more than Japan when the temperature rises in the Far East.Beyond that, of all the great powers, Japan depends more on imported oil and raw materials than any other. The commodity crash is an unmitigated blessing for the Land of the Rising Sun; the things Japan needs to buy to keep running have all gone on sale. That gives Abe more room to depress Japan’s currency and tends to fatten the profits of Japan’s big exporters.Meanwhile, even in the face of disappointing economic performance, Abe has managed domestic politics effectively, winning a snap election and continuing to push Japan’s political consensus toward the right-wing, nationalist policies he favors. Japan’s pacifist constitution continues to benefit from creative re-interpretation in a more interventionist and pro-military direction, while both military spending and arms exports grow.A slow economy and a declining population still cast shadows over Japan, but in 2014 the ancient monarchy had a very good year.4) Prime Minister Modi of IndiaUnder new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India came out swinging in 2014. Modi is in many ways a lot like Abe (as their close friendship attests), only he is even more ambitious. Modi wants India to be a global superpower, but the road is difficult and the obstacles are high. With the strongest mandate an Indian leader has had in a generation, Modi hopes to enact sweeping economic reforms that can put India’s economy in China’s league. He wants to slice through the stifling “license raj” that bogs Indian businesses in interminable red tape, get every citizen access to a bank account, build India’s profile on the world stage, and bolster its military power, especially in the Indian Ocean.So far, Modi has been less successful on his ambitious program of domestic reform than he’s been at raising India’s global stature. Domestically he must overcome the entrenched resistance of the vested interests that benefit from the license raj. Abroad, he’s benefitted from an alliance with Japan that deeply unsettles China–and he has used that to get favorable economic treatment from both Asian countries. Japan wants to diversify its foreign investment portfolio and reduce the dependence of its corporate champions on Chinese supply chains. China wants to keep India from forming an exclusive economic and security partnership with Japan. India wants both countries to invest in it, and it looks like India is getting its way.The dramatic crash of the oil market gave Modi a late-year boost on his domestic agenda. India is locked into an expensive and counterproductive system of energy price subsidies. These subsidies cost the government money it urgently needs for other purposes, distort economic incentives, promote wasteful and inefficient energy use, and nourish an army of bribe-taking officials and gray market transactions. They are, however, popular and over the years have become so engrained in the country’s economic structure that removing them is painful and politically unpopular.Luckily for Modi, the oil price crash makes all this easier to mange. Falling oil prices reduce India’s overall energy bill and provide a substantial economic boost that will cushion the shock of reform. Those falling prices give him a political cushion as well; free market prices are less unpopular when they are low.Modi and the country he leads face huge obstacles going forward. But many of his problems have become less formidable in 2014, and his international diplomacy has so far gone very well. 2014 was a good year for Delhi.5) Andrew Jackson2014 was the year in which Jacksonian America woke up. As I wrote in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, Jacksonians are one of four schools of thought that fight to direct American foreign policy. Unlike Hamiltonians, Jacksonians do not believe in a strong federal government, and they don’t think that an alliance between big business and big government to advance American interests worldwide is always a good idea. Unlike Wilsonians, Jacksonians don’t think that the United States should be a global missionary and social worker, intervening here and there to stop genocides, promote democracy and advance human rights. Unlike Jeffersonians, however, Jacksonians believe that the safest course for the United States often involves a forward-leaning military stance.When Jacksonians are fully engaged in foreign policy, they are almost irresistibly strong. Episodes in American history like the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana, the Zimmerman telegram and unrestricted German submarine warfare in 1917, or the Pearl Harbor attack can create situations in which no President can resist the Jacksonian demand for war.When Jacksonians don’t sense any real threat to the country, however, they can look a lot like isolationists. They don’t want to spend money, take risks, use force abroad, or participate in high-minded UN-backed efforts to promote democracy, development, or anything else.Jacksonian support for the Cold War never flagged during 40 years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Jacksonians began to lose interest in world affairs and as Congress slashed foreign aid budgets and rebelled at paying UN dues, President Clinton faced an uphill battle whenever he wanted to send troops abroad. That changed on 9/11; Jacksonians treated the al-Qaeda attacks as a new Pearl Harbor, and initially at least they gave full-throated support to the wars of the Bush Administration.Over time, as WMD failed to turn up in Iraq, as terrorists failed to repeat 9/11 style attacks against the U.S. and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on inconclusively, disillusioned Jacksonians began to turn away from foreign issues. The housing crisis and the recession further turned Jacksonians from foreign to domestic preoccupations. Jacksonians are strongly rooted in the white middle class, and the white middle class was hurting after 2008.As a result, until recently President Obama, one of the most un-Jacksonian Presidents in American history, had a fairly free hand in foreign policy. Jacksonians were suspicious of foreign adventures and felt burned by the failures of the Bush Administration. Poll after poll showed that most Americans wanted the United States to reduce its commitments and exposure abroad. Even among Republicans, Jeffersonian candidates like Senator Rand Paul (small government at home, small foreign policy abroad) loomed large. The collapse of Congressional support for a bombing campaign in Syria in 2013 reflected what some hoped would be a new reality of a quieter American foreign policy.In 2014, that changed. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the sweeping victories of ISIS across territory that Americans remembered from the war in Iraq, and the videos showing the beheading of American citizens by ISIS fighters set off Jacksonian alarm bells.The events of 2014 were no Pearl Harbor or 9/11-scale earthquakes, but they were enough to change the foreign policy debate in the United States. Even as President Obama sent U.S. ground forces back into Iraq, Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul both moved toward a more interventionist posture.The newly aroused Jacksonians are making their impact felt in other ways. Jacksonian concern about foreign terror and Putin helped fuel the GOP midterm sweep. Jacksonians have few scruples when it comes to the use of force against those they perceive as enemies of the American people. That’s as true of the jihadis tortured by the CIA as it is of domestic criminals killed by police violence. Jacksonian support for the CIA’s harsh procedures ( 71% of Americans will tell a pollster that they support torture under at least some circumstances) and for the police explains why, despite much protest and controversy, there is little sign that either will soon face new federal laws.Whether aroused Jacksonians will continue to stir the pot in 2015 and 2016 is yet to be seen. If the sense of international threat dissipates, Jacksonians may go back to sleep. But if Jacksonians believe the United States faces a serious threat from either state or non-state actors abroad, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the next Presidential contest.6) Violent JihadA year ago President Obama compared ISIS to a bunch of “JV” stringers and dismissed them as raggedy remnants of a terrorist movement that was on the run. That is clearly not what he thinks today. ISIS upended the Middle East in 2014 and forced President Obama to do perhaps the one thing he most didn’t want to do–to send U.S. forces back to Iraq. He is now the President who paused the war in Iraq, rather than the man who ended it.More brutal than al-Qaeda, better organized, better at propaganda, and better at luring recruits with Western passports, ISIS conquered large chunks of Syria and Iraq, marginalized the weak “moderate” Syrian groups the U.S. agonized over helping, and wrecked the Iraqi army that the United States spent billions to train and equip.ISIS isn’t ten feet tall. It is turning out to be very bad at governing, and one suspects that its leadership will fragment under stress. But there can be no doubt that jihadi ideology is as seductive as ever and jihadi organizations are more effective than before. Those dark voices who warned back during the Bush Administration that we faced a “long war” against a vicious, fanatical, and flexible enemy are looking much smarter than the White House publicists who tried to tell us that the whole ugly threat was now under control.ISIS isn’t the only group active in the new wave of jihad. In Afghanistan the Taliban seems to be gaining ground as the West proclaims the “end” of its military mission; in Pakistan jihadi violence is reaching new levels. In Nigeria, the government and local officials have proved almost entirely inadequate to dealing with Boko Haram, and we are likely to see imitators and allies rising up in other places along the fault lines across Africa. While the large majority of these groups will be of only local concern, their existence and the links among them will create threats that the rest of the world cannot ignore.Violent jihad is here to stay for a while, and so is the war to destroy it.7) Saudi ArabiaIf anybody had any doubts about who, after Israel, is the strongest regional power in the Middle East this year, Saudi Arabia settled those when it engineered a revolution in the world price of oil, forcing all of OPEC to sing from the Saudi songbook as prices crashed. Iran could only scowl from the sidelines as Saudi Arabia demonstrated that when the external conditions are right, it and it alone has the power to determine the world oil price and, therefore, the GDP of all of its neighbors.Last year the Saudis sponsored a coup in Egypt that replaced an American-backed Muslim Brotherhood government with a nationalist military one. This year, they kicked sand in Iran’s face over the oil price.The Saudis and others may doubt America’s commitment to the Sunni world in the face of Iran’s growing challenge, but 2014 was the year when the Saudis demonstrated an ability to act, and act effectively, on their own.8) IranIran may have lost on oil prices with Saudi Arabia, but many other developments in 2014 brought joy to the mullahs in Teheran. Nuclear talks continued to give substantial sanctions relief to the Iranians without forcing them to make any difficult decisions over the nuclear program. President Obama continued to sweeten the pot, flattering the mullahs in ways that almost certainly have increased their confidence in the strength of their position vis-à-vis the United States. The rise of ISIS, however unwelcome the rise of a Shi’a hating Sunni group may be, had the impact of forcing the U.S. into a de facto alliance with Iran and its two clones: the Iran-backed Shi’a government in Iraq, and the remnants of Assad’s bloody regime in Damascus.In a year in which American power strengthened worldwide and Saudi Arabia threw a hand grenade into world oil markets, Iran not only survived; it strengthened its position within its region even as it stalled on nuclear talks.9) Senate RepublicansThe GOP did even better than expected in the Senate midterm elections, with a staggering net gain of nine seats. While prospects for 2016 are more mixed (the GOP will be defending seats it won in the landslide off-year 2010 election in what could be a tough climate), the win gives Republicans undivided control of Congress during the last two years of President Obama’s time in office. Since the GOP majority is well short of the 60 votes needed to shut off debate on most issues and even farther away from the 67 votes needed to override a Presidential veto, the Republicans will face strict limits on what they can accomplish. Even so, the change will be marked. President Obama’s ability to fill federal judgeships with liberals has pretty much come to an end, and he will have to make a range of concessions to Republicans to avoid legislative roadblocks. Now in control of Senate committees, and with the lion’s share of staff appointments that majority status brings, Senate Republicans have new ways of advancing their own agenda while investigating and embarrassing the Administration.10) Western GaysNever in the history of the human race have gay and lesbian people had a year like Western and especially American gays had in 2014. In Putin’s Russia and much of the Muslim and sub-Saharan African worlds things are going backwards, but throughout the West, lesbian and gay people could live with more security and respect than at any previous time.2014 wasn’t important because it was the year of breakthroughs. It was important because it was a tipping point in which, increasingly, conservative parties and candidates made their peace with gay rights. The culture wars aren’t over; conservatives continue to make gains, for example, on the abortion question. But for now at least, homosexuality is no longer a hot-button issue.The widespread social acceptance of homosexuality is an experiment; not even the ancient Greeks went as far as the contemporary West. Nobody, least of all lesbian and gay people building new kinds of lives for themselves in a new kind of world, knows where it will go. But in the West at least, the acceptance of homosexuality has moved into the mainstream.[Nicholas Clairmont contributed research to this article.]
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Published on: January 1, 2015
Year In ReviewThe Winners of 2014
In terms of power and position, here’s who came out on top last year.