On New Year’s Day, we weighed in on the biggest winners from the past year. Now, we rank their opposites. Here’s the list of the world’s biggest losers in the past 12 months.
You, dear reader, were the biggest loser of 2014, and we are not talking about The American Interest’s decision to introduce a porous paywall. 2014 was the year that the internet, the increasingly essential tool without which more and more of us simply could not do our jobs, manage our finances, or stay in touch with family and friends slipped out of control. The snoops, the spies, and the cybercrooks spent last year consolidating a tight hold on the commanding heights of the worldwide web, even as more of our lives moved online. The global internet was supposed to be a transformational agent of human empowerment, but in 2014 it became clear that it is also an incredibly powerful weapon against which national governments, corporations and, yes, you have no practical defense.
In May, hackers gained access to the private information of hundreds of millions of Ebay users, including sensitive financial information and physical addresses. Then in August, hackers stole a massive trove of private, explicit photos of celebrities. In October, a huge hack of JP Morgan Chase compromised the banking information of over 70 million households. Later in the same month, it emerged that Russian hackers got deep into White House computers and critical U.S. infrastructure systems. Capping it all off was the alleged North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures, which embarrassed the company, cost it millions, and very nearly stifled the Kim Jong-un assassination comedy The Interview.
These attacks were the work of individuals, governments, and unaffiliated cyberterrorist groups. Not all of them were particularly sophisticated—many depended on crude brute force methods or user error on the part of the victim—but that’s hardly the point. The point is, they work.
In 2014 we learned a chilling lesson: privacy is deader than disco. That’s not just a problem for celebrities and companies that produce snarkily outrageous movies about evil rulers with funny hairdos, it’s also a problem for you. We’re all in the global panopticon now; Ed Snowden didn’t get the half of it.
Frankly, we’d be better off if the only people with the ability to snoop on our emails and bank info were reasonably responsible agencies like the NSA. It isn’t just our own Big Brother who is watching anymore; his Russian, Chinese and North Korean friends have their eyes to the keyhole as well. And it goes beyond governments; the Russian mob, Chinese triads and an assortment of American crime groups have their eyes on you too. Your banking information is no safer than the contents of Jennifer Lawrence’s iPhone.
Worse news is probably coming. Cyberterror, cyberjihad and cyberwar clearly loom ahead. All those dewy eyed techno-optimists who thought that the internet was going to end dictatorships, cut government down to size, and usher in the reign of universal peace are now waking up to a brave new world. No technology can save us from ourselves, and in 2o14 the world began to understand that human nature is capable of perverting even the internet into an instrument of violence and war.
Welcome to the future, fellow losers, and prepare yourselves for a bumpy ride.
2) West Africa
West Africa got knocked down, dragged out, and kicked to the curb last year as epidemics, insurgencies, and an oil price crash put the triple whammy on one of the world’s most vulnerable regions.
The biggest headline-grabber in West Africa last year was Ebola. According to the CDC, the outbreak claimed about 8,000 lives in 2014, although the true number is almost certainly much higher. That figure may be a relief in a dark sort of way, given the CDC’s worst-case projections that there would be 1.4 million cases by now (with a death rate of 71%, that would have meant almost a million deaths), but it remains a massive human tragedy in a region that was already hurting. Besides inflicting panic, suffering and death, the virus also wreaked economic havoc on the affected countries. The epidemic isn’t over yet, and the damage—to tourism, investment, and trade—will continue for a long time to come. Even if the virus is eradicated quickly, and it probably won’t be, how many foreign investors and managers will be scheduling trips to this part of the world anytime soon? How many tourists? How many companies are thinking about these countries as good sites for new factories?
Sadly, Ebola is not West Africa’s only problem. Boko Haram caught the attention of the West with its abduction of more than 200 young girls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria. But the reign of terror in Africa’s most populous nation didn’t start, or stop, there. Boko Haram has been tearing through central and northeastern Nigeria as well as parts of Cameroon, clashing with the military, killing citizens, burning churches and schools, and in some cases leveling whole towns. The militants show no signs of stopping, or of being stopped, and the poorly armed, paid, and trained Nigerian armed forces sent to fight them can be almost as dangerous (and larcenous) as Boko Haram itself. Nigeria’s religious divide (the country is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims) continues to widen, and religious polarization is likely to figure in the next Presidential election, pitting a southern Christian against a Muslim from the north. Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country and the lynchpin of security for all of West Africa; a deteriorating security situation there is not good for anyone.
To top it all off, Middle Eastern geopolitics in combination with a massive increase in U.S. energy production halved the price of a barrel of oil in 2014. That price crash may have been a net gain for world order, but it is also a distinctly bad thing for energy rich West Africa, and in many countries energy exports have been a major engine of growth. That slowing world growth is reducing prices for other commodities also hits West Africa hard; sadly, one of the world’s poorest regions was one of the world’s biggest losers of 2014.
3) The Responsibility to Protect
The Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, is a principle which states that countries which have the ability to stop an atrocity like genocide or ethnic cleansing have an active legal obligation to do so, even if that means intervening in the territory of an internationally recognized sovereign state. Ever since Bill Clinton used the language of R2P to justify intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the doctrine has been the darling of many liberal internationalists who think that the development of an effective law-based international system is humanity’s best hope to end misery and war. But in 2014 it became clear that regardless of whether or not R2P is a good idea in theory, in practice it’s a bust. Just ask the people of Libya and of Syria.
Libya was going to be the showcase for this bright and shiny new idea. The intervention to prevent an impending massacre in Gaddafi’s Libya was guided by the logic and rhetoric of R2P, and the adoption of a Security Council resolution justifying the intervention that nodded toward the ideas of R2P left many Wilsonians giddy with delight. But in 2014 the ugly state of Libya, and the total lack of any serious movement in Western capitals to do anything about the humanitarian disaster their ill-judged and slapdash intervention caused on the ground made it clear that R2P as serious force in world politics has gone belly up.
Meanwhile, the political consequences of the Libya fiasco have ensured that Russia in particular, with China as a willing accomplice, is determined to block any further strengthening of the R2P principle in international law. Russia felt that the Western countries stretched the UN resolution on Libya past the breaking point, using it as cover to overthrow Ghaddafi rather than for the limited humanitarian purposes Moscow thought it had signed onto. In this case, Russia was correct. Irresponsible and trigger-happy Wilsonians did as they pleased in Libya, catering to their own sense of moral narcissism and vanity without much regard for the niceties and limits of the resolution that theoretically limited their actions. How little they actually cared about the Libyan people can be seen in the deathly silence that fell over the interventionists as the ugly aftermath of their adventure began to come clear. R2P based resolutions will be significantly harder to get in the future—and the discredited Wilsonians who pushed for the Libya war will have a harder time getting political backing for their next exercise in the politics of beautiful gestures.
And if the Libyan fiasco left a few true believers thinking that the R2P parrot was merely pining for the fjords, there is Syria. The world’s hapless handwringing as a deadly and brutal dictaorship plunged the country into a vicious civil waris all the evidence anybody needs that the parrot is dead.
While R2P remains a beautiful idea, considered abstractly, it’s crystal clear that the world’s leaders lack the wisdom, courage, and commitment to apply it in any meaningful sense. That seems unlikely to change. The horrible consequences of success in Libya and the abject failure in Syria made themselves all too apparent in 2014.
The lesson is, or ought to be, that legalism and moralistic posturing cannot replace intelligent policy as the basis for the actions of sovereign states. As it is, we have two ongoing humanitarian catastrophes and the growing cancer of a civil war that, among its other consequences, has already given us the rise of ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Way to go, R2P!
4) The Eurozone
2014 was another bad year for the world’s largest and most poorly constructed economic union, a car crash thinly disguised as a common currency whose most important consequences to date have been the destruction of the Club Med economies, increasing bitterness and distrust between Europe’s north and its south, a profound social and economic crisis in France, diminished enthusiasm across Europe for the EU project overall, the rise of destructive far left and far right populist movements from one end of Europe to the other and what is rapidly turning into a lost economic decade for the eurozone as a whole.
If there is a monetary hell, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand will surely burn in it; not since the Germans responded to the Great Depression with austerity severe enough to bring Adolf Hitler to power have any capitalist leaders taken such a ghastly wrong turning in economic policy.
European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi famously vowed to do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro alive, and under his skillful direction the ECB has done the best it could do: it converted an acute financial crisis into a chronic (and still deepening) political crisis. But that is not enough to save Europe, and the political crisis is only getting started.
Just as it was in Greece where the economic crisis first reared its ugly head, so it is in Greece where the political crisis could first show its true face. While most Greek voters do not want to leave the euro, they are unwilling to endure the policies that the current leadership of Europe believes Greece must follow. 2014 saw the collapse of the electoral center in Greece, preparing the way for Syriza’s victory in early2015; the coming months will see how Europe handles what could well be the first in a series of similar political crises as one country after another revolts against the German yoke.
There is another and less appreciated dimension to the political crisis that is growing out of the euro disaster. The slow growth and poor youth employment opportunities that the misbegotten currency union has imposed on much of Europe create the worst possible environment for the integration of Europe’s immigrant wave. How will alienated immigrant and (often) Muslim young people feel at home in a system that denies them any possibility of a decent job? How will they come to admire and share the cultural and political values of a continent in the grip of a massive, dysfunctional failure that its institutions caused but seem unable to cure?
The consequences of the worst economic decision since World War Two are still unfolding across the EU. One can only hope that 2015 will be a better year.
5) The Jews of Europe
In 2014, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head and roared. In Europe, violence and threats made life increasingly uncomfortable for Jews, and around the world the old instinct to blame the Jews for any and all problems clawed its way back into the public discourse.
Over the summer, Europeans enraged about Israel’s Gaza war picked telling places to make their opinions known. They didn’t go to protest at the Israeli embassy, which would be a rational and logical place for people to go to protest the policies of the Israeli government. Instead, on July 14, France’s Bastille Day, protesters mobbed a synagogue on central Paris’s Rue de la Roquette. A week later, demonstrators in a French rally attacked stores owned by Jews in the predominantly Jewish Paris suburb of Sarcelles. These are the actions of Jew-haters, not of thoughtful deeply troubled and offended by Israeli policies toward its Palestinian neighbors.
Similar events played out in London and Edinburgh soon after. According to The New York Times, the protesters in France and others in Belgium shouted “Death to the Jews!” In Germany, they shouted “Gas the Jews!” French Jews are fleeing in such high numbers that it prompted Prime Minister Manuel Valls to sound the alarm by telling Jeffrey Goldberg that “…if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel led a rally against anti-Semitism in September, a noble and necessary action on her part, but a bad sign for the future of the country she leads.
The instinct to blame the Jews for the world’s problems didn’t end with the year. At the inauspicious outset of 2015, an accomplice of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists apparently felt it only natural to head to a kosher market to take hostages. That a Parisian kosher butcher has no connection with or responsibility for Israeli policy was irrelevant to this particular thug. The market was Jewish, so by the kind of twisted reasoning that Jew haters around the world embrace, the murder was halal.
This is the kind of blind hatred which led Nazi SA thugs to beat up their Jewish neighbors because of what Jewish bankers in New York were allegedly up to. After 2014, it is back.
“Feminism,” The New Republic proclaimed in September, shortly before that vaunted institution imploded, “has conquered the culture.” But 2014 was almost as bad for feminism as it was for TNR. 2014 was the year that long-cherished feminist ideas proved politically toxic.
The year started out well for feminists when the Obama Administration pushed much tougher guidelines on colleges for handling allegations of sexual harassment. But that turned out to be a terrible mistake; by the end of 2014, the debate over nonconsensual campus sex shifted to an argument over whether men accused of sexually assaulting women should be presumed guilty.
The presumption of innocence camp is winning out: Even long time feminist sympathizers felt that the new Title IX rules abridged the due process rights of the accused. Others worried that unelected college officials are not qualified, legally or otherwise, to adjudicate a violent criminal matter such as alleged rape. At Harvard Law School, 28 current and former professors of both genders decried the current application of Title IX as legally unjustified and wrong. Illiberal forms of feminism, more and more professors and administrators seem to be coming to understand, are fundamentally inimical to the liberal ideals of the western university tradition.
Perhaps more consequentially in the long term, many men accused of sexual assault are suing college administrations and often winning under the Title IX language that feminists thought they owned. Capping it all off was the blockbuster Rolling Stone article about gang rape at UVA, which turned out to be a political disaster for campus sexual assault activists. When the story turned out to be a fabrication, the idea that all female accusations of rape should be treated as true lost all credibility in the public mind. The anti-feminist backlash had officially begun.
Pro-choice activists suffered even greater defeats. A study by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue found that the number of abortion clinics operating in the US is now the lowest it has been in 20 years, with a net loss of 73 in 2014. Texas’s legally controversial 2013 anti-abortion law, HB-2, came into effect, and Tennessee voters passed a major referendum allowing lawmakers to introduce strict regulations on abortion like mandatory waiting periods. Add to that the sweeping GOP victories in state gubernatorial and legislative races across the country, and abortion may be facing the most hostile political environment since Roe v. Wade.
2014 will be remembered as the year that the feminist agenda lost what President George H.W. Bush used to call “the Big Mo.”
What didn’t go wrong for Ukraine last year? In 2014 Ukraine was ravaged by war, lost valuable territory, and suffered from choking corruption and political instability all year. An acute energy supply crisis hangs over the fragile economy. None of this seems likely to change anytime soon.
The signs don’t point towards a happy ending. Ultimately, Putin probably wants Ukraine to fail more than the West wants it to succeed. Europe, after all, has plenty of problems of its own without throwing it resources into solving Ukraine’s problems, and Europe’s leaders knows how badly they need Russian oil and gas. Putin, on the other hand, cares deeply about maintaining a buffer between Russia and NATO/the EU, and on top of that his foreign adventures are a hit with the Russian people.
But even without Russia’s meddling, the deck is rigged against Ukraine’s success. Corruption in Ukraine runs from the very top all the way down. Municipal workers, cops, and the judiciary aren’t paid enough to live on, and graft is expected as a matter of course. Judgeships are openly for sale.
For there to be a happy ending in Kiev, two things have to happen on the way to a third. First, Ukraine has to get a government that is honest and competent. Second, the EU and the U.S. have to decide to back Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars for a number of years. Even then, the West and Ukraine together will have to face Russia down. None of this will be easy, but Ukraine’s fate matters far beyond its frontiers. The rest of the world will be a darker place if Ukraine has another year like 2014.
8) The Democratic Party
The best thing about 2014 for Democrats was that it ended. The disastrous midterm elections saw Democrats lose nine net seats and Senate control to the GOP, and the party collapsed in state gubernatorial and legislative races across the country. Republicans are now in their strongest position nationally since the halcyon years of the 1920s, and Democrats are deeply divided over what to do next.
American politics is nothing if not volatile, and signs of economic recovery at year’s end offered hopes of, for the Democrats, a brighter 2015. Still, even as Republicans struggle to organize an effective opposition in Congress and select strong candidates for 2016, Democrats are left to argue whether the party should steer farther left or back towards the center as it tries to get its groove back.
2014 was the latest in a string of bad years for the imploding Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The socialist nation with the largest proven oil reserves this side of Saudi Arabia cannot provide basic services to its people.
As the country’s woes deepen, its quest for friends abroad seems to be ending in tears. China, its most important economic partner, seems increasingly of the view that working with Caracas is bad business. The desperate Venezuelan regime, in recompense for its non-payment of loans and other chicanery, reportedly tried to pay up by giving Beijing an island. No deal.
Meanwhile, the rats are leaving the sinking ship. Cuba, Venezuela’s most stalwart socialist ally, is moving away from Caracas and towards the United States in large part because the Castro government thinks Venezuela’s shrinking economy is no longer a secure paymaster for cash-starved Cuba.
It’s hard for people who’ve never experienced the hell of late socialism to understand what the Venezuelans are going through. One illustrative, grim story from last year was that the Maduro regime invested in expensive biometric scanners to make sure that citizens were not “cheating”: collecting state-supplied staples—toilet paper, basic foodstuffs—multiple times. Chronic shortages of toilet paper have both made Venezuela’s crooked populists a global laughingstock and provided a healthy reminder that socialism isn’t very good at, well, the fundamental tasks of economic management. That a desperate population is driven to cheat simply to get the basic necessities of life makes a mockery of the socialist claim to be building a new kind of sharing, caring, ethical human being. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s legal prostitutes found it was more lucrative to use their privilege of being alone in a room with foreigners to act as black market currency traders than to provide their usual trade.
Venezuelans won’t soon forget 2014, and the oil crash suggests meanwhile that 2015 will be worse. But it isn’t all bad news; thanks to the corrupt mismanagement of the (state owned and operated, of course) oil company, in 2014 the superlatively oil-rich nation actually had to import oil. A glowing testimonial to the efficacy of the Latin leftist state model this is not, but at least Venezuela can look forward to saving some scarce foreign exchange on its oil bill as prices continue to fall.
After decades of thinly veiled authoritarian rule and years of a brutal and ongoing drug war that has by some measures claimed over 100,000 lives, Mexicans hoped that 2014 was going to be the year that brought true reform under popular new President Enrique Peña Nieto. The optimism ran so high that in February, Peña Nieto was on the cover of Time Magazine, the words “Saving Mexico” emblazoned across him. But the high hopes were dashed by the harsh realities of 2014.
The collapse in global oil prices hurt Mexico almost as badly as it hurt higher profile petro-states like Russia and Iran. Mexico’s state-owned oil giant Pemex lost big on the crash, and the collapse of investor confidence in its debt in its bond returns will raise the cost of developing new reserves. Compounding the bad news is the emerging story that contractors defrauded Pemex for billions while the Mexican state looked the other way.
Sadly, though, the multibillion dollar Pemex theft wasn’t Mexico’s biggest scandal of the year. That dubious honor goes to the mass kidnapping in Iguala: In September, a bus carrying 43 students was stopped by police on its way to a rally against a local politician. The police shot several of the students, and then delivered the rest to a members of a drug gang who, as far as anyone can tell, tortured and killed them all. What started out as a local outrage has become a true national crisis. Official corruption colluding with rampant organized crime is the cancer at the heart of Mexican society today, and many have lost confidence in the ability of President Peña Nieto (not without some scandal problems of his own) to do much about it.