1) The Snowden revelations. Details revealed by Edward Snowden, accused of spying by America’s National Security Agency – aided by Britain’s GCHQ – had a truly global impact. Mr Snowden initially surfaced in Hong Kong, just days before a US-China summit in which President Obama had planned to put President Xi Jinping on the hot-seat, on the subject of cyber-snooping.
Mr Snowden then moved to Moscow, giving the story a Russian angle. But pretty soon his revelations had gone global. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil cancelled a long sought-after state visit to Washington, in protest of US spying. There was outrage in Germany at the revelation that America had apparently tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell-phone. The champions of America’s internet economy – Google and Facebook – found themselves facing a real threat to their businesses, as they were implicated in the scandal. Above all the Snowden revelations have forced people to think harder about the implications of the information age, and the intersection of national security and personal privacy. As a result, its ramifications are likely to shape public policy and politics for many years to come.
2) The Big Taper: My list of significant events tends to emphasize wars, coups and elections. But the context for all of these political dramas is the state of the global economy, which in recent years has been shaped by the unprecedented monetary policies pursued by America’s Federal Reserve. Sooner or later, QE ( Quantitative Easing) will have to end – and the big question is what happens then? Will Mr Bernanke’s treatment turn out to have been an inspired medical intervention that saves the patient's life? Or will the world economy behave like a crack addict, needing fix? Even talk of easing or “tapering” (QE) provoked convulsions in the markets in the middle of 2013 – a reaction that was less than encouraging. But when the Fed repeated the experiment at the end of the year, the markets reacted much more calmly. We will probably learn over the course of the next 12-18 months whether the “taper” really can be pulled off, in a reasonably orderly manner. The fate of the world economy – and therefore, indirectly, of international politics – will depend on how it goes.
That leaves me with three events left for 2013 – but plenty of possible candidates.
Events in the world’s biggest powers – the US and China – obviously have to be weighed very heavily in any list of globally-significant happenings. But I’m going to take a pass. It is entirely possible that the Communist Party plenum in Beijing in November will come to be seen as an historic turning point in the story of Chinese economic and political reform. But it is too soon to know if the big talk will be matched by actions. In the US, the biggest political events of the year were the government shut-down and the botched roll-out of Obama’s health-care reform. But, predictably enough, the government re-opened. And the dreaded health-care web-site now seems to be responding to treatment so – with any luck – its early malfunctioning may go down as a technical glitch, rather than an historic setback for social reform in America.
Another event that falls into the “too soon to tell” category is the sudden liberal turn in the policies of Vladimir Putin. The separate releases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot members were welcome developments, which most observers have interpreted as a clearing of the decks before the Sochi Winter Olympics. That is probably right. But let’s hope that Mr Putin surprises us in 2014, by taking Russian politics in a more open and liberal direction.
When it comes to Europe, I’m torn between opting for the re-election of Angela Merkel and the apparent final downfall of Silvio Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi has been such a blight on modern Italy, for so long, that the fact that he has finally been convicted in court in a way that may end his career, is a potentially historic development. But, partly because of the legacy of Mr Berlusconi’s misgovernment, Italy is no longer a really significant political player in Europe. By contrast, during the Merkel era, Germany has once again emerged as Europe’s dominant political and economic power.
3) So my third choice is the re-election of Angela Merkel. The German chancellor will begin her third term in office with opinion poll ratings that Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and David Cameron can only dream of. Her success is also a riposte to those who argue that western democracies are now inherently dysfunctional. I hope those words of praise do not put a curse on Mrs Merkel for 2014.
The Middle East continues to dominate the headlines. The preliminary nuclear deal with Iran may turn out to be an event of historic significance. But we can’t yet know if it will stick – so I’m leaving it out for this year.
Given that the Syrian war has now claimed over 100,000 lives it has to make any list of the most important events of the year. But was there a particular trend in Syria that needs to be picked out? If the use of chemical weapons had led to a western military interventions – as it so nearly did – that would have been the event to highlight. Instead, I will go for:
4) The resurgence of Bashar al-Assad: Syria’s agreement to get rid of its chemical weapons – brokered by its Russian allies – had the perverse effect of strengthening Mr Assad, by making him an interlocutor of the international community. Meanwhile, developments on the battle-field seem to have strengthened the Assad regime, at least in terms of the propaganda war. Western horror at the brutality of Mr Assad’s methods is now balanced by fear of the increasing grip of jihadists on the opposition movement. Although the US continues to insist that any political settlement will have to see Mr Assad go, the previously unthinkable – that Mr Assad will survive the war as president of a rump territory that is still called Syria – now looks distinctly possible.
5) The coup in Egypt: I think we can now accept that the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – even if it did enjoy popular support – was indeed a military coup. Nobody can yet know if the rise of General Sisi et al, marks the final stage in the political upheavals that began with the overthrow of President Mubarak. But I am pretty confident that the Egyptian coup did mark the end of the dream that the largest Arab nation – and the Arab world in general – was heading for liberal democracy.
For that reason, events in Egypt, make my top-five. Let’s hope that in 2014, these kinds of lists will be filled with good news: a nuclear deal with Iran, the revival of the US economy, an easing of tensions between China and Japan, a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – and peace on earth, good will to humankind....What?