New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, "There have been worse years in recent history, but 2014 definitely stands out for the sheer variety of awfulness."
That sentiment captures the popular perception of a year that can't seem to end soon enough.
In many ways, it would be hard to disagree. In the United States, political and racial polarization seemed especially deep, and across the globe things got pretty scary. Russia annexed Crimea and sent its forces into eastern Ukraine in an effort to undermine the new Western-oriented government in Kiev. In the Middle East, the Islamic State displaced al-Qaida as the region's bad guy. The euro-zone economies stagnated, even compared with how they performed in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Ebola terrorized Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and threatened many more countries. As the year closed, two cops in Brooklyn were fatally shot at point-blank range, and the Pakistani Taliban committed a heinous massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar. And to top it all off, a boy dictator in Pyongyang even threatened to prevent the rest of us from weakly laughing at Seth Rogen.
It's not that there was no positive news — the fall in global energy prices put more money in people's pockets, and crime continued to decline in the United States. Still, the bad seemed to crowd out the good.
But what if 2014 turned out better than expected? Thinking about what actually happened this past year may not be the best way to judge it. After all, an awful lot of smart people predicted a lot of even-more-terrible things that never came to pass. And these averted catastrophes point toward some interesting ways to think about 2015.
Perhaps the most important nonevent of 2014 was that war did not break out in the Pacific Rim. This was far from guaranteed at the beginning of the year. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there was a lot of chatter that a century after the start of World War I, the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would lead to a similar conflagration. Some of that talk came from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, so there were valid reasons for worry.
The tensions in the region seem less severe at the end of the year, however. A successful Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit led to an outbreak of comity when China and Japan agreed to disagree. Also, bilateral deals on climate change and trade illustrated a robust Sino-American relationship. After a year of "could 1914 happen again?" rhetoric, it is comforting to see that the longest post-Westphalian streak of "no great power war" will continue into 2015.
Another nonevent in 2014 was the next U.S. recession. After growth slowed in the fourth quarter of 2013, the economy shrank by more than 2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. The surprise slowdown prompted a lot of concerns that the American economy, which had been expanding since 2009, was about to go into recession. In March of this year, in fact, a majority of Americans believed that the economy was in recession.
As it turned out, the initial explanation for the one-quarter contraction — the horrible winter weather — proved accurate. Both gross domestic product and employment accelerated for the rest of 2014, with the economy generating more than 2.5 million jobs, the best year of job creation since the 1990s. All of this occurred with persistently low levels of inflation and as the Federal Reserve turned off its quantitative easing program. Although the rest of the global economy looks fragile, the United States has gathered steam.
Even in the parts of the world where bad things happened, the worst-case scenarios did not materialize. In the case of Ebola, there was a lot of concern that the epidemic would spread into Nigeria, the most populous and interconnected country in West Africa. Council on Foreign Relations fellow Laurie Garrett warned — in a Foreign Policy article ominously titled "You Are Not Nearly Scared Enough About Ebola" — that if the disease spread into Nigeria's largest city, it would make the film "Contagion" look like a fairy tale. Garrett's warnings seemed sober once an Ebola diagnosis was reached in the United States. Sen. Rand Paul, among others, warned that the disease was far more contagious than the Obama administration had stated.
Fortunately, the apocalyptic scenarios turned out to be groundless. Nigeria contained its one Ebola outbreak, and the pandemic has not returned to that country. There were only a handful of Ebola cases in the United States. And there was a much higher survival rate in the United States compared to Ebola victims in Africa, offering hope to health experts that the disease is more amenable to treatment than they originally thought. Meanwhile, the number of new cases has stabilized in Guinea and has declined considerably in Liberia.
Even the most belligerent global actors have found themselves on the defensive as 2014 draws to a close. After the Russian Federation gobbled up Crimea, high-ranking officials and commentators worried that Vladimir Putin's "Novorossiya" talk would lead to land grabs in Moldova, Kazakhstan and the Baltics. Today, however, Moscow has far bigger concerns than territorial expansion. Its oil-based economy is imploding, its currency is collapsing, and its banks need bailing out. Not coincidentally, Putin and his foreign minister have tamped down their anti-Ukrainian rhetoric this month. In 2015, the bigger threat from Russia will come from its weakness, not its strength.
Similarly, when Islamic State militants declared a caliphate as they overran Syrian and Iraqi forces, fears emerged about the fall of Baghdad and the disintegration of Iraq. A few months later, however, the group finds itself less powerful than it was six months ago. U.S. and allied airstrikes have taken their toll on its forces and supply lines. More important, the crisis triggered a change of government in Iraq. New Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is proving more conciliatory than his predecessor; he has secured a new oil-revenue-sharing agreement with the region of Kurdistan, reducing the chances of secession and bolstering the country's fight against the Sunni extremists.
So yes, a lot of the predicted bad stuff didn't materialize in 2014, but that might feel like a low bar. Are these nonevents enough reason to be optimistic for 2015?
This depends entirely on whether one believes that resiliency is an exhaustible or a sustainable resource. If you think that our national and global reserves have been used up averting one disaster after another this past 12 months, then 2014 is simply a harbinger of doom. Maybe 2015 will be the year when the system finally cracks.
The other way to think about it, however, is that resiliency is like aerobic exercise — the more you have to adapt to negative shocks, the better you get at coping. President Obama seemed to make this argument in his final news conference of the year:
"We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it's not something that's been seen before. We fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border. And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And, you know, part of what I hope, as we reflect on the new year — this should generate ... some confidence. America knows how to solve problems."
2015 will surely have plenty of bad news in it. But the fact that 2014 could have been worse should offer some hope. Here's to a resilient new year.