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Crisis Year: International Relations 2014

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In a morose way, 2014 has been a fascinating year for those with an interest in International Relations. Resurgent Russia and Islamic State have presented two prominent challenges to western liberal world order. The optimistic ‘end of history’ liberalism of the 1990’s now feels like a golden bygone era of stability and prosperity. In its place is a world where the hegemonic power of the United States is limited by insurgencies and despotic powers. In the field of international relations, realist scholars have had a long awaited ‘we told you so moment’. John Mearsheimer has ruffled many feathers with his article in Foreign Affairs ‘Why the Crisis in Ukraine is the West’s Fault’. Regardless of how palatable it is, Mearsheimer’s argument is frustratingly robust, and he presents credible counters to his critics. EU and NATO expansion has encroached into a region that Russia considers critical to its own security, and the latter has firmly drawn a line in the sand, violating international treaties and norms in a display of pure power politics. Although Russia is paying a price, it has asserted itself outside of its own borders in a way that the west cannot prevent. It seems that at long last, balancing is occurring, and the ‘rest’ are pushing back against the ‘west’ after a decade of diminishing US legitimacy and soft power.

Liberal world order has also been challenged in the Middle East. Liberal democracy’s hegemonic position as a form of modernisation now seems like an idealistic delusion. Critics of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan like to claim that oil and geopolitics were primary motivators. While these were clearly prominent factors, it must also be remembered that the liberal beliefs in the irresistible force of democracy were also a primary motivator. Instead, both Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to form liberal-nations states as was naively expected. Over ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the fledgling western-backed government struggles against the nightmare of the so called Islamic State which was fostered by disenfranchisement of Sunni minorities in Iraq, and a neighbouring Civil War in which the US was also unable to effectively support the moderate rebels groups. Along with political failures, US military power has struggled to deal with 4th generation population-centric warfare.

Pessimism seems to be the order of the day. Historians have compared 2014 to both 1914 and 1939, years of crisis and dismantling of idealistic theories of progress. Yet we must not despair in this climate and cave to pessimism. Despite these challenges to status quo world order we must remember that deaths in conflicts have been steadily declining year on year as a historic trend, when taken as a percentage of population. Russia is now feeling the pain of economic isolation, and Islamic State’s advances have been halted if not reversed. Moreover Liberalism and democracy are not dead in the water.  Francis Fukuyama has argued (again) this year that liberal democracy remains the only globally viable and acceptable form of modernisation, in spite of challenges from models such as Islamic Fundamentalism and the Russian Oil-State. While democracy has receded this year in many parts of the world, there are success stories such as Tunisia as well.

The future presents challenges to current world order. However setbacks must not deter privileged nations from seeking to promote peace and security but should instead be learned from to improve the future for all.

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