Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

Past performance no indicator of how 2015 will turn out

This year saw a resurgence of the Cold War with Russia's intervention in Ukraine, and the decline of the United States. But next year may well turn out differently.

Instant history is seldom reliable history, so caution is advisable in drawing any conclusions about the impact of key events that took place during the outgoing year. Nevertheless, it is clear that 2014 has witnessed some fundamental strategic shifts and surprises, destined to shape our lives for years to come.

The first and by far the most important is the end of the post-Cold War period. There was always something odd about the fact that this span of time, which began in 1989 and lasted for the past 25 years, never acquired a name of its own, and was merely generically referred to as a period after a previous period.

But now we know why, for the post-Cold War age was just a lull, a strategic interval, rather than a new era with solid and durable foundations. Politicians talked about the benign effects of globalisation, about the futility of wars, territorial possessions or borders, and the interdependence of nations. All this was true but, as is by now clear, not sufficient to bridge the gap between those who regarded the post-Cold War order as beneficial and long-lasting, and those who saw themselves as losers and therefore want to overthrow the status quo.

Tensions have lingered for years, but it was in 2014 that the eerie calm was shattered, and great-power politics came back with a vengeance. The most spectacular example of this is, of course, Russia, which stormed back on to Europe's strategic stage with its military intervention in Ukraine. The Ukrainian war may seem remote and even irrelevant to nations outside Europe. But the confrontation has already cost the lives of thousands, including hundreds of innocent civilians killed when a Malaysian airliner was shot down.

Things fall apart

AND Ukraine brought back some old nightmares which governments around the world thought they had safely left behind: the danger that borders may be changed by force, that territories can be simply gobbled up by countries, and that ethnic minorities can be used as "Fifth Columnists", covert agents undermining one government at the behest of another.

Diplomats and experts will argue for years as to who was responsible for the Ukraine flare-up. Yet there should be little debate about the fact that the real clash between Russia and the rest of Europe is no longer about Ukraine as such, but about Russia's determination to carve for itself a new sphere of influence, both on the European continent and further afield in Central Asia, among the republics which once belonged to the Soviet Union. Nor is there much doubt that this showdown between the West and Russia will overshadow the coming year, and most likely many years thereafter.

The main imponderable for 2015 is whether China and a number of other key developing nations would seize the opportunity provided by Russia to advance claims for spheres of influence of their own, or to make common cause with Russia against the West. In theory, that's possible: like Russia, the other nations belonging to the so-called Brics grouping have made no secret of their desire to replace the current world order with a new, multi- polar structure in which the United States is no longer the sole superpower.

Yet it is also true that few Brics nations share either the urge or the urgency to follow Russia on this mission to refashion the world. Nor has it escaped anyone's attention that, while in 2014 it was Russia which reaped the benefits of its European tactical surprise, in the year to come it will be Russia's turn to pay for its adventures. The price will be heavy, as the Russian economy nosedives, battered by economic sanctions and low revenues from oil and natural gas exports.

So, the chances are high that the confrontation between Russia and the West will remain confined to Europe. But that's paltry consolation, for the ripple effects of this showdown will still be felt around the world. The era of the "peace dividends", when supposedly trade mattered more than military might and expenditure on welfare took precedence over weapons, is now ending: at least in this respect, the future may end up resembling the past.

The centre cannot hold

ANOTHER major trend which dominated this year is that of the accelerated internal disintegration of some existing states. The Middle East holds the record, with the vicious civil wars in Lebanon and Syria now joined by those inside Libya and Iraq. It is still theoretically possible that these states will retain their current borders. But it is highly unlikely that any of these countries will ever again be ruled by powerful central governments; at best, these will be weak states, struggling to keep themselves together.

The clash between the centre and the peripheries, between local and national identities, is also becoming a defining feature in Europe, as the referendums for Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom in September and the vote for Catalonia's independence from Spain in November indicated. Both these ballots resulted in the maintenance of the status quo. But both referendums are hardly the last word on the matter. For, whether they like it or not, all British politicians are now condemned to dealing with Scotland's autonomy aspirations, a burden already shouldered by every Spanish politician in dealing with Catalonia.

And states in other parts of the world are experiencing a similar tug of war between the need to maintain coherent central state structures and the imperative of satisfying and accommodating different ethnic or cultural entities. This applies as much to Myanmar, where it's not the fight for good governance but the struggle to maintain a united country which is now the key priority, as it does to China.

For although Beijing has won the latest confrontation with Hong Kong's Occupy Central protesters, it is losing Hong Kong. The percentage of Hong Kong residents who identify themselves as primarily Chinese is steadily declining and now stands at only 31 per cent overall, and a mere 8 per cent among the former British colony's youth.

A similar phenomenon is at work in Taiwan where, instead of becoming an accepted fact, cross-strait relations are now the most polarising and divisive electoral issue. In both territories, China's leaders were buffeted this year by the same message their European counterparts are confronted with: that keeping a country together by consent rather than force requires more than just a common language, an ancient history or the ritual repetition of unity slogans.

Eclipse of the US

HOVERING above these developments has been the continued eclipse in the strategic footprint and perceived influence of the US.

Not only has President Barack Obama's administration refused to redress a string of foreign policy setbacks in the Middle East; it has also added to them a clutch of new errors. These included an inability to address the growing international resentment against alleged US spying activities on friendly governments and leaders, a set of hasty, ill-conceived pinprick sanctions against Russia, a persistent reluctance to deal with the causes of violence in Iraq and Syria, as well as a goofy Obama description of America's policy objective as that of "not doing stupid stuff", to use the more polite term for the word which the US President actually used.

As Mr David Rothkopf, a senior foreign policy commentator in Washington, remarked in a recent blistering attack on the US President: "Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented; it is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office."

Still, 2015 could well be the year in which the US reclaims its primary global position. The country is certainly well-equipped for it: its economy is emerging from the global economic recession, its technological lead remains undented, the creative vitality of its workforce is legendary and, as the latest revolution in shale oil and natural gas indicates, no other nation on earth has a more favourable energy mix than the US.

In short, the most optimistic conclusion from this year may well be that past performance is not necessarily an indication of the future, that neither the decline of the US nor a replay of the Cold War are as inevitable as they may seem today.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com