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2013: A Year for Debate (Like Every Year)

22 Dec Posted by in Observations | 14 comments
2013: A Year for Debate (Like Every Year)

The opportunity to be on a year-end TV show gave me a prompt to think about the year now almost past in some historical perspective. It’s an interesting, inherently speculative venture, and I would welcome your thoughts. I wish I’d considered the exercise for my last world history class, but I’ll try it next year.

The challenge is this: did anything happen in 2013 that will make the history books?

The first point to establish is that most years do not have history-book level happenings (or the books would be far bigger than they now are, and they’re already too big). The Arab spring was perhaps the last clearly book-makeable event we’ve experienced, just to use an example of the level of significance I’m thinking about.

The second point is that, in my judgment, 2013 was, historically speaking, a fairly hum-drum year. We are always tempted to hype a year just past, because we lived through it and remember the headlines, but let’s face it: the world is not measurably different now from its state a year past.

We certainly had some tense moments. It’s tempting, because of the level of controversy, to see the Affordable Care Act as a textbook-maker, and of course in a detailed history of the U.S. it would be. But in terms of global level it’s hard to give it too much attention, since it involved the United States producing an unusually complicated way of doing what most industrial nations had done a long time ago.

There are certainly some developments that will pass a narrower text of significance. The new papacy is one, and maybe down the line, depending on Francis’ longevity and impact, it will put 2013 more generally on the map. The doldrums of the American Presidency will certainly be noted in the histories of the Obama administration, but with only eight years to work in no one span will ever be left out no matter how routine.

For 2013 more generally I’m most impressed with the list of continuations of previous processes, and the to-be-continueds. Major storms, including the Philippines, confirm our sense that things are getting worse on this front, but 2013 alone does not stand out. Ditto the continued slow global economic recovery. Or the confirmation that China is fairly fixed on its political system, which proves capable of personnel change. Or the continued workings-through of the Arab spring, including the dreadful war in Syria. Or the stability of the German political system (which would have been news a few decades ago, but no more).

For a list of greater possible innovations, that would single 2013 out more clearly?: the hints of a recalibration of relations with Iran and a possible reconfiguration in the Middle East – really interesting, but too soon to say. The troubling escalation of China-Japan tensions, but again this may turn out not to be too important. Or the clear advance of gay rights in the United States – but counterbalanced globally by new Russian policy and the recent adverse court decision in India.

On the whole my choice for a 2013 signature (but not enough to get it into the global textbooks): the various new signs of the fallibility of human-technology interactions, given the steady advance of technological dependencies: the Asiana crash, the continued problems with nuclear cleanup in Japan, the inability to protect against NSA intrusions but also the inability to protect NSA, the recurrent drone failures, the problems with the Affordable Care launch.

But what’s your take on the year we’ve all managed to survive?

Finally for those who care, I’ll now pause my blog for two weeks, and I do wish all a happy new year.