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opinion

Would that it were otherwise this festive season, but a fair-minded review of world events in 2014 must conclude that international geopolitics became more tense.

The Islamic world's internal turmoil continued to inflict miseries on itself and, by extension, on others. Great Russian chauvinism returned with a vengeance. China's muscular diplomacy in the region caused persistent tensions with neighbours, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Israel and Hamas engaged in another senseless war. Israel and the Palestinians broke off baby-step talks that the United States had tried (again) to encourage.

The Islamic State entered the vacuums created by the Syrian civil war and the failure of Iraq to produce a government representative of all factions. The Arab Spring descended into repression in Egypt, factional chaos in Libya and war in Syria, although it seems to be having a positive effect in Tunisia.

The European Union's economy continued to sputter; the U.S. political system's dysfunction deepened. Of long-term concern, various European countries (Sweden, France, the Netherlands) saw an upsurge of support for right-wing, anti-Europe and anti-immigrant parties. Hungary veered toward dark nationalism, with elements of overt anti-Semitism and irredentist talk of protecting Hungarian minorities in adjoining countries.

Europe and, by extension, the United States and Canada as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, tried to figure out how to cope with Russia's determination to establish a zone of influence around its western borders, annexing Crimea, fostering unrest and violence in eastern Ukraine, freezing the partition of Moldova and testing the Baltic states. As for propping up Ukraine, a country notorious for corruption, the West (including Canada) provided assistance so far below what the country needs that Ukraine will remain for years the sad-sack country of the region.

Pakistan, arguably the world's most dangerous state, possessing both nuclear weapons and pervasive radical Islam, cannot effectively cope with its internal threats, evidence of which was the massacre this week of schoolchildren by the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamic terrorism has mutated: to many places in the Middle East; to Africa, where it afflicts many countries in the northern part of the continent, such as Nigeria and Mali; to conflicts within troubled parts of Russia and China; and, of course, to isolated incidents of "lone wolves" in otherwise peaceful countries, such as Canada and Australia.

It is an outgrowth of a centuries-old struggle between different interpretations of Islam, and manifests itself in violent conflicts between and within Islamic states, which then extend to enemies further away, such as Western countries.

The United States, having thus far expended a trillion or so dollars in Afghanistan, seems inexorably drawn into these intra-Islamic disputes that will cost huge amounts of additional money. They would never say so, but it must greatly please the Chinese, sitting on so much money, to see the United States, with its large indebtedness, sinking so much money for such little positive purpose in these endeavours. The U.S. has at long last decided to end the silly sideshow of sanctions on Cuba.

It was not a very good period for democracy either. Thailand reverted to military rule, again. Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, showed increasing signs of authoritarianism with media figures being charged and jailed. Russia, of course, has become a de facto one-party state with media and big business linked to the Kremlin. Repression of even minor dissent in China intensified (to say nothing of Hong Kong).

There were, by contrast, some bright spots to offer some festive cheer.

Former Polish president Donald Tusk became head of the European Council, a fitting recognition of that country's impressive economic and political gains. In a continent of struggling countries, Poland stands out as one going entirely in the right direction – as do the Baltic states.

In South America, the Pacific countries of Colombia, Peru and Chile all kept going in the right direction, with fair elections providing new governments in Colombia and Chile. They (with Mexico) are further integrating trade relations and mobility of people.

As for Canada, well, the defence budget is being cut, procurement remains close to a shambles, the foreign aid budget has been frozen (which means a decline in real terms) and the Foreign Affairs department has been hollowed out and is largely demoralized under the Harper government.

Rhetoric filled the gaps.