It's always dangerous to declare, "mission accomplished." Former U.S. president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week — "In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished" — nobody laughed.
A year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is taking us. Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.
"You recognize that you're going in blind...," Snowden told the Washington Post. "But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realize that some analysis is better than no analysis." So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.
As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain's Channel 4: "A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought." Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.
"The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it," Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity.
In Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less re-conquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.
In March, Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?
And in December a full-scale civil war broke out in South Sudan between the country's two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan.
The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world — except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.
The U.S went to the brink of bombing the regime's key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender his chemical weapons. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims.
What else? Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March. In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez's death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.
In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its 50 nuclear reactors (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 per cent to only 3.8 per cent).
In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang'e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.
Independent journalist Gwynne Dyer's articles are published in 45 countries.