2014 has clearly not been a serene year for international politics. No, I believe we could think of it as a year of triple erosion, of one that has touched simultaneously upon domestic institutions, international norms and, indeed, the very words we use to describe them.
In the course of 2014 several world regions became more turbulent, bloody and unpredictable. In the Middle East the background for the spread ofthe so-called 'Islamic State' was formed not only by the continued crumbling of the old Arab dictatorships, but also by the definitive collapse of the American sponsored state-building project in Iraq. ISIS seems to have delivered the final nail into the coffin of the liberal interventionism doctrine. And, apparently, no one in the West has a clue on how exactly to define - let alone to tackle - this new international phenomenon that is quickly emerging on the ruins of secular Middle Eastern states.
In the post-Soviet area Russia bluntly violated the Budapest memorandum that promised territorial integrity to Ukraine. This comes as a death blow to the post Cold War European order - and also, in a sense, to the order established after World War II by the Helsinki accords, which guaranteed that borders in Europe would stay where they were. And even if we chose to think that the 2008 war in Georgia was not a game changer, then Ukraine certainly is. For other post-Soviet states, as well as for the European Union, geopolitical rivalry in the 'shared neighborhood' now clearly has a hard security dimension. On the margin, however, one could note that Russian annexations and interventions also happen against the background of international law having been seriously eroded by previous Western adventures in Iraq and the Balkans.
As with ISIS in the Middle East, Russia's predatory actions in Ukraine have revealed the multiple structural weaknesses in the Ukrainian state and nation-building projects. These are weaknesses for which Russia was not directly responsible. However, they could be put to good use by the cynical Kremlin 'realists'. Apparently, alongside the erosion of institutions and erosion of international norms that characterized these crises, we have also been witnessing an erosion of the very language used to describe international politics. We have now come to call ISIS a 'state' yet we know that this is very likely a misnomer or, at least, that it will never be a state to the same degree and in the same sense that Hussein's and Assad's postcolonial tyrannies have been states.
In turn, the Ukrainian conflict has yielded a whole cascade of misnomers and linguistic ambiguities. That starts with the very definition of the events as either 'crisis', Russia's 'hybrid war' against Ukraine or 'civil war'. Consider that observers were, for different reasons of their own, uncertain on how exactly to identify the militants in East Ukraine. The Ukrainian media, for instance, have been using the term 'terrorists' systematically, allowing the Ukrainian state to frame its military response as an 'anti-terrorist operation'. For sure, plugging into the anti-terrorist discourse is convenient. It dehumanizes the militants, and also precludes any possibility ofpolitical negotiations. Talking to terrorists can only be legitimate in order to save hostage lives, but not to discuss constitutional change like federalization or official language status.
As there is no end in sight for turbulence, I think we will be experiencing more and more of this problem. Not only institutions and norms but also words will continue to erode. Naming international politics will be an increasingly difficult and highly contested business, and competing attempts to define social reality will be mirroring the ongoing struggles for international power. All the more reasons for IR scholars to stay alert.