It will be a time of wars and willies. Lots of lovely news, in fact

A hiccup of history
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What, one may wonder surveying 1997, has happened to news? True, last year was a cracker for the British, if we measure it by our own contribution to newsworthy events on this planet. According to an annual poll by the Associated Press news agency of its newspaper subscribers, no less than three of the six biggest international stories were British-made. Top of the list, naturally, was the death of Princess Diana, followed by the handover of Hong Kong, and in sixth place, the election of Tony Blair. Not bad for an offshore island, containing only one hundredth of the world's population, at peace and without an external enemy in sight. But consider them again.

International news used to consist of events that were unexpected and dramatic, sometimes villainous, and which could shape the destiny of peoples and states. Diana's death though was ultimately merely that of a super- celebrity, however unexpected. The transfer of Hong Kong to China meets the destiny-shaping qualification, but it had been on the stocks for 13 years and went off exactly as planned. As for Mr Blair's victory, it may yet reshape our future. But once again, it was anything but unexpected. What happened to the coups, resignations, assassinations, natural disasters and wars of yesteryear? By that yardstick, 1997 looks a dud. Stability, you might think, is breaking out all over. Maybe we haven't reached the end of history, but during the last 12 months it sometimes felt like it.

One reason is that everything which now happens abroad comes as an anticlimax after the geopolitical upheavals of 1987 to 1991, which culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union. In truth however, it was business as usual in 1997 for coups, assassinations and wars (although it was a "poor" year for natural disasters). Alas, foreign news has not been the same since the end of the Cold War. Back then, small confrontations could have deadly potential consequences, and we cared. These days, even medium sized wars seem local matters. The planet remains a very violent place. But the majority of these wars are within states, not between them.

At the end of 1997, London's International Institute for Strategic Studies identified just nine old-style interstate conflicts (mostly border conflicts in Africa) compared with 19 "intrastate". These latter include full-blown civil wars such as those in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Rwanda but not the two dozen countries blighted by terrorism, among them nations such as Egypt where terrorism possibly could expand into civil war. What is missing is the old East-West dimension.

Last year, more than ever, changes in the economy and the environment, and exponential technological advance, set the pace, rather than the politicians who limped along in their wake. "Globalisation", financial collapse in Asia, El Nino and global warming are issues which transcend national frontiers and narrow national interests. The response of the politicians tended to be one large and unwieldy conference after another (among the 1997 specimens the industrial nations summit in Denver, the Pacific Rim confabulations in Vancouver, and of course Kyoto). A prize for anyone who remembers what specifically emerged from any one of them.

So maybe the Yankees baseball player and legendary bar-stool sage Yogi Berra is spot on with his mangled syntax: "The future ain't what it used to be." But all is not lost. Despite the changing forces which shape our world, we still belong to the quarrelsome human species, perennially aggressive and ever unsatisfied with its lot. The world is not the tedious place it seems. Indeed, 1998 has rich potential for news the way it used to be.

The most likely theatre for a new war is, as always, the Middle East, where the Israel/Arab conflict is virtually the last of the "old news" crises to have outlived the demise of the Cold War. Thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu, it may well turn into a hot one which could have direct implications for all of us, especially if it is fanned by an increasingly truculent Saddam Hussein, or if other combustibles such as Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt or Saudi Arabia enter the brew.

Closer to home too, things could get exciting. Maybe financial cataclysm from the Orient will dispel the unnatural aura of inevitability that has settled on the single currency, the most ambitious single step towards a united Europe since the Treaty of Rome 41 years ago. Next autumn, German voters have a chance to do what they have never done in the post-war history of their country, and throw out a chancellor at the ballot box. If they do elect a centre coalition after 16 years of Helmut Kohl, it would be a change no less momentous than the advent of New Labour here. 1998 too might be when Boris Yeltsin succumbs to ill-health and the actuarial science (at 66 he has already exceeded the average lifespan of the Russian male by seven years).

The most conceited country award for 1998 is likely to go to the US, basking not just in unchallenged military might but in economic supremacy too, as those once cocky Far Eastern tigers go to the wall. Certainly, America's growth may be dented by the travails of Japan, South Korea - who knows, of China too? But if the US sneezes, the rest of us will catch a worse cold. About the only hope of embarrassment (if not modesty) comes from Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against President Clinton, assuming it goes ahead as scheduled in May, attended by a press pack befitting a war. Already it is assured of being the year's Most Entertaining Event. If things were to stay quiet on other fronts, it could be The Event of 1998 tout court. First Diana, then the Presidential organ; thus the descent of news continues, from glossy tragedy to sordid farce.

What else? For Most Boring Event of 1998, the G-8 summit in Birmingham in May will be a prime candidate. If the lid can be kept on in the Middle East, the US may finally mend fences with Iran. For reasons I know not, I have a hunch that the horrors in Algeria will abate. Elsewhere though, the mayhem will continue, and the law of averages will ensure that 1998 is more newsy than 1997. That of course may cost us our place in the AP top six. But then again, maybe not. Not if we win the World Cup.