“We have two classes of forecasters: Those who don’t know — and those who don’t know they don’t know”
— economist John Kenneth Galbraith
Needles and haystacks come to mind when scouting the planet for developments, trends, and patterns that promise outbreaks of peace, common sense, or even mere stability as we close the book on the old year and wait nervously for the arrival of 2019.
The year that expires tonight has been scored to a greater or lesser degree on almost all of our continents by conflict, threat, fear, and avoidable suffering, much of which has been inflicted on children.
At a time in this century when the only certainty seems to be uncertainty, firm predictions are unsafe, but there appears, as things stand, to be little to suggest that the political, economic, and social weather will be changing for the better in the months ahead.
The US House of Representatives — controlled now by Democrats — might vote to subject President Donald Trump to an impeachment trial in the Senate, where the Republican majority would work hard, while holding its nose, to keep him in the office he has done so much to debase.
Mr Trump, who hasn’t seen one international agreement signed by his predecessors that he hasn’t wanted to tear or shake up, is likely to have a further two years in which to create mayhem at home and confusion abroad.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin is a new tsar controlling expertly an entirely fake democracy that in reality is a gangster state impervious to sanctions imposed half-heartedly by the West — Germany’s dependence on Russian gas continues to grow — and determined to regain its superpower status.
Its 2019 new year gift to the world is the Avangard hypersonic missile. It’s 27 times faster than the speed of sound, carries megaton-class nuclear weapons, and, we are told, there is nothing in the armories of Nato’s major military powers — the US, Britain, and France — that can stop it.
Unlike Mr Putin, China President Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about the tedious business of fixing elections, since he’s been appointed dictator for life.
Unlike Mr Trump, Mr Xi thinks before he opens his mouth and doesn’t appear to rely solely on gut feeling, as important as that sometimes is in decision-making.
It’s likely he was at least amused when he heard Mr Trump had said, when rubbishing the work of the Federal Reserve: “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
Mr Xi’s aim is to make this China’s century, which will have major international trade and military consequences, especially for its nervous neighbour, Japan.
The good news from the Middle East this year — yes, there has been some — has been the success of an unprecedented international alliance in wiping the abominable IS caliphate off the map, albeit at horrifying human cost.
Led by the US, significant military and financial contributions to the alliance were made by, among others, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Turkey, and, often overlooked, Russia.
The coalition demonstrated the ability of countries with different traditions and outlooks to combine against a common foe with whom negotiation is impossible.
None of which, self-evidently, leaves us with a region that shines as an oasis of harmony.
IS no longer exists as a territorial power, but Mr Trump is wrong when he says it has been defeated. Islamic fascism and the jihadism it fosters remain a threat throughout the Middle East and far beyond.
A tangle of geo-political, Muslim and ethnic rivalries, meanwhile, will continue to beset Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, the latter being a state led in all but name by a man who appears to be at ease with the murder of a dissident in one of his own embassies, and who says women can now drive cars but arranges to have feminist campaigners arrested and imprisoned.
America’s understandable reluctance to scale down its military and diplomatic role in the region will encourage Russia to look for trouble beyond the base it has established in Syria.
What can Europe, as represented by the EU, do to in the quest for bridge-building solutions?
Based on its performance in 2018, one answer would be very little. It can claim reasonably that its focus has been Britain’s exit, but one way or the other that crisis will be resolved by the spring.
The UK will leave either with an exit agreement or without one.
If for whatever reason and by whatever legal means — given the exit date has been fixed in law — the decision to leave is reversed, it’s impossible to envisage a British government being minded or permitted by voters to play a constructive role in the union’s forums as some members, notably France and Germany under their current leaderships, continue their push towards ever closer union.
It’s also impossible to believe that all of the 32,000 people employed by the commission, plus the 7,500 on the payroll of the European Parliament, have been giving all of their time and attention to the Brexit problem.
Rough beasts are slouching towards Brussels.
The EU faces other equally pressing and damaging tensions, such as the fault lines in the economies of the single currency zone and the growth of popular far-right movements from the Netherlands to Poland and Greece and from Italy to Sweden.
President Emmanuel Macron’s answer, as the “gilets jaunes” put French cities to the torch, is more Europe, in the shape of a single EU finance minister and an EU army.
They are proposals tailor-made to fuel far-right nationalism and will be rejected by the current Eurosceptic governments in Italy, Austria, Poland, and Hungary.
Even Angela Merkel and her successor as German chancellor might find them steps too far and, regarding an EU army, simply too expensive.
All this, then, and no progress worth writing home about on climate change and attempts to control the tech giants whose codes and algorithms are, whatever politicians say or do, shaping our lives.
The world awaits, too, the outcome of Mr Trump’s bid to break the stand-off with North Korea.
If that results next year in getting nuclear weapons out of the peninsula and a peace treaty between its two halves, that really will be time to give Mr Trump a couple of cheers, though certainly not all three.