Year of extremes with Cuba back in the fold but Cold War returns in Europe.

Assumptions that President Barack Obama was a lame duck, counting down his last quarter after Republicans seized Congress in the November midterms, were confounded by several White House coups.

There was a climate change deal with China, a critical 21st-century partner; an end-run around moribund immigration reform to grant five million illegal Latinos temporary legal status, a big plug for Democrats in the 2016 presidential race; and an end-of-year surprise that normalised relations with Cuba after a half-century standoff, a move that delighted Latin America and dropped a bomb into the ranks of Republican 2016 hopefuls, unable to agree if this betrayed US principles or ended a Cold War relic and portended business opportunity.

But the Cold War, or something quite like it, was back in Europe, where Russian and Nato warplanes played brinkmanship, as President Vladimir Putin kicked back against punishing sanctions imposed after Moscow seized the Crimea from Kiev and gave more-or-less open support to rebels in eastern Ukraine.

In the Middle East America's ill-fated Iraq adventure birthed Isis (Islamic State). The extremist group beheaded US journalists and other captives, posting executions on social media. The Obama Administration responded with bombing raids, beefed up its small force in Iraq and mounted unsuccessful rescue operations. Talks by the US, UK, China, Russia and Germany, to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons project, were extended.


At home the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture confirmed the agency had used "enhanced interrogation" - sometimes with medical compliance - and said torture did not produce firm intelligence. The CIA disagreed and former Vice-President Dick Cheney said "I'd do it again in a minute." Two former US Air Force psychologists, who set up and participated in the CIA programme, conducting key interrogations, earned US$81 million ($105 million). Drone strikes continued against CIA targets and a handful of inmates were released from Guantanamo Bay, leaving 132 in captivity.

Russia's plight was compounded by falling energy prices, from US$115 a barrel in June, to US$59 a barrel by mid-December. This seismic shift was helped by a US oil and natural gas hydraulic fracturing [fracking] boom, as Congress pondered whether to lift a 40-year ban on energy exports. Low inflation and cheap borrowing greased the economy, as the US posted its best growth, 5 per cent, since 2003. "America's resurgence is real," Obama said last week. But income inequality remained stark for millions of citizens.

Poverty mixed with racism caused tensions to spill over nationwide following the death of a young black man, Michael Brown, in August, in Ferguson, Missouri. A spate of similar deaths, where unarmed young black men also died at the hands of white police officers, fuelled protests and riots. "Hands up, don't shoot!" became a rallying chant.

Two New York police officers were killed in a revenge attack by a black gunman, sparking fears of wider retaliation. A 2014 Pew Research poll found black household median income was 59 per cent that of whites, while Republicans took political control of the Deep South, the Old Confederacy.

Immigration reform debate intensified in June when thousands of unaccompanied minors, fleeing violence in Central America, were detained at the US-Mexico border. As of August 31, 66,142 youngsters had been intercepted, an 88 per cent increase on 2013. Latinos make up 14 per cent of the US electorate, with some 50,000 turning 18 each month.

Despite relentless attacks by conservatives, millions of Americans signed up for "Obamacare," the President's signature 2013 domestic health care reform.

Perhaps the year's most bizarre event found perennial outsider North Korea accused of hacking Sony Pictures, releasing a trove of confidential emails and hijacking the Christmas release of The Interview, where a pair of hapless journalists are recruited by the CIA to kill Kim Jong Un. As Sony was castigated for caving to censorship, Obama sought Chinese help - a tricky challenge as the US indicted five alleged Chinese hackers in May - to punish the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea went off-line for nine hours and Sony agreed to give the comedy limited release in US cinemas.

Cyberspace remained a public-private battleground. America's desire to spy on Microsoft's offshore cloud ended up in court and a bill to rein in mass surveillance by the National Security Agency went nowhere. Edward Snowden stayed in Moscow. The producers of Citzenfour, a documentary about the whistleblower and an Oscar favourite, were targeted by a civil suit.


As Russia threatened to bar US astronauts from travelling to the International Space Station on Soyuz rockets, tech tycoon Elon Musk unveiled Dragon V2, which he hopes will ferry Americans to the ISS by 2016. Nasa's Orion spacecraft, unmanned but designed to carry four astronauts and replace the retired Space Shuttle, orbited Earth twice. Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, designed for tourists, exploded, killing a pilot. Nasa's Antares rocket also exploded. The X-37B space plane landed safely in California in October after 674 days in orbit. Its purpose remains a secret, amid speculation it could capture enemy satellites. Russia, India and China increased their presence in space, fuelling US worries about cyber-attacks.

Ebola shared public nightmare status with Isis after a man died of the virus in a Dallas hospital, raising pandemic fears. The US sent troops to West Africa to fight the outbreak and untested pharmaceuticals were used to counter Ebola, which has a 70 per cent death rate.

California remained locked in drought despite recent floods, as scientists warned at least some extreme weather events were linked to climate change.

New York state imposed a ban on fracking, amid concerns about water contamination and earthquakes in Oklahoma. Plans to extend the contentious XL Keystone pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska, and hence to Texas, to exploit Canada's vast tar sand oil deposits, stalled as Obama said it would generate few US jobs and exacerbate climate change.

Despite the usual platitudes of an imminent breakthrough, secret Trans-Pacific Partnership talks continued. In October, WikiLeaks released a TPP chapter about intellectual property, revealing wide disagreement about copyright and pharmaceuticals. Obama wants fast track authority from Congress to clinch any TPP deal, an uncertain prospect since the midterms.

Concerns about the veracity of a Rolling Stone story alleging a gang rape at the University of Virginia failed to dampen protest about sexual assault, with one study saying one in five female students were victims. Twenty-one women said they were raped by comedian Bill Cosby. The Supreme Court said most US companies do not have to provide employee insurance plans that include contraception, if companies have a religious objection. Nineteen states allowed gay marriage, taking the total to 35. Colorado began selling legal marijuana and other states look set to light up, too.

More money flowed into political campaigns, with US$4 billion spent in the midterms. The shadow of the 2016 presidential race loomed. Although no one has declared, many expect the contest will be a slugfest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush. Both face competition from within their own parties, Clinton from the left, Bush from the right.