Thirteen Developments that Defined 2016


Of the many words one might use to describe 2016, “predictable” would probably not be among them. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton were just two outcomes that many folks, myself included, had regarded as inconceivable. But Graham Allison reminds us that “assertions about what is ‘imaginable’ or ‘conceivable’…are propositions about our minds, not about what is objectively possible.” Among my New Year’s resolutions, then, is summarily rejecting any claim that a given outcome definitely will or definitely will not occur, and being more humble about the limits of my understanding and the soundness of my predictions.

Below, in chronological order, are 13 developments that made 2016 one of the most interesting and consequential years of the new century.

#1: The Taliban continued its comeback in Afghanistan. The Washington Post reported late last December that the Taliban “now holds more territory than in any year since 2001.” The group’s resilience has also afforded foreign fighters an opportunity to establish their presence in Afghanistan; the New York Times noted this month that about 30 percent of Afghan territory is now contested, with a range of groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, incubating in the vacuum. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan observed that “[o]f the 98 U.S.- or UN-designated terrorist organizations around the globe, 20 of them are in the Af-Pak region.  This is the highest concentration of the numbers of different groups in any area in the world.” U.S. observers will long debate the prescriptive import of the Taliban’s resurgence. Some will attribute it primarily to the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Others will contend that it is yet another reminder of the limits to military power in achieving desired political outcomes.

#2: North Korea’s nuclear progress accelerated. On March 9, just over two months after conducting its fourth nuclear test, the regime claimed it had miniaturized a warhead that can be fitted to a ballistic missile. Given its penchant for hyperbole, it is appropriate to greet its pronouncements of technological progress with skepticism. Still, warned Bonnie Glaser, “with every test, the North Koreans are going to learn something and they’re going to make progress.” If Pyongyang ultimately succeeds in mating a warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile, it could pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. In the interim, noted Siegfried Hecker, the regime’s “likely ability…to put nuclear weapons on target anywhere in South Korea and Japan and even on some U.S. assets in the Pacific greatly complicates the regional military picture.” Hecker estimated that North Korea could possess “a stockpile of sufficient fissile material for approximately 20 bombs” by year’s end. While the United States remains the world’s preeminent power, its policy options for countering North Korea’s various threats run an ever-shrinking continuum from bad to catastrophic.

#3: Venezuela’s economy and politics devolved into chaos. On May 12, a day before the government declared a 60-day state of emergency, Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro observed that Venezuela was experiencing “the kind of implosion that hardly ever occurs in a middle-income country like it outside of war.” Its mortality rate is soaring, public services are collapsing, inflation is skyrocketing, and the incidence of violent crime is surging. The Financial Times reported this month that Venezuela is experiencing “the world’s deepest recession and fastest inflation.” While Nicolás Maduro’s mismanagement of government finances has been an important contributor to the country’s woes, the precipitous decline in crude oil prices has compounded them. That figure has rebounded — it is now hovering around $50 per barrel, compared to $30 at the beginning of this year — but it is still a far cry from its June 2014 level of $114 per barrel. It would be premature to predict the collapse of Maduro’s government; Zimbabwe has endured roughly two decades of far worse hyperinflation. Still, given that oil accounts for roughly half of government revenue, Venezuela will find itself increasingly strained; it recently announced that it would eliminate the 100-bolivar bill, only to scrap the plan after widespread protest.

#4: Britain voted to exit the European Union. With that decision on June 23, the opening salvo in a wave of populism that has swept through much of Europe, the European Union lost its erstwhile diplomatic anchor and roughly a sixth of its economic output. Brexit casts further doubt not only on the possibility of negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, but also on the resilience of the transatlantic project itself, which has anchored the postwar order for over seven decades. It is ironic that the 25th anniversary of the Cold War’s conclusion coincides with growing concerns about European cohesion, which was supposed to be one of the greatest inheritances of the “new world order.” Germany faces growing pressure to function as a bulwark against the populist tide, with a recent assessment venturing that Angela Merkel “has emerged as the last powerful defender of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance.”

#5: The United States and China ratified last December’s COP21 agreement. Their joint step on September 3 was a landmark achievement. Accounting for some 40 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases, the two countries must work together for collective action against climate change to have any hope. Given the growing intensity and multiplicity of strategic mistrust between Washington and Beijing, climate cooperation offers a rare proof of concept that the world’s two foremost powers can collaborate to address the world’s central challenges. Orville Schell observed last July that “[t]he threat of climate change presents both countries with, paradoxically, a fortuitous area of common interest that could catalyze the ‘new kind of major-power relationship’ that Mr. Xi has called for.”

Another potential area of cooperation between the United States and China involves the Middle East, whose cataclysmic reordering is unlikely to resolve itself for several generations. While the former’s dependence on crude oil from the region is diminishing, the latter’s reliance is projected to increase for the next two decades or so. The most immediate focus of their partnership should be to safeguard crucial maritime chokepoints from regional convulsions — especially the Strait of Hormuz, through which approximately 30 percent of the world’s seaborne-traded oil passes.

#6: Nigeria’s humanitarian condition deteriorated. U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer warned on September 8 that it is on the brink of “a famine unlike any we have ever seen anywhere.” Nigeria should be Africa’s posterchild: It is the continent’s most populous country and possesses its second-largest economy. But Boko Haram’s seven-year insurgency in the northeast has wreaked havoc, leaving some 20,000 dead and displacing roughly 3.5 million others. The Washington Post reported in October that about 1.5 million of them “are living in makeshift camps, bombed-out buildings, and host communities, receiving minimal supplies from international organizations.” The others are cut off from humanitarian aid because Boko Haram fighters “control their villages or patrol the surrounding areas.” UNICEF warned this month that of the 400,000 Nigerian children who will risk starvation next year, 80,000 will die if they do not receive treatment.

The end of the year brought a glimmer of home: The Nigerian government claimed it had driven Boko Haram from its final stronghold, deep within the Sambisa Forest. But celebration may be premature. An individual purporting to be the group’s leader made a 25-minute video denying the announcement, and the Associated Press noted that “[a]lready, there are reports that the insurgents have been regrouping in Taraba and Bauchi states, south of their northeastern stronghold in Borno state.”

#7: The Philippines made a public, decisive strategic shift towards China. On September 12, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Mindanao. He has subsequently made several other declarations in this vein, most recently stating that the Philippines would abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement it signed with the United States in 1998. While his colorful rhetoric and volatile temperament may lend themselves to ridicule, his reorientation towards China may portend a more fundamental realignment in the Asia-Pacific’s strategic balance. On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled unanimously in favor of the Philippines, which had filed a case with the tribunal in January 2013 opposing several of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; most importantly, the tribunal found “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights within the ‘nine-dash line.’” Remarkably, Duterte said he would “set aside the arbitral ruling.” His reasoning? “Because the politics here in Southeast Asia is changing.”

As China’s economic centrality to the Asia-Pacific grows, other countries in the region — even those that are less sympathetic to China than the Philippines under Duterte — may decide to temper, if not altogether subordinate, their own strategic preferences in the hopes of securing continued Chinese trade and investment.

#8: The “forgotten war” in Yemen intensified. Since last March, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of Arab countries against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Middle East’s most impoverished country. On October 8, a coalition strike killed 140 mourners at a funeral hall in the capital city of Sana, generating an international outcry and prompting the Obama administration to announce that it would initiate “an immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Yemenis have perished in the country’s civil war and millions are displaced. Meanwhile, UNICEF’s acting representative in Yemen stated this month that malnutrition among children there “is at an all-time high,” with some 2.2 million acutely malnourished and in need of urgent care. This week, the Washington Post summarized the economic damage Yemen has sustained: “More than 200 businesses have been damaged or destroyed by airstrikes….Yemen’s economy shrank by 34.6 percent last year, according to UN estimates, and is expected to contract an additional 11 percent this year.”

#9: Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the U.S. President-elect. His victory will have profound implications for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. It is impossible to know — and, many observers believe, unwise to pronounce on — what agenda he will pursue. Will it reflect a coherent “America First” worldview? Will it proceed on an ad hoc, transactional basis? Will it emerge from a complex, ongoing competition between his advisors? The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright has thought deeply about the origins of Trump’s approach to world affairs, and is widely respected for the nuance and temperance of his analysis. We should take note, then, when he concludes that “[f]or the first time, America will have a president who rejects” America’s commitment to sustaining a liberal world order. “Trump is not unchallenged,” Wright notes, “and there are few who share his vision. But he is poised to revolutionize U.S. foreign policy nevertheless.”

#10: The Trans-Pacific Partnership failed. The Obama administration conceded on November 11 that the TPP had no viable path forward. Most economists suspect that it would only have generated modest economic gains for the United States. Given how much strategic weight the administration had assigned to the deal’s passage, though — and how sternly its regional allies had warned that the TPP’s failure would undermine its perch in the Asia-Pacific — the symbolism of its defeat was compelling. Even stalwart U.S. partners are now racing to conclude negotiations over China’s alternative arrangement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Given the number and ambition of China’s economic initiatives — whether RCEP, the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, or “One Belt, One Road” — the United States will find it difficult to sustain its long-term position in the region unless it can reinvigorate its geoeconomic statecraft there. Compounding that challenge are the disintegration of the Middle East and the fraying of the European project, both of which have accelerated significantly in the five years since the Obama administration formally announced the rebalance.

#11: Colombia’s Congress passed a revised peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces Group. In an early October surprise, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a proposed deal to end their country’s 52-year-old civil war. ; “No” voters contended that the agreement was too forgiving of rebel atrocities. The New York Times explained last month that the present agreement, approved on November 30, “offers some clarity over what to expect as rebels accused of various offenses, including war crimes and drug trafficking, go before a special court,” and “bans them from running in newly created districts in former conflict zones.” The termination of the lone remaining armed conflict in the Americas is a victory not only for peace in the Western hemisphere, but also for the belief that seemingly intractable conflicts may yet be resolved.

#12: South Korea’s National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye. With its resounding 234-56 vote on December 9, the Assembly introduced considerable turmoil into America’s relationship with South Korea, especially amid speculation about the approach President Trump will take toward North Korea and the ambivalence he has expressed about some of America’s longstanding alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based nonresident fellow with Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, ventured recently that now is the first time “when you have had simultaneous uncertainty about governance in both Seoul and Washington.” President Park had advocated more stringent U.N. sanctions on North Korea, presided over a military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, and accepted the deployment of a U.S.-constructed anti-ballistic missile defense system. Her successor is likely to scrutinize all of those policies.

#13: The Assad regime seized the strategic advantage in the Syrian Civil War. To many in the West, the fall of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo highlights the ongoing failure of collective action to counter humanitarian disasters and avert state failure. The Financial Times remarked that “[t]o many [observers], it felt they were watching the international order collapse. World leaders who had condemned atrocities in Syria for years had little to say about the end of the most dramatic siege of the war.” Assad’s conquest of Aleppo also represents a potent symbolic win for Vladimir Putin, who, despite presiding over a country that is objectively declining in many respects — witness its economic condition and demographic outlook — has succeeded in projecting Russian influence far beyond the Baltic region.

Late this week, a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey came into effect. Crucially, Reuters reported, it is “the first ceasefire deal reached without the involvement of the United States or the United Nations.” It stemmed from consultations earlier this month between Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran, which virtually assure that Assad will continue to rule in Syria. Having regained control of Aleppo, he now has far more leverage over the country’s assorted rebel groups than he did five years earlier.

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More so than most years, 2016 defies reductionist narratives. It has given us much to mourn: witness the destruction of Aleppo and the plight of civilians in Yemen. It has given us much to fear: North Korea’s increasing atomic brinkmanship and the prospect of famine in Nigeria. And it has given us much to ponder: How will the Middle East’s present disintegration end? How will Europe manage nationalist upheavals? How will the United States and China manage their competition in the Asia-Pacific? While the world has never been as orderly or certain as we sometimes like to remember, disorder and uncertainty do seem to be growing more pronounced. Edward Luce memorably observed in early 2014 that “[a]fter America comes multipolarity—not China. The question is, what type? Will it be based on a system of U.S.-framed global rules?  Or will it be ‘après moi, le deluge’?”

I find it sobering that only two of the 13 events I picked (#5 and #11) are cause for celebration. But I also try to remind myself that good news generates far fewer headlines than bad news, partly because it tends to manifest in long-term trends, not discrete episodes. Charles Kenny, an ever-abundant source of informed optimism about the state of the world, noted last month that the rate of extreme poverty continues to decline, while life expectancy continues to rise. The world is also achieving great progress in tackling infectious diseases and making renewable sources of energy more scalable. And while the rate of wartime deaths has increased slightly in recent years, largely due to the horrors in Syria, it is far lower than it was during the allegedly peaceful days of the Cold War.

That these developments often go unnoted does not minimize their importance; it does mean, however, that our diagnosis of the world is likely to be off the mark unless we occasionally permit ourselves a respite from the day’s events and take the long view. David Rothkopf penned an essay this month in which he observed:

[T]he story of human history is one of continuous progress, and we don’t just live in a moment in which this is ongoing—we live in a moment when progress is inexorably accelerating.

While 2016 was a year of pronounced upheaval, it was also one of inspiring achievements. I suspect that this paradoxical duality — the coexistence of greater disorder and greater progress — will be among the defining characteristics of this century. Our task is to ensure that the former phenomenon does not undermine the latter. On that note, we should heed Rothkopf’s conclusion: “Optimism is not outlandish—it is required.  Realism equals optimism.”  I am hard-pressed to think of a better mantra for 2017 — or any new year, for that matter.


Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

Image: Public Domain