Stories began appearing midway through 2016 asking whether it was the worst year ever. It wasn’t. It’s wasn’t even the worst year in the last half century. (Try 1968. Or 1974. Or 1979.) But 2016 certainly experienced its share of significant world events. Here are my top ten. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories will continue into 2017.
Colombia Strikes a Peace Deal
If at first you don’t succeed, find another way to get the job done. Colombian President Juan Santos took this advice to heart. He first won election back in 2010 while promising to continue Colombia’s 50-year-old fight against the Marxist guerilla group, the FARC. Once in office he changed his mind. Years of peace talks finally culminated with the announcement on August 25, 2016: The two sides had agreed on six negotiating points, and a national referendum would be held to approve the deal. Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, led critics who assailed the deal for its leniency towards the FARC. Polls predicted that the “yes” vote would carry easily.
But Colombians voted down the deal. Santos, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the agreement, proceeded to hammer out a new deal. Unveiled on November 24, 2016, it toughened some of the provisions on FARC members. But the biggest change was dropping the requirement for a national referendum. With no need for the public to vote, the Colombian Congress approved the deal a week later. Colombians now hope the deal works; the conflict with the FARC has killed nearly a quarter million people.
Brazil and South Korea Impeach Their Presidents
Pro tip for democratically elected politicians: avoid scandals.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and South Korean President Park Geun-hye both missed that memo. Rousseff thought that 2016 would be a year of political triumph as Brazil prepared to host the Olympics for the first time. Instead, an underperforming economy and a massive scandal at Petrobras, the state oil company she once headed, helped drive her approval rating down to 13 percent. Rousseff was not implicated in the Petrobras scandal itself. Instead, her opponents charged her with cooking the books in 2014 to hide Brazil’s growing fiscal deficits and ensure her reelection. In August, the Brazilian Congress sent her packing.
In South Korea, Park came under fire in October when news broke that a long-time friend had used their friendship to influence government decisions and extort money from Korean companies. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans hit the streets to demand Park’s impeachment. In December, the South Korean National Assembly acted on the people’s wishes. She is now suspended from the presidency while South Korea’s Constitutional Court reviews the National Assembly’s decision.
The jury is still out on whether and how fast Brazil and South Korea will respond to their political upheavals. The stakes are high. Brazil and South Korea are the ninth and eleventh-largest economies in the world, respectively, and South Korea sits across a major geopolitical fault line.
Eastern Aleppo Falls
What begins with promise can end in tragedy. When Syrians revolted in March 2011, it looked for a time that Bashar al-Assad would be swept from power. His Alawite-dominated government initially lost considerable territory to rebel groups. But by ordering the use of barbaric tactics that included chemical weapons and barrel bombs, Assad eventually managed to stem the losses.
With Russia’s direct intervention in the conflict in September 2015, Syrian forces went on the offensive. In June 2016, they launched a massive operation to capture rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city. A September ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States collapsed almost immediately. Despite gut-wrenching photos and videos, Syria and Russia declined to end their assault on the city. Meanwhile, neither the United States nor any other country compelled them to stop the “worst humanitarian catastrophe in a generation.” On December 15, a deal was struck allowing the remaining rebel forces—along with many residents—to evacuate the city.
Aleppo’s fall does not end the Syrian civil war, which has killed as many as half-a-million people and forced another 11 million people from their homes. Much of the eastern part of Syria remains in rebel hands. Even as Aleppo fell, the Islamic State recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from Syrian and Russian troops. The tragedy continues.
The Coup in Turkey Fails
Social media can be a powerful tool. Case in point: the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey.
Around midnight, local time, a faction of Turkish troops moved to overthrow the increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in order, they said, to “reinstate constitutional order.” The coup that almost no one saw coming looked to be succeeding at first. Erdogan, who was vacationing at the lovely seaside town of Marmaris, was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, he appeared on TV screens across the country. Using the FaceTime app on an iPhone, he called on his fellow citizens to turn back the coup. Turks responded. Thousands took to the streets, and by morning military forces loyal to the government had regained control. Erdogan blamed Fethullah Gülen, a former political ally living in self-exile in Pennsylvania, for the coup, and demanded his extradition. Washington declined to grant the request in the absence of definitive evidence, angering Ankara, and fueling conspiracy theories that the United States encouraged the coup, straining U.S.-Turkish relations.
Back at home, Erdogan launched a massive purge of suspected “Gulenists” that subsequently spread to target government critics of any stripe. More than 100,000 officials have been arrested or fired, an array of media outlets have been closed or punished, and prominent Kurdish politicians have been arrested. Erdogan emerged from the coup far stronger politically. Turkey’s democracy emerged far weaker.
Rodrigo Duterte Becomes President of the Philippines
Foreign policy seldom shapes elections, but elections certainly shape foreign policy. Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippines presidency in May with 39 percent of the vote, and quickly changed how Manila does business. A man of bluster and bravado with a strong anti-American streak, he distanced the Philippines from Washington, a country that Filipinos overwhelmingly like and that has a treaty of alliance with the Philippines. In Tagalog, Duterte called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore,” announced he would seek a “separation” from the United States, and said that U.S. troops must leave the Philippines within two years.
The main beneficiary of Duterte’s anti-Americanism has been China, a country that many Filipinos dislike. After an international tribunal rejected China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea in a much-anticipated legal case initiated by the Philippines, Duterte said the ruling would “take the back seat” as he sought Beijing’s favor. Duterte has yet to take any irrevocable steps, so perhaps he is playing the two powers off against each other. While the vigilante campaign he has encouraged against drug addicts and traffickers hasn’t hurt his popularity at home, it could be a major thorn in U.S.-Philippines relations. The campaign, which has killed at least 4,000 people, has been condemned internationally. (Duterte claims that he once killed criminals “personally” when he was mayor of Davao.) Should Duterte realign Manila’s foreign policy, it will remake East Asia’s geopolitical landscape.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Flops
It can be a quick ride from the penthouse to the outhouse. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) began in 2016 with considerable fanfare. The deal, which took seven years to negotiate, was the largest regional trade deal in history and a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia. But the deal came under fierce attack from both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. The Obama administration held out hope that Congress might pass the TPP in a lame-duck session of Congress.
But Donald Trump’s election torpedoed what had likely been wishful thinking all along. The 11 countries that joined with the United States to sign the TPP are now left scrambling to figure out what to do next. Many foreign policy experts say the big winners in the wake of TPP’s demise are not American workers but China, which now gets a shot at writing the rules that will govern trade in the most dynamic region in the global economy. The even bigger danger is that trade liberalization, which the United States spearheaded and which helped drive growth around the globe, may now be in retreat, with unforeseen consequences for countries around the world.
North Korea Conducts Missile and Nuclear Tests
What do you do when you kick the can down the road and then run out of road? That’s a question the United States could soon be facing. For more than two decades, Washington has pressed Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program. But North Korea continues to forge ahead. In January, it conducted its fourth nuclear test since 2006, and followed that up with a series of ballistic missile tests. Then on September 9, it conducted its fifth nuclear test, producing an explosive yield of 10 kilotons, the highest recorded so far.
Contrary to Pyongyang’s claims, North Korea probably hasn’t mastered the technology needed to build a hydrogen bomb. It is also likely several years away from being able to mate a nuclear bomb with a missile capable of reaching the United States with a high probability. However, North Korea can already strike Japan and South Korea. In July, Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy the THAAD advanced missile defense system in South Korea. Washington also worked with Beijing on a tougher UN Security Council resolution that capped exports of North Korean coal, the country’s main source of hard currency. But so far Pyongyang hasn’t changed its tune. As a result, President Obama has reportedly told President-elect Trump that North Korea should be the top priority for his administration.
Britain Votes to Leave the European Union
Treat poll results with a grain of salt. That’s one of the lessons of Britain’s June referendum on leaving the EU.
Polls (and the betting markets) all showed a narrow victory for “Remain.” Instead, Britons voted 52 to 48 percent for “Leave.” The vote highlighted Britain’s fundamental divisions: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain, as did younger, more educated, and more urban voters, while England, Wales, and older, less educated, and rural voters opted for Leave. The vote ended the political career of Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for the referendum in the first place. Theresa May, a member of the Remain camp, emerged from the resulting scrum within the Conservative Party to become Britain’s new prime minister. She immediately made clear that “Brexit means Brexit.”
But that is easier said than done. The British government is split over what terms it should ask for in its divorce from the EU. If a November court ruling stands, the British parliament will have to vote to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and thereby formally start the process of leaving the EU. May says she wants to do that by March, but the Dutch, French, and German governments all stand for election in 2017. They likely won’t decide on what they will be willing to offer Britain until after their voters have spoken. So expect several more chapters in the “Brexit” saga, with the potential for a few surprising plot twists—and Scotland’s possible departure from the United Kingdom.
Russia Interferes in the U.S. Presidential Election
The U.S. intelligence community agrees that Russian operatives hacked email systems belonging to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. They then passed along what they stole to WikiLeaks to release. The hacking was carried out by groups nicknamed “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear,” both of which appear to work for the GRU, Russia’s intelligence agency. The FBI notified a low-level DNC contract employee working on tech support about hacking activity in September 2015. The contractor did little with the information, and the FBI made little effort to get the attention of any more-senior officials at the DNC. WikiLeaks first began releasing the thousands of pilfered emails in July 2016. They revealed embarrassing communications among Clinton aides, potentially hurting her with voters. In October, U.S. officials publicly blamed the Russian government. The initial charge was that Russia was trying to create turmoil in the election and thereby damage American democracy.
However, news leaked recently that the CIA had concluded with “high confidence” that Russia had acted to help elect Trump and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally authorized the operation. The FBI subsequently concurred with that conclusion. Trump dismissed claims that Russia acted to help him as “ridiculous,” and asked why the hacking wasn’t “brought up before [the] election.” (It was.) Obama ordered an investigation and vowed “to take action” against Russia. Congressional leaders are calling for an investigation but disagree on who should conduct it. Stay tuned. This story is likely to be with us for a while.
Donald Trump Wins the U.S. Presidency
Donald Trump got the last laugh. From the moment he announced his long-shot presidential bid on June 16, 2015, political experts dismissed his chances. But on November 8, Americans elected him the 45th president of the United States. He now belongs to a select group: he is one of just five presidents to win the office while losing the popular vote. He is also the first president with no prior experience either in government or the U.S. military.
Candidate Trump vowed to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, threatened to tear up major U.S. trade agreements, questioned the utility of America’s alliances, and generally denounced U.S. foreign policy as it has been practiced by both parties over the past three decades. Friends and foes alike now wonder what this “America First” foreign policy will look like in practice. Great-power politics could see the biggest changes; Trump promises a tougher line with China and a softer line with Russia. His efforts on the latter score could set off infighting within Republican ranks, especially in the wake of the CIA’s conclusion that the Kremlin worked to help him win the presidency. In all, the odds are good that President Trump’s foreign policy decisions will dominate the news in 2017, and possibly redefine America’s relations with the world.
Other Stories of Note in 2016
In January, Iran severed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia after the Saudis executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. In February, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met in Cuba, the first time the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches sat down together in nearly 1,000 years. South Africa, Gambia, and Burundi, announced that they intend to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. Terrorists launched major attacks in Nice, Belgium, Pakistan, and Orlando. South Sudan’s civil war intensified. The release of the Panama Papers in April exposed how some wealthy people hide their money offshore. The Zika virus emerged as a major global health threat. In October, Iraqi forces, aided by Kurdish troops and guided by U.S. Special Forces, launched an offensive to reclaim Mosul. Matteo Renzi, who burst onto the political scene back in 2014 as Italy’s youngest prime minister, resigned in December after voters decisively rejected his plan to revamp Italy’s political system. The same weekend Italian voters went to the polls, Austrian voters chose Green Party candidate Alexander van der Bellen rather than Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer as their next president, thereby saving Austria from the stigma of becoming the first European country since World War II to make a far-right candidate head of state. 2016 will likely go down in the books as the hottest year on record—at least until next year.
Bardia Vaseghi and Jonathan Levitt assisted in the preparation of this post.
This post appears courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations.