Good riddance, 2016
As the year comes to an end, looking back might provide insights for the challenges ahead. 2016 will be remembered as a watershed year in the future for the international system. The unpredictability of change, fear of the unknown and the horrors of unabated violence around the world have stamped the year.
While the Middle East has maintained its leading position in terms of number of conflicts and spread of violence in the world, deadly terrorist attacks struck many countries, illustrating that there is no immunity from violence anymore or anywhere for anyone.
Besides the conflicts and terrorist attacks, the rise of populist and extremist groups in Europe and the United States, the historic Brexit referendum in Britain, the rampaging refugee flood toward Europe, cyberattacks between countries and across the world and soaring tension in the South China Sea punctuated the year.
The combined civil wars in Syria and Iraq continued to generate instability for the entire region and beyond. Although the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, with the support of Russia and Iran, has somewhat consolidated its position in parts of the country in the last few months, the prospects for the country are still very bleak. The failure to find a diplomatic solution and the complex nature of the conflict will continue to hound international politics for years to come.
The string of terror attacks in several European cities, including Paris, Brussels, Nice, Istanbul and Berlin, has spread the violence onto the continent. The combination of sleeper jihadist cells and the upsurge of populism across Europe has paved the way for further insecurity. The ongoing refugee crisis, despite its downward trend following the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, continues to fuel xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe, which plays into the hands of jihadist radicals and terrorists.
The most recent assault on a market place in Berlin on Dec. 19 again stirred up an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and xenophobic discourse, strengthening the hands of anti-establishment parties. While the general elections in several European countries in 2017 will show whether this populist trend will evolve into regime changes in Europe, there is no doubt that the liberal order is under severe attack globally.
We observed the same trend in the U.S. presidential elections, where Donald Trump was elected as the next president on Nov. 8. The U.S. has been trying to grapple with the growing polarization of society and increasing racism and social tensions within the country, as revealed by several police shootings of mainly black citizens across the country. Internationally, the new president will face an imbalanced and damaged international system, as well as a crumbling Middle East, a challenging Russia and an irritable China, which has recently kindled competition in the South China Sea. Thus, the world warily awaits the first bunch of policy choices of the incoming administration.
The internal disarray in the EU and the Brexit referendum will soon force U.K. leaders to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the exit process, which might also become the beginning of the end for the EU as we know it. Thus, what started as a bravado act and an appeasement tactic by incompetent politicians in the U.K. might have an everlasting impact on the entire continent. Combined with Trump’s reluctance to continue to bankroll European security, this might turn into a global system-changing lynchpin.
While there was plenty of bad news across the world throughout 2016, a glimmer of hope emerged with a peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, ending a 34-year conflict. One hopes that it might be replicated all around, though realism dictates otherwise.