The phrase “turning point” is overused, but future historians are likely to view the year 2016 as exactly that. The standout event was Donald Trump’s surprise victory. The produced a shock that reverberated around the world. The billionaire’s White House tenancy begins on 20 January. Many will dub that date Black Friday, fearful that Trumpism may irreparably damage international security, environmental protection and human rights. Others will see it as a sign of welcome change. It will be a year of living dangerously.
Yet 2016 was remarkable for many other reasons – good and bad. The fightback against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq gathered pace, even as from Nice to Jakarta. A , ending the world’s longest-running insurgency. The European Union was thrown into confusion by Britain’s vote to leave. The .
Elections and referendums
Trump’s protectionist, brought into question the inevitability of globalisation, suggesting a return to a pre-1939 age of economic nationalism, punitive tariffs, trade barriers, controls on movement of labour and capital, closed markets and minds.
Many hope Trump will take a more pragmatic, less iconoclastic line. But he questioned the usefulness of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and Nato. He cast doubt on key security alliances in Asia. Trump also .
Trump’s stated support for the unilateral waging of war, for authoritarian governance, , indefinite detention without trial, and religious and racial profiling of immigrants and refugees could, if copied, destroy the universal legal and human rights protections erected via the UN system since 1945.
The first world leader Trump spoke to after his victory was Egypt’s military coup leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, giving a chilling insight into his priorities.
Britain’s narrow 52%-48% referendum vote in June in favour of leaving the EU was unexpected. Many drew parallels with the US, saying similar nationalist, populist forces were at work, fuelled by .
If the British government’s timetable holds, , when the UK will formally file for divorce. Tough negotiations are expected, focused on freedom of movement (which Britain wants to curtail) and unfettered UK access to the single market (which other EU members oppose).
Divisions within Britain over Brexit can be expected to deepen, especially if , and, as expected, the . Political strains in Europe will further complicate the post-Brexit picture.
France will hold a presidential election in spring. , of the far-right National Front, is expected to do very well. Le Pen wants France to quit the EU and euro. Her main challenger is likely to be François Fillon, a Catholic Thatcherite, for the centre right. The Socialist president, François Hollande, will not stand for re-election. In the Netherlands’ March general election, the Islamophobe Geert Wilders could prove an influential warm-up act for Le Pen. Wilders advocates a Dutch “Nexit”.
Germany holds federal elections in September. Angela Merkel is seeking re-election for a fourth term as chancellor, but faces .
All this internal uncertainty may paralyse the EU in 2017 as it faces record refugee influxes, chronic eurozone weakness, threats from Russia and an uncertain partner in Washington. The fashionable idea that and become defender-in-chief of western liberal democracy looks like wishful thinking.
Conflicts and terrorism
Despite repeated UN attempts at peace, Syria’s civil war passed the five-year mark in 2016 and approached a bloody denouement. Russia’s intervention made a decisive difference. Western-backed rebels were pushed back. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad was encouraged to believe it could survive.
The siege of eastern Aleppo became a symbol of the suffering and brutality of the Syrian war. Children were killed or maimed in large numbers. Hospitals and schools were repeatedly hit and UN relief supplies were suspended after an . In September, the US, Britain and France staged a diplomatic protest at the UN security council, and threatening new sanctions. Moscow was unmoved. Backed by Assad’s other main ally, Iran, Russia claimed the west was supporting jihadi terrorists and pursuing illegal regime change. By year’s end, the battle for Aleppo appeared over as rebel resistance crumbled. The of wounded civilians began amid reports of renewed atrocities. Assad and Iran claimed “victory”. And fears grew that the civil war would be superseded by a new struggle between external forces for control of land and resources.
In Iraq, an . The , notwithstanding a , whose airstrikes are blamed for numerous civilian deaths. In Libya, a new threat from Isis emerged, centred on the late Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold in Sirte, prompting fierce fighting.
Isis was also active in Afghanistan, challenging the Taliban for control of rural areas. . More than 8,000 US troops are still based there, though Nato combat forces have left. Will Trump try to finish it in 2017, as Obama vainly tried to do in 2009? Or will he cut and run, leaving the Afghans to fight it out?
Trump says defeating Isis is his top priority abroad. He appointed , a former general who has claimed it is rational to fear Muslims, as national security adviser – one of several nominations of hawks to key posts. The thought that he could be tasked with fulfilling Trump’s pledge to “bomb the shit out of Isis” unnerved observers.
The year is likely to see a narrowing American focus on hitting Isis in the caliphate’s heartlands around Mosul and Raqqa in , where the jihadis are besieged by Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The Isis threat will persist, however. Western security agencies fear displaced jihadis could make their way in increasing numbers to Europe in 2017, bent on launching attacks like those in , which killed 32 people, and , in which 86 died. Jihadi websites celebrated Trump’s election, anticipating a surge in recruits.
Given this polarisation, the global spread of Islamist extremism is likely to continue. In Nigeria, , despite the freeing of many schoolgirls abducted in 2014.
Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh face continuing threats. In by home-grown jihadis targeting westerners and non-Muslims. In Quetta in October, more than 50 young police recruits .
Democracy and dictators
, Russia’s president, will keep his title of the west’s top bogeyman in 2017. Syria aside, Russia’s military build-up along its border with the Baltic republics, its meddling in Ukraine, and its covert political influence-peddling, disinformation campaigns and cyber warfare in eastern Europe are expected to accelerate.
Trump’s refusal to criticise Putin suggested the US and Russia may see some kind of and a return to the concept of “spheres of influence” – a prospect that deeply alarms many Nato states. Trump’s nomination of the added to the unease. If Trump tries another Russian “reset”, the likelihood is that Putin will take what he wants and leave the rest.
Putin has been building bridges to Xi Jinping, China’s president. This will create more headaches for the west in 2017. Xi has enlisted Russia’s support in conducting military “exercises” around disputed South China Sea islands, where Beijing is rapidly expanding its presence. China defied a 2016 deeming its activities illegal.
Even before taking office, Trump went on the offensive against China, and questioning the long-established One China policy, under which the US accepts Beijing’s sovereignty. Beijing’s response to Trump was initially angry yet restrained. But there were fears the Taiwan issue might escalate militarily in 2017.
Internally, Beijing’s harsh treatment of democrats seeking independence for Hong Kong mirrored what commentators called the biggest crackdown on civil rights and free speech in mainland since Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea’s paranoid regime increased regional tensions. This problem will possibly come to a head in 2017. Kim Jong-un, the country’s dictator, conducted an in September, the fifth and biggest, involving nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
In Tokyo, there were calls for Japanese rearmament. Trump suggested Japan and South Korea acquire nuclear weapons. His threat to tear up Obama’s 2015 pact with Iran that Tehran may seek to acquire nuclear weapons, sparking a regional arms race and confrontation between Iran and Israel. Like a mafia boss, Trump demanded Japan and South Korea pay more for US bases. In Seoul, . All this uncertainty suggests 2017 could be a problematic year for global nuclear non-proliferation efforts.
fared little better. The death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej further bolstered Bankok’s military junta.
In Myanmar, there was better news. Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran opposition leader, became the country’s de facto leader, appearing at the UN in September. But her reflected the fragility of her position.
The biggest regional upset was in the Philippines, where the foul-mouthed Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. Thousands of alleged gangsters and drug-dealers have since died in a . Duterte . Protests from the US and UN prompted him to , repudiating the long-standing US alliance.
In Latin America, the so-called “red tide” of leftwing governments receded amid civil unrest in Venezuela, the crime-ridden home of the late Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. From Argentina and Chile to Ecuador and Bolivia, the left was in retreat. In Brazil, the country’s first female president, . Exceptions were Nicaragua, where the veteran Sandinista Daniel Ortega was re-elected president; and . His visit seemed to confirm the Cuban revolution’s survival after bitter US enmity, although Trump may try to turn the clock back. . He was hailed as a historic figure and condemned as a tyrant. In Colombia, a , but continued to be honoured during a review.
In Africa, Burundi’s president followed his Rwandan counterpart in overturning the constitution and grabbing a third consecutive term in office, causing considerable instability. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni extended what looks like a presidency-for-life amid claims of poll fraud. In the , while the Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, ceded electoral defeat, then refused to step down.
Yet Africa’s democratic deficit was often unfairly exaggerated. In its 2016 report, Freedom House identified Nigeria, Liberia and Ivory Coast among countries experiencing . It also praised Botswana, Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin. When Africans consider the US in 2017, the self-appointed champion of democracy, they may feel blessed. Next time a western politician complains about Robert Mugabe’s depredations in Zimbabwe, the ready reply will be: just look at Donald Trump.