By the end of the year, 2016 had accrued a list of international crises, celebrity deaths and electoral shenanigans so long that a spate of articles appeared questioning whether it was the worst year ever, while social media appeared to be primarily filled with people asking “Is 2016 over yet?” But at least in the realm of foreign policy, there’s little hope that 2017 will bring much respite.
It would, of course, take an extraordinarily narrow view of history to argue that 2016 was really the worst year on record. That would require one to overlook 1942-3, the height of Second World War barbarity, or 1914, the year when the “war to end all wars” began. 1968 wasn’t that great, either, bringing us the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the crushing of the Prague Spring, Vietnam War massacres, and a plane accident involving four nuclear bombs. Or if you want to go back further in history, it’s pretty hard to ignore 1347, the year the Black Death reached Europe.
But 2016 did present an impressive series of foreign policy and political disasters, ranging from a coup in Turkey to Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process to terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Russian and Syrian government troops finally succeeded in crushing opposition in Aleppo at massive humanitarian cost. And crises that in any other year would have been front page news – like North Korean missile tests or worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were sidelined in favor of more urgent crises.
2016 also saw a global surge in populism, with the election of bluntly anti-establishment politicians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, and the surprising victory of pro-Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union. Indeed, one of the few positive foreign policy events of the year – Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC, ending a 50-year conflict – was almost derailed when voters rejected the deal at the ballot box.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that 2017 will substantially improve matters. Many of this year’s crises will in fact carry over into next year: the war in Syria continues apace, Brexit negotiations are ongoing, and North Korea is likely to continue its saber rattling. Worse, some of this year’s less visible crises have the potential to deteriorate further, like the war in Yemen or Venezuela’s economic and social collapse.
More broadly, the overarching trends that defined much of the foreign policy landscape in 2016 look set to continue for the foreseeable future. Populism is likely to impact next year’s key European elections. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front looks likely to do well, as does Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland. In the Netherlands, anti-EU sentiment has some speculating that March’s election could precipitate a ‘Nexit’ from the EU.
The complexity of this year’s crises – and the broader shift towards a more multipolar international system – also looks set to continue. This will create challenges for U.S. policymakers, who may have to seek cooperation with states like Russia or China on key issues at the same time as opposing them on others. And authoritarian backsliding by countries within U.S. alliances, most notably Turkey, raises key questions about what U.S. security guarantees in some areas actually achieve.
Still, as one cliché points out: “Prediction is hard, especially the future.” This pessimistic view of foreign policy in 2017 may well turn out be inaccurate. It simply seems unlikely given the growing global trends which precipitated many of this year’s big foreign policy surprises. Pretty soon, we may be asking if 2017 is over yet.