The international situation in 2016 was unusually complicated and fast-moving, with extraordinary uncertainty, instability, disruption and drama. Black Swan events occurred in a stream, profoundly reshaping the world order, or the absence of it.
First, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant and anti-globalization populism spread unchecked in Europe and North America, with a surprising presidential election result in the US.
With weak economic recovery, Western developed countries suffer from wealth polarization, contraction of middle class and popular discontent. Intensified competition from emerging economies further troubles developed economies, which then fall back on positions in regard to economic globalization and free trade and seek more protectionism. In the EU, with refugees flooding in, xenophobia and far-right are on the rise and anti-EU public opinions grow. In the US, outsider Donald Trump defeated veteran politician Hillary Clinton in the presidential election on Nov 8. Behind ‘America first’ and ‘make America great again’ slogans, Trump preached protectionism, isolationism and hate for Muslims, deeply worrying the whole world.
Second, the Brexit referendum surprisingly resulted in more voters voting in favor of leaving the EU, which will have an impact on world order.
It will be hard to reverse the June 23 withdrawal referendum, which will have a far-reaching impact. With deep internal divisions, the strength and status of the UK might be weakened. If and when other countries follow suit, the EU will also be weakened.
Third, a turning point appeared in the Syrian meelee and in the great power rivalry in the Middle East. Russia moved forward while the US retreated.
Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly sent troops into Syria and increased investment. With Russian support, the Syrian army has not only contained the spread of ISIS but also gained the upper hand against opposition forces financed by the West. In December, it fully recovered Aleppo, a major town and rebel stronghold in the north. Meanwhile, the failed military coup attempt in Turkey last July was said to be linked to Fethullah Gulen, a US-based religious leader, creating another crack in US-Turkey alliance. To strengthen counter-terrorism efforts, Turkish President Erdogan moved closer towards Putin and relations with Russia markedly improved. The recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey will bring the two countries even closer. The Middle East is reorganizing itself, with US losing its influence and Russia catching up from behind.
Fourth, the ISIS was cornered and desperate, intensifying terrorist overreach in the whole world.
Being encircled and suppressed, ISIS has intensified its effort to penetrate more countries by way of refugee flows. It conducted terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Germany and Turkey, turning Europe pale at the mentioning of terrorism. Encouraged by ISIS expansion, various terrorist organizations in North Africa, West Africa and East Africa have also run rampant, America has suffered more lone wolf attacks and the Taliban has launched more attacks in Afghanistan.
Fifth, hotspots emerged one after another in the Asia Pacific and America attempted to steal the show.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea conducted two nuclear tests and launched a ‘satellite’ in an attempt to speed up mounting its nuclear weapons on missiles, causing new tension on the Korean Peninsula. The UN Security Council adopted two resolutions to sanction the DPRK. China proposed a dual-track approach to pursue in parallel peninsular denuclearization and conversion of the 1950s armistice to a peace mechanism. But the US smuggled in its selfish interests: It announced deployment of THAAD anti-missile systems in ROK on grounds of missile threats from the north. As this directly hurts China’s strategic security interest, China expressed firm opposition. Then ROK President Park Geun-hye had to relinquish power in December due to a corruption scandal. It seems that there will be more twists in Korean politics and diplomacy.
The US cooked up the so-called South China Sea arbitration filed by the Philippines and attempted to contain China by various other means. It tried to discredit and isolate China on grounds of maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, observance of international rules and opposition to South China Sea militarization. Then President Benigno Aquino III, initiator of the arbitration case, stepped down and Duterte, the new Philippine president, showed more independence. He resisted American interference in his country’s internal or diplomatic affairs and turned to China for mutually beneficial cooperation, crippling America’s ‘best plan’.
The year 2017 will be a year of great changes. Four major variables deserve our attention.
First, pursuit of selfish interest by Western powers may lead to stagnation or even reversal of the economic globalization trend. US President-elect Trump highly praises economic nationalism and trade and investment protectionisms and does not exclude trade frictions or even trade wars. Far-right political parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, National Front in France, and Alternative for Germany, are enjoying growing support as their respective national elections approach.
Second, major-power relations are reshuffling. Trump sees the US alliances as relationships in which America suffered losses. Because he has chosen a team that looks rather pro-Russian but not in close touch with China, it may be anticipated that US-Russia relations may be relaxing, while competition will become more salient in US-China “coopetition” game.
Third, war and chaos in the Middle East may well continue and the order or lack of it there will be recomposed. Trump has a Middle East policy different from that of Obama. There is no shortage in his team of people in favor of increased input in the region to address the ISIS threat first while having doubts on the Iranian nuclear deal. The US-Russia juggling may show a new posture or even the possibility of joint strike on ISIS.
Fourth, global governance will demonstrate new looks. Antonio Guterres, former Portuguese Prime Minister and former UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees, assumed the office of UN Secretary-General on Jan 1. The new US administration will have a passive or even negative attitude towards the Paris Climate Agreement and the US may well shirk its emission reduction responsibility and go back on its promises in this area.