Read Global Politics editor Alex Stephenson’s delectable commentary on the bizarre political events of 2016…
When I cast my mind back to my expectations in January 2016, I was cautiously optimistic about a year that promised immense political excitement. Cameron was still Prime Minister; Donald Trump was but a feature on the media’s entertainment page, and the ‘alt-right’ were just another underground subculture, yet to pique the interest of some of the world’s most respected news outlets. But things change and this is our reality. And whilst these events have been cataclysmic in their reach, several smaller events have also occurred-slowly gaining momentum- which also promise to shape the development of the near future:
The Saudi’s bombing in Yemen, the on-going refugee crisis and the UN’s recent resolution against Israeli settlements have all, (in their own way), put tremendous strain on the natural order of international affairs. Yet their coverage has been comparatively minimal: these events are important (for reasons I will revisit later), and yet their inability to generate mainstream debate suggests that we have all been too enamoured with political sensationalism to really think about the ‘big picture’. These events are still ongoing and if there’s one thing I hope to achieve by the end of this reflection, is to shed a bit of light on these oft-misunderstood stories.
Politics in 2016 was quite frankly depressing, and in all honesty, doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence from the politically curious. But despite this, I’m determined to find the positives in a year that has seen some of the most seismic shifts since 1989. Reflecting on 2016 should be both instructive and educational so that we aren’t so blind-sighted by these unexpected events next year, and possibly hopefully stop them happening again.
The erosion of “European-ness”
When we consider the extent of some of the greatest reshaping of global trends in 2016, Europe seems the best place to start.
As a campaigner during the EU referendum, fewer felt the result of Brexit harder than me. We watched powerless, as the contagion of populism, racism and xenophobia swept across Britain. I tell you, nothing is quite so dispiriting as realising how detached large swathes of British society have become from one another.
Such despair was heightened by inability politicians (on both sides) to grasp the scope of the issue. Whether it’s Theresa May relinquishing what little leverage we had in negotiations by declaring we’ll trigger Article 50 by March 2017, the decision to appoint a Foreign Secretary with a penchant for insulting foreign leaders, or Labour’s failure to hold the Government to account over the absence of a coherent Brexit strategy -Britain has become a country without clear moral or political leadership.
However, even as I find myself allured with morbid fascination at a series of events that will change the very social fabric of Britain, we shouldn’t forget Britain’s wider global duplicity. The British government is still providing military advisors and weaponry for the Saudi’s war in Yemen, facilitating further war crimes. I cannot help but find it strange, how invested my government remains in facilitating greater instability in an already war -torn Middle East, but its stranger still how little national condemnation the government has faced. Even when Boris Johnson, (I know, I’m surprised too) called out Saudi Arabia for their involvement in funding ‘proxy wars’ within the region, Downing Street quickly disassociated themselves with his remarks. If 2016 was good for anything, it showed us just how much more we need to scrutinise our government’s questionable foreign diplomacy.
North America didn’t escape the controversy of this year too. President-elect Trump has unapologetically made defamatory comments against women, Muslims and Mexicans, to name but a few. Hillary Clinton supporters have watched on in angst as FBI director, James Comey, persisted in his vendetta against Clinton, ensuring she remained bogged down in the controversy surrounding her emails as late as a week before the election. Yet as is the case with Britain, we must look beyond the disparaging headlines and focus on one of the greatest successes of the year.
Because it was also during this time, that the Paris Agreement filling myself, and many others concerned with climate change, with a sense that at last the world would come together to fight one of the greatest threats to human life. Yet, Trump’s campaigning on a platform that fails to recognise the existence of global warming and promises to withdraw the United States from the Agreement in the event of his election, can only serve to undo decades of progress. The appointment of Exxonmobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State doesn’t help and is ironically indicative of the self-serving plutocracy Trump has surrounded himself with in his Cabinet. (So much for ‘draining the swamp’)
A Middle Eastern Utopia?
2016 has also seen a shift in perspective towards the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. The US’s controversial decision to abstain from vetoing a vote on a the resolution against Israeli, suggests a temporary alteration in the relationship between the two nations. Fierce Israeli criticism and the suspension of work ties, suggest as much, although whether this friction will permanent is doubtful. (Especially when Trump has tweeted that this event is only temporary). Yet the actions of this event lead me to wonder whether ‘two state solution’ is more unlikely than ever.
If that’s not depressing enough, 2016 was also the year that saw the resurgence of an agenda, the world hoped would stay in the 80s: a nuclear arms race. Both Putin and Trump are no strangers to threatening nuclear expansion in a bid to win the contest of “who’s the stronger Super Power” , with Trump gallantly calling for (another) ‘ arms race’. The flippancy of these comments, and the obvious posturing of these two world leaders, heralds dire warnings for the future. But more importantly, they demonstrate why reflection is so important in understanding our current situation.
New Age Populism in the face of human suffering
This year has seen the Syrian civil war enter its fifth year, with truly harrowing stories emerging from the devastating humanitarian conflict. The horrific siege of Eastern Aleppo has been in the media headlines recently, yet 1,000,000 Syrians from myriad other cities across Syria are also under siege. The instability has not been confined to the region, with 4,000,000 refugees currently fleeing the war torn area. The largest movement of refugees since World War Two has fractured relations between some European states. Such divisions have only served to increase the popularity of far right movements all across Europe, such as the Alternative for Deutschland in Germany and the National Front in France. If 2016 is anything has made anything clear, the events of one part of the world, undoubtedly affect another. But it has also had some positives with Turkey and Russia agreeing to a ceasefire and giving hope for a potential end to the civil war. Germany’s continuing acceptance of over 1,000,000 refugees also proves that governments can act in humanitarian interests.
2016 has been a year of extraordinary complexity, but it has also been one of great victory:
In East Asia, the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen to 3.5%, down from over 60% in the 1990s.The actions of 800,000 Indians who planted 50 million trees in one day served to remind us of the power of human cooperation. The banning of chlorofluorocarbons has seen the hole in the ozone layer is starting to mend. Austria, once again, rejected the far-right politics of Norbert Hofer. For me, personally, global developments have contributed to an anxiety about the world in which we are creating.
A conciliatory conclusion
War, poverty and xenophobia have brazenly appeared on our social media accounts, reminding us that conflict and despair are never far away. The rise of extreme politics and the ensuing disregard for human rights has shaped my year. Yet this need not be the legacy of 2016. It is important that we remember the individual acts of human compassion and kindness, solidarity and the extraordinary acts of goodwill (we often devalue) and with any luck, 2017 will be a better year.