At just over a week old, 2016 promises to be a powerful year for stories that will shape our world. We’ve already seen the simmering Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran ratchet up a couple levels, and a reminder of the instability North Korea brings to international relations with its test of a purported hydrogen bomb. Meanwhile, the United States enters an election year that the whole world will be monitoring, war in Syria enters its fifth year, and global issues such as migration and climate change will continue to challenge governments around the world.
As PineTreeRepublic begins its second year of existence, here are some of the major stories that we’ll follow closely throughout the year, in each corner of the world. Hopefully this can help put the events of the coming weeks and months in some context. Don’t forget to share your own predictions on what stories will shape our year in the comments!
North and Central America: A Western Hemisphere Refugee Crisis
While most of the world’s attention is focused on the refugee crisis around the Mediterranean Sea, another migration of refugees is building in the Americas and could very well bubble into a major crisis in 2016. In particular, a growing number of women and children from Central American countries and Mexico are fleeing drug cartel-related violence and seeking refuge in the United States. The so-called “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras now own the world’s highest murder rate, and more than 66,000 children left those countries for the United States in 2014 alone. At the same time, the region is experiencing a sizeable uptick in Cuban migrants seeking a more promising future in the United States, out of fear that near-automatic asylum will soon end as the two countries normalize relations. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration is just starting a large-scale initiative to increase deportations of undocumented Central American migrants, a position that is sure to be hotly debated on the campaign trail. The upshot may be a deepening crisis in the region, as Mexico and other countries along the refugees’ path are left to deal with the back-and-forth flow.
South America: The Rise of Conservative Governments
The political journeys of countries in South America have often moved in parallel: The defeat of right-wing military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries in the 1980s brought a series of left-wing populist governments that have largely defined South American politics over the previous generation. In 2016, however, the pendulum seems to have definitively shifted back to the right. Colombia’s conservative government, led by Juan Manuel Santos, is on the verge of an agreement with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end decades of guerrilla warfare; Argentinians elected a conservative President last November who promises to challenge the country’s populist Peronist tradition; and Brazil’s left-leaning President, Dilma Rousseff, potentially faces an impeachment challenge from conservative rivals this year over widespread corruption charges. Even socialist Venezuela recently saw opposition parties win parliamentary elections last month. What will be the implications of this political shift, both for South American citizens and the rest of the world? One story to watch is how the conservative governments will negotiate the end of the commodity boom, which until recently had fuelled social programs that brought a significant part of the South American population into the middle class. These policies will likely start to be reversed in 2016, with financial and social ramifications that extend beyond the region.
Europe: A Redefinition of the “European Project”
The European continent was rocked by several crises in 2015. The continuing conflict with Russia over Ukraine, a fiscal crisis that nearly saw Greece leave the Union (and may yet), the seemingly intractable refugee crisis, and a pair of terrorist attacks all tested the cohesion at the heart of the European Union’s ideals. And 2016 may prove to be an even greater challenge to the continued integration of the continent. Already, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum this year on whether his country should remain or leave the EU (Cameron is campaigning for the “Remain” side, but is pressing for significant reforms that would exempt Britain from several EU obligations). Meanwhile, the refugee crisis has hit hard at the core EU principle of the free movement of people and goods across member states, codified in the 1985 Schengen Agreement. Without an effective system for allocating responsibility to accommodate refugees across the EU, several member states are taking matters into their own hands by unilaterally reinstating border controls. Most recently, Sweden – typically one of the most welcoming countries in the EU – imposed new border controls on a major bridge that connects to Denmark, which will likely make life more difficult for refugees and EU citizens alike. In turn, Denmark has imposed its own border controls on the border with Germany, presumably to prevent refugees from accumulating within its borders. The longer these crises continue unchecked in 2016, and the more openly that core principles of the EU are questioned by member states, the more tenuous will be the future of the EU as we know it.
Middle East: Proxy Wars and a New Map
The year 2016 has already started with an escalation in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy. (For a very informative take on the historical forces behind this conflict, I highly recommend this latest blog post from Geopolitics Made Super.) This conflict is already re-drawing borders – or at least, changing the balance of power in countries around the region, including Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric and the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries likely increases the chances of further provocation and proxy wars between the two regional powers. Meanwhile, war in Syria continues to erase borders in the Levant, as fighters come in from other countries, and Syrians continue to seek refuge in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, who themselves face challenges to maintaining an integral state. In particular, one development to keep an eye on in 2016 is the fate of the region’s Kurds. As Iraqi Kurds gain greater autonomy and the backing of Western countries through their fight against ISIS, they may inspire further demands for autonomy among Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and even Iran. (PineTreeRepublic featured a story on this last summer, as Western allies struggled to balance alliances between Turkey and the Kurds.) While these conflicts will not likely be resolved this year, 2016 may well be a pivotal year in determining the future map of the Middle East.
Africa: Planting The Seeds of an “African Spring”?
The prospects for democracy seemed to move in opposite directions on the African continent in 2015. On the positive end of the ledger, the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, elected a leader whom many hope can finally tackle the country’s endemic system of corruption; while on the other side of the continent, Tanzania (projected to be Africa’s most populous country by 2050) elected a new leader whom has already set a tone by spending Independence Day picking up trash in the streets. On the less-positive end, the president of the central African country Burundi quelled popular protests and modified the country’s constitution to grant himself a third mandate (a story this blog profiled as a wider trend of African presidents seeking third terms). The upcoming year poses at least two more important tests where sitting presidents seek to extend their rule beyond constitutional limits – in Rwanda, where the perception of president Paul Kagame has evolved from a forward-thinking leader to an autocrat with a long list of human rights abuses, and in Congo, where Joseph Kabila’s intentions to stay on as president has contributed to an ongoing brutal civil war. Whether the positive examples of democratic transitions are enough to inspire a wider movement across Africa in 2016 remains to be seen, but each challenge to autocratic rule plants a seed in the continent’s long transition to democracy and the rule of law.
Southeast Asia/Pacific Rim: Competing Models of Government
If there is to be another Cold War between competing ideologies, Southeast Asia will surely be the epicentre of the struggle. Despite its recent economic struggles, China’s model of “authoritarian capitalism” has influenced several of its neighbours, whether by coercion (hard power) or by choice (soft power). One example is Thailand, a rising regional economy where the military overthrew a democratically elected, albeit corrupt, government, and has recently collaborated with China to send political dissidents back to the Middle Kingdom. In 2015, China also created the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – which many believe will be used to spread its form of authoritarian capitalism throughout the region. Meanwhile, the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a highly-controversial free trade pact that has been justified as a way to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. (Its implementation still awaits ratification by several member states, including the United States and Canada.) An interesting test case for this competition of ideologies may be the future development of Myanmar, or Burma, which just held its first free elections since the 1980s in November. While the transition from a military-run regime has been peaceful so far, much remains to be decided – including the future role of the military in government affairs, and the fate of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya group. Layered on top of all these variables is an unresolved conflict over the South China Sea, which serves as an important international trade route for the countries of the region, and over which China seeks to assert its dominance.
Global Story: The Growth of Clean Energy Financing
One emerging world-wide trend to keep an eye on in 2016 is a likely spike in financing for clean energy projects. One of the most significant pledges to come out of last December’s COP 21 summit in Paris was the announcement of a $20 billion fund over the next five years for these projects by a group of tech industry billionaires (including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos) and 20 countries. Presumably, investment funds like these will be accompanied by various policies seeking to encourage the deployment of clean technologies in countries around the world, as governments begin to implement the pledges they made at the Paris summit. Combined, these commitments signal a potentially powerful turning point in global development – as the cost of technologies such as solar panels continue to drop, many developing countries see an opportunity to expand access to energy for their citizens, without having to deal with the obstacles that well-entrenched, fossil fuel-based systems pose in developed countries. However, an important caveat will be the question of who ultimately owns and decides how that money is spent. One potential development model is for local communities to manage their local own clean energy projects by forming a co-operative or non-profit; another would be a more corporate model, where a few multinational companies end up dominating the market for deploying solar panels and other clean technologies, at the risk of further entrenching dependencies between “have” and “have not” countries. While 2016 look promising for the development of clean technology generally, how this impacts the relationships between developed and developing countries is far from settled.
Now it’s your turn – what other stories should be on the radar of PineTreeRepublic in 2016?