Well Santa has come and gone, at least for the largest proportion of the world’s population. And, as we reach the end of the year, it is inevitably time to review recent trends and the prospects for 2016.
By many standards, 2015 has been a terrible year
The war in Syria and Iraq worsened as the number of war casualties grew and its consequences spread. First, to Europe’s shores, with horrendous attacks on Paris at the beginning and near the end of the year. And then it spread to America with the attack in San Bernardino.
The flow of refugees fleeing from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Eritrea became a tidal wave as the number of internally displaced persons and refugees reached an all-time high. Some European governments, like Germany, found their soul when it came to accepting these refugees. Others lost theirs – if they ever had one.
Back in the US, some used their presidential campaign as an opportunity to tap the kind of nativist impulse that periodically overwhelms the country when its national security is threatened. Many Republicans supported banning Muslims from entering the United States. Others favored registering those already domiciled.
As all this was happening, the world’s governments sold more arms than ever. And US-Chinese relations became increasingly tense over the revelation that China was building islands in the South China Sea.
But there have been some bright spots
We should remember that wasn’t all bad news. America’s rapprochement with Cuba has potentially eradicated one of the few remaining vestiges of the Cold War. And while the jury is still out, the P5+1 agreement with Iran offers the prospect that the West will avert a damaging conventional war.
More importantly, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined again, falling to 14% in 2015, from nearly 50% a generation ago. And the international community reached an environmental agreement in Paris. While critics may rightly contend that it is inadequate, in the words of Lao Tzu, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Finally, if the Nigerian president is to be believed, Boko Haram has been “defeated,” at least technically. If true, and that is a big “if,” it offers some inspiration for all those governments dealing with radicalism and terrorism.
What of last year’s predictions?
At this time last year, I offered my predictions for 2015.
I suggested that the US would increase its ground force combat military presence in Iraq and Syria. That proved true. I also predicted that the war would come to Europe and that Europe would join the war – although France and Britain have stuck to an air war so far, and not ground troops as I suggested. I predicted that American relations with Russia would worsen, which they have; and that the number of migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe would grow – as they did, with more than a million arriving. I also predicted that the major powers would reach a deal with Iran. Finally, I suggested that the dollar would strengthen against other major currencies. It did.
But before I get too impressed with myself, I should note that my long shots proved to be – well, long shots. Benjamin Netanyahu is still in power and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has remained in a quagmire. North Korea is as isolated and threatening as ever. And, with the exception of Cuba, the jury is still out on improved US relations with Latin America – although the election of new right wing governments in Argentina and Venezuela suggests that may materialize.
And I missed so many other major stories.
So what of 2016? Here are five possible story lines.
A muddled, fragile agreement, of sorts, is reached in Syria – one that excludes the Islamic State
It is the turn of the year and still the season of goodwill, So let’s start off with an optimistic, if some would say unrealistic, prediction. An agreement will be reached. It is presaged by a growth in violence as all parties push to secure more territory before it takes effect. And it may vaguely mention power transition. But it promises that some day there will be an election, which Bashar Al-Assad will win because – sadly – he has more domestic support that his critics are willing to acknowledge. Any ceasefire is repeatedly broken. Long shot? ISIS will informally, de facto, respect the deal because it faces defeat if it continues its efforts to expand.
The US will accept some Syrian refugees – but deport many more Hispanic immigrants
President Obama has made it clear that he will accept more Syrians – even in what are pathetically small numbers – despite proposed congressional legislation that seeks to do the opposite.
One nice thing about being in your last year in office is that you can often ignore public opinion, as the president wants to do in admitting these refugees. But administration officials from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have made it just as clear that they intend to round up and deport many more undocumented families, hoping to discourage a renewed surge in illegal border crossings.
Obama may want to go down in history as a president who was gracious in accepting the Syrians. But his treatment of Latin Americans will certainly add to his reputation as the great deporter, having done so to nearly two million people in total and more people in 2014 than any president in American history. The only good news for Democrats is that the presidential candidates will be able to separate themselves from his policy by heavily criticizing him for his actions.
The Arctic will become the new frontier
The pressure to drill for oil in the Arctic may have lessened as prices have fallen. But global climate change means there is no prospect of the refreezing of huge swathes of the Arctic any time soon. So the Arctic is becoming an increasingly important waterway and its abundant natural resources are all the more accessible. The Russians realize this. So they are militarizing their presence in the Arctic. And they are constructing a new generation of super-nuclear icebreakers to ensure they have access to the Arctic’s waters.
In contrast, the US is woefully underprepared to engage in the region. It does have an embryonic policy. But as President Obama’s visit to the Arctic’s fringes made clear, it is primarily an economic and environmental one. Not a military, one. America, for example, has no comparable icebreakers to those being developed by the Russians.
The remaining member states of the Arctic Council are worried by Russia’s behavior – and China is lurking as it recognizes the significance of these emergent seas lanes to its global trade. It would be nice to think a grand agreement could be reached on how to reconcile every side’s interests. But evidence about disputes stretching from the South China Sea to the Black Sea suggests that is unlikely.
Watch for maps of the Arctic Circle on your TV screens soon.
Closer to home – Donald Trump will not be the Republican candidate
There is a long history of loud populists who know how to tap into the minority of voters in democracies who resort to nativism when they feel economic insecurity and who feel free to express racist impulses. They look for a powerful leader. Broderick Crawford depicted such a persona beautifully in the movie of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
But a recent poll suggests that half of American voters say they would be embarrassed to have Donald Trump as president. It reveals that he has the highest unfavorability rating of any candidate among prospective voters, and that other candidates are closing the gap on his lead among Republicans.
Trump may yet win in Iowa. But Iowa’s Republicans have proved very bad at picking presidential nominees. Their last two picks were Rich Santorum and, before that, Mike Huckabee.
Indeed, the American system is built to withstand the kind of buffeting caused by Trump’s kind of candidacy. And as the Republican field narrows, and Americans actually begin to focus on the presidential election, many senior analysts believe that Trump’s star will wane. Indeed, despite his astonishing self-promotion and evident triumphalism, if held today, Trump would lose an election to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders handily. Many Republican voters, if only because of their loathing of Hillary Clinton, want to back a winner.
I am not imprudent enough to suggest who the Republican candidate will be. In may be a centrist such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or, as the Democrats would prefer, a more radical Republican such as Ted Cruz. But I suspect that Trump’s momentum will abruptly halt as the long primary process unfolds.
But yes, Hillary will be the Democratic candidate – and will be elected president
There it is. I said it. There is nothing like putting your reputation on the line in print. Despite her immense baggage and no shortage of possible trip wires between now and election day, I believe Clinton will be the first female president. America’s shifting demographics favor her, given the continued Republican missteps in alienating America’s growing minority electorate. And if elected, her foreign policy will be a little more robust and muscular than Barack Obama’s – signaling a return to forthright American leadership, rather than a strategy of sponsorship. This will mean a greater military engagement in the Middle East; more negotiations with the Russians and the Chinese on a variety of issues; and more money spent on America’s diplomatic services, a key component of what Clinton has referred to as “smart power.” She will use husband Bill as foreign emissary, generating the kind of goodwill that Barack Obama enjoyed in Europe and Africa in the early days of his presidency.
Then again, I left Britain in the early 1980s believing that Margaret Thatcher would only last a year or two as Britain’s prime minister. She was Britain’s longest serving prime minister of the twentieth century. So you can be forgiven for dismissing that prediction.
I conclude on a more joyful note. May 2016 bring us all health, prosperity and love – and the time to enjoy them all.