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What Will Be the Big Story of 2016?
From new flu strains to refugees to Obama’s final moments as U.S. president, FP’s Voices predict a year of big change and challenges.
The world is melting
My guess is that global warming will become the top story of 2016.
This will happen because we will face a series of anomalous and odd weather events — big storms in unusual places, storm surges in cities that historically have not been flooded, shifts in ocean currents, and such. One effect of this will be to sweep away the lingering skepticism about global warming. Another short-term bottom line: I wouldn’t invest in Florida banks or real estate anytime soon.
A year of borrowed time
Trying to predict the “big story” of 2016 is a mug’s game, because surprises are inevitable and vivid events — like a terrorist attack — receive too much attention, while subtler but more important developments are often neglected.
The big story for 2016 is how much will remain unchanged. The U.S. economy will continue its modest recovery. The European Union will struggle with an array of intractable challenges. The Islamic State will still be a problem. Russia’s power will wane, and China’s influence will continue to rise, along with global sea levels. The nuclear deal with Iran will remain in force, but there won’t be significant thaw between Tehran and Washington. Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Argentina will continue to disappoint. China, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States will dominate next year’s Olympics. There will be no progress toward “two states for two peoples” in Israel/Palestine and no lasting peace agreement in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Ukraine. Terrorist attacks will kill more innocent people but in all likelihood not very many. Despite the Paris agreement, atmospheric temperatures will continue to rise, with alarming long-term implications.
In short, the global agenda a year from now will look a lot like the one we see today.
But one event looms large: The world’s most powerful nation will elect a new president. U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy record is far from perfect, but everything we know about the people vying to replace him suggests they are likely to be far worse. My advice for the New Year: Enjoy it while you can.
America, a country divided
The biggest news story of 2016 will be the deep partisan divide in the American public’s perception of the U.S. role in the world and the way this affects the tenor of debate in the U.S. presidential election campaign.
Nearly a third — 29 percent — of Americans cite terrorism, national security, or the Islamic State as the most important problem facing the country today, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. One year ago, just 4 percent of the public, when asked the same question, cited any of these international affairs-related issues. And there are wide partisan differences over such challenges: 83 percent of the Republicans are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, but only 53 percent of Democrats agree.
Such differing perceptions shape public views on what the next president should do. Two-thirds of Republicans (66 percent) favor sending U.S. ground troops to Iraq and Syria. But 64 percent of Democrats oppose such an effort.
Whoever is the next president, he or she may face seemingly unbridgeable divides in public opinion over how Washington deals with global challenges. And these partisan differences may well do more to influence the next administration’s posture in the world than any discrete event.
Obama’s push for North Korean diplomacy
There is no point in predicting the big story for the coming year unless you are willing to be fantastically wrong. After all, no one will remember this blurb unless I predict something very unlikely (in which case, I’ll be able to dine out on these 200 words for years). I am tempted to predict that 2016 will finally be the year when we screw up and drop the Big One, but that’s too dark for the holiday season. So, with some leftover Christmas spirit, let me predict a surprise diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
Things are probably going to take a turn for the worse in the spring, but that only means they will have nowhere to go but up. And every two-term president gets a little greedy once the toadies and boot-lickers start mapping out exhibits for the presidential library. Bill Clinton, in 2000, had simultaneous peace deals in the works in North Korea, Northern Ireland, and Israel/Palestine. (Clinton was, of course, a man of enormous appetites.) Barack Obama, too, will be tempted in his more modest way to launch a surprise, but ultimately unsuccessful, late-term push to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
The year of strange flu
I think 2016 could be the year when at least one of several disturbing trends finally hits its critical tipping point, taking on newfound urgency. These are the sorts of global issues smart folks have scratched their heads over for years, but leaders have kicked down the road in favor of seemingly greater emergencies and exigencies. Examples include antibiotic resistance: Now that two genes have appeared that effectively render all our anti-bacterial drugs useless, will 2016 see them spread globally? Sea levels: With 2015 the warmest year on record and Greenland’s melting surging, will 2016 be the year that critical islands and shores are overrun by rising waters? Virulent influenza: More strange strains of flu are circulating now in birds, swine, and people than ever before, prompting concern about a breakthrough strain — could 2016 be the year? El Niño: The Horn of Africa is in its worst drought in decades, due to global rainfall change, and climate experts predict 2016 will witness severe storms, droughts, and heat waves thanks to the overheated eastern Pacific Ocean. Will El Niño serve as a tipping point that destabilizes already fragile areas?
The demise of Western values
When Hungary’s prime minster, Viktor Orban, declared in a 2014 speech that “illiberal democracy” was the wave of the future, he was dismissed as a right-wing crank. Now it seems he may be right. With Europe and the United States reeling before the linked phenomena of Islamic terrorism and massive refugee flight, 2016 could be the year when the West loses its grip on its own core values.
Right now, a few countries — Germany, Sweden, Canada — embody the belief that “the West” is a community of values, including the obligation to accept refugees embedded in such core Western documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hungary, Poland, and others that have closed their borders to the refugees seem to regard the West, like East Asia or Latin America, as a common culture: white, Christian, and democratic (but not necessarily liberal, especially toward the non-white and non-Christian).
Which side will win this immense, if evanescent, battle? Elections in Poland, France, Austria, and elsewhere show that right-wing nativist parties have more adherents than mainstream parties of the left or right. The nationalist Sweden Democrats is now the most popular party in Europe’s most liberal nation. In the United States, Republican candidates for president vie to show who will most ardently defend “the homeland” against terrorists and Syrian widows and orphans. More terrorist attacks like the one in France could decisively tip the scales toward anti-liberalism.
Is this our common future? If so, the Islamic State will have gained a victory of incalculable proportions.
A trend in terror
In 2016 there’s only one story that will sit at the nexus of U.S. foreign policy as well as domestic and election politics, and that’s jihadi terror.
In the latter part of 2015 it was terrorism and Donald Trump that dominated the conversation. In 2016 it’s likely to be terror—and I’m not entirely sure about the Trump part. No other issue carries the power, resonance, media interest, or the capacity to destroy a presidency or buoy or sink the hopes of presidential aspirants. It will be the dominant story of 2016, in large part because of the strong possibility, perhaps even probability, of another Islamic State inspired or even directed attack. Indeed, the recent success of Iraqi and American forces in Ramadi may actually increase the odds of IS terror as the jihadis seek to strike out.
It matters not a wit that as of Dec. 2, during 209 of the 336 days that had passed so far this year, “there was at least one shooting per day” that, as the New York Times reported, “left four or more people injured or dead.” Nor does it resonate much that ordinary gun violence claims many more lives a year than jihadi terror. September 11th and the rise of jihadi groups created a new prism through which Americans view violence related to jihadi terror as far more frightening and consequential than gun violence which is actually far more deadly.
The tragic story of 2016 could play out in one of three ways: 1) a series of San Bernardino-type attacks carried out by some network of American born jihadis; 2) an IS-directed or IS-orchestrated attack that attempts to mimic or rival Paris in its coordination and precision; or 3) the downing of a U.S. commercial airliner by IS or an al-Qaeda affiliate. For all our sake, I’m desperately hoping my predictions here prove unfounded.
The year the world forgets refugees, again
On Dec. 18, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) predicted that the number of people forcibly displaced in the world in 2015 is going to smash all previous records, with more than 60 million people forced to flee their homes. As UNHCR put it, that’s one in every 122 people on Earth. (That doesn’t even include many cases of protracted displacement, says the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center in Geneva.)
Intensive pushback in the EU and the United States is only part of the story — 40 million of these people are displaced within their own countries, with about 8 million of those inside Syria alone as of July. And despite what U.S. politicians have been saying about single male Syrian refugees being potentially dangerous, more than half of those displaced are women and a third are under age 17.
With neither the Syrian war nor the stream of people leaving other countries in conflict (Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq) showing any indication of slowing, I predict that 2016 will become the year the world allows — yet again — millions of families and people in need to continue to suffer through no fault of their own. With a lack of funds allocated to properly feed, house, and school those fleeing war, in my opinion, the global refugee crisis will yet again be the story we can’t ignore, but somehow do.
The long reach of limiting civil rights in Europe
France is ushering in 2016 in a state of emergency that has its roots in the bloody 1950s Algerian War of Independence. The measures, approved by the National Assembly after the deadly Nov. 13 Paris attacks, are set to expire on Feb. 26. But the government has already backed a plan to enshrine a state of emergency provision in the constitution — including a controversial measure that would strip dual nationals convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship. The familiar tussle between increased security and decreased civil rights will dominate France — and much of Western Europe — as the continent grapples with the threat of domestic radicalization, the migrant crisis, and the increasing allure of right-wing politics. It will be the most important underreported story of the year.
Mounting security threats will always outweigh declining liberties in the headlines and the public imagination. But as hundreds of Europe’s citizens are being arrested without warrants in extrajudicial raids that officials often say are “linked to the Paris attacks” and newsrooms with finite resources let the official versions pass unchallenged or lightly questioned, the continent’s sizable, already aggrieved Muslim population — which is being disproportionately affected by the measures — will increasingly feel like second-class citizens. This will not help the long-term security of a continent on the front lines of the international fight against radicalization.
As the U.N.-sponsored political road map to peace in Syria, set to be unveiled this year, looks increasingly like a deal hammered out by President Bashar al-Assad with his friends, Russia and Iran, there is a real fear of rising Sunni disenfranchisement across the world. As French courts get clogged with legal challenges against the excesses of tightened security measures, this is a story that cannot — must not — be ignored.
The fall of the House of Europe
The three obvious big stories of 2016 are going to be: 1) the fight against the Islamic State; 2) deepening tension in the South and East China Seas; and 3) Russian obstructionism in Ukraine and beyond. But big doors swing on seemingly small hinges, and the story for which 2016 may well be remembered will be a bureaucratic unwinding: the beginning of the end of the European project.
The highly touted six-decade idea of a unified Europe that is safe, democratic, borderless, and an active global partner for the United States is under significant challenge. While Europe enjoys many advantages — wealth, values, culture, and education — it is increasingly prey to significant challenges that make it unlikely the grand vision will be achieved, despite the courage and brilliance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The rise of far-right parties will continue; Britain will increasingly look for an exit; the Greek damage to the EU — both economically and psychologically — will continue; the number of Syrian refugees will double; Russia will continue to do all it can to undermine the transatlantic bridge; NATO will show insufficient will to affect the course of events; and the ongoing recession will settle into Europe like a cough it can’t shake. And looming over it all is the downward spiral in demographics, which saps the vitality and energy of society and will only emphasize the inability of Europe to successfully integrate migrants. All of this will occur in the last year of the Obama administration, which is essentially running out the clock and unwilling to lean in forcefully to help.
For the United States, the long-term implications of this are significant and unfortunate. Europe, despite all our frustrations with the continent at times, represents the best global pool of partners we can find. The debate will crystalize over the year ahead, with two German chancellors on either side of the argument.
More than a century ago, Otto von Bismarck said scornfully, “Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong: It is only a geographical expression.” More recently Merkel said, “Europe only succeeds if we work together.” Chancellor Merkel is, as usual, correct, but the challenges are enormous.
Obama’s last chance
2016 will be U.S. President Barack Obama’s last year in office, and we should expect to see him focus on establishing his legacy. Expect news coverage to focus on whether he’s getting it right. Domestically, can he preserve the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act in the face of legal challenges, implementation headaches, and bad press? Can he leave his successor an economy that helps those at the bottom as well as those at the top? Can he restore American faith that “e pluribus unum” is more than just a slogan on a coin at a moment when both race relations and immigration are driving wedges between communities?
Internationally, Obama needs to decide if he’s comfortable leaving multiple unresolved conflicts to his successor — and if he cares about the legal precedents his administration has been setting. Will he succumb to political pressure from hawks and aim for a decisive military victory against the Islamic State, even if it means dramatically ramping up U.S. military efforts in the Middle East, or will he decide that unresolved conflicts are better than risking another ground war? Will he leave his successor to deal with Guantánamo and with legal and policy precedents that embrace indefinite detention on grounds of abstract “dangerousness” and that permit the United States to kill suspected terrorists in any country on earth, in secret and without external checks and balances?
When Obama took office in 2009, he had a mandate and a window of opportunity to correct the Bush administration’s excesses and mistakes. He didn’t take advantage of the window, and he risks going down in history as a president who never lived up to his promise. With one year to go, attention will — and should — focus on whether or not it’s too late.
The tremors of the refugee crisis
The world will be inundated by more refugees in 2016, swelling the historically unprecedented 60 million people already forced from their homes around the globe. The ripple from this flow will hit the political and economic systems of a significant number of countries.
In the United States, the fear of terrorists among the refugees will play a significant role in the 2016 presidential campaign and, if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz wins the nomination, on the election itself. In Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, and other EU countries, the refugee issue will become central to political debates, the rise of right-wing politicians, and a partial unraveling of the EU itself, as borders are closed and mistrust and fear grow.
Refugee flows will roil the politics of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Turkey will seize on the instability at its border to deploy forces that will violently repress its internal Kurdish minority. And in Russia, fears of a terrorist influx spurred by refugees and returning, well-trained extremists will accelerate its rapprochement with the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, in order to end the Syrian civil war and defeat the Islamic State.
In Maine, where I live, Somali migrants are reviving the aging industrial town of Lewiston. Despite fears of terrorism, industrial countries will begin to figure out what Germany has already recognized: that refugees are a key element helping reverse the economic impact of aging populations. They will start to welcome refugees as a next-generation labor force that can revive economic growth.
An eye on the House of Saud
I’ll be watching a key geopolitical trend with impact beyond the Middle East: the continuing Iranian-Saudi rivalry and the internal dynamics in each country.
In February, Iranians will vote for a new parliament and a new Assembly of Experts, the only body that has the power to choose or dismiss the supreme leader. The tussle for influence between hard-liners and moderates will play out, and though the parliamentary election changes nothing about the overall Iranian system, the outcome will shape the tone of Tehran’s dealings with the outside world.
In Riyadh, the deputy crown prince and the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, continues to consolidate power in his hands and work on big reforms in the military. There have been many predictions about the downfall of the House of Saud and though this isn’t one of them, watch for a potentially dangerous escalation of the rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef.
Both of these developments feed into Saudi Arabia and Iran’s respective efforts to gain the upper hand in the region. After the Iran deal, Riyadh felt the balance of power in the region tipping away. The closer we get to a potential solution in Syria, the more the fighting is likely to intensify, with Riyadh and Tehran feeding the fires. This is going to be a yearlong trend; there will be no clear victor or vanquished regionally, though there could be casualties from internal power struggles. The first six months will set the tone with the Iranian elections in February and a crescendo of violence in Syria, which will lead to a spike in the number of refugees heading to Europe in the spring.
The shale conundrum
Will U.S. shale die or hibernate in 2016? The answer provides a bellwether for the geopolitics of 2016. If oil prices remain low over the long run, there are two basic possibilities: violence and repression in petro-states facing fiscal chaos and popular unrest, and a potential oil price shock should a reconfigured version of OPEC emerge out of necessity.
The most efficient U.S. shale producers have battled through tumbling oil prices this year to reach a break-even price of below $40 a barrel. But many more need oil at $50-$70 a barrel. In short, much of the industry is unsustainable in a world where crude prices hit $36 a barrel earlier this month.
In 2016, if Iran comes back to the market, Chinese demand slows, OPEC remains too riven by distrust to enforce any production cut, and Fed interest rate hikes continue, the run of bankruptcies in the U.S. shale industry will likely accelerate.
If that’s right, oil prices could rise as much U.S. production comes off the market. However, higher prices would once again make core U.S. shale profitable. The question, then, is whether the industry is merely in hibernation, and the tap turns back on; or whether it’s dead, and the tap stays shut. If the tap comes back on, oil prices will simply fall again. This mechanism effectively locks in low prices, all else being equal.
I’m a hibernationist: U.S. shale is more resilient than Riyadh thinks, which should worry old King Salman.
Saudi Arabia settles down
In the part of the world I write about — the Gulf states — I expect Saudi Arabia’s increasing assertiveness to be a major story in 2016. New leadership under King Salman and his young son and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appears keen on asserting a new role in direct opposition to regional rival Iran. Saudi Arabia is already leading a now nine-month air and ground campaign against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen. The country is also escalating assistance, both military and political, to Syrian rebel groups opposed to Tehran’s longtime ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
None of this is new, but 2016 will be the year in which we see the necessary transition from attacking to stabilizing. As the United States has learned in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, bringing calm to countries such as Yemen and Syria is likely to prove far more challenging, expensive, and time-consuming than any active combat. Particularly in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is likely to be bogged down for the foreseeable future — and failing to stay on the ground could yield the tumultuous ground to extremist forces.
Saudi Arabia will face significant challenges in transforming battlefield victories into regional stability. Military operations in the region have relied on local allies and proxies — regional separatist militias in Yemen, rebels in Syria, and so forth — who may or may not pursue Riyadh’s interests once the dust settles. Saudi forces have little experience in peacekeeping or civilian policing. The Saudi budget is also starting to feel the strain of falling oil prices, something that could eventually put a damper on expensive adventures overseas. Still, the country does have some advantages over Western or other forces, including long-standing local relationships and know-how, and a willingness to deploy aid quickly and generously.
This Saudi assertiveness will pose challenges for the United States, which has grown increasingly concerned by the civilian toll of the campaign in Yemen. Keeping Riyadh on Washington’s good side will mean balancing a mini-detente with Iran with Saudi Arabia’s desire to suppress Tehran’s regional influence.
The (many) crises yet to come
Despite slow-boil conflicts with very real potential for escalation, like the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, Russian meddling in its own “backyard,” and the Mexican drug trade, the biggest story of 2016 will almost certainly be the horrific situation in Syria and Iraq, its radiating effects across Europe, and, to a lesser extent, its impact on the United States.
The moral crisis in which the world has found itself after nearly five years of watching as innocent civilians are massacred by their own government and a band of insane extremists must come to a head in 2016. Increased action, whether through sustained intervention in the form of no-fly zones, greatly enhanced assistance to local forces (including those fighting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria), robust political intervention in Iraq, or all of the above, will quickly cease to be optional, especially as the refugee crisis in Europe shows no signs of slowing and the threat of violence in Europe and possibly the United States continues to escalate.
The United States is facing its own moral demons with the xenophobic and un-American rhetoric spewing from the early days of the presidential campaign, something its people will need to confront and hopefully combat in the name of their country’s fundamental values and founding principles. 2016 will be a year of reckoning for all who have sat and hoped the newest crisis in the Middle East would somehow solve itself and for saner heads to prevail by deploying reasonable and morally defensible solutions.
Photo credits: Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; AREF KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; AYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images; OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images; MOHAMMED AL-KHATIEB/AFP/Getty Images