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The World Didn’t Change Much in 2019. That’s Bad News for 2020.

Several important events occurred this year, but few did anything to significantly alter global trends.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg chairs the NAC-ICI meeting of NATO member states.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg chairs the NAC-ICI meeting of NATO member states to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Istanbul cooperation initiative in Kuwait City on Dec. 16, 2019. Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not hard to think of worthy candidates in the category of “most significant foreign-policy event of 2019.” Pick your poison: the Hong Kong protests, the whistleblower revelations that led to the House of Representatives voting to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump, the Amazon and Australian fires, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s electoral triumph, or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s march toward a new and narrower conception of Indian nationalism.  Or if you prefer to look on the bright side, maybe you’d cite the U.S. stock market, the record number of women sworn into the 116th Congress, or the progress made in addressing diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Ebola.

But when it comes to foreign policy, the most significant feature of 2019 was the persistence of the status quo. Trump’s boorish antics continued to alarm and kept the chattering classes busy, but 2019 was a potential turning point where most aspects of world politics failed to turn. I’m by nature a bit of a Burkean conservative, but this degree of stasis may not be a good thing.

Consider the following:

NATO: Despite Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to “diplomacy” and French President Emmanuel Macron’s diagnosis that the alliance was experiencing “brain death,” NATO managed to survive its 70th birthday mostly intact. For all of Trump’s bluster, the U.S. military presence in Europe is larger now than it was when he took office. NATO’s years may still be numbered, but as 2020 approaches the center is still holding, which means much of Europe remains unhealthily dependent on U.S. protection.2019 was a potential turning point where most aspects of world politics failed to turn.

Iran: Despite Trump’s ill-considered “maximum pressure” campaign and the outbreak of significant protests, Iran’s clerical regime is still in power as 2019 ends, its regional influence campaign has not ended, and it remains in the penalty box vis-à-vis the West, the Gulf Arabs, and the United States. The Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations played hardball with Iran too, but Obama was at least open to the possibility of improving relations gradually over time. With Trump, we are back to the counterproductive policy of confrontation that has shaped U.S. relations with Iran since 1980. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Globalization: The Trump administration has put globalization on probation, but launching trade wars with other countries mostly produced a lot of damp squibs. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, but it’s little more than a North American Free Trade Agreement 2.0 and won’t have much impact on any of the participants. The tariff war with China was at best a draw, and Trump’s most important objectives—reducing the bilateral trade deficit and forcing China to make structural changes to its own economy—went unfulfilled.

World trade continued to rise (albeit at a slower rate than before), and 2019 didn’t usher in 1930s-style protectionism. One caveat: Trump and his administration have continued to shun the World Trade Organization in favor of a bilateral approach to trade issues, a decision that is likely to slow globalization in the future without reversing it entirely.

The Middle East: Trump shuffled troops around haphazardly, but the United States is still militarily engaged throughout the region, still offering up meaningless and stillborn “peace plans” for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and still giving unwarranted and unconditional support to the usual list of Middle East clients. The United States continues to indirectly subsidize Israel’s self-defeating occupation of Palestinian land, is still backing the inhumane and unsuccessful Saudi war in Yemen, and turning the usual blind eye to authoritarian abuses in Egypt.

As noted above, Trump and Pompeo are still insisting that Iran is a looming regional threat that is so important that it must be stopped yet not important enough to talk to. If these policies sound familiar, it’s because not much has changed.By 2019, “Make America Great Again” has been revealed to be just “More of the Same.”

Russia: Although Trump may sometimes talk and act like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s poodle, U.S. policy toward Russia remains confrontational and counterproductive. Ukraine is getting the support it was promised (now that Trump’s effort to blackmail it into digging up false dirt on his political rivals has backfired), and Moscow is still facing an array of Western sanctions. Not surprisingly, Russia and China continue to move closer together, in part because Washington has given them every incentive to cooperate more.  Apparently, nobody in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has ever heard of the phrase “divide and rule.”

Afghanistan. I’m so old I can remember when the Soviet Union fought a war in Afghanistan for nine years—an unsuccessful campaign that helped bankrupt the country and hasten its collapse. I can also remember when the United States decided to intervene there itself, confident that we could go in, oust some bad guys, and leave. U.S. troops have been there for twice as long as the Soviets were, and have achieved about the same level of strategic success.

I can also remember when some guy said the U.S. role there was “ridiculous,” and promised to get “out of the nation-building business.” That same guy also sent more troops to Afghanistan, just like his predecessor. Now he’s saying he might withdraw some of them, putting the U.S. force levels more or less back where they were when he started. In the United States, we call this one-step-forward, two-steps-backward approach to strategy “progress,” but it’s really just another manifestation of the “infinity war.”

Back home, the United States continues to deal with deteriorating infrastructure, a protracted opioid epidemic, a greater danger from right-wing domestic terrorism than from foreign jihadis, seemingly endless school shootings and other forms of gun violence, and a polarized and gridlocked political system. By 2019, “Make America Great Again” has been revealed to be just “More of the Same” (plus tax cuts for the wealthiest).

One more thing that didn’t change in 2019: The Earth continued to get warmer and the United States continued its irresponsible approach to this looming danger. U.S. policy under Trump isn’t just a head-in-the-sand denialism or a refusal to take active measures to mitigate the problem; his decisions to roll back Environmental Protection Agency measures designed to reduce methane leaks and fossil fuel use are actively harmful and making a bad situation worse.

As 2019 comes to a close, humankind continues to hurtle toward a future where hundreds of millions of people will have their lives adversely altered (or worse) by climate change.

The bottom line: Nothing much changed in 2019, which does not augur well for 2020. Happy new year.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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