What will 2016 bring to the world of international politics? How will the world change? What issues will drive the agenda? And whose name will be repeated time and again, that is, who will make the international political year ahead?
I spent years researching and writing about predictions in international politics. While it’s hard to summarize those years of research, dozens of papers and articles, and a couple of books worth of knowledge into a few words, if I was to do so it would be something like this: predicting the future of international politics is difficult at best, and near impossible at worst.
That’s not to say that we can’t take a few educated guesses at the sorts of issues that are going to be important in the new year; it is, after all, just a few short weeks away and some of the issues that are shaping the global politik right now will still be issues in January. But to define where the world will be a year from now instead of a month from now is a harder task by an order of magnitude.
But let’s give it a try all the same.
For the year to come, I’ll try and define four significant international issues, four significant international leaders, and four predictions for future events. Three groups of four is twelve, and with twelve months ahead of us this is all neat and tidy, no?
Let’s start with the issues.
The first issue that will define 2016 is the one that is getting increasing attention as 2015 comes to a close: the Islamic State. To be clear, IS is not a state in the true sense of the word, but it does control territory, it does seem to have a foreign policy of sorts (if one that is fundamentally opposed to basic humanity), and it does seem to be attracting the attention of some significant actors regionally, and globally. I doubt that the Islamic State will earn the legitimacy it craves, or be formally granted the territory that has been temporarily ceded to it by the generally weak response to the IS. But it will continue to impact the region, it’s terrorism will remain a global problem, and its interactions with ideological supporters via new technologies will continue to pose challenges for the world to respond to.
The second issue to define the year ahead is the role of the United States in the world. With 2016 seeing President Obama firmly ensconced in his lame duck period – one that arguably begins earlier and earlier as the presidential campaigns become longer – and with the leading Democratic nominee for the Oval Office being his former Secretary of State, there is a reasonable chance that the United States will continue to shrink from its post-WWII leadership role in the world. While it is also possible that a Republican candidate wins the race for the White House and that this GOP candidate sees a leadership role for the country as an important foreign policy goal, there is a significant chance that the US will continue to pull back from global leadership and push the world towards a less-stable, less-secure multipolar world.
The third issue that will define 2016 is the issue of migration. In Europe, migration will continue to provoke conflict between the left and the right, between those who see all migrants as refugees and those who suspect there is an economic motive in play, and between the traditionally Christian natives and the overwhelmingly Islamic migrant groups. In North America, illegal migration across the southern border will be a major campaign issue in the presidential campaign, and the security of the northern border will also likely be an issue given Canada’s stance on migrant resettlement. In the Pacific, too, Australia will be either the example of how to manage a border in the face of waves of migrants or held up and criticized as a world's worst practice with regards to international human rights obligations.
Finally, the fourth issue that will force its way to the surface and define the year ahead will be privacy. The privacy of citizens with regards to their governments, the privacy of companies with regards to their rivals, the privacy of individuals with regards to their online activities, and privacy tools available to law-abiding consumers being used by terrorists who wish the world harm will all be increasingly important in the year ahead. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris there were immediate calls for the encryption technologies that secure personal communications (like SMS and phone calls) to have government-accessible ‘back doors’ built in for officially approved government agencies to access data and communications. These calls will only grow louder, and the challenge faced by consumers, governments, corporations, and, yes, even the bad guys, is how this right to privacy can be secured, managed, or traded off (and personally, I hope we go with ‘secured’).
Now on to the leadership.
The first leader who will define 2016 just as he has defined much of the last decade is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whether in the east of Europe, the Middle East, the Arctic Ocean, in relations with China, and in acting deliberately and with confidence in Syria, the Russian leader is a standout figure on the world stage. In 2016 we’ll see more of Putin and, as Obama takes a step back as his second term draws to a close, it’s likely that Putin will step up.
The second leader who will define 2016 is UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In the face of a Labour Party opposition that has, in its choice of leader and still in the wake of its humiliating election loss, seemingly lost its way, Cameron has the chance to really make his mark in the country and internationally, too. With the future of the UK’s integration with Europe the subject of a vote before the end of 2017, Cameron will see his influence grow domestically and in Europe as different forces pitch for his support.
The third leader who will define 2016 is the Catholic Pope Francis. Already a force in the Christian world, he will continue to carve out a role for himself and for his church in a world where religion continues to play a daily political, spiritual, and economic role. The first non-European to hold the highest post in the Catholic Church, and only the third non-Italian in centuries, how he manages the world’s largest church and who he places in positions of power in that church will be important markers for discerning the future direction of the faith.
The fourth leader who will define 2016 will be Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Paramount Leader of China is the most powerful individual in that country, and easily the most powerful individual in the Asia-Pacific. Whether he is expanding China’s territorial reach in the South China Sea, expanding its ties with Russia, filling the power vacuum that the US is leaving in the Asia-Pacific as it continues its decline, or expanding China’s reach into Africa, Xi will demonstrate leadership on a global scale in the year ahead – though not always in a manner that leaders elsewhere appreciate.
Now on to the more difficult part of this prediction.
So what will happen in the year ahead? No one can be sure and it’s almost certain that on some, or even all, of the following predictions I’ll be proven dead wrong. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? So, with that in mind, here are four significant international events that we’ll see in the year ahead.
Another IS-backed or IS-inspired terror attack in Europe is likely. I don’t know if it will be France that is hit again, or whether the UK, Spain, Germany, or Belgium will be the target. But it is almost certain that an IS-backed or IS-inspired attack will take place in Europe again in 2016. As Asst. Prof Cori Zolli has argued in the wake of the Paris attacks, the IS ideology is just too attractive to thousands who already live within the borders of the EU, and hence all the efforts by states to close the borders in the wake of attacks or to up the security tempo to prevent attacks will most likely prove futile. Some attacks will surely be stopped, some will be prevented while still in the planning stage, but one or more will probably slip through the security net.
Africa will move more sharply into the global focus. Whether as a result of local and international conflict, climate change fears, migration issues, resource finds, economic growth, or the continuing expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence far from the Asia-Pacific, Africa will move closer to the center of international discussions. Long ignored, the continent will no longer find itself an international afterthought but rather a central political issue. 2016 will be the year that the world realizes that you cannot ignore 1.1 billion Africans anymore than you can ignore a billion Chinese or a billion Indians.
An old-fashioned war for Russia. I say ‘old fashioned’ in the sense that I think it will involve a movement of troops, boots on the ground, and shooting – and thus distinguished from a cyberwar or diplomatic squabble. I won’t hazard a guess as to where the war will take place, but Russia has options for territorial expansion in more than a dozen states. Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics should be concerned, but there are potential disputes – small and large – that could be triggered with other actors, too, even those that don’t share a border with the Eurasian giant.
Climate Change, Schlimate Change. Count 2016 as the year when climate change is pushed down – maybe even out – of the minds of people around the world. The world will be more practical in 2016 so efforts to make the air breathable in Beijing will take precedence over efforts to tax the temperature in 2100 down a couple of notches. The world will realize, as perhaps it already is, that the impact of climate on future generations is far less concerning than the immediate impact of terrorism, the economy, and security. Whatever happens during COP 21, climate change will retreat in 2016 until it is a policymaker’s side project and no longer a raison d’etre for any but the most environmentally-focused political parties.
So, there you go: four issues, four leaders, and four predictions for the year to come. Of course, I’m only a single voice in the prediction game and I would be more than interested to read what predictions you might make for the year ahead, too. I’m very aware of my personal biases towards great power politics and security concerns, and I can already anticipate areas where I would differ with friends, colleagues, and readers.In any case, I hope all MUNPlanet readers have a healthy and happy 2016 – and I do hope you’ll share your predictions for the year to come in the comments below.