International Politics in 2016: Ten Predictions



1. The global crackdown on human rights continues

The year 2016 will most likely break a series of sad records -- regarding the number of journalists and bloggers detained and attacked, the number of NGOs harassed and the number of opposition politicians and activists killed. More governments than ever, many of them democratic ones, pass restrictive laws that stifle and threaten civil society. Almost half the world’s countries have implemented controls that affect tens of thousands of organizations across the globe, and others are likely to follow suit. They are by no means concentrated in one region of the world. Rather, speaking truth to power is dangerous in many places, like Cuba (where the governments routinely detains activists), Brazil (where several bloggers were assassinated recently), Egypt, Hungary, Israel, Russia, China, Thailand and several African countries, where gay rights activists are often killed with impunity.

2. The Rise of the Parallel Order

While continuing to support existing international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, China will promote sino-centric institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Development (AIIB) and the BRICS-led New Development Bank, both of which will start lending in 2016. These new entities will serve as symbols of a different global institutional landscape: more complex, less Western-centric, but ultimately more adequate for a multipolar world. A growing number of countries, including Japan, will seek membership of the new institutions. Despite a growing wariness in Asia about Beijing's designs, the prospect of Chinese money will reduce the probability of more explicit balancing behavior.

3 A never-ending tragedy in the Middle East

The conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is set to continue, prolonging the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The entire region from Tunisia to Iran will remain on fire, and violence between Palestinians and Israelis may eliminate the only space of relative tranquility. While Russian and Western military intervention may weaken the Islamic State, there is little hope for an end to the war and a consolidation of regional stability. Both the United States and Europe will focus on the challenges related to these conflicts, dedicating less time to important questions such as the conflict in Ukraine and the rise of China.

4. The myth of state-building: Continued conflict in Afghanistan and Libya

Both Afghanistan and Libya are set to remain failed states without central governments capable of controlling all regions of the country, marked by massive violence and political instability. In Afghanistan, the Taliban may even return to power after NATO troops leave. The two countries should serve as a warning to those who regard military interventions as easy solutions: While both the military engagements in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Libya in 2011 enjoyed relatively broad support in Western capitals, the follow-up of building functional political institutions and a sustainable economy proved impossible. Despite these problems, Washington is unlikely to give up nation-building, a practice it has pursued for the past two centuries, and which, to the chagrin of many observers, is a central element of the United States' foreign policy.

5. A global trend towards trade liberalization

After years of negotiations, the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was announced in 2015. Its implementation (subject to congressional approval) will connect the United States to the economic center of the 21st century, one of the fastest-growing regions of the world, and condolidate its relationship to Japan, its key ally. It is the first real manifestation of Obama's pivot to Asia, which so far consisted of mere rhetoric. Similar regional mega deals can be expected: A trade deal between the United States and Europe and between Europe and Mercosur, among others. South American nations, led by Argentina, are eager to strengthen their trade ties with the rest of the world after years of protectionist policies. 

6. The weakening of the pink tide in South America

Election victories of center-right parties in Argentina and Venezuela in 2015 marked a profound change in regional dynamics and suggest that left-wing populist governments fueled by high commodity prices are on the retreat. In Peru, where voters will head to the polls in April 2016, victory for one of three prominent centre-right candidates (Garcia, Toledo or Fujimori) is likely to accentuate this trend further (even though current President Humala, who was elected as a leftist, has moved to the center and has maintained liberal economic policies). Perhaps more importantly, there is now a real chance that Maduro will face a referendum in 2016, possibly marking the end of nearly two decades of chavismo in Venezuela. In the same way, Brazil's center-left PT is likely to suffer a historic defeat in regional elections in 2016. Yet a complete regional shift to the right is unlikely: Evo Morales is currently seeking to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power until 2025 by running for another re-election at the end of his current term. While the ideas has proved divisive in Bolivia, it seems likely that he'll succeed. In Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador, centre-left governments remain in power.

7. Russia and the West: Long-term estrangement in a post-Crimea world

Attempts to improve ties between Russia and the West will be hampered by the fact that the current state of affairs is not the product of short-term animosities or problem about a particular policy issue, but a more fundamental disagreement about the European security architecture and the distribution of power in Russia's neighborhood in general. Unless President Putin fears that his country could implode economically, chances for a meaningful reset are slim, and even in case of a Russian collapse a rapprochement would be far from guaranteed. Even if a peace deal is reached soon between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels, deep-seated distrust will remain for years to come. That will turn the BRICS countries into key allies for Moscow, indispensable for keeping Russia economically and diplomatically connected to the rest of the world.

8. India: Last BRICS standing

In 2016, India will grow faster than China, turning it into a global darling of investors. Despite its countless domestic problems, India will also increasingly become a poster child of those who argue that democracy is no obstacle to double-digit growth. Policy makers in Delhi will use the country's momentum to strengthen alliances with other countries worried about China's rising regional influence such as Japan. At the same time, Delhi and Beijing are pragmatic enough to understand that a strong bilateral relationship can be mutually beneficial, even though tensions vis-à-vis the border disputes and other disagreements will remain. With China's economy growing at around 5% next year, the global economy will continue to become ever more Asia-centric.

9. Hillary Clinton becomes the 45th President of the United States

In November, Hillary Clinton will become the first female President-elect United States. Having served as Senator and Secretary of State under Barack Obama, Clinton can be expected to pursue a largely similar foreign policy, even though she may be somewhat more cautious regarding trade agreements. Before leaving office, Barack Obama makes a history visit to Cuba, where he meets Raul Castro and representatives of the opposition. While Obama's legacy includes high points such as diplomatic relations with Cuba (and possibly Iran), Clinton will also have to deal with a quagmire in Syria and Iraq, a war in Yemen and a looming return to power by the Taliban in Kabul.

10. Black swans (Low-probability, high-impact events)

Most forecasts in international politics fail to take into account the possibility of wild cards. When we think back to the most momentous events during the past decades, many of them – including Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, decolonization in Africa, the Iranian Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union or the terrorist attacks on September 11th– were fairly unpredictable. For 2016, the most plausible unlikely high-impact events are political instability in China (which would send economic shock waves around the world), a large-scale terror attack in Europe or the United States (which could lead to a broader military intervention in the Middle East and possibly strengthen fringe parties), and the fall of the House of Saud and the rise of hardline Islamists in Saudi Arabia (shifting dynamics in the Middle East as dramatically as in 1979).

Read also:

International Politics in 2015: Ten Predictions

International Politics in 2014: Ten Predictions

Interview: Why the BRICS will remain an important force in world affairs in 2015 and beyond

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