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13 things that made history in 2017

Stack of history books, including one from 2017

In the 12 months that have passed since we last polled our faculty on what events, news, and developments would be written into the history books, much has transpired. At times, 2017 seemed to be one endless news cycle. From transition in the White House in January to the #metoo phenomenon and resulting revelations this fall, if nothing else, 2017 was a year when norms seemed to change by the day. 

To help put it all in perspective, we checked in with faculty at the School of International Service to weed out which moments, news, and developments from 2017 will be ones for the history books. The following 13 things, listed in no particular order, are what our experts say will be remembered for years to come.

While persecution of the Rohingya population in Myanmar had previously been described as a "precursor to genocide," it became clear in 2017 that Myanmar's government is both participating in and acquiescing to genocide against this population. From physical attacks to forced exile to acts of cultural destruction, the Rohingya are victims of a systematic and widespread assault on their existence in Myanmar. Notably, the genocide is being committed under the leadership of Myanmar's "pro-democracy" and "human right activist" Aung San Suu Kyi.

—Jeff Bachman

In January, the US intelligence community assessed that the Russian government had orchestrated cyber operations designed to discredit Hillary Clinton and influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. The remainder of 2017 was marked by the political fallout from those revelations and evidence that some of Donald Trump’s advisers had communicated with Russian officials or agents during the campaign. The Justice Department appointed a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, to investigate the possibility of collusion or other wrongdoing, while several congressional committees began their own probes. In October, Mueller brought criminal charges against three Trump campaign advisers, and the investigations seem likely to continue well into 2018. The scandal also contributed to the most important legislation enacted by Congress so far this year: a law imposing new sanctions on Russia and restricting the president’s ability to lift sanctions on that country. At a time when Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on most issues, the nearly unanimous support on Capitol Hill for this law represented a striking moment of bipartisanship.

—Jordan Tama

2017 will be remembered as the year when women stopped being silent about sexual assault and sexual harassment. Beginning with the women who first spoke out about sexual abuse by Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump to the floodgates that have opened with allegations from both women and men about public figures including Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roy Moore, it's clear that there has been a sea change. For the first time, we're seeing real consequences that hit the accused where they feel it-in the wallet and the reputation.

This is happening internationally, with survivors speaking out in countries from India to France. Not just a social media trend, #metoo is synonymous with a culture shift that could have profound repercussions for years to come. One thing is certain: the era of powerful men abusing others with impunity is over.

—Christine BN Chin

This was the year when a majority of Americans came to legitimately fear that their country’s basic, historically-tested norms face a clear and present threat from the Trump administration’s mendacity, vindictiveness, shallowness, apparent admiration for authoritarianism, and inexperience. The greatest tear in the nation’s political and social fiber since the Civil War has brought rational fears that the “center cannot hold.” It was the year when it became obvious that too many Americans, from the Oval Office down, had discarded facts and replaced them with subjective opinions and prejudices. And it was a year when Congress became so polarized that very little of consequence could be accomplished or agreed upon—except for a rising concern about President Trump’s starting a nuclear war.

—Stephen D. Cohen

There is an assumption that there has been a “far-right shift” in Europe, given recent election results that have seen far right parties make significant electoral gains in 2017. Yet, what has actually emerged is that the window of acceptability for these views has been moderated and loosened, allowing divisive and often illiberal or illegal symbols, ideologies, and discourse to come into play. The “backsliding of democracy” has garnered the most attention, but the election results in 2017 should also be remembered for the right-wing turn of mainstream parties and the losses of social democratic parties.

—Michelle Egan

2017 saw the continuation of a distinctly American phenomenon: mass shootings outside of war. Perhaps the only change between 2017 and previous years is the scale. Fifty-eight people—the largest number of victims in an American mass shooting so far—were killed when a gunman opened fire on a country music concert from his hotel room in Las Vegas. The carnage continues and the lack of political will to do anything about it does too.

—Carolyn Gallaher

North Korea’s missile provocation in the first months of a new US president in office is not new. However, in 2017, tensions surrounding Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats have escalated to an unprecedented level. The reasons: first, North Korea’s launch of its first intercontinental missile may suggest the regime’s increased capacity to directly threaten the national security of the United States, not just that of the US’s Asian allies and partners, with a nuclear weapon. Second, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s choice of provocative language have heightened a concern about the possibility of conflict on the Korean peninsula. 

—Ji-Young Lee

In 2017, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, an international accord that commits the world to reducing greenhouse gases to address climate change. He also relaxed many domestic regulations that encourage energy efficiency and non-fossil fuel sources of energy. Going forward, the US will be the only country that is not party to the Paris Agreement. The rest of the world has committed to pushing ahead without the US. However, given the US’s large carbon footprint, its absence and lack of leadership dims hope for arresting runaway climate change.

—Paul Wapner

The dispute over Catalonia's status in the fall 2017 plunged Spain into arguably its biggest crisis since the country's transition to democracy in the 1970s. The catalyst for the crisis was the decision by the Catalan regional government to force through an independence referendum on October 1, despite protests from the opposition, and its later declaration of independence on October 27. The Spanish authorities, who deemed the referendum as illegal, have responded in a heavy-handed manner, arresting pro-independence Catalan officials, dissolving the regional parliament, and ordering new elections on December 21. The crisis has so far sharply divided Catalan and Spanish society and it raises concerns that it could further embolden other separatist movements in Europe.

—Garret Martin

Since 1984, Republican presidents have instated a policy requiring that foreign NGOs receiving US family planning assistance commit to neither performing nor supporting abortion as a method of family planning, even with their non-US funds. President Trump’s expansion of the so-called “global gag rule” made history in the field of global health because it extended the conditionality to almost all $8 billion in US global health assistance, giving the policy far greater reach than ever before. The funding cuts and uncertainty associated with this policy will put millions of lives at risk, as they reduce access to family planning, HIV prevention and treatment, and other vital health services.

—Rachel Sullivan Robinson

Emanuel Macron’s election as president of France at age 39 was truly notable. He created his own political party, La République En Marche!, in April 2016 and handily defeated the traditional French political parties in not only in the presidential election in May 2017, but also the French National Assembly a month later.

—Steve Silvia

Good news from an unlikely place: On March 29, 2017, members of El Salvador's legislature voted unanimously to ban metallic mining, making El Salvador the first nation on Earth to ban all metals mining, an activity that threatened that nation’s water supply. This unpredicted event was covered in major newspapers around the world, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, and New York Times, but still deserves much more attention than it has thus far garnered. I was in El Salvador for that historic vote, continuing work that I have been doing with local communities in the gold-country in northern El Salvador since 2009. This event relates to a 2017 "historic event" for me and for SIS: in April, I was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, largely for this work. I am the first professor from SIS to receive a Guggenheim.

—Robin Broad

The internet itself made history in 2017. Whether it was the US President's unique use of Twitter once elected or the revelations of other countries' use of social media as a foreign policy tool, or even the presence of major hacking incidents affecting large proportions of the public, the internet was no longer peripheral to either international affairs studies or general public awareness of its power and pitfalls.

—Nanette Levinson