For many of us, the last year has been a whirlwind of events: a seemingly endless news cycle dominated by ever-widening partisan politics, newly elected international leaders, and trade tension. To help put it all into perspective, we asked experts from the School of International Service (SIS) to list, in no particular order, what they believe will be remembered as historic in the years to come.
When then- attorney general Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy at the US border with Mexico last April, it signaled a new and dangerous escalation in the Trump Administration’s attempts to curb the flow of immigrants to this country. I thought then that separating parents from their children and housing the children in separate detention facilities masquerading as summer camps represented the lowest point we would see this year. And when a federal judge in June ordered those families reunited within 30 days, I believed that saner heads had prevailed and some sense of American values would emerge in our policies for migrants at the southern border. I was wrong.
By late October, the US military had deployed 5,000 troops to the border in an action supposedly sparked by the migrant caravan from Central America. It is some comfort that the Pentagon resisted White House entreaties for our military to serve as law enforcement and instead restricted themselves to supporting border authorities with logistical tasks like laying razor wire. However, the situation escalated again on November 25, when US border agents used tear gas to repel a group of 500 attempting to cross the border. Among that number were women–some of whom had children with them who were barefoot and still in diapers. The shameful images emerging from that day will rank as one of the true low points in the history of a nation of immigrants.
Journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 and was never seen again. The journalist, a Saudi citizen residing in Washington, DC, criticized his government and paid with his life; Saudi officials have admitted his premeditated murder. Under unrelenting pressure from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Khashoggi's fellow journalists, foreign governments, corporations, and prominent individuals have indicated that the Saudi government could face meaningful consequences for its assassination. At the time of this list’s publication, the long-term repercussions remain unclear.
Professor Garret Martin
It took years of painful negotiations between the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (US, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, and Russia) and Iran to reach an agreement in 2015. But with a stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump decided in May that the US would withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal). Trump then restored all sanctions on Iran and issued a clear ultimatum to non-US companies: if they continue doing business with Iran, they will lose access to the US financial market. The impact of the US withdrawal is particularly consequential for many reasons: it could lead to the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal and invite Tehran to resume its nuclear program; it threatens to further weaken an already fragile transatlantic partnership; and it is another blow to the multilateral, rules-based order that the US had championed since World War II.
In December 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement. In it, the countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit future warming below 2 degrees Celsius, with an attempt to remain below 1.5 degrees. Released in October of this year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report did two pivotal things: it illustrated the enormous difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming; and it outlined how we can succeed in limiting future warming by concluding that it would require drastic policies—more drastic than the policies currently being implemented or discussed.
Cuba’s National Assembly elected Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez on April 19, 2018, as the president of Cuba. Díaz-Canel had been first vice president and promised to continue in the path toward “perfecting” socialism designed by his predecessor, Raúl Castro Ruz. But given Cuba’s significant economic problems due insufficient foreign investment, the disaffection of Cuba’s youth, and international political challenges Cuba faces, the election of a president who is not a Castro meant an era had ended and change would be inevitable in order to sustain the Cuban Revolution.
One of President Trump’s top campaign pledges was to get rid of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he has repeatedly called “the worst trade deal ever.” In 2018, the Trump administration negotiated a replacement for NAFTA, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is expected to be signed by the end of the year and next must be ratified by each country’s legislature. Passage of USMCA in the US was basically assured under a Republican-controlled Congress, but is less assured now that Democrats will gain control of the House in January. Interestingly, the USMCA addresses some major concerns Democrats had about NAFTA by providing stronger labor and environmental provisions, but only time will tell whether the new agreement goes far enough to gain bipartisan support in this highly polarized political environment.
Professor Aaron Boesenecker
Largely overlooked in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, the passage of Florida Ballot Initiative 4 restored voting rights to about 1.5 million individuals who had committed felonies and served their sentences. This figure represents about 10% of Florida’s adult population and, by some estimates, is the largest single expansion of the franchise since the 1965 Voting Rights Act and women’s suffrage in 1920. In a time when voting rights, efforts to combat voter suppression, and contested elections hinge on just a few votes in key states, the passage of Florida Ballot Initiative 4 may well have significant implications for key districts in 2020 and beyond.
Professor Emeritus Stephen Cohen
This was a year in which constant presidential assaults on democracy and decency, as well as continuous mass shootings, became passively accepted in the United States as the new normal. It is too early to determine whether the results of the midterm national elections count as “history-making.” They may prove to be a real first step in halting the drift into a constitutional crisis, or they may have been just an inconsequential blip in countering the presidential-led attack on American institutions, values, and traditions.
Professor Emeritus Gordon Adams
US Middle East policy took a sharp turn in the past year, eliminating the previous US role as “honest broker” and regional balancer. The administration took sides, lining up solidly in support of Saudi Arabia by selling arms, supporting the Saudi war in Yemen, encouraging the Saudi’s to confront Iran and its activities in the region, and giving Prince Mohammed bin Salman a clear pass, rather than hold him responsible for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. The administration also took sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and freezing US support for the Palestinian Authority and the UN refugee effort in the Palestinian territories. While the US supported the largely Kurdish forces taking down ISIS in Syria, the US became the odd man out in post-conflict Syria discussions, which are led by the Turks, Russians and Iranians, along with the Assad regime. Increasingly, these changes in policy are marginalizing the ability of the US to remain a power broker in the region.
Professor Matt Taylor
In Brazil, former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges and sent to jail in April. He continued to be the frontrunner for president until September, when an electoral court barred him from running under the Clean Slate Law, which bans candidates who have been convicted on appeal from standing for political office. Right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro stepped into the void, beating Lula stand-in Fernando Haddad in the October 30 runoff, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Worsening relations between the United States and China—with trade at the center, but hardly limited to trade—marked 2018. From the U.S. perspective, China had demonstrated its unwillingness to play by the rules of fair trade and reneged on past promises regarding cyberespionage and militarization of the South China Sea. From the Chinese perspective, the United States revealed its unwillingness to accept China’s rise to great power status and its continuing economic advance, which had benefited its population over four decades of economic reform and opening. The agreement reached in December at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires represented a temporary truce in this spiraling conflict.
Professor Lauren Carruth
On April 2, Abiy Ahmed Ali, known widely as Dr. Abiy, assumed the office of prime minister of Ethiopia and chairmanship of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition party. His ascension has been nothing less than a watershed moment for the Horn of Africa, and many Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora feel he has ushered in a new era for the region. Three months after taking office, he and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki signed a “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” declaring an end to tensions and an opening of travel and communication between the two countries. Throughout the summer, airports and hotels in Asmara, Addis Ababa, Mekelle, and elsewhere were filled with the cries and embraces of thousands of families, reunited after many years of war. Dr. Abiy has continued to make revolutionary appointments within the government, including several women from various ethnic groups, and women whose careers have been built outside EPRDF party politics. Tensions, however, remain. As Dr. Abiy promises to upend many power structures in the country, he has survived assassination attempts and remains unable to solve political conflicts in contested areas of the country.
In October, following disappointing local election results, Angela Merkel announced that she would not run for re-election as German Chancellor in 2021. This marks the end of an era. Since taking over as Chancellor in 2005 and as the longest serving head of government in the European Union, Merkel’s centrist and moderate leadership at home helped Germany experience impressive economic growth. Abroad, Merkel became a vigorous defender of the international liberal order and took a leading role in navigating the many crises that afflicted the EU, most noticeably the Eurozone crisis and the refugee crisis. It remains to be seen if anyone can fill that leadership void, whether in Germany or in Europe. -Garret Martin
With her announcement in late October that she will step aside as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in December 2018 and will not run for Chancellor in 2021, Europe will be left without a clear defender of the liberal international order for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Merkel was Europe’s longest-serving head of state (first elected as Chancellor in 2005). She consistently defended a multilateral approach to trade and defense, was a staunch supporter of European integration, and also defended and enhanced the German-American transatlantic partnership during her tenure. With the UK in the midst of Brexit, French President Macron new to the European political scene and mired in domestic political conflict, and the rise of right-wing populist leadership across Central and Eastern Europe (as well as in Italy), there is no clear successor to Merkel and her efforts to champion European integration and multilateralism as the surest way to prevent Europe and the world from devolving back into the conflict and violence that characterized the 20th century. -Aaron Boesenecker