In a 24-hour news environment, it can be difficult to find a place to bookmark—a time to pause and assess what has happened. Year’s end always provides that opportunity, however fleeting the pause may be. Of all that has taken place over the last year, what is likely to make it into future history books? To help put 2019’s events into perspective, we asked SIS faculty to list, in no particular order, what they believe will be remembered as historic in the years to come.
To me, the big news regarding climate in 2019 is the Trump administration’s erasing of key policies that have worked in the service of climate protection. The administration has dismantled rules on carbon and methane emissions, reduced funding for climate research, expunged mention of climate change in many agency reports, opened up protected areas to fossil fuel extraction, encouraged criminalizing citizen protests against pipelines and fossil fuel facilities, and remained steadfast in withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement. The administration is at war with the whole idea of climate change based on the false notion that climate legislation hurts economic growth. Its actions have had not simply an annual effect on the planet but a geological one.
The natural science evidence on climate change became even more alarming in 2019, with new reports of rising temperatures and sea levels. Yet, my three decades of experience gave little reason to hope that international negotiations to address climate change would lead to much action. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to greenhouse gas reductions to which parties had committed in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement may have amounted to little more than codifications of business as usual. Against this backdrop, one has to wonder if the Trump administration’s choice to abandon even the US’s modest NDCs represents the door swinging shut irrevocably on the effective global action that would be required if the worst effects of climate change were to be avoided.
Social media have facilitated a wave of anti-corruption, anti-government protests across the globe, including in Bolivia, Chile, France, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, and Spain. Protesters in democracies routinely use a full spectrum of social media. Snapchat is the platform of choice in authoritarian countries because messages disappear seconds after they have been opened, which makes them harder to trace. Social media enable quicker organizing of larger groups, but this has disadvantages, too. Since there’s less need of a formal structure, protest groups are increasingly leaderless and incoherent. These new movements often have trouble articulating a coherent set of demands and identifying credible interlocutors to negotiate with governments. They also can be easily hijacked by extreme elements and often collapse quickly without accomplishing much, as with the French “yellow vest” protests.
2019 was the year of protest. From Paris to Hong Kong and from the Middle East to the “Latin American spring,” people took to the streets to challenge economic inequality, corruption, and unrepresentative government. Pundits have pointed to the ease of mobilizing people in the digital era, but a key driver is the lack of trust, particularly among youth, in the political-economic status quo.
In May 2019, Narendra Modi made history by becoming the first prime minister from outside the Indian National Congress party to win reelection, securing an absolute majority for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In August, his government revoked the special status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir under the Indian constitution—a move that attracted criticism not only from Pakistan and China but also from the BJP’s domestic opponents who saw this as further proof of its Hindu nationalist stance. Externally, he continued his active foreign policy to present India as a rising power.
In Ecuador, civil society protests lead the government to retreat from regressive policies pressed by the IMF. In Chile, student protests expand into a broader popular backlash against government policies that have led to rising inequality. And, in Bolivia, protests bring down the Evo Morales government after questionable election results. While the global press largely talks of a backlash against a “pink tide,” these events of 2019 instead demonstrate growing discontent with rulers or party dynasties who do not know when to step down and/or with neoliberal and extractive policies that plunder natural resources and widen the gap between rich and poor.
Indonesia announced the nation’s capital would move from Jakarta, one of the world’s fastest sinking cities, to East Kalimantan, a province on the island of Borneo. This was widely viewed as a response to sea-level rise, which threatens to overwhelm large portions of Jakarta by 2050. But this solution will see the capital move from a city that is sinking nearly seven inches a year to one whose construction will cause a different type of environmental degradation. The deforestation required to build a new capital would threaten the island’s remaining healthy forests, and the draining required could make the land more vulnerable to fires.
Like all mass shootings, those in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, were depressing reminders of how prevalent gun violence is in the United States. However, these shootings also showed the growing influence of far-right social movements in American violence. Both shooters referenced white nationalist conspiracy theories about immigrants and Jews to justify their violence.
Information is becoming increasingly visual, and internet video abounds. Recognizing this, the year 2019 witnessed increased attention to “deepfakes.” Some may argue that there are overreactions to deepfakes. Yet there are serious policy questions, especially as the intersection between deepfakes and artificial intelligence technologies grows larger. Indeed, the year ahead may see a reshaping of the meaning of disinformation to include the visual. It may also see concomitant increased regulatory debates.
The escalating trade war between the United States and China in 2019 has made it clear that trade wars are not good for those affected—which is most of us—and are notoriously difficult to win. Prominent US casualties include pork and soybean producers, as well as consumers of most goods made in China. Three 2019 studies show a complete pass-through of the higher tariffs onto US consumers (Amiti et al. 2019; Cavallo et al. 2019; and Fajgelbaum et al. 2019). Another study shows the cost per job saved exceeding $800,000 annually.
181 CEOs of the world’s largest companies repudiated the longstanding idea that their most important priority was building shareholder wealth. Leaders of companies including Amazon, Apple, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, and General Motors—in a joint statement issued by the Business Roundtable—committed to balance the needs of their stockholders with those of customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities. This public redefinition of mission comes at a time when traditional capitalism is under intense criticism from many aspiring office-holders, business scholars, millennials, and NGO activists.
Although the industrialized countries have witnessed calls for trade protectionism, major trade liberalization initiatives have continued in the developing world. The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is one of the largest and most promising of these. If implemented as planned on July 1, 2020, it will offer continent-wide opportunities for African firms and consumers.
Israel held two inconclusive national elections in 2019—in April and then a redo election in September—and appears to be headed for a third round in early-2020 due to the gridlock in forming a new government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has governed Israel for over a decade, faces the biggest challenge to his career: the emergence of a new centrist slate co-led by three ex-IDF chiefs and a popular politician who are intent on sending the country’s longest-serving politician into retirement. An added complication for Netanyahu’s future is the attorney general’s decision to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Much hangs in the balance: the fragile state of Israeli democracy; Israel’s ability to cope with the growing threat posed by Iran and its proxies; the future of the occupied territories; and five sets of important relationships—between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority; between religious and secular Israelis; and between Israel and the Palestinians, the pragmatic Sunni Arab regimes, and the international community, in particular the US, its most important ally.
Brexit was supposed to take place on March 29, but instead, we witnessed more drama, uncertainty, and delays this year in UK politics as Brexit remains unresolved.
The multiple failures by Prime Minister Theresa May to get parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal with the EU eventually led to her resignation over the summer. Nor was her successor, Boris Johnson, able to get “Brexit done” by Halloween as promised. Johnson's controversial decision in late August to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for several weeks, later declared unlawful by the Supreme Court, undoubtedly earned him few friends in Westminster. And the EU, frustrated by the inability of UK politicians to reach any agreement, still agreed to extend three times the Brexit date, which now stands at January 31, 2020.
The general election on December 12 might finally break the deadlock and give one of the parties, or a coalition, a meaningful majority in Parliament. But there are few certainties as the UK approaches its most consequential general election since 1945.
In Yemen, Houthi rebels—Shia backed by Iran—have been fighting since 2014 against the Sunni-dominated Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and UAE’s intervention forces. The war has resulted, so far, in close to 100,000 people killed, two million displaced, and a growing famine. It further escalated this September, when Saudi oil facilities were destroyed by a massive air attack, for which the Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, but for which Saudi Arabia and the US blame Iran.
Although Donald Trump is not the first president impeached and threatened with removal from office, he is the first to be impeached for reasons centered on foreign policy. The abuse of power and obstruction of Congress detailed in the articles of impeachment concern the use of presidential foreign policy powers—and a foreign government—to target domestic political opponents, a first in the US history of impeachment proceedings.
Venezuela was a country in turmoil when the United States backed the failed effort to oust the government in February 2019 and replace it with a weak coalition led by neophyte politician Juan Guaidó. The turmoil had been caused partly by severe US sanctions against Venezuela that led to significant food shortages and blackouts. The US also discouraged negotiations aimed at resolving the turmoil peacefully, which has contributed to a loss of trust for the US in public opinion polls of Latin Americans and has resurrected the undesirable image of the US as the Colossus of the North—or more simply as an imperial power.
The Trump administration's decision to withdraw troops from Syria and to allow the Turkish military to move into northern Syria presented a real challenge to our strongest allies in the fight against ISIS at the time: the Kurds, mainly consisting of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People's Protection Units (YPG). In my opinion, this decision by the Trump administration did not benefit the US in any way; the status quo, while not perfect, at least kept the Kurds safe and prevented the Turkish military from moving into Syria and potentially causing a major humanitarian disaster. The decision also could have downstream negative consequences for US foreign policy in already dangerous civil war situations.
When the American League was founded in 1901, one of its charter teams was the Washington Senators. That team won the World Series in 1924 and moved to Minneapolis after the 1960 season. A second Senators team played in DC from 1961 through 1971 before moving and becoming the Texas Rangers. After that, there was no baseball team in DC until 2005, when the former Montreal Expos moved here and became the Washington Nationals. That team, in turn, had a losing record through the 2011 season, even losing over 100 games two years in a row. Things turned around in 2012 when the team won the National League's eastern division, but they then lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. Despite several more division victories and playoff appearances in the next few years, the Nats, as they are affectionately known, had never won a post-season series until this year, when they defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and St. Louis Cardinals en route to a World Series against the Houston Astros. The Nationals were victorious in the first World Series in history where the home team did not win a single game, winning four games to three.