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2020 Made History

SIS faculty list the year's events that they believe will make it into future history books.

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2020 has been a year unlike any other, with its unprecedented combination of a global pandemic, global protests for racial justice, and a consequential US presidential election. Once again, our SIS faculty present their list of the things that made history in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic made history by providing a perfect example of how humanity is united in both vulnerability and progress. This virus traveled the world at astounding speed, mutating in the process to become even more transmissible and locking us up with only modern electronic devices to keep us connected. It exposed our hubris, thinking we could "beat" it or ignore it. It laid bare huge inequities in our societies. The United States has outpaced all other large countries in terms of number of deaths. As Paul Farmer stated, “centuries of inequality in the US laid the groundwork for this pandemic devastation.”

Nevertheless, the pandemic has also shown us how we as humanity are stronger when we work together. A Turkish immigrant biotechnology power couple and their company, BioNTech, developed, in lightspeed time and with novel technology, a vaccine. They worked in collaboration with a Greek immigrant-led pharmaceutical company. The German press is touting the BioNTech story as an example of successful immigrant integration.

As we move forward to 2021, I hope that we will learn from the coronavirus example and push forward cooperation and integration to work on our most wicked challenges. Hopefully, 2021 will show us that we can vaccinate our people efficiently and equitably and make real progress on rectifying the inequities that the pandemic has laid bare.

Submitted by Nina Yamanis.

Malini Ranganathan
The summer of 2020 was aptly named "the summer of protest" because of global uprisings from the US to Brazil and from Europe to Australia voicing anger at state violence against Black people. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was but one incident in a much longer record of US police killings of Black people, but it proved to be a turning point initiating a more expansive reckoning with the racist "carceral state," which refers to a panoply of punitive, state-led mechanisms to subordinate and contain poorer Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, in America. In the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests, scholars, policy practitioners, and activists are taking stock of the long histories of racism and the unfinished work of achieving equity and humanity.
Miles Kahler
Protests against racism and police violence in the United States spread around the world, a clear sign that travel and other restrictions imposed by the pandemic had not stifled transnational activism against social injustice.

The 2020 election will be remembered for American voters rejecting the most dangerous and divisive president in American history in favor of a candidate who embodied decency and appealed to our shared humanity rather than our basest instincts. The election also showed that the most important guardrails of American democracy remain in place, as Donald Trump’s persistent efforts to undermine the election and overturn the results failed to prevent him from being turned out of office. Yet Trump will leave the White House retaining tremendous sway over the Republican Party, and he has established anti-democratic precedents that may make it easier for future US leaders to move the country closer to authoritarianism.

Submitted by Jordan Tama.

The Great Lockdown of April 2020 sent the world economy into a steep economic decline. The IMF projected: global growth at -4.4 percent for the year; a reversal of post-Cold War progress in reducing poverty; and a setback to pre-pandemic projections of economic growth. Nevertheless, rapid government responses in many countries prevented a financial collapse equivalent to the global financial crisis of 2008–09 and an even more severe recession.

Submitted by Miles Kahler.

One of the many marks 2020 will leave in the history books will be colored in the searing orange of flames and the streaked black of ash. Climate change is turning temperate forests into tinder boxes. The 2019–2020 bushfire season in Australia scorched an area the size of the country of Syria, pushing koala populations to the brink of extinction and darkening the skies over far-neighboring New Zealand. The fires in California in 2020 have been the largest in the state's modern history, with close to 10,000 individual blazes burning across four percent of the state's land. Many events in 2020 will resonate for decades. The carbon dioxide released from bush and forest fires in 2020 will be part of shaping human and planetary possibilities for millennia.

Submitted by Simon Nicholson.

2020 was the year that conspiracy theory became thoroughly mainstream. From his perch in the White House, Donald Trump used social media platforms—mainly Facebook and Twitter—news conferences, and media appearances to spread misinformation about COVID-19, the integrity of mail-in ballots, and the results of the 2020 presidential election. These claims were further amplified by Republican members of Congress, Fox News pundits, and conspiracy networks like QAnon. The result was a misinformation campaign that rivaled those in authoritarian regimes. We are lucky our press remains free to fact-check misinformation in real time.

Submitted by Carole Gallaher.

Americans provided the ultimate confirmation of Abraham Lincoln’s maxim that you can fool some of the people all of the time. Despite his being criminally—literally—unqualified for the Office of the President, his popular vote count of 73.5 million votes was the second highest vote total in US history. Despite his fatuous efforts to undermine one of the core institutions of American democracy—free elections—he has received contributions, reportedly $170 million and counting, to support his efforts to overturn an allegedly rigged/stolen election. The funds roll in despite the fact that the fine print in his solicitations for grassroots money to support his "Election Defense Fund" notes that the vast majority of collections will go to his private slush fund, a PAC called Save America.

Submitted by Stephen D. Cohen.

After four years of President Trump’s erratic, isolationist-tinged “America First” foreign policy approach, President-elect Biden will work to reverse much of Trump’s foreign policy – reentering the US into the Paris Climate Agreement, rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, and reassuring America’s European allies that the US remains committed to NATO. One foreign policy Biden wants to keep—arguably the only one—is the set of normalization agreements between Israel and two Gulf countries: the UAE and Bahrain. Known as the Abraham Accords, the Trump White House had capitalized on years of informal ties between Israel and relatively moderate Sunni Arab countries that see a shared enemy in Iran. Biden will likely build on this momentum by encouraging other states in the MENA region to follow suit. However, in contrast to Trump, he can be expected to resume America’s role as an honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by trying to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and taking steps aimed to keep the two-state solution alive.

Submitted by Guy Ziv.

Young activists in Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria, challenged the government’s creeping repression. Largely peaceful nationwide protests demanded an end to an abusive police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, infamously known as SARS. The movement drew parallels with and support from Black Lives Matter in the US and other popular efforts for police reform. In 2020, Americans and Africans thus exposed some of the limits of representative democracy, challenging states with new messages and participatory methods.

Submitted by Carl Levan.

China joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 other Asia-Pacific countries. China also announced that it will actively consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that evolved from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which never entered into force due to the withdrawal of the United States.

Submitted by Lou Goodman.

The most important event that will NOT go into the history books—but should—is the lack of fallout from the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani inside Iraq by US forces in January. This event shows the importance of thinking measuredly and objectively about how carefully states consider the calculus of threat and counter-threat and about the power of the status quo. When we fail to do this—when we take states' rhetoric as if it were a completely true account of radical intentions and perceptions—we make the world at once a more terrifying and a less knowable place.

Submitted by Dylan Craig.

Brexit actually happened when the UK left the European Union on January 31, 2020. As the future EU-UK trade arrangements comes down to the wire, with an agreement needed by December 31, 2020, to avoid significant commercial disruptions, the bigger challenge for the United Kingdom is whether it can preserve its own domestic union. Rising calls for self-determination and independence within the United Kingdom suggest that Brexit may lead to “disunion” in the face of calls for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and possibly Wales to determine their own political fate.

Submitted by Michelle Egan.

On October 15, 2020, Chilean citizens voted in a plebiscite to draft a new national constitution that would scrap the 1980 charter inherited from Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Submitted by Lou Goodman.

In July, after nearly five days of bitter negotiations, the European Union agreed on a €750 billion recovery fund to tackle the economic impact of COVID-19. In the short term, this was a major accord, as it showed the EU could act swiftly and decisively to tackle the consequences of the pandemic. But its long-term implications may be even more historic. First, the July agreement decreed that the fund would be financed by the EU borrowing on the open markets, a first step toward a common debt union. Second, parts of the recovery fund are earmarked to support the bloc’s shift to cleaner energy and to help digital transition. And third, the EU connected the provision of aid to a country’s rule of law record, as a possible tool to combat democratic backsliding among its member states.

Submitted by Garret Martin.