It’s been a trying year when it comes to the world scene.
You aren’t alone if you’re feeling worn down as 2018 comes to a close. It’s been a trying year when it comes to the world scene. A seemingly unending parade of summits, crises, protests, and conflicts dominated the news. Below is my list of the top ten world events of the year, listed in descending order. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories will continue into 2019.
10. Democrats Win Back the House. Republicans and Democrats both came away from the November midterms elections with something to brag about. Democrats, though, secured the bigger victory. Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate, meaning they will continue to have the final say on President Donald Trump’s judicial and cabinet appointments. Democrats, by contrast, picked up forty seats on their way to regaining control of the House. It was the Democrats’ biggest seat gain since the iconic Watergate class of 1974, and it came because Democratic House candidates outpolled their Republican counterparts by a record eight percentage points. When the 116th Congress opens for business on January 3, Democrats will chair House committees and decide the agenda. Democrats likely won’t succeed very often in directly overturning Trump’s decisions, whether at home or abroad. That in most instances requires them to reach agreement with the Republican-controlled Senate and override a Trump veto. But they will be able to block him on issues requiring their consent, like funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. They will also use their oversight powers to highlight their disagreements with the White House, potentially putting public pressure on Trump to reverse course. So the biggest consequences of the 2018 elections have yet to be felt.
9. Humanitarian Crises Deepen. Venezuela and Yemen were sad stories in 2017. Things only got worse in both countries in 2018. Over the past four years an estimated2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country; millions more have stayed behind and face grinding economic hardship. The cause of Venezuela’s collapse has been the mismanagement of the economy, first by Hugo Chávez, and then by Nicolás Maduro. Both men also attacked and dismantled Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Maduro won reelection in May in a rigged vote and shows no signs of retreating from policies that have brought Venezuela sky-rocketing inflation, water and electrical shortages, and growing rates of malnutrition. The Yemeni civil war entered its fourth year in 2018. Yemen now holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. As many as fourteen thousand Yemenis have died in the fighting, and fifty thousand or more are thought to have died because of a war-induced famine. The horrifying photographs of emaciated Yemeni children have not persuaded either side to lay down their weapons. Meanwhile, humanitarian crises in the Central African Republic, Congo, Syria, and South Sudan, among other places, continue to grind on. It seems like ages since world leaders embraced the principle of a responsibility to protect.
8. Ethiopia Signs a Peace Deal with Eritrea. Not all news in 2018 was bad. In June, new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed surprised the world by announcing he would accept a peace deal with Eritrea that had been gathering dust for eighteen years. The two countries fought a twelve-year long war that ended in 2000 with nearly eighty thousand dead. In July, Ahmad traveled to Asmara to meet Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and sign the peace deal. Both countries have now reopened embassies in each other’s capitals, resumed commercial air traffic, and begun demilitarizing their joint border. Besides agreeing to peace, Ahmed instituted significant reforms at home, freeing political prisoners and ending Ethiopia’s state of emergency. Some experts hope that the peace deal might undermine Afwerki’s authoritarianism in Eritrea, which is sometimes dubbed “Africa’s North Korea.” Perhaps. What is clear is that Eritrea has moderated its foreign policy, signing peace accords with Somalia and Djibouti that ended long-running border disputes with the two countries. In response, the United Nations Security Council lifted an arms embargo on Eritrea. With some luck and smart political leadership, peace on the Horn of Africa could boost the region’s economic development as well.
7. Trump’s Summitry Alarms Friends and Delights Foes. Donald Trump campaigned pledging to do different things in foreign policy and to do them differently. His summit meetings in 2018 showed him to be a man of his word. He spent the G-7 summit in Quebec in June berating other leaders for their country’s trade policies, left the meeting before it ended, and tweeted from Air Force One that he wouldn’t sign the communique he had agreed to before he left. He then went to Singapore where after five hours of meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un he signed a vague, four hundred word communique and declared that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” despite abundant evidence to the contrary. At the NATO summit in July, Trump accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of being “totally controlled” and “captive to Russia,” demanded an emergency session so he could push NATO members to spend more on defense, and suggested he might take the United States out of the alliance if he didn’t get his way. Days later at a joint press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump seemingly rejected the unanimous assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, triggering stinging bipartisan criticism back home. In November, Trump criticized French President Emmanuel Macron in a tweet as he was arriving in Paris for ceremonies to mark the centennial of the end of World War I, canceled a visit to an American military cemetery because of rain, and declined to attend a peace forum the French government hosted. Trump’s final summit meeting of the year, though, the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, was uneventful. That prompted news stories speculating about why he hadn’t been disruptive.
6. #MeToo Movement Goes Global. The #MeToo movement took off in the United States last year in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In 2018, the movement went global as millions came forward to share their stories. In Italy the movement became #QuellaVoltaChe (“that time when”), in Spain it is #YoTambien, in France it is #BalanceTonPorc (“squeal on your pig”), and in Arab-speaking countries it is #AnaKaman. According to analytics from Google, searches related to #MeToo and its variants remain high around the world, and the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Congolese physician Denis Mukwege and Yazidi assault survivor Nadia Murad “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” The precise form the #MeToo movement has taken and the success it has achieved have varied across countries and regions as legal, political, economic, and cultural conditions have differed. China, Russia, and sub-Saharan Africa are among the places where the effort to highlight and end sexual abuse and harassment hasn’t taken off. But elsewhere #MeToo has highlighted specific instances of abuse and harassment by powerful figures and ordinary people alike. The question now is whether the #MeToo movement will make a lasting difference. For that to happen, governments, businesses, organizations, and most important, people will all need to change.
5. The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi. On October 2 Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He didn’t come out alive. In the weeks that followed, Saudi officials told various stories about what happened. What they hadn’t counted on was that Turkish intelligence had bugged the consulate and that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was willing to release what he knew to embarrass them. President Trump initially suggested the murder wasn’t America’s concern because “to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen.” Congress took a different view, especially after the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Trump repudiated that conclusion, releasing a statement saying “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” The president said Riyadh’s commitment to spend more than a $100 billion on U.S. weapons systems and its importance as an ally justified his business-as-usual approach. But Saudi arm purchases actually are much smaller, and it’s questionable whether relying on MBS serves U.S. interests. He has shown a penchant for recklessness: he had many of his royal cousins arrested; championed Saudi Arabia’s ill-advised intervention in Yemen; detained Lebanon’s prime minister and temporarily forced him to resign; led the effort to impose an embargo on Qatar; and broke off diplomatic relations with Canada over a tweet. Saying that the Saudi relationship is too important to jeopardize only encourages further risk-taking.
4. The United States Leaves the Iran Nuclear Deal. Donald Trump vowed on the campaign trail to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In May, Trump made good on his pledge, claiming it was a “one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” Trump took steps against the counsel of many of his advisers and of America’s closest allies. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was among the cabinet officers who argued that for all deal’s weaknesses it was better to stay in it. British, French, and German leaders flew to Washington to lobby for the United States to stay in the deal, pledging to act to address the deal’s shortcomings. No other country followed the United States out of the deal, even after the White House announced that it would sanction any firm that does business with Iran. Iran remains in compliance with the deal, and the other signatories are looking for ways to help Tehran ease the pain of U.S. economic pressure. Whether they will succeed and whether Iran will leave the deal if they don’t are two open questions. The Trump administration has suggested that its goal in Iran goes beyond shutting down its nuclear program. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the administration “wants to restore democracy” in Iran. And even if the White House’s goals are more modest, its sanctions effort could trigger a transatlantic brawl if European firms become the target of U.S. penalties.
3. Dire Warnings About Climate Change Mount. The world’s climate is changing and human activity is the cause. Scientists have been telling us this for more than three decades and evidence backs them up. But these warnings haven’t led us to change our ways. The emission of the heat-trapping gases that produce climate change continues to rise globally. Now a sobering report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 says we may have as few as twelve years to act or pass the point of no return. To judge by the powerful hurricanes, devastating wildfires, floods, and record-breaking heat in 2018 that climate change fueled, we won’t like the world we are heading toward. But neither the UN report, nor the freak weather events of 2018, nor the release of a U.S. government report outlining how much climate change will harm the U.S. economy has turned President Trump into a climate-change believer. His rebuttal to the National Climate Assessment Report was simple: “I don’t believe it.” The odds are good—very, very good—that scientists have a better handle on the future we face. But sadly, they don’t have the ability that an American president has to keep us from going there.
2. The Weakening of the West Worsens. For experts calling on America’s friends to step up as America steps down in world affairs, 2018 wasn’t a good year. Friend after friend faced domestic problems that made it hard for them to look, let alone act, beyond their borders. Hopes that the United Kingdom could orchestrate an orderly divorce from the European Union (EU) faded. While the two sides reached a deal, British Prime Minister Theresa May couldn’t persuade the House of Commons to endorse it. Whether Britain is headed toward a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit, or no Brexit at all is anyone’s guess. Across the English Channel, French President Emmanuel Macron saw his public approval ratings tumble into the mid-twenties in the face of the gilets-jaunes, or yellow-vest, protests. The sometimes violent demonstrations diminished Macron’s ability to push ahead with his ambitious plans to reform the French economy. Further south, Italian voters elected a populist coalition combining the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing League. The new government is now fighting with Brussels over a draft budget that violates EU rules. Prime Minister Victor Orbán continued to dismantle Hungary’s democracy, and several other central European countries drifted in the same direction. Even Germany saw domestic turmoil. Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down as head of the Christian Democratic Union after the party lost several critical state elections. Merkel’s protégé Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, succeeded her. However, the chancellor no longer commands the authority at home or abroad she once did, raising fears that Europe has become leaderless.
1. Trump Triggers a Trade War and More. “I want tariffs,” Donald Trump told his advisers in July 2017. In 2018, he got his wish. In January the administration imposed tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels. A bigger move came in March, though, when tariffs were slapped on imported steel and aluminum from friends and foes alike because they posed a national security threat. Trump subsequently imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports, which by July he had raised to $250 billion. Despite tweeting that “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump’s tariffs had by year’s end hurt Americans more than helped them. The stock market sold off, the overall U.S. trade deficit widened, and America’s trading partners slapped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports, causing American farmers to lose overseas markets and leading some U.S. manufacturers cut jobs as higher input costs punished their bottom lines. Amidst this bad news, the administration had second thoughts about fighting trade wars across multiple fronts. In July, Trump struck a deal with the EU to hold off on imposing further tariffs while the two sides conducted new trade talks. In November, he struck a ninety-day trade truce with China. Trump’s tariffs, coupled with his repeated references to the EU as a “foe” and threats to impose tariffs on imported autos, left many Europeans wondering whether traditional transatlantic relations had changed for good. Meanwhile in Beijing, Chinese leaders hearing the talk in Washington about “strategic competitors” and reading Vice President Mike Pence’s tough speech on Chinese behavior were debating whether Trump was looking to do more than just reset the bilateral trade balance and instead seeking to contain China’s rise as a great power.
Other stories of note in 2018. In January, the Pentagon released a National Defense Strategy that said “great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” In February, South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang. Russian President Vladimir Putin touted a new arsenal of weapons, including an intercontinental nuclear cruise missile, in March. John Bolton became President Trump’s third national security advisor in April. In May, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem opened. Nikki Haley announced in June that the United States is pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council, calling it a “protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias.” In July, the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement was signed, creating the largest world’s largest free-bloc, covering 30 percent of global trade. In August, Apple became the first public company to achieve a market capitalization of $1 trillion. At the very last minute in September, Canada agreed to join with Mexico and the United States in revamping the North America Free Trade Agreement, now renamed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. In October, the United States informed Russia that it intended to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty because Russia was violating the terms of the treaty. In November, Russia fired upon and then seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov, escalating tensions between Moscow and Kiev. In December, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, essentially the Trans-Pacific Partnership minus the United States, went into effect.
Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations, 12.20.2018, under the terms a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.