Year in Review: Was 2015 as Bad as It Seemed?

Migrants and refugees wait to cross the border from Macedonia to Greece. Gevgelija, Macedonia, December 4, 2015. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

According to almost all accounts, 2015 has been a fairly dismal year. Whether in peace and security, the economy, or the environment, the world seems to have experienced one crisis after another, leaving governments and citizens alike overwhelmed, frightened, and frustrated. Risks to personal security, growing inequality, and international tensions seem to have dominated global news and personal conversations more than any time in recent memory.

As 2016 approaches, it is important to understand the nature and extent of the challenges that will continue on into the new year. Governments and other institutions should not underestimate the crises at hand, and the sense of frustration they have generated. However, it is clear that a more nuanced picture of 2015 is needed. Societies cannot succumb to fear-mongering, and should instead work to counter negative rhetoric with realistic assessments of the threats they face, and develop clear strategies to handle these challenges to the best of their ability.

What follows is a snapshot of the major crises that have impacted the international community over the past 12 months, a review of several contrasting positive developments and trends, and four subsequent lessons that can help inform and shape the conduct of global affairs for the next year and beyond.

The Crises That Shaped 2015

The war in Syria, now in its fourth year and with no solution in sight, has killed some 250,000 people and triggered the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Four million people have been displaced and more than 750,000 refugees and migrants have traveled to European borders—an almost threefold increase from last year—with thousands dying while making the journey. While the refugee issue has dominated the media and political discourse in Europe, the countries actually hosting the largest amount of refugees are not in the continent. According to the UN Refugee Agency, these are Turkey (with 1.59 million refugees), followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan.

However, the region hosting the largest number of refugees, with over a quarter of the global total, is the Asia-Pacific. The Rohingya people are a notable refugee population here. This year, over 25,000 of the persecuted minority fled Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety fishing boats to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Many were left at sea with no water and food for days, until a few countries agreed to provide refuge. While the overall refugee crisis continues unabated in locations across the globe, 2016 will see the largest ever funding gap for humanitarian needs—over $10 billion USD, according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Another key challenge that dominated headlines and political discourse in 2015 is terrorism. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s latest index, terrorism was on the rise in 2014, the most recent year for which reliable data was available. Five countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria—accounted for almost 80% of the deaths it caused. Though attacks in Western countries garner significant attention, they saw only 37 deaths from terrorist attacks in 2014, or just 0.11% of the global total. This figure obviously increased in 2015, with several very high-profile attacks in Western countries, but the comparative figures stayed approximately the same.

Nonetheless, the perception of risk has increased significantly globally, with attacks inspired by the so-called Islamic State now aiming at the soft underbelly of societies in countries across the globe, targeting markets and places of worship in Iraq and Pakistan, residential areas in Lebanon, museums and beach hotels in Tunisia, cartoonists, supermarkets, and music halls in France, and an office holiday party in the US, among others. And the message of ISIS appears to be resonating within many communities. In the first half of 2015, at least 7,000 more foreign fighters joined the group. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamic extremist group, has also expanded its range, taking lives in northern Cameroon, Chad, and northeastern Niger. As well as governments and citizens, UN peacekeepers must increasingly confront these types of violent extremism. As highlighted by a recent UN peace operation review, this a new operational scenario for which they are unprepared.

In addition to the Syrian crisis, which now involves a large number of neighboring countries and international forces, conflict and violence continued unabated in the Central African Republic, Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen. Burundi, where the UN has been engaged for over a decade, is on the verge of a new ethnic war. And tensions continued to build up in the South China Sea, with China unabated in its massive land reclamation, prompting the US to show its commitment to the area with a “freedom of navigation” operation. The risk of a global-scale confrontation remains high in this area.

It was also an “annus horribilis” for the environment and natural disasters. A devastating earthquake struck Nepal and killed over 9,000 people. Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai, all reached new levels of hazardous air pollution, which continues in many cities unchecked, while vast regions of Southeast Asia were affected by haze coming from Indonesian plantations illegally cleared by burning. Thousands were sickened as the longer-than-usual dry season caused by the El Niño phenomenon, which altered weather patterns across the Pacific basin, prolonged the crisis for over two months. A severe water shortage in California forced state officials to order water use cut by as much as 36% for the first time. The drought is estimated to have cost California’s economy $2.7 billion USD. The US Environmental Protection Agency also discovered that the car-maker Volkswagen had systematically cheated on indications of the emissions levels of its diesel engines, which have been emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US, increasing the perception that the environment continues to be degraded in a largely unchecked manner.

A political crisis has engulfed the already tense political landscape in Bangladesh, which has caused more than 60 deaths and scores of injured. Venezuela continued to be a theater of large social protests, mass looting, and police violence, triggered by both political crisis and negative economic growth. Political scandals reached the highest ranks of government in Brazil and Malaysia, while in Guatemala the former president will stand trial for corruption. The US also reckoned with new levels of mass violence. Firearms took a life every 16 minutes, with a mass shooting once per day on average. The death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody spurred two weeks of protests in Baltimore and was just one of numerous cases reigniting the debate about police brutality. In June, a gunman killed nine people at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, allegedly motivated by white supremacist beliefs, raising new questions about racism and social integration

Finally, while the lingering global financial crisis seems to be giving way to green shoots of recovery in certain markets, the slowdown of the Chinese and other emerging economies, the increase in market volatility, and the precipitous decline in certain currencies have made life harder for their populations, as well as governments and businesses. The Greek debt crisis negatively impacted the market for months in 2015. The country eventually received its third bailout in five years, but the money mainly went toward paying off international loans, leaving the economy still in recession and the unemployment rate above 25%. China’s stock market dive left global markets reeling and still trying to make sense of what might be coming in 2016. Global trade volume fell in the first half of the year for the first time since 2009. For commodities, which are in a global rout, “the news has been so bad that the mood must change at some point,” noted The Economist.

Notes of Optimism

While there are clearly many problems with which governments and societies must contend as we head into 2016, the increasing saturation of global media coverage and the 24-hour news cycle ultimately has a distorting effect on how we view the world.  When we take this into account, a more nuanced view emerges.

First of all, data show that some events become crises more because of mismanagement than magnitude. For example, the fear of an “economically unsustainable refugee invasion” in Europe is not supported by the numbers. Asylum-seekers in the European Union correspond to just 0.37% of its total population, and there is unequivocal evidence on the economic benefits of migration for receiving countries. And, despite its psychological component, terrorism remains a very marginal risk, particularly in the Western world, as mentioned above.

Secondly, in 2015 there have also been important and successful political processes that should not be overshadowed by other failures. Smooth elections and political transitions in Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka were encouraging. The situation improved in Burkina Faso, after rocky elections and a failed coup. Saudi Arabia’s first municipal elections open to women voters and candidates were one step forward for that country. However, the biggest success story was Myanmar, the country that improved the most in 2015, according to The Economist. Not only did Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win a landslide victory in peaceful elections, but the defeated Union Solidarity and Development Party and military are allowing the transition to begin. The government also signed a ceasefire agreement with eight armed ethnic groups; the culmination of over two years of complex negotiations. These are all first steps on a hard road, but fundamental achievements to be celebrated.

Third, although war dominated the news, many peace and diplomatic deals made strides in 2015. Colombia moved closer than ever to a peace deal with the FARC rebel group; a conflict that has lasted half a century and cost over 220,000 lives. Mali’s government signed a landmark peace agreement with the Tuareg-led rebel alliance to end years of fighting in the country’s north. The US reached an agreement with Cuba to restart diplomatic ties and normalize the relationship between the two countries. Of greater importance, negotiators achieved a historic accord with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear ability, in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions. Although only time will judge its effectiveness, this was the most consequential achievement of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. In the economic sphere, 2015 saw notable multinational efforts to bolster trade and development. Twelve countries signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership after seven years of negotiation, while 50 countries signed the legal framework of a new Chinese-proposed international financial institution, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

On the global governance and development front, two big agreements stand out. Both the new UN Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris agreement on climate change are impressive steps in a time of geopolitical shifts and tensions, and weak economic performance. These agreements are not immune from criticisms. The new development agenda is an aspiration, not a plan for action, as I previously pointed out and 17 goals and 169 targets are not a reasonable perspective for any country. In Addis Ababa, nations agreed on a framework to finance development post-2015. Called the “Action Agenda,” it has been criticized for lacking any significant plan to finance the ambitious agenda. Many have also highlighted the limitations of the Paris agreement, claiming its goals are “largely divorced from the economics of achieving them.” Despite these serious limitations, these agreements show that multilateral diplomacy can still work and deliver on significant framework agreements.

Finally, 2015 was the year of victories for same-sex marriage rights. Vietnam abolished a ban, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize it through a popular vote, and the US Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages legal across all states, while other changes went into effect on a more local scale in countries including Mexico and Japan.

Four Lessons for 2016

Considering the obvious challenges, but also the significant achievements of 2015, four broad lessons can be drawn to guide the conduct of global diplomacy in years to come.

First, in a world in which no country has sufficient power to impose its interests at a global level, non-binding frameworks might become the new norm for making progress on a number of issues. This was evident in both New York and Paris, where the global development agenda and climate change deal were agreed. This does not diminish the normative value of such agreements, as inclusion is the best way to achieve consensus. However, the fact remains that this is not the most effective way to achieve action. These frameworks should be seen not as final outcomes, but rather the starting points of processes. Ultimately, success will only be determined by countries’ levels of commitment and political will, particularly for those most able to move the needle on achieving results. The most effective approach the UN can take to help drive action is to focus on goals, rather than concrete policy agreements; monitor progress; and keep the international community engaged throughout implementation.

Second, non-binding agreements mean that the dynamics and societal preferences of individual countries are having an outsized impact on global issues. In development, each country will follow different economic paths, prioritizing the many sustainable development goals according to their own perceived needs. On climate, countries’ commitments to limit emissions will be based on social pressure and the local impact of environmental degradation, as is already happening, for example, in China and India. The solution of the European refugee crisis depends more on the political and societal dynamics in each EU member state than on Brussels’ resolve.

Thirdly, despite their global reverberations, the 2015 crises show that a key challenge in international affairs is that while we have common and interconnected problems, each country’s preferred solutions are different. In other words, we are actually not all in the same boat, because national interests, which matter more than ever, are not necessarily aligned. For example, while every country would benefit from a more stable Middle East, the desired configurations of this stability vary. If a country isn’t able to achieve its preferred solution, it may just opt for the chaotic status quo. This is true not just for peace processes, but also for other global problems such as climate change, as noted by Brookings Institution experts Bruce Jones and Adele Morris.

A final key takeway from this “annus horribilis” is that trust is in short supply, which governments should aim to rectify rather than further isolating themselves through inflammatory and isolationist rhetoric and actions. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in 2015 the trust citizens place in governments fell to the lowest level ever recorded. Government is still the least trusted institution globally, with informed publics in 19 out of 27 countries skeptical of their leaders. Media and NGOs also lost trust, while business leadership is in disarray, with CEOs trusted by only one out four people. When it comes to international relations, China is viewed with suspicion in most Asian countries, not to mention in the West; southern European countries are distrustful of German-imposed economic austerity; and Sunni Arab countries perceive a threat from Shia hegemonic aspirations. In this context, multilateral fora become even more important as spaces in which to foster dialogue and exchange. Countries should invest much more heavily in confidence-building measures, from joint military exercises to cultural exchanges, to ease tensions and foster greater understanding and cooperation.

In such a quickly evolving world, with its resulting uncertainty and anxiety, it is not surprising that the many crises of 2015 left many feeling alienated and overwhelmed. In this context, it is absolutely essential to counter the message of fear and isolation that some policymakers and pundits are preaching. Societies are more resilient than the fear-mongers want us to believe. But our challenges are immense and they are growing in scale and complexity. It is more important than ever that countries come together to share the burden of problem solving and develop concrete and actionable political strategies to mitigate the threats that will carry forward into 2016 and beyond.