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Tropical Storm Otto is pictured forming approximately 175 miles east-southeast of San Andreas Island in the Caribbean Sea in this November 21, 2016 satellite handout photo. NOAA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY - RTSSP2D
Order from Chaos

2016 was a new era for great powers—Here’s what Brookings experts had to say

2016 saw its share of upheaval in world politics. Voters around the world rallied behind political candidates representing change, for better or for worse; refugees stormed the borders of the Middle East and Europe; Brazilian politicians ousted their leader, while Turkish military officers tried to oust theirs; the list goes on.

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Amidst this, there remained a real thirst for information on the classics in world affairs, so to speak. Here on the Brookings foreign policy blogs, posts related to the U.S. election, Russia, and China were among the most-read in 2016. That’s not to say that those topics were static—to the contrary, the dynamism of these great powers this year is likely what drove so much interest in them. Here’s a quick recap of what our experts wrote as the world tried to make sense of changes in these major world players.

American isolationism

Thomas Wright wrote back in February: “When we look back on 2016, it will surely be the year when the United States and much of the rest of the world faced a choice about whether to look outward or turn inward.”

Isolationism was indeed popular among Democratic and Republican voters alike this campaign season. Wright wrote that Bernie Sanders—who, in stark contrast to Barack Obama, offered no examples of how the United States has made the world a better place and has long sought to disengage from the world economy—“is a liberal nationalist who looks inward, not just in his rhetoric but in his policy.” On the eventual Republican nominee, Wright stated simply: “Donald Trump wants America to withdraw from the world,” arguing that a Trump administration would pose the greatest shock to international peace and stability since the 1930s. (And on the eve of the election, that Trump “could ignite a new world crisis” if he won and tried to implement his worldview.)

In April, Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder pushed back against rising isolationist sentiment in America, reminding the candidates and their supporters that “the United States plays an essential role in supporting the international environment from which Americans benefit greatly.”

After Trump’s victory, Brookings experts expressed alarm that self-proclaimed “America First” candidate would have wide control over U.S. foreign affairs. Ted Piccone wrote that the election outcome delivered “a body blow to the traditional post-Cold War order of pro-Western alliances, globalized trade, and commerce, as well as important negotiated deals on climate change, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and even sustainable development.” David Dollar stressed that “[t]here is no simple “deal” to make with China,” Elizabeth Ferris lamented that bipartisan support for refugee resettlement “seems to have vanished,” and Bruce Riedel wrote of the need to “salvage the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Russia the global meddler

If 2014 was the year of bare-faced Russian aggression (see: Ukraine) and 2015 was the year of Russian proxy warfare (see: Syria), 2016 was the year of Russian efforts to throw domestic politics around the world.

Cliff Gaddy pondered in April whether Russia could have been behind the Panama Papers leak, a scandal that brought to light the sometimes extensive offshore holdings of business elites and politicians from around the world.

And when Russian hackers infiltrated Democratic National Committee files and released a tranche of damaging emails, Fiona Hill explained three reasons that Russian President Vladimir Putin would want to interfere with the U.S. democratic process. Shortly after the election, she argued that Putin and the Kremlin have long been experts at reading popular moods, and they seemed to have done so very adeptly in the United States throughout the presidential campaign. She noted that “Putin is, himself, a political performance artist.”

Chinese foreign relations

Questions around trade with China featured prominently in the U.S. presidential campaign, with Donald Trump proposing high tariffs on imports of Chinese goods and labeling the country a currency manipulator. David Dollar argued that such measures wouldn’t reverse the damage that trade has done to American blue-collar workers. Throughout the campaign, Trump talked about China a lot, but with mixed rhetoric—the Chinese people seemed to return his love-hate attitude.

A few months after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, Jonathan Pollack wondered whether China might finally say “goodbye” to its belligerent partner on the Korean Peninsula. He wrote: “For the first time, China has begun to fully acknowledge that North Korean actions pose a direct threat to vital Chinese security interests.”

Finally, Taiwan’s election early this year of Tsai Ing-wen—who may take a different approach towards Beijing—risked complicating the Taiwan-China-United States triangle, as Richard Bush explained. President-elect Trump’s phone call with Tsai in December definitely complicated the triangle: as Jeff Bader wrote, the direct conversation represented a break in a long tradition of U.S.-China diplomacy. “This phone call will likely to be interpreted by Beijing as something much more than a personal chat,” he added. While Trump has said he fully understands Washington’s One-China policy, Richard Bush wrote him an open letter, explaining why the careful dance around the Taiwan issue serves U.S. interests.


Events in the Middle East also loomed large in 2016, of course, with the Syrian civil war and associated refugee crisis dominating headlines. For more on that and other Middle East-related topics, see our sister blog, Markaz.

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