A Year of Protest

In the Embassy End of Year Survey, diplomats give their verdict on the events of 2019 as we bid farewell to a decade of disruption

London’s envoys have summed up 2019 as ‘the year of protest’ as people on every continent rose up against “dithering” governments and “unscrupulous” leaders and their incapacity to tackle climate change, social inequality, corruption and oppression.

In the Embassy End-of-Year survey, respondents concluded that the world in 2019 was in “worse shape”, citing the lack of action over “irreversible climate change” as well as “nationalism and populism on the rise”, “unpredictable world leaders”, “polarisation”, “social manipulation” and “escalating trade wars” as their key concerns as we bid farewell to a decade of disruption.

It was also a year of marginal gains for diplomacy, as envoys rated themselves 5.5 out of 10. While there have been no successes or major conflicts in 2019, there is significant room for improvement.

Lack of trust
“There seems to be a backlash against liberal ideas and multilateralism,” commented one pessimistic diplomat. “The lack of trust in leadership is a growing concern among the electorates of many countries. And the most worrying sign is the lack of trust in factual evidence. Societies are divided and polarised beyond recognition. And sadly the COP 25 ended with no real commitments.”

Extreme weather events, climate change protests and Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ Greta Thunberg’s calls to action, were frequently mentioned as the ‘global event’ of 2019. This marks the first time in the Embassy survey that climate change has topped the political agenda.

Sending out an SOS

.Climate change protests in Melbourne, Australia

.Climate change protests in Melbourne, Australia

Dictionary.com’s word of the year was ‘existential’, while Oxford opted for ‘climate emergency’. These summed up the sense of anxiety felt in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Both reported that their region was in “very bad shape” due to “environmental disasters”.

Diplomats from the small island states of the Caribbean pointed once again to the devastation wrought by natural disasters – this year it was Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. On the other side of the world, their Pacific cousins raised concern about rising sea levels as well as “reef damage, fires, droughts, land degradation and deforestation.”

Asian malaise

Hong Kong protesters shield themselves with multi-coloured umbrellas

Sentiments from Asian diplomats were not too cheerful either. Protests in Hong Kong were a major concern, coupled with the slowing Chinese economy and the chilling effect of trade wars with the US. “Korean peninsula chaos” as well as the rising hostilities between India and Pakistan over Kashmir were also causes for apprehension.

Envoys pointed to worries over the treatment of Muslim communities in parts of Asia, from the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Uighurs in Xinjiang as well as the huge protests in India, notably the over new citizenship laws, which are perceived as a threat to India’s multiculturalism and secular constitution.

Primavera Latinoamericana

Anti-austerity demonstrations in Chile

Anti-austerity demonstrations in Chile

It has been a below-par year for Latin America, with diplomats pointing to “a year of protests in several countries” as governments “failed to meet the expectations of the middle class,” commented a diplomat.

Dubbed Primavera Latinoamericana (Latin American spring), a tsunami of social unrest hit the continent including anti-Maduro riots in Venezuela, protests in Bolivia which resulted in the sweeping from power of President Evo Morales, uprisings in Colombia and Ecuador and huge demonstrations in Chile, which started over subway price hikes that spiralled into angry looting over inequality and austerity. In Argentina an election brought about a change towards a left-leaning government.

The cancellation of COP25 in Chile due to riots, which followed Brazil’s earlier volte-face to host the summit, has led to deepening concerns of Latin American diplomats over climate change, notably the fires in the Amazon and deforestation.

Northern neighbours

US President Trump, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the NATO’s 70th Anniversary meeting

US President Trump, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the NATO’s 70th Anniversary meeting

On the positive side, the signing of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was welcomed, although the Central American ‘migrant caravan’ also drew attention to the push and pull factors leading to migration and the lack of any real answers to address this.

The actions of US President Trump – described as “unpredictable” and “hostile” – continue to confound diplomats because of the potential impact on global security, the environment and free trade.

Even in even-keeled Canada, the federal elections were polarised, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party losing its majority in a bruising campaign.

Stuck in the middle

Street protests in Lebanon

Street protests in Lebanon

Middle Eastern diplomats ended the year in pessimistic mood, but relieved that the uneasy stasis in a volatile region had not tipped over into catastrophic conflict. Tensions between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran remain on a knife-edge, the surprise withdrawal of the US from Syria has triggered a new dynamic, especially with Turkey’s interventions in the region, and there have been popular uprisings, notably in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.

But there have been some hopeful developments too, as one Middle Eastern envoy noted: “Tunisian elections, the Algerian Hirak [Smile Movement], Saudi negotiations with the Yemeni [Houthis] and the Qataris.”

Africa rising

Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Laureate Abiy Ahmed at the African Union

Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Laureate Abiy Ahmed at the African Union

The one region where optimism bucked the trend was Africa, which saw the newly installed young Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed extend the hand of peace to his Eritrean neighbours – for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This example of good leadership has had a transformative impact, not only on these once warring neighbours, but the Horn of Africa and the wider region, including the transition in Sudan and the cessation of conflict in South Sudan.

In South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president on an anti-corruption ticket and the Springboks were crowned Rugby World Cup champions as an additional feel-good factor.

The world’s largest free trade area, Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) also came into force in 2019 (with 54 countries signed up), which could have a positive impact on intra-regional trade and investment and economic growth.

European mixed review

A victorious Boris Johnson enters Downing Street after winning the December 12 elections

Summing up 2019 in Europe, diplomats gave it a mixed review, with the continent in a holding pattern. “There is no special change, apart from more awareness over environmental risks,” reported one envoy.

Brexit and the UK elections were dominant issues, notably the thumping majority gained by the Conservative government and the voting through of a withdrawal agreement. The ending of the uncertainty over Brexit brought widespread relief among EU envoys.

However, there were also worries about strikes, the lack of action over climate change, risks to press freedom and the rise of right-wing nationalism. The NATO meeting in London in December put the spotlight on the continent’s security, highlighted by the discord between leaders.

The end of the beginning
Evaluating the year for the UK, diplomats felt that the election of Prime Minister Boris Johnson with an outright majority was a positive outcome, if only to end the Brexit paralysis. However there is a worry that the enhanced powers won by Prime Minister Johnson might result in a “missed opportunity to forge stronger political and mutually beneficial economic relations with EU”.

Another paraphrased Winston Churchill, saying as far as Brexit negotiations were concerned, that vote for the Withdrawal Bill was “not the end, or the beginning of the end, but possibly the end of the beginning”.

Change is coming

Climate change campaigner and Time magazine Person of the Year Greta Thunberg

Asked to sum up the year, envoys described 2019 as “tiring”, “confusing”, “uncertain”, “politically insane” and “muddling through”.

One diplomat described 2019 simply as “a waste”. That could also describe a decade of squandered opportunities – on tackling the climate emergency, to the withering of the Arab Spring and the lack of action to address social and global inequalities that has led to polarisation, populism, mass migration and a lack of trust in the establishment.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Envoys felt the challenges were “manageable” and pointed to some positive signs for the new decade. “Trade between China and US looks on track; BREXIT looks positive at last; the new Conservative government in UK means entrepreneurship should flourish; and a slightly more balanced view emerging on climate change.”

Another felt the increasing number of women in leadership positions was a good thing too: “The future is female!” said one.

Taking their lead from a politically engaged emerging young generation, envoys hinted at a better future: “The world is changing, leaders are changing” said one. “We always believe in a better future.”