Diplomats reflect on ‘shocking’ year

The world is in “worse shape” at the end of 2016 than at the start, envoys have concluded in the annual Embassy End-of-Year survey.

When asked to sum up the year in one word, the most common responses were: “worrying”, “shocking”, “threatening”, “divisive”, “frightening”, “changing”, and “far-reaching”.

Ongoing armed conflicts; rising in intolerance, xenophobia and populism; a lack of trust in democratic institutions; and stagnating OECD economies were the main reasons cited for the pessimistic assessment.

Wild Trump card
Two thirds of respondents regarded the unexpected election of Donald Trump as US President as the global event of the year, a result which made the world “more unpredictable,” said one head of mission. Economically, it was too early to assess the impact of a future Trump administration with its focus on domestic growth, combined with isolationism, said another head of mission.

“Trump’s presidency is an enigma,” said one, but another felt that may turn out to be an advantage, potentially offering new solutions to old problems.

Middle East mire
The conflict in Syria was a major source of insecurity in the region and globally, said diplomats. The war had created a “shocking humanitarian crisis” and a migration crisis in Europe.

Russia’s involvement in the conflict had contributed to “worrying” tensions between Russia and Turkey as well as Russia and the West.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the war in Yemen was turning it into “a total humanitarian crisis” said one diplomat.

Brexit effect
Britain’s shock vote to leave the EU left European diplomats feeling gloomy, saying the UK’s departure would “weaken both Britain and the EU”. They also worried about the “malaise” Brexit could create in major European elections in 2017.

The migration crisis and terrorist attacks on the Continent had “radicalised politics” and “raised social tensions” said one Ambassador.

However, it wasn’t all bad: there were signs of economic recovery and political stability in the Central European and Southern periphery countries. There was also now a roadmap for EU reform, a direct result of the “wake-up call” of the Brexit vote, said an EU Ambassador.

Asian tensions
“Rising tensions” over the South China Sea was a potential flashpoint, said diplomats, who were also concerned by the unbridled populism of Philippines’ President Duterte.

It’s too early to tell how China will respond to a Trump presidency but there is potential for problems, they cautioned.

Peace postponed
For African diplomats, there was pessimism too, due to a number of failures: the peace process in South Sudan had turned into a brutal conflict; the failure of the international community to re-establish government in Somalia and the continued instability in Libya.

Signs of hope
Bucking the trend, most Latin American envoys thought 2016 had been a good year: Brazil had staged a successful Rio Olympics, despite the doomsayers; the Colombian Peace Process was near its conclusion, despite the referendum result; Obama’s visit to Cuba was a good sign, and Argentina’s new political direction was showing positive results.

Optimism was tempered by concerns over Trump’s policy on free trade, while Venezuela remained a source of instability.

Brexit Britain
Reviewing 2016 for their host country, most envoys felt Britain ended the in a worse position, following the vote to leave the EU, which had “polarised society” and the resulting uncertainty would damage the economy.

“I think the UK will have a tough time exiting the EU,” said one diplomat, while an EU Ambassador predicted that the “atmosphere between UK and other EU countries [would] worsen” despite the best efforts of diplomats.

“Brexit hasn’t delivered what it promised. Instead, it [has] left room for perplexity, confusion and resentment against immigrants,” said one EU envoy.

However, there were some optimists (from non-EU missions) who felt Britain had overcome the “short-lived” crisis emerging with a “consolidated government” that could exploit the opportunities.

Mixed year for diplomats
Envoys seemed divided on how well diplomacy had fared in 2016. Envoys from Latin America felt they’d had a good year, but others pointed to serious failures, particularly when it came to brokering peace in Syria.

One Ambassador said it had been a year of inertia as the world waited the outcome of key events such as the US election. “Egotism” among the global players had meant military force was used to solve problems, limiting space for diplomacy, he added. However, the transparency in electing the new UN Secretary General was a positive development, that would hopefully re-engage global powers in a multilateral rules-based system.

With Brexit negotiations starting and peace elusive in Syria, one envoy concluded: “We have our work cut out and we have to do better.”

PHOTO: Troubled reflections of the Festive Season
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