Alex Hern, John Henley, Dan Roberts in Washington,Tom Phillips in Beijing, Shaun Walker in Moscow, Julian Borger, Ian Sample, Owen Gibson, Helena Smith in Athens and Mark Rice-Oxley |
Space explorers, genetic scientists, US voters, terrorists and hackers look set to dominate our world next year – but don’t rule out the odd pleasant surprise
Never make predictions, especially about the future. So said Mark Twain, Yogi Berra or Niels Bohr – or possibly all three.
But if you must, there are really only two options: play safe and go for the obvious, or come up with forecasts so giddily optimistic that no one will take you seriously.
Using the former approach, 2016 will produce more tragedy in Syria and Yemen, an uninterrupted stream of refugees into Europe, another iteration of the Grexit crisis, deepening drought in the Chinese east and American west, and further hacking misadventure on both state and corporate levels. And an awful lot of summits to try to deal with all of the above.
Corruption will continue to excoriate three-quarters of the world’s polities – leaving the vast majority of humanity disillusioned and increasingly unlikely to vote. Ditto sport. The global economy is due another rout, probably starting in Asia.
But let’s leave room for a little optimism. There will actually be fewer wars in 2016 than for many years. And while the Koreas are unlikely to reunify, Cyprus might. Elections for two of the top jobs in the world – in the US and at the UN – could produce women in both for the first time. Science will tell us more than we ever knew about our ancestors, ourselves and our universe.
The powerful mixture of birth control and rising prosperity that levelled off birth rates in western societies in the postwar period will continue to take root in Africa, putting downward pressure on overall population levels. We might not get to 11 billion people after all.
And away from the headlines, the overwhelming majority of people will continue to lead decent, unremarkable lives undeflected by the pulses of pessimism that tend to pollute our overall sense of wellbeing. Who knows, perhaps we will even start to realise that happiness does not reside in social media, and 2015 will go down as the year of peak-share.
Or maybe that’s just too over-optimistic.
The US election
Predicting the course of US politics over the next 12 months is a mug’s game. The battle for the White House – which has already been raging in the media for months – will undoubtedly dominate. But it has barely begun in the minds of the electorate, who have until 4 November to make a choice that will reverberate around the world.
The Republican field has been led most recently by two improbable outsiders, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who look as likely to eventually stumble as they ever have. So far, they continue to make fools of pundits who underestimate the anti-establishment groundswell.
Barack Obama’s natural heir in the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton, is a surer bet: safely ahead now of the leftwing challenger Bernie Sanders in the polls and showing more resilience in the face of once worrying email allegations. Her vulnerability to Sanders’ more authentic populism remains troubling, however, for a frontrunner who lost to Obama eight years ago and has yet to ignite the excitement that a potential first female president might expect.
But on the assumption that harsh political reality will eventually overcome the anger on the right and idealism on the left, it is possible to see a plausible narrative emerging for 2016.
The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in February will play their usual quirky role as starting bells rather than bellwethers in the long nomination contest to come.
The Tea Party champion Ted Cruz could upset Trump to win Iowa and begin the slow descent of the billionaire’s ego-inflated balloon. Marco Rubio stands a chance of beginning his ascent to the top of the polls by taking New Hampshire.
The Democratic race will be at its most competitive. Sanders may still take one or two early states before hitting the higher hurdle of Clinton’s “southern firewall” in March. It is in these 10 Super Tuesday states that the Republican party machinery and money will begin to work its muscle too – rallying behind a candidate such as Rubio to appeal to the broader electorate.
Those months of fighting Trump will have taken their toll, though, and Rubio’s reputation as a pro-immigration unifier will have taken a severe pounding.
What is left of his youth and charisma will be pitted against Clinton’s experience and the chance to make history by electing both a woman and a tough commander-in-chief.
The best prediction is that these predictions will be wrong. My next best bet? Clinton pips Rubio in a squeaker.
Dan Roberts in Washington
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2016 heralds the year of the monkey, an auspicious time for expectant parents hoping for quick-witted sprogs.
For the Communist party chief, Xi Jinping, who completes three years as president in January, the omens are less promising. Thus far, Xi has built a reputation as one of China’s most dominant leaders in decades: a super-sized centraliser whom headline writers call Big Daddy Xi.
He has cemented his grip on power with a ferocious assault on political rivals that has dragged some of the party’s most feared and influential figures through the mud and into jail. He has set about restoring the Middle Kingdom to the centre of world affairs, pursuing an increasingly audacious foreign policy and attempting to reforge China’s role within the United Nations.
In September, the Chinese president celebrated his apparent supremacy by throwing a bombastic military parade at which nuclear missile launchers and thousands of troops paraded through Tiananmen Square.
Yet for all Xi’s swagger, there was mounting evidence in 2015 of his weaknesses and those of the 87 million-strong party he leads.
There was the mismanaged stock market rout, an affair so badly handled that Xi reputedly lambasted top financial officials when he was pictured on the cover of the Economist desperately attempting to prop up plummeting stocks.
“I didn’t want to be on that cover,” Xi fumed. “But thanks to you, I made the cover.”
There were the catastrophic Tianjin explosions – a tragedy some described as a Chinese Katrina – which devastated lives and exposed deep-rooted problems of government corruption and incompetence. All the while, lurking just beneath the surface, was the near constant rumbling of political intrigue that has long threatened to tear the Communist party apart.
Those rumblings will intensify in 2016 as rival factions step up their opposition to Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and his stewardship of a rapidly sagging economy.
Facing growing political pressure from within, Xi will look to foreign policy and his domestic security apparatus to ensure public support. He will stoke up nationalism by further ratcheting up tensions in the South China Sea, already the scene of a controversial island-building campaign that has put Beijing and Washington at loggerheads. He will continue to escalate his war on corrupt Communist party “tigers” – aiming to snare perhaps his biggest victim to date in the second half of the year.
And, with 2016 marking 50 years since the start of Chairman Mao’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution, the few who dare to speak out against China’s Big Daddy will face even harsher treatment as Beijing seeks to stifle any criticism of the party he leads.
Jubilant couples will pack maternity wards as China enters the year of the monkey. But for Xi it threatens to prove an annus horribilis.
Tom Phillips in Beijing
The digital world
For people with computers, which is most of us, 2015 wasn’t great. But next year is probably going to be much, much worse.
The catastrophic data breach of the extramarital dating site Ashley Madison is currently an outlier in the history of hacking: for perhaps the first time, the information that was leaked was extremely personal, and damaging in its own right. You can’t change your passwords, or warn your bank, to stop a marriage being wrecked by the fact that you were trying to have an affair.
But as we entrust ever more personal data to the cloud, breaches of this sort are inevitably going to increase. Connected home CCTV, direct message histories, chat transcripts or photo messages could all be devastating on a personal level if leaked.
So what good news, then, that the British government intends to force internet service providers to retain communications data for a full year. Because the experience of TalkTalk, which was allegedly hacked by a group of teenagers applying the 20-year-old technique of SQL injections, surely shows that there is no risk at all in doing so.
But not every hack is pranksters or criminal enterprise. The coming year will also be the year that cyberterrorism comes of age – sort of.
Experts have been warning about the lack of security around industrial control systems for years. The networks that control power plants, national grids and reservoirs rely heavily on obscurity to defend against attack: they aren’t directly connected to the internet, and use arcane coding. But that obscurity cannot be a long-term defence.
In the end, though, we perhaps have more to fear from sheer bad luck than we do from dedicated attack. As the pseudonymous security researcher the Grugq points out, no hacker in history has ever been as successful at disrupting power to American homes as the squirrel that scampered into a substation in California and caused a power cut for 45,000 people.
By this time next year, Britain may very well have voted to leave the EU. There is, of course, no certainty about this. But let us consider the evidence.
First, the timing of the vote. Most observers agree that David Cameron will not delay his long-promised referendum beyond next year, because he has nothing to gain from it. Neither France nor Germany will be making new concessions in 2017, because both will by then be embroiled in big elections. So best get it over with: in September, probably.
Next, the nature of the debate. The in and out campaigns will argue numbers – how many jobs might be saved by staying, how many immigrants kept out by leaving, what will be the impact on GDP – but for many voters, Europe is not about numbers. It’s a question of belief. This is a debate largely impervious to fact.
And those who believe Britain would be better off out are edging ahead. Look at the polls: a year ago, the stay camp was in front by margins of up to 25%. That gap has now narrowed to between two and four points, and three of the past eight polls have the leave camp ahead. The trend seems clear.
The unspoken assumption may be that most “don’t knows” will back the status quo, but precedent shows that when a vote is about the EU, voters lash out. Here, Ukip won last year’s European elections; on the continent, every recent referendum on an EU issue bar one has ended in a no.
What’s more, in none of those countries were the press and governing party even remotely as Eurosceptic as in Britain. In the UK, the stay campaign is swimming against a decades-old tide of populist anti-EU sentiment relayed by an influential wing of the Conservative party and much of the media.
The prime minister has succeeded in reducing what he wants in the way of reform to a bare-bones list of demands, many of which the EU may even agree to. But the real issue is whether those demands will satisfy his own party, and succeed – even temporarily – in turning back that Eurosceptic tide.
With record numbers of EU citizens arriving in Britain, further Schengen zone terror possible, a second summer of refugee and migrant chaos probable, a well-funded out campaign gathering pace, and much of the media having made up their minds, it will be a tight vote.
Until Cameron, his cabinet and, perhaps more crucially, Boris Johnson say soon, often and unequivocally that Britain’s future depends on its remaining in the EU, I know where I’d put my money.
Jon Henley in London
For all the uncertainty about the outer limits of scientific knowledge, some events and advances are firmly on the 2016 calendar.
In January, the UK’s fertility regulator will consider the first application from British scientists to use a gene editing procedure called Crispr-Cas9 on human embryos. The team, led by Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London, will manipulate the genes of embryos donated to research to learn more about embryo development.
In April 2015, Chinese scientists became the first in the world to announce they had used the tool to modify abnormal human embryos, to investigate whether they could correct faulty genes that cause a rare blood disorder, beta thalassemia. Expect gene editing to notch up some big successes in the year ahead, and become central to a debate on the ethics of genetically modifying human beings with changes that pass on to future generations.
The fourth rock from the sun provided one of the most exciting science stories of 2015, when Nasa discovered flowing water on Mars, or at least the regular formation of damp patches on crater walls and gullies. Where the water is coming from, and how much there is, are big questions for 2016. The mystery of Martian methane will also keep researchers busy. Nasa’s Curiosity rover has measured spikes in methane levels near the surface, but whether the gas is emanating from rocks or subterranean Martian bugs is unknown. In March, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will blast off on a mission to help find the answer. It will sniff the atmosphere for minute levels of methane and other gases and, with luck, shed light on the source of Martian methane.
In September, the team behind Bloodhound, Britain’s 1,000mph rocket car, will ship the extraordinary vehicle to South Africa for test drives on an old lake bed called Hakskeen Pan. During the runs the driver, Andy Green, hopes to get Bloodhound up to 800mph over a 12-mile stretch using only one rocket. A cluster of three rockets will be used for the landspeed record attempt later on.
Just as genetics challenges our future, it unveils our past. Next year, researchers in Germany hope to study DNA from a 400,000-year-old human relative found in a cave in northern Spain. Their analysis, along with tests on other remains, could shed light on new forms of early humans that used to live alongside our direct ancestors.
The human story will be richer for it.
Ian Sample in London
Vladimir Putin’s 16th year in charge of Russia is perhaps the most unpredictable yet. The air force is engaged in an operation outside the borders of the Soviet Union for the first time in a generation, Russia’s proxies in Ukraine have been left in the uneasy limbo of a semi-ceasefire, and the Russian economy is creaking as oil prices stay low.
Here’s how Vladimir Vladimirovich might imagine a dream year as he’s drifting off to sleep in his palatial residence: Russian jets continue pounding all manner of rebel groups in Syria while the Kremlin vaunts its anti-Islamic State resolve. Irritation in the west turns to grudging respect and an agreement with Putin that Bashar al-Assad will remain in charge as the best of a set of bad options. In Kiev, infighting and corruption paralyse the government; the pro-rebel territories are pushed back into Ukraine but give Russia a permanent veto over Kiev’s policies; the west accepts this, forgets about Crimea and ends the sanctions. Oil prices go up, the rouble stabilises and sky-high approval ratings last through the autumn parliamentary elections.
Putin’s beleaguered foes would suggest a different scenario: a fragile international alliance over Syria breaks down over obviously disparate aims, and western sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine are extended. The economy continues to tank, real wages fall. The middle class, shorn of the weekends in Europe and consumer goods it was used to, becomes edgy, while workers pushed to economic dire straits begin serious protests – a flicker of which was visible at the end of 2015 as long-distance truckers went on strike.
Both of these scenarios are eminently possible; what actually happens will probably be somewhere in the middle. How Russia makes it through 2016 and beyond, until the 2018 presidential election when Putin is expected to stand again, will depend on so many things – from the oil price, to the prevailing international mood and Putin’s personal health.
Making predictions about Putin’s Russia is hard because the system is brittle and unpredictable. Events such as the revolution in Ukraine or the Turkish shooting down of a Russian jet can completely change policy vectors and outcomes.
Putin’s system, lauded by Kremlin strategists for its stability, is in fact remarkably unpredictable, partly because it is entirely dependent on the one man at the top of the pyramid. Putin’s disappearance for a week in spring, and his aides’ refusal to admit that he had a bout of flu, caused unease and speculation that provided a glimpse into what could happen if the leader were ever seriously indisposed.
Shaun Walker in Moscow
In 2009, when Rio won the right to stage the Olympics, it was sold as a feelgood coming out party for a nation fast becoming one of the world’s powerhouses. The rhetoric ran that South America’s first ever Games would turbocharge redevelopment of Rio de Janeiro’s creaking infrastructure and tap into Brazil’s booming economy. It hasn’t quite turned out like that.
As the Olympics approach, nervousness over whether the venues will be ready in time has decreased but has been replaced by worries over everything from police brutality to an ever widening corruption scandal and an economic slump that has led to fears over ticket sales.
Budgets have been trimmed and the sense of optimism that pervaded the bid has been replaced by something close to foreboding. Yet there is not the same level of public outrage that was directed at the World Cup in Brazil, and the likelihood is that the city’s famous vitality will see it through.
Whether the promised improvements to Rio’s infrastructure materialise as billed is another question entirely. And it is one that should worry the International Olympic Committee as it contemplates a landscape in which cities are no longer queuing up in quite the same way to host their showpiece event.
The other big question is whether Russian athletes will line up on the athletics track, after being banned for an indefinite period over systemic state-sponsored doping. They almost certainly will, given the wider politics at play, but the taint of the scandal will not go away.
In France, football’s European Championship – expanded from 16 to 24 teams for the first time – was supposed to be a feelgood celebration but will now take place under a heavy security blanket after the Paris attacks. Yet the signs are that fans are more likely to travel and party in defiance than stay away in fear.
Meanwhile, the fallout at Fifa and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) from 12 months of jaw-dropping developments will continue as criminal investigations into deep-seated corruption progress.
The currently suspended Sepp Blatter will formally relinquish his hold over Fifa in February but it remains to be seen if any of the unimpressive cast of potential replacements offers the prospect of real reform, while the embattled IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, faces the hardest race of his life in resurrecting his crisis-hit sport.
It’s been dubbed a graveyard for peacemakers, the Rubik’s Cube of diplomacy, but despite the odds Cyprus may well defy naysayers in 2016 by solving its decades-long division. The strategic Mediterranean island, home of Europe’s last partitioned capital, is facing what seasoned Cyprus watchers are calling a historic window of opportunity.
In an unprecedented meeting of minds, Greek and Turkish Cypriots regard the year ahead as the last best chance to end the ethnic divide. Greek Cypriots, emerging from their worst economic crisis since an attempt at union with Athens prompted Ankara to invade in 1974, have increasingly come round to seeing the benefits of reunification. “They know that if they don’t do a deal now there is a very good chance that partition will be cemented and Turkey will annex the north,” says James Ker-Lindsay, a Cyprus expert at the London School of Economics. “That would mean not only bordering Turkey, but an unpredictable and potentially disturbing Turkey.”
For the minority Turkish Cypriots, the rationale is not dissimilar. A reunited Cyprus would, they say, not only offer a better and brighter future in an EU member state but in a country that, in sharp contrast to Turkey, is avowedly secular.
Reflecting the optimism, both communities are led by doughty pro-union moderates – Greek Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish counterpart Mustafa Akinci – who have made reunification in a loose “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation” their central goal.
“If you can’t settle it with these two guys, you’ll never settle it,” says Ker-Lindsay, who puts the chances of success “at six or higher” on a scale of one to 10.
But it is the stance of Turkey itself that gives the biggest hope. A confluence of events – ranging from Ankara’s recent run-in with Russia to the re-energising of its EU accession process – has put the need for a Cyprus settlement centre stage. A solution would afford Turkey a badly needed foreign policy success, allow it to diversify its energy supplies – with the island’s subsequent transformation into a regional transport hub for oil and gas reserves – and boost its chances of joining the EU. It would also free up Turkish funds: the island’s breakaway north is utterly dependent on Turkey bankrolling it.
“For years, Ankara viewed Cyprus as strategic territory reconquered,” notes Hubert Faustmann, who teaches history and political science at the University of Nicosia. “Now, it’s a loss it seems willing to accept for higher benefit.”
Both sides are engaged in intense negotiations with a view to holding referendums once an agreement is clinched. But they have yet to discuss the issues of property, security and territory, all potential deal breakers. Parliamentary elections in the south loom, another spoiler if hardline rejectionists have their way. “I am hopeful we’ll have an agreement, but getting a double yes in the referendums may be as difficult as reaching a deal,” says Faustmann. “But the stars are aligned; we have a perfect storm for a solution to happen.”
Helena Smith in Athens
UN secretary general
By the end of 2016, there will be a new UN secretary general and there is a better than even chance it will be a woman, for the first time. Whether this will make any real difference to the world is unclear. The job has been described as the “world’s chief diplomat” or even the “secular pope”, though in reality it is more akin to the manager of a posh restaurant. You get to rub shoulders with a lot of powerful people, but rarely on equal terms.
The incumbent, Ban Ki-moon, was chosen in 2006 in part because he appeared sufficiently unthreatening to the world’s major powers. If the rules of the game remain unchanged, with the permanent five members of the security council choosing his successor in secret and presenting the result to the rest of the world as a fait accompli, we can expect a similar outcome.There is a growing drive, however, to change the rules and throw the contest open to the light of public scrutiny. The 1 for 7 Billion campaign, backed by hundreds of NGOs, is proposing an official shortlist of candidates who will have to publish broad manifestos and subject themselves to questions. The security council would still present a shortlist, but it would have to be a list of more than one. More than 170 million people around the world have signalled their support. The idea is to produce someone who is less secretary and more general, with a broad power base and an independent mandate, rather than to be beholden to some murky backroom deal.
There are signs that the security council is beginning to take heed of the groundswell. In an initiative pushed by the UK, a letter is to be sent to the 193 delegations in the general assembly in the New Year inviting candidates and setting a timetable and format for the election.
Until then, the campaign among aspiring secretary generals continues to be a discreet affair, mostly played out in private by unannounced candidates behind closed doors in midtown Manhattan. At this early stage, the conventional wisdom favours someone from eastern Europe (a region yet to take a turn in providing a secretary general) and a woman (all eight holders of the position thus far have been men).
There are a handful of names who fulfil both criteria, including two Bulgarians – the Unesco chief, Irina Bokova, and the EU’s budget commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva – as well as the former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusić.
Also thought to be in the running are Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister who now runs the UN Development Programme, and Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister.
Not even the idealists in the 1 for 7 Billion campaign believe the permanent five are going to give up the veto and throw the vote open completely. But the hope is that the major powers hit deadlock over their own favourites and find themselves unable to resist a genuinely popular choice thrown up by the general assembly. Whichever way it goes, it will be a critical year in UN history.
Julian Borger in London