Commentary: How much worse could 2016 get?

In some ways, the most worrying thing about 2016 is that there are still more than five months of it left. Given just how much bad news has been packed into the year so far, the question has to be asked – what else could go wrong?

A man walks through debris on the street the day after a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores celebrating the Bastille Day July 14 national holiday on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, July 15, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The answer, of course, is a lot.

It may well be that the mass casualty assaults in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich and Orlando – as well as a smattering of smaller attacks in France and Germany in particular – are only the beginning. Not all are necessarily linked to Islamist militant groups, but in each case they are raising the temperature of local domestic politics in a distinctly dangerous way.

In the Middle East, Islamic State is unquestionably losing ground in Iraq and Syria, but that may not make the group any less likely to strike out. This weekend’s bombing in Kabul – as well as other similar incidents in Iraq and elsewhere – act as a savage reminder that the level of terror attacks in the West remains incredibly low in comparison.

Nor are these the only – or necessarily even the greatest – dangers. Tensions with both Russia and China could well ratchet higher. The European Union remains in turmoil – it’s not just Brexit; the euro zone crisis remains entirely unresolved.

The number of countries suffering some kind of internal political crisis is also alarmingly high. After its attempted coup on July 15, Turkey appears more unstable than at any time in recent history – which is awkward, as it is something of a linchpin to Western policy on a variety of fronts. Russia must deal with a falling oil price, China with potentially flagging growth. Many Western countries, including the United States, UK, France and Germany are socially divided on a scale not seen in decades if not generations.

And, of course, it’s still far from impossible that the United States will elect Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to the White House in November.

On balance, of course, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton remains the favorite – although polls from the Republican convention last week suggest her lead might be slipping. Attacks like those in Brussels and Orlando have tended to help Trump. So, quite possibly, might a string of recent attacks on U.S. police officers – although the widespread outrage over killings of often unarmed African-Americans may also boost turnout for the Democrats.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the worse the rest of the world looks, the more it likely plays into Trump’s narrative – even though it’s equally difficult to conclude he would be anything other than disastrous at handling those crises.

In almost every country, there are some deeply disturbing political trends. Even without deliberately coordinated attacks by militants like IS, there seems to be a worrying tendency for more erratic individuals to become politically radicalized and conduct sometimes devastating attacks – a common thread that looks to run from the Nice attack through many of the mass shootings in the United States to the apparently politically motivated killing of British parliamentarian Jo Cox in June.

These political divisions are getting more dangerous in part because the center ground in many countries has been drastically eroded. In the British EU referendum, one of the things that was both striking and disappointing was that neither side seemed willing to acknowledge that the other might have a point. That’s true in many other places as well, from the United States to Turkey.

When the center ground vanishes, there’s inevitably a tendency for those on all sides to be pushed more towards extremes and absolutes. Even when that doesn’t lead to violence, it makes consensus and decision-making that much more difficult. (That’s even true within established political parties, as evidenced by infighting within both the Republicans and Democrats as well as overseas in entities such as the UK Labour Party.)

In short, it’s entirely possible the rest of the year will continue along similar lines to the first half, with periodic unpleasant and often violent events – even if only carried out by one or a handful of people – continuing to raise the political temperature in a variety of locations. Even without that, political crises will continue and with that bring a rising risk of unorthodox – and sometimes very unpleasant – political outcomes. Brexit is a clear example of this, a Trump victory could yet be another. And, of course, we have elections in both France and Germany next year.

Both countries have seen the rise of the far right, with Germany’s “Alternative for Deutschland” party winning a share of the vote unthinkable since the Nazis.

Summer seasons often also throw up their own unexpected dramas, both conflict-related and financial. Russia could yet decide to make another land grab against its neighbors, perhaps non-NATO Ukraine and Georgia or even the Baltic states. We don’t yet know how China will react to this month’s international court decision pushing back against its territorial claims. At worst, such conflicts could yield nuclear war.

We could also yet see another Lehman Brothers 2008-style market crisis, perhaps triggered by an incident in the euro zone or the UK finally biting the bullet on invoking Article 50 to quit the EU (although this now looks more likely to be put off until next year). The collapse of the euro – still entirely possible if a country like Italy leaves – could be even worse.

Despite all that, however, it’s worth noting that on some fronts things are not getting worse. Migrant arrivals in the European Union have dropped significantly from last year, giving European governments a much-needed respite even as they struggle with the militant threat. The market turmoil from the UK referendum has yet been less than many feared. And while political parties may continue to polarize and divide, opinion polls generally show that voters in the West – and the United States in particular – are hungry for a much less partisan, more consensual approach.

In many ways, the years to come could be among the most dangerous in recent human history, particularly with the risk of both outright collapse and great power conflict higher than they’ve ever been. Many of the drivers that had been seen delivering greater stability – globalization, international consensus, a move to the political center in many countries – are now under threat or have unraveled completely.

Things will hopefully be okay. But it looks likely to be one hell of a ride, with some more distinctly unpleasant – as well as deeply, deeply uncertain – days to come.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. Follow Peter Apps on Twitter @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.