2019: The Year in Review

December 22, 2019

During the past year, climate change, corruption, street protests, polarization and disarray in the West dominated the global agenda.

Frequent fires are part of California’s natural state but since the 1970s, the amount of area burned in the state has increased by a factor of five. As the National Geographic has reported, climate change’s stamp is evident in many of the fires, scientists say, primarily because hotter air means drier plants, which burn more readily. Australia too has always had devastating bushfires, but experts say climate change can and does makes bushfires worse. Despite the evidence, however, the UN climate conference in Madrid could only achieve modest results.

The CCPI (Climate Change Performance) Index 2019 is an independent monitoring tool of countries’ climate protection performance. It aims to enhance transparency in international climate politics and enables the comparability of climate protection efforts and progress made by individual countries. In this year’s index, Sweden leads the ranking, followed by Morocco and Lithuania. No wonder Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old environmental activist is a Swedish national. Hopefully, the world would start to listen and act. Otherwise, with climate change and the head-spinning advance of technology, today’s futuristic disaster movies may prove to be more than entertainment.

A telephone call between presidents Trump and Zelensky brought corruption in Ukraine once again to world’s attention, a most unfortunate development for the latter who emerged as a ray of hope for his people. In reality, corruption is not endemic to Ukraine but it is an epidemic, if not pandemic.

Gretta Fenner, Managing Director of the Basel Institute on Governance, describes the following as some of the root causes of corruption[i]:

  • Greed for money and power,
  • A normalization of corruption,
  • Rampant bribery,
  • The failures of democracy,
  • Use of anonymous shell companies, money laundering, illegal tax evasion,
  • Cryptocurrency,
  • International cooperation system largely defunct,
  • Lack of level playing field among financial centers,
  • Social acceptance, and
  • Whistleblowers unprotected with or without laws.

In other words, “corruption” is not only a huge problem in itself but also an error-free indicator of the sum of all failures of a country.

December 9 was “International Anticorruption Day”. For now, at least, a day of outrage rather than celebration.

Anti-government protests from one end of the world to the other continued throughout 2019. Most street protests witnessed in the Middle East were triggered by frustration with corruption and lack of political reform. Protests in some countries resulted in great loss of life like in Iraq. Will the inevitable fate of the region’s gone corrupt leaders and Ukraine’s corruption problem being put on global display have a sobering effect on others? Let’s hope so.

In October, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace spoke about their new book “Democracies Divided[ii]. Among the countries they mentioned were Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey and the US.

They said, “Once a society becomes deeply divided, it is very difficult to heal… Polarization tends to escalate at a dizzyingly fast pace, often in the span of just a few years… Polarization then entrenches itself and becomes self-perpetuating. Polarizing actions and reactions feed on each other, dragging countries into a downward spiral of anger and division…”

And, this is how they responded to the question, “what happens to democracies when polarization intensifies?”:

“Severe polarization damages all institutions essential to democracy.

“It routinely undermines the independence of the judiciary, as politicians attack the courts as biased or pack them with loyalists. It reduces legislatures either to gridlock or to a rubberstamp function. In presidential systems, it frequently leads to the abuse of executive powers and promotes the toxic view that the president represents only his or her supporters, rather than the country as a whole.

“Perhaps most fundamentally, polarization shatters informal but crucial norms of tolerance and moderation—like conceding peacefully after an electoral defeat—that keep political competition within bounds.”

Moreover, one may add, polarization disease can lead to immune system failures making a country vulnerable to internal and external threats.

Will the US and Turkey be able to address their problem of polarization in the foreseeable future? I can only speak for Turkey and I wish I could answer in the affirmative.

Finally, disarray in the West. The London summit which brought NATO countries’ leaders together to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Alliance ended with a strong Declaration. But what transpired before and during those two days overshadowed the joy, satisfaction and pride leaders could have drawn from the occasion. And, differences regarding the future of the Alliance remain.

With President Trump’s impeachment, Brexit, Europe’s unity and leadership problems, yes, the West is in disarray.

Last Wednesday millions both in the US and beyond watched the debate on impeachment with House members delivering one- to two-minute speeches one after the other. Many used the words “solemn” and “sad” to characterize the day.  It was more. It was a most unfortunate day for democracy at a time when many are worried about its decline and authoritarianism’s rise even in the EU.

On November 3, 2020 the US will hold a presidential election which is likely to be preceded by a tough, perhaps ugly and more polarizing election campaign. And what if Mr. Trump wins the election? Will continuing distraction make it increasingly difficult for Washington to play a consistent global role?

By contrast, Russia and China, leaders of the authoritarian world, appear to steer a steady course.

One thing is certain: The greatest party welcoming the new year will take place in Moscow.

As for Turkey, 2019 was another lost year with deepening polarization, democratic decline and a host of internal and external challenges, among them the economy, Syria, the likelihood of getting more involved in the Libyan war, questions regarding Turkey’s place in the West and Ankara’s diplomatic isolation. The Turkish lira is dropping on threat of US sanctions. This is yet another indication of the sad state of the economy. However, the government may see it as a welcome opportunity to blame again foreign enemies, in this case the US Congress, for our economic woes. Turkey’s Middle Easternization is transforming the country. Soon, some may even advocate going back to the Arabic script.

Turkish foreign policy, at present a tool of domestic politics, lacks transparency. If Ankara is indeed playing the US and Russia against one another as some suggest, we may soon realize that such a policy is not sustainable because of the high cost.

The government says that the purchase of Russian S-400 antimissile systems was dictated by Turkey’s security needs. Generally, countries do not publicize their threat analyses but even so people do have an understanding. We Turks still do not have a clue as to against whom the S-400s will protect us.

A debate is now underway on the future of the 1936 Montreux Convention in the context of canal Istanbul, first presented to the public as a “crazy project”. Again, not a word from the government. This Convention becoming a topic of controversy would indisputably prove that the project was more than crazy.

T.S. Eliot said, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Although Eliot mentions “last year” and “next year”, his emphasis was on making a beginning. We Turks remember the ends and beginnings we made as a nation and these were not conceived or made necessarily at the end or the beginning of the calendar year. They were made on May 19, August 26, April 23, October 29. Nonetheless, end-December is the time when countries and peoples draw a balance sheet of the gone year, perhaps more. Thus, some with fond memories of the past feel nostalgic, while others simply wish to forget the past and hope for a new beginning. And some of us in Turkey do both, longing for the long past and yearning for a new beginning.


[i] https://www.fraudconferencenews.com/home/2019/4/5/fighting-the-root-causes-of-corruption

[ii] https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/01/how-to-understand-global-spread-of-political-polarization-pub-79893


About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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