Incoming Secretary-General Takes Oath of Office

11 Stories that Will Drive the Global Agenda in 2017

These are the trends, events, elections and happenings that will drive the global conversation in 2017. Welcome to our annual year-in preview listicle for the discerning global set! 

1) With President Trump, expect the unexpected

Trump, CC license via Wikipedia

The single defining global story of 2017 will be how the world responds to President Donald Trump. Since the end of World War Two, the entire rest of the world has looked to the United States as a guarantor of world order. The United States has not always lived up to expectations, but for the most part it adhered a general set of norms and principles that guided international relations. This included creating a rules-based international order through treaties, free trade and institutions like the United Nations. For the past 70 years, the behavior of the world’s superpower and the men who lead it were constrained in their foreign policy by those very institutions, norms and legal regimes that the USA helped champion. Not coincidentally, this kind of “strategic restraint” coincided with the emergence of the USA as the most powerful and wealthiest country in the history of the world.

Enter Donald Trump.

We simply do not know if he will continue the tradition of American global leadership or if he will dismiss the entire liberal international order established in the wake of World War Two. He could emerge as a traditional Republican foreign policy president, or he could radically upend the conventions of international relations. We just don’t know. And that fact that we do not know this will be the single most defining feature of 2017.

— Mark Leon Goldberg

2) A New Secretary General Takes the Helm at the United Nations


Two weeks before Donald Trump takes office the United Nations’ ninth Secretary General will take up his post. Antonio Guterres is the former Prime Minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He won the contentious race to replace Ban Ki Moon with the unanimous support of the Security Council and overwhelming backing among all of the UN’s 192 member states.

Guterres assumes office at a time of profound challenge for the United Nations. Crises in Syria and South Sudan will likely dominate the agenda at the United Nations over the coming several months, as will the unrelenting global humanitarian and refugee crisis which is still only getting worse. Guterres will have to manage these crises while simultaneously keeping the world’s attention on key accomplishments of the UN, like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accords.

If anyone is up to the task it is Mr. Guterres, who is a charismatic speaker and skilled politician. He is also an avowed progressive who is taking the helm of the UN as more right leaning political forces take hold in the United States and Europe, including key members of the Security Council. How Guterres manages to maintain his progressive voice while working with a Security Council that is is composed of governments that may not be similarly disposed will be one of the key stories around the UN in the coming year.

— Mark Leon Goldberg

3) Expect Promising Results from Big HIV Research Trials in 2017

HIV ribbon. credit- AVERT

The overall global HIV response is in a tough place – funds for HIV aren’t keeping pace with need. Donor funding for HIV response in low and middle income countries declined from 2014 to 2015. As a result, advances against the spread of HIV are slowing. In some populations, HIV is actually on the rise. Medical research, however, is a different story. 2017 is going to be a good year for HIV research, both in vaccine research and in research on HIV prevention.

A promising vaccine trial, HVTN 702, launched in November 2016. It’s the first advanced stage trial in seven years. Full results are expected in 2020, and the two-year mark, November 2018 will be the real point at which we’ll know if the vaccine prevents HIV, but we’ll be collecting useful data by the end of 2017.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) involves taking anti-HIV drugs to prevent being infected with HIV. It has already been shown to be successful – if people take the drugs Right now it requires a complex regimen of large pills to be taken daily. Two new trials are looking at injectable PrEP instead – a single shot, taken every eight weeks. Results are expected by the end of 2017. If it’s effective, this will provide an alternative for patients who have trouble sticking with the oral regimen.

Finally, two different trials are ongoing for the Nevirapine ring – a vaginal ring that releases a steady low dose of anti-HIV drugs to protect women from infection. These studies have been going on for a few years already, which means it’s the right time to start seeing real results.

We can’t predict which approaches will bring breakthroughs; that’s why we need trials in the first place. But 2017 brings a bumper crop of promising HIV research; one of these efforts will lead to big news.

— Alanna Shaikh

4) Genocide Looms in South Sudan

South Sudan, credit: UNMISS

2017 is shaping up to be a horrible year for South Sudan. The United Nations and other observers, like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, have issued several dire end-of-year warnings about a potential mass atrocity in South Sudan, which includes the prospect of genocide.

Some tell tale signs include a rise in hate speech, the harassment and expelling of international aid workers and journalists, and the stockpiling of arms. In the meantime, the international community is not mounting much of an effective response. A Security Council resolution, drafted by the United States, would have imposed an arms embargo and targeted some key instigators of the conflict for individual sanction. It failed. Meanwhile, the transition of administrations both in the United States and at the United Nations creates an ideal window in which the government of South Sudan can act with relative impunity.

The current crisis in South Sudan is now three years old. It stems from a political falling out between the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. A political dispute quickly escalated into a civil war that took on some ugly ethnic dimensions. (The two men hail from different ethnic groups). Some 1 million people have fled the country and many thousands have been killed. The conflict has also deteriorated an already extremely fragile humanitarian situation, with millions of people living in extreme poverty. In 2017, if present trends continue, the situation could get much worse.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

5) In 2017 Will be Even Worse for Refugees and Migrants than 2016

Refugees flee across the Mediterranean in an iconic 2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency
Refugees flee across the Mediterranean in an iconic 2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency

Migration has been a central political topic in the West for years but has recently come under renewed focus following the surge of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe in 2015. With international displacement rates at an all time high, the reaction of governments over the last two years has been to build walls, promise deportations and generally close doors to refugees and economic migrants alike.

That approach is playing well in the current political climate, not just in the West but around the world. Several key states will have general elections in 2017, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Kenya, Lebanon and New Zealand. Parliamentary or local elections are due in the UK, Norway, the Czech Republic and the US. Regardless of the political parties involved, the admission of immigrants – whether for humanitarian or economic purposes – is going to once again be a hot button topic in these countries.

Unfortunately despite occasion of the World Humanitarian Summit and a high-level summit on refugees this past year, there is little reason at this time to believe the current trend against migration will shift in these countries. But there are potential reasons for hope. The election of Donald Trump and his extreme views on immigration in the US may serve as a wake up call for the dangers of looking inward in a globalized world. Likewise, the start of former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as UN Secretary General should help shift the UN’s focus towards the plight of refugees and refugee hosting countries. But in the meantime, things are trending to get worse for migrants and refugees in 2017 before they get better.

— Kimberly Curtis

6) A Big Election in France

Marine Le Pen, credit: wikipedia
Marine Le Pen, credit: wikipedia

France will be holding its first round of presidential elections in April 2017. A run-off between the top two candidates from the first election will take place in May. The Brexit decision and the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA has triggered increased interest in Front National, France’s extreme right-wing party. With Marine Le Pen standing as the Front’s candidate, and incumbent president François Hollande’s decision not to run for a second term, this election is a key turning point in French politics. The rise of the far right movement in Europe could be bolstered and legitimized if Front National comes to power. Its anti-immigrant message has gotten more popular after the 2015 Paris attacks, and with recent attacks in Berlin, it Front National could come to power, making Marine Le Pen France’s first female president.

If she wins the presidential election, France could potentially leave the European Union, revert back to the franc and introduce anti-immigration laws. Needless to say, there is a lot riding on this election.

— Mako Muzenda

7)  Political Crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

drc elections

For the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 2016 was an eventful year. With elections delayed indefinitely and a stalled national dialogue, President Kabila has refused to step down by the constitutionally mandated date of December 19. Tens of protesters were killed at demonstrations led by opposition parties in Kinshasa in September, and hundreds of people, including pro-democracy activists, have been arrested and detained this month. All this makes DRC a key country to watch in 2017, as the constitutional crisis and growing opposition to President Kabila could result in political turmoil and/or exacerbate regional ethnopolitical struggles.

Recently, according to Koen Vlassenroot and Kris Berwouts at African Arguments, “several forms of resistance and confrontation in unexpected areas, give an indication of what might happen in the next few days and weeks. Rather than expecting massive rallies in Congo’s major cities, it looks like we are moving towards other, less predictable and less controllable forms of protest.” New armed groups have emerged and new coalitions have been formed among existing ones, presenting themselves as legitimate local authorities. A few have already clashed with the national army.

So in 2017, as Kabila’s government continues to lose credibility among the Congolese and calls for democratic elections continue, we can expect to see new forms of resistance in both cities and rural areas; and quite possibly also increased armed group activity in the realms of local politics and broader opposition to Kabila, leading to more instability in the region.

— Carol Jean Gallo

8) Wither US Leadership on Climate Change?

President Barack Obama greets a child on the Kingsmill Resort grounds during a break from debate prep in Williamsburg, Va., Oct. 14, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

How will the planet fare under Donald Trump? That’s the $100 billion question, amid fears that he will renege on US commitments to combat climate change under the historic Paris Agreement.

No one knows for sure what Trump will do, come January. But the world is set to fight climate change, with or without him. And nations may well retaliate if the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, abandons the Paris deal. In that event, French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged a carbon tax on US products, as others contemplate counter-moves against a “rogue state.”

Many countries are heavily invested in research, infrastructure, agriculture and energy adaptations to impending climate crises. Adaptation is the pivotal word here—because adaptation brings opportunity. In November, more than 300 US business heads sent an open letter to Trump asserting their desire for an economy powered by low-carbon energy. Signatories range from eBay to Unilever, General Mills to Hewlett Packard, Starbucks to Tesla.

The latter’s CEO is billionaire Elon Musk, an avowed renewable-energy devotee—and a selection for Trump’s business advisory board, the Strategic and Policy Forum. Strange bedfellows, Trump and Musk? Perhaps not. As American engineers have argued: it’s time to capitalize on climate change, not deny it. And if there is capital to be gained, Trump will take notice.

— Karen Coates

9) A New (Pan) African Leader Will be Chosen

Kenyan politician Amina Mohammad, credit wikipedia
Kenyan politician Amina Mohammad, credit wikipedia

The election of the Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission takes place in January 2017, with five contenders vying for the position. Being in charge of the commission is an important role in the continental body, especially in 2017. With Nigeria and Namibia sliding into a recession, elections in Somalia, incoming presidents in Ghana and Gambia, and the escalating situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo between President Kabila and activists pushing for him to resign, 2017 could be a year of significant political and economic shifts.

The person at the helm of the AU Commission will steer the continent towards its 2063 agenda “to create a unified and peaceful Africa by 2063, through harnessing the continent’s resources and engaging in stakeholders;” push for more representation in international organizations (including the call for a African country to have a permanent seat in the UN’s Security Council); as well as negotiating the withdrawal of African members from the ICC. The AU Commission Chairperson will play a fundamental role in shaping the AU’s role in Africa and in the world for the next four years, particularly as the continent struggles to move on from political instability and aims to build economic ties and relations with member countries,

With one month to go before the selection. the leading contender out of the five is Amina Mohammed from Kenya. She has gained support from several countries, including Tanzania and Uganda.

— Mako Muzenda

10) Wither Global Women’s Rights?

un women peace

Women’s rights leaders reacted with shock, anger and apprehension when Donald Trump was elected US president. Not only was this the loss of a great dream—a woman to lead the world’s most powerful nation with feminism at the forefront of foreign policy—but also a threat to women’s health and security worldwide. At stake: $600 million in annual funding for reproductive health and family planning, a US priority for half a century. Now, analysts warn, Trump could do an about-face.

The presidential transition team sparked fears of a “witch hunt” when it instructed the State Department to reveal information on its gender-related programs. Further, Trump could reinstate the “Global Gag Rule,” a Reagan-era policy that prohibits organizations receiving US assistance from using non-US funds for performing abortions or advising women on where to receive one. Reinstating that rule could imperil clinics and programs that provide necessary healthcare to women globally.

Investing in reproductive health is not just about abortion. It’s about development, economy and political stability—interests that cross party lines. Studies show: investments in reproductive health have long-term ripple effects of benefits. Women and girls stay in school longer, which means they have better job prospects, which means they contribute more to their communities’ development—and the GDP. Studies also show women are critical to national security and conflict resolution.

It’s too risky for Trump to renege on decades of American investment in women. That is undoubtedly the story activists will underscore in the next four years.

— Karen Coates

11) The ICC and Africa Will Continue to Clash

Pictured here: ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda ©ICC-CPI
Pictured here: ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda ©ICC-CPI

Although the International Criminal Court’s relationship to Africa has been contentious for several years, 2016 saw a flurry of new controversies that will carry into the new year. In particular, South Africa and Burundi announced in October their intention to leave the court, potentially imperiling the credibility of the court. Since then, Burundi’s parliament has approved the country’s departure while South Africa’s future with the court remains in limbo. But the actions of these two states – one facing a potential ICC investigation for political violence and the other a major power on the continent – set in motion a trend that may be irreversible. Who stays and who goes is likely to be decided in 2017 and can have far reaching consequences outside the continent.

At the heart of the controversy is the singular focus the ICC has had so far on African conflicts. Although there are non-African conflicts in the preliminary examination stage, none have yet to graduate to the investigation stage let alone indictments and trial.

But that may change in 2017. The ICC’s latest report on preliminary examinations made clear that it was close to opening a formal investigation in Afghanistan, and the recent peace agreement in Colombia paves the way for justice for the worst of war crimes and crimes against humanity after decades of civil war. The Philippines is another likely target of ICC scrutiny as President Duterte’s war on drugs continue to elicit international condemnation for its high death toll and weak incarceration protections.

All of these situations are legitimate and timely targets for the court that could help break the cycle of African-only cases. Whether that is enough to satiate African critics of the ICC remains to be seen but it does mean that in many ways, this next year may mark a make or break point for the world’s only permanent international criminal court.

— Kimberly Curtis