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It was a year of seismic events and seemingly far-fetched headlines. The world was inflamed in more ways than one: expansive wildfires highlighted the costs of climate change, public outrage erupted over police brutality and racism, and devastating explosions underscored Lebanon’s already fragile state. Relations between some long-standing adversaries thawed as others worsened.
And overshadowing almost everything else, the global pandemic of a novel coronavirus, COVID-19, created a worldwide economic shock and sparked an unprecedented effort to create a vaccine. In this look back at the past year in graphics, CFR helps to make sense of the biggest foreign policy developments.
Rising U.S.-Iran Tensions, Sometimes Played Out Through Proxies
On January 3, a U.S. drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, outside Baghdad’s international airport. Iran retaliated within days, firing missiles at two bases hosting U.S. military personnel in Iraq. In the following months, Tehran continued to target U.S. forces, including through its network of regional proxies, while Washington stepped up sanctions.
Read more from CFR:
Soleimani’s Death: A Crippling Blow to the Iranian Regime
Does the U.S. Strike on Soleimani Break Legal Norms?
The Mideast Just Turned More Dangerous
Timeline: U.S. Relations With Iran
Coronavirus Mask Policies and Medical Systems Under Stress
A new coronavirus, which emerged in China in late 2019, spread to more than one hundred countries by March 11, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic. Governments mandated the use of masks and implemented lockdowns to curb transmission, but COVID-19 cases overwhelmed hospitals in early hot spots. Meanwhile, countries competed to secure personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, amid a global shortage.
Australia’s Wildfires and a Changing Global Climate
Australia began 2020 with one of its worst-ever fire seasons, during which wildfires killed at least thirty-three people and burned more than forty-two million acres. This augured another year of extreme natural occurrences—including record-setting blazes in the United States and an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season—that highlight the burgeoning costs of climate change. The pandemic stymied efforts to confront such threats, forcing the postponements of the UN Ocean Conference and the United Nations’ twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change.
A Shaky Peace Deal as the Taliban Expands Control in Afghanistan
On February 29, U.S. and Taliban officials signed a peace deal that many hoped would help end Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. The United States conditionally agreed to withdraw troops, while the Taliban pledged to help prevent terrorism and to begin intra-Afghan negotiations. But continued violence, an Afghan government political crisis, and hiccups in a prerequisite prisoner exchange stymied these talks. The Taliban, which controls much of the country, finally met with the Afghan government in September, but negotiations quickly stalled. In December, the two sides made some progress, agreeing on the terms for the talks.
Historic Economic Measures for Debt-Saddled Countries
Pandemic-related measures and public fears kneecapped the global economy, which experts soon predicted would face its worst recession since World War II. Countries such as the United States and Japan swiftly enacted measures collectively worth trillions of dollars to mitigate the economic crisis, adding to their already large debt burdens. The European Union also unveiled a historic $859 billion coronavirus recovery package, though Hungary and Poland later blocked its adoption.
Racial Injustice in the Spotlight Amid Police Killings
The May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in the United States sparked a national reckoning on race. Mass protests erupted over police brutality and systemic racism, which experts say have undermined U.S. authority on human rights. Sympathetic demonstrations occurred in dozens of countries, despite concerns about mass gatherings amid the pandemic. The movement spotlighted many countries’ own struggles with brutality by law enforcement and tense police-minority relations.
Surging Tensions Along China-India Border
Chinese and Indian troops clashed over the ill-defined border in the Ladakh region of Kashmir on June 15, the countries’ first deadly border altercation since 1975. In the following months, each side accused the other of crossing the border and of firing shots along it in violation of a 1996 agreement. Multiple negotiations failed, with neither country willing to trim its expanded military presence in the area. However, in September, they agreed to limit future escalation.
For Immigrant-Dependent Canada, an Asylum Deal on the Rocks
On July 22, a Canadian judge struck down her country’s safe third country agreement with the United States, ruling it violates asylum seekers’ rights under Canadian law. Critics worry the decision, which was temporarily suspended, could trigger a rise in asylum claims. Nonetheless, in October, Canada unveiled its highest-ever immigration targets, as it seeks to rebound from a pandemic-related drop in newcomers and retain a large immigrant population to offset its domestic labor shortages and aging population.
U.S. to Cut Troops in Germany
On July 29, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper unveiled a plan to withdraw about one-third of the U.S. troops stationed in Germany amid a broader shift in the U.S. military’s European presence. Esper said the reshuffling will help deter Russia, boost strategic flexibility, and strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Nonetheless, President Donald J. Trump framed it as retribution for Germany not keeping its financial commitments to the alliance.
Explosions in Fragile Lebanon
Two explosions rocked Lebanon’s capital of Beirut on August 4, killing more than two hundred people. The blasts, caused by a chemical improperly stored at Beirut’s port, escalated concerns that Lebanon could become a failed state and prompted Prime Minister Hassan Diab to resign. Global donors mobilized around Lebanon, though France’s assertiveness, in particular, raised comparisons among some critics to a previous era of European colonialism in the Levant.
Thawing Gulf-Israel Ties
On September 15, Israel signed U.S.-brokered agreements to normalize relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), signaling a possible fissure in Arab solidarity against Israel. In its deal with the UAE, Israel pledged to hold off on plans to annex parts of the West Bank, a flashpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he plans to proceed with annexation. Palestinian leadership denounced the normalization deals as a betrayal of their cause.
All In on a COVID-19 Vaccine
The global effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine—which experts view as the linchpin to ending the pandemic—gained speed throughout 2020 as a gamut of players spent billions of dollars to develop and test candidates. More than 180 countries joined a WHO-led initiative, called COVAX, to ensure equitable global access to safe, effective vaccines. Still, concerns mounted about so-called vaccine nationalism and the potential hoarding of limited supplies. Meanwhile, fast-tracked vaccine production, which usually takes years, rattled public confidence in the safety of inoculation.
Shivani Persaud contributed to this report.