Two thousand twenty will go down in the books as a very tough year. It’s of no comfort that historians say it ranks just eighth in terms of the most stressful years in U.S. history. Our lives were disrupted in ways that we could not have imagined just twelve months ago. But recounting all the bad things that happened in 2020 makes it easy to overlook the good things that happened. And good things did happen. Here, in no particular order, are ten good news stories about foreign policy. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories could bring more good news in 2021 and beyond.
COVID Vaccines Won Approval. Less than eleven months after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the novel coronavirus, Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra-Zeneca each produced a highly effective vaccine against the disease. It’s hard to exaggerate just how impressive a feat this was. The standard guidance pre-pandemic was that it took ten to fifteen years to develop a vaccine, if one could be developed at all. The quickest any vaccine had been developed was the four years it took to create one for the mumps. And the effectiveness of a vaccine is just as important as the speed of its development. As late as this fall, experts were cautioning that initial coronavirus vaccines might be only 50 percent effective. The Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra-Zeneca vaccines are roughly 95 percent effective. Lots of people deserve credit for doing what seemed impossible: the scientists working long hours in labs, pharmaceutical companies making big bets on new technologies, governments investing in programs like Operation Warp Speed, and volunteers willing to participate in clinical trials. Yes, problems in distributing vaccines quickly and fairly, both within and among countries, remain. But 2020 ended with great optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic can be contained.
Technology Continued to Impress. Coronavirus vaccines weren’t the only examples of technology making a difference on the world scene in 2020. Communications technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex didn’t just make it possible for some people to work from home and for almost everyone to see family and friends despite lockdowns and travel bans. They also enabled diplomats and world leaders to “attend” summits and conferences without leaving their office. Renewable energy technologies continued to improve; solar-power plants now cost less to build per megawatt generated than fossil-fuel plants. Artificial intelligence improved as well, making it possible to do everything from using energy more efficiently to making better projections about climate change to responding more effectively to natural disasters. Quantum computing is edging closer to reality; Chinese scientists reported this month that they had created a quantum computer that can do one mathematical calculation at least 100 trillion times faster than any supercomputer. Of course, the promised benefits of these and other technologies could prove overblown. Or they could be misused, render jobs obsolete, or otherwise disrupt societies in unanticipated ways. But those are age-old problems. And so far, the cost/benefit ratio of technological advances leans heavily toward the latter.
Global Carbon Emissions Fell. The coronavirus pandemic has been painful to experience. However, the threat it poses to humanity pales in comparison to climate change. And while it’s tempting to think of climate disruption as a problem we will confront in the future, we are already experiencing it today with catastrophic wildfires, bigger and more frequent storms, and more intense droughts. So one positive side effect of the pandemic is that it triggered a steep drop in global carbon emissions. They look to be down 7 percent on the year, the sharpest decrease on record. In the United States, carbon emissions fell by 12 percent. Of course, a drop in a single-year’s emissions will not make a significant dent in the climate change problem, especially when it comes after the world hit new emissions highs in 2019. Nor is a pandemic-induced slowdown in the world economy a great way to curb carbon emissions. That said, 2020 highlighted how much the choices we make influence what goes into the atmosphere. Perhaps some of the changes that 2020 introduced, like more remote work and less air travel, will outlast the pandemic and help humanity curb its carbon habit.
American Democracy Was Tested—And Passed. The United States has had divisive presidential elections. It has also had close ones. It has even had ones in which the loser tried to scuttle his successor’s plans. But until 2020, it had never had a sitting president refuse to concede in the face of incontrovertible evidence of his defeat. Donald Trump had the right to call for recounts in critical states. The election was far closer than the popular vote indicated. Had 43,000 votes moved in just three states, Trump would have won. That, however, didn’t justify his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud or his efforts to push state lawmakers and the courts to overturn election results. Although many congressional Republicans kept quiet or even egged Trump on, state officials fulfilled their duties while the courts insisted that allegations be accompanied by evidence. Had Trump succeeded, he would have damaged American democracy, perhaps irrevocably, and emboldened authoritarians around the world. As it was, his actions exposed how much American politics rests on unwritten norms and deepened the polarization that threatens the ability of the U.S. government to function. Yet in an election that was the most secure in history and that featured the highest turnout since 1900, America’s democratic guardrails held.
The Quest for Racial Justice Moved Front and Center on the Global Stage. The killing of George Floyd was horrific. The fact that it wasn’t unusual for a Black American to die at the hands of the police made it only more so. But Floyd’s death touched a chord in the United States, inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets to demand racial justice. And the ramifications of his killing went well beyond America’s borders, reaching more than forty countries. From Nairobi to Paris to Rio de Janeiro, people protested, criticizing not just America’s failings but also their own countries’ racial inequalities. Those demonstrations had an impact. Berlin enacted an anti-discrimination law that had been in the works, making it the first German state to do so. New Zealand changed its policing policies to limit their discriminatory impact. Toronto’s mayor called for major reforms to the city’s policing, including “alternative models of community safety response” that do not involve the police. None of these moves were panaceas, though, and some countries enacted policy reforms only to reverse them. But as the American civil rights movement showed, terrible tragedies can lead to great progress, even if that progress doesn’t come immediately or without setbacks.
The European Union (EU) Regained Momentum. It’s been a tough decade for the world’s most successful effort at supranational integration. The EU entered the new millennium with experts predicting it would run the twenty-first century. But the EU express soon hit significant bumps in the road: a massive debt crisis, an equally massive immigration crisis, Brexit, and the rise of populist, illiberal governments to name just a few. Suddenly the question was being asked, is the EU falling apart? And a large number of Europeans were answering, yes. Yet during the middle of the pandemic, as pundits speculated that the coronavirus crisis would tear Europe apart, the EU rediscovered its mojo. It created a €750 billion solidarity fund to provide relief for COVID-19—and it broke important new ground when Germany dropped its longstanding objections to collective obligations and agreed to raise the funds by issuing common EU debt. The move has the potential to mitigate the pandemic’s impact and help EU economies rebound more quickly than they otherwise would. It also has the potential to deepen and strengthen EU integration. If so, it could open a new chapter for Europe and possibly enable the EU to fulfill the optimistic predictions made for it just two decades ago.
A Brexit Deal Got Done. You are not alone if you grew tired of the seemingly endless Brexit saga. First came the debate over whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU. Then the vote. Then the battle over whether Britain actually would leave. Then the departure at the start of 2020 that left open the terms of the divorce. Along the way there were offers, demands, ultimatums, pseudo deadlines, and real ones. Enough already. But how Britain left the EU mattered, especially in a year that a pandemic sent the world economy reeling. Failing to reach agreement would have maximized the economic turmoil arising from Britain’s departure. But last week’s signing of the soothingly-named EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement avoided a “no-deal Brexit.” Both parties got some, but not all, of what they wanted. That’s the nature of negotiations. Trade between Britain and the EU will remain tariff-free, though it will face more hurdles than in the past. The UK can now pursue the much-talked-about trade deal with the United States, though that negotiation isn’t a priority for the incoming Biden administration. With Brexit in the rearview mirror, expect a run of articles about who won, who lost, and who could and should have done better.
The Abraham Accords Were Signed. The Middle East generated some good news in 2020. On August 13, the Trump administration announced a deal in which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recognized Israel in return for Israel’s pledge to forgo, for the time being at least, annexing territory in the West Bank. Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco followed suit over the next four months. As the year closed, the question was whether Saudi Arabia would join as well. As significant as the accords were, they did not address the core issue in Middle East peacemaking efforts: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The accords did not mention Palestine, and the Palestinian leadership rejected them. The diplomacy also came at some cost. The accords were packaged with a major arms sale to the UAE and put pressure on Sudan’s fledgling democratic transition. At the same time, the Trump administration got Morocco on board by dropping the longstanding U.S. refusal to recognize Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara, potentially increasing the chances of conflict in that region. As with many diplomatic initiatives, the Abraham Accords could set the stage for further diplomatic breakthroughs or falter over continuing disagreements.
Terrorism Deaths Worldwide Fell Again. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, terrorism became the central focus of U.S. national security policy as the United States waged a global war on terrorism. But as the years passed and other issues came to the fore, concerns about terrorism dimmed. Indeed, when Gallup recently asked Americans what the most important problem is facing the country today, terrorism didn’t register even one percent. One reason for the lack of concern is that global deaths from terrorism have been falling since 2014, hitting a new low in 2019, a trend that looks to have continued into 2020. More than 95 percent of terrorist attacks take place in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria that are already embroiled in conflict. This is not to say that terrorism has been eliminated as a threat, or that terrorist attacks aren’t conducted outside of conflict zones. The horrific killing of French school teacher Samuel Paty in October and subsequent attacks in Nice and Vienna attest to that. At the same time, the nature of the terrorist threat is changing, at least in Western countries. Far-right political terrorism has been rising for several years. When it comes to terrorism, vigilance needs to be eternal.
Great Power Competition Remained Peaceful. As any fan of Sherlock Holmes knows, what doesn’t happen can be just as important as what does happen. In recent years, talk in international relations has shifted from globalization and responsible stakeholders to the return of old-fashioned geopolitical competition among the great powers—China, Russia, and the United States. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States put competition at the center of U.S. national security policy. China’s wolf warrior diplomacy and muscle flexing across Asia, like Russia’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections and expand its footprint in the Middle East, suggest that Beijing and Moscow also see great power politics as a contest and not a collaboration. All the talk about great power competition has raised the question of whether the best analogy for world politics today is the years leading up to World War I. There certainly was no shortage of flashpoints this year that could have triggered great power conflict: China’s clash with India in the Himalayas and its efforts to intimidate Taiwan, Russia’s harassment of U.S. and allied military forces, and the brief but brutal war in Nagorno-Karabakh come to mind. But peace held. So it’s good to remember that as bad as 2020 was, it could have been far worse.
Other good news stories of note in 2020: On January 22, Greece’s parliament elected the country’s first woman president. On February 9, the South Korean black comedy Parasite became the first non-English film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. On March 27, North Macedonia became the thirtieth member of NATO. On April 28, Colombia became the thirty-seventh member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. On May 30, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, taking astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station for the first time since 2011. On June 22, the second largest Ebola outbreak in history, which began in Congo in 2018, was declared over. On July 1, the public operations of Sydney, Australia, became 100 percent powered by renewable energy, setting a standard for other cities to meet. On August 21, a giant panda cub was born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and later named Xiao Qi Ji, or “little miracle,” after a public vote. On September 9, scientists reported that the world had saved forty-eight mammal and bird species from extinction since 1993 in part thanks to global biodiversity agreements. On October 7, French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier and American scientist Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on CRISPR gene editing technology, making them the first women to jointly win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. On November 25, Australian-British academic Kylie Moore was released in a prisoner exchange after spending two years in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges. On December 2, fourteen countries representing 40 percent of the world’s coastlines signed an agreement to protect global fishing resources.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.