Our Best Stories of 2016

Authoritarianism in Russia, Turkey and the United States; a culture war in Europe and a presidential impeachment in Brazil.

2016 was an unsettling year. From Britain’s decision to leave the European Union to the election of Donald Trump in America, it sometimes felt as though the world was balancing on the precipice of something new and possibly quite dangerous.

There was good news. Barack Obama normalized American relations with Cuba. Colombia made peace with the FARC. Spain got a government after managing without one for almost all of 2016.

At the Atlantic Sentinel, we welcomed new writers, including Matt Finucane from the United Kingdom, András Tóth-Czifra, who specializes in post-Soviet Europe, and Ryan Bohl, whose weekly Geopolitics Made Super column we republish.

We did more live blogs, including for the Brexit referendum and its political aftermath as well as the coup attempt in Turkey in July.

We sharpened our focus on the Atlantic area and transatlantic relations, which is our specialty. Our mission from the start has been to help American readers make sense of European politics and vice versa. It looks like we’ll have our work cut out for us in that regard next year.

Before we welcome 2017, here is a look back at our top stories from 2016.

Putin’s Russia Is Taking a Dangerous Turn

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

The year’s most-read articles was “Putin’s Russia Is Taking a Dangerous Turn,” about the country’s reliance on emergencies to justify authoritarianism at home.

Citing Russia experts Mark Galeotti and Lilia Shevtsova, Nick Ottens explained there are two big risks about relying on emergency rule.

One is that the state constantly needs to find (or invent) “urgent” problems to keep the system going.

The second is that escalation is a given. To solve the “problem” of Ukraine’s European orientation, Russia annexed the Crimea — but in the process alienated both Europe and Ukraine. In an attempt to distract the West’s attention away from Ukraine and solve the “problem” of its allies questioning Russia’s reliability, the country intervened in Syria — but in the process made a (worse) enemy out of both Turkey and violent Islamists.

So far, Vladimir Putin has successfully managed these tensions and his geopolitical position is stronger than it was at the start of 2016. But he is walking a tightrope. 2017 might not be as kind to him.

Donald Trump and the Strongman’s Temptation

Businessman Donald Trump gives a speech in Fountain Hills, Arizona, March 19
Businessman Donald Trump gives a speech in Fountain Hills, Arizona, March 19 (Gage Skidmore)

2016 was the year in which an unhealthy desire to be led reasserted itself. Admiration for Putin went hand-in-hand with support for elected strongmen, whether it was Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or Donald Trump in the United States.

In “Donald Trump and the Strongman’s Temptation,” Nick Ottens wrote that when institutions fail, there are always people willing to follow the man on horseback who promises to escape the normal constraints of politics and uproot the old order through the sheer force of his personality.

But it never works. Better to find boring, competent leaders and rely on institutions than pin our hopes on a single individual. It is a lesson we will hopefully all learn, if sometimes painfully, in 2017.

Liberal America Unwittingly Radicalized Trumpland

A portrait of businessman Donald Trump is seen in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 23
A portrait of businessman Donald Trump is seen in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 23 (Tony Webster)

The Atlantic Sentinel published a series of articles about Donald Trump’s unexpected popularity. Perhaps the most important one was “Liberal America Unwittingly Radicalized Trumpland,” in which Nick Ottens argued that liberals had overreached and driven working white Americans into the arms of a demagogue.

Trump Accelerates Trends That Could Realign Parties

Hillary Clinton supporters listen to a speech in Davidson, North Carolina, October 12
Hillary Clinton supporters listen to a speech in Davidson, North Carolina, October 12 (Hillary for America/Alyssa S.)

Another consequence of Trump’s victory is that demographic shifts that were in the process of realigning the two major political parties in the United States have been accelerated. Lower-educated white voters have moved into the Republican Party. College-educated white and minority voters are increasingly Democratic. The Democrats could become more ideologically liberal as a result, in both an economic and a cultural sense. Republicans could become less ideologically conservative and more nationalist.

Follow the American party realignment tag to learn more.

Open or Closed? The Question That Divides Us

View of Tower Bridge from the Tower of London, England at night, March 23, 2012
View of Tower Bridge from the Tower of London, England at night, March 23, 2012 (Pixabay/Samueles)

The big story in European politics this year was what we, per Andrew Sullivan, have called the continent’s blue-red culture war over modernity.

“Blue Europe” is internationalist, metrosexual, multicultural and altogether at ease in the twenty-first century. “Red Europe” longs for a more homogenous society, more familiarity and stability.

The tension between these two played out in the British EU referendum. It explains the present political turmoil in Poland. It was exacerbated by the European migrant crisis. And it will likely play a major role in the French presidential election next year, assuming that Marine Le Pen, the leading light of Red Europe, will make it into the second voting round.

For an overview, read Nick Ottens’ “Open or Closed? The Question That Divides Us“.

Why Turkey Is Drifting from the West

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Barack Obama of the United States meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 7, 2009
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Barack Obama of the United States meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 7, 2009 (White House/Samantha Appleton)

Another authoritarian who had a big influence on the year’s events was Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Soon after he survived a military coup attempt and cracked down so hard on internal dissent that Turkish democracy is now at risk, Ryan Bohl explained in “Why Turkey Is Drifting from the West” that the relationship has been tenuous since the end of the Cold War.

The West once needed Turkey as a bulwark against communism. Now that the Soviets are gone, traditional Turkish interests have resurfaced — and they are not necessarily aligned with those of Europe and the United States.

“With or without Erdoğan,” Bohl predicted, “twenty-first-century Turkey will increasingly fail to see eye to eye with its NATO allies.”

Rousseff Leaves But Brazil’s Problems Remain

Brazilian Workers' Party leader Dilma Rousseff is interviewed in her office in Brasília, August 2
Brazilian Workers’ Party leader Dilma Rousseff is interviewed in her office in Brasília, August 2 (Roberto Stuckert Filho)

One of the most dramatic stories of 2016 unfolded in South America, where Brazil’s left-wing president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached midway through her second term.

In “Rousseff Leaves But Brazil’s Problems Remain,” Christian FitzHugh argued that her successor, Michel Temer, may right the ship in the short term, but that long-term impediments to Brazil’s political health — including widespread corruption, nepotism and rising polarization — remain unresolved.