Those bright spots, however, hardly made up for the bad news. So here are my top ten world events in 2020. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories will continue into 2021 and beyond.
10. The U.S. Senate Acquits Donald Trump of Impeachment Charges. In most years, a presidential impeachment trial would top the year-end list of biggest news stories. But in 2020, it only just makes the top ten. Donald Trump began the year as the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, joining Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. The U.S. House had impeached Trump on two charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The impeachment trial in the Senate opened on January 16, with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the trial was that after hearing opening presentations by the House managers and Trump’s defense team, the Senate voted not to call witnesses or issue subpoenas.
On February 5, the Senate acquitted Trump on both articles of impeachment almost entirely along partisan lines. On Article I, alleging abuse of power, forty-eight senators voted guilty and fifty-two voted not guilty—Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican to vote to convict and remove Trump.
On Article II, alleging obstruction of Congress, forty-seven senators voted guilty and fifty-three senators voted not guilty. The next day, Trump declared victory, saying that the trial against him was "evil" and Democrats were "vicious as hell."
9. Belarusians Protest for Fair and Free Elections. There has been much talk in recent years about the decline of democracy. Belarusians appear not to have gotten the message. On August 9, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, a man known as “Europe’s last dictator,” claimed he had won 80 percent of the vote in the country’s presidential election, thereby entitling him to a sixth term in office.
Thousands immediately took to the streets to protest what they saw as a stolen election—and continued to do so through the fall and into winter. Lukashenko had succeeded in barring several potential candidates from running against him in the August election. The opposition eventually coalesced around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose husband, a popular YouTuber, had been a leading candidate until Lukashenko had him arrested.
Tikhanovskaya fled the country following Lukashenko’s claim to victory. Belarusian authorities arrested an estimated 17,000 people; many were brutally beaten. The European Union imposed a range of sanctions in response, and it was joined by the United Kingdom and the United States in calling for new elections.
Lukashenko succeeded in resisting the protestors because of his vast security apparatus and support from Russia. Even so, by year’s end there was speculation that his security forces were starting to split. If so, Belarus could become an even bigger story in 2021.
8. Tensions Flare Between Iran and the United States. Bad blood between Tehran and Washington still persists after four decades. On January 3, a U.S. drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, shortly after he arrived in Baghdad. Iran retaliated over the next two months with rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, injuring dozens of U.S. troops and killing many Iraqis.
Tensions flared again in April when several Iranian speedboats harassed U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, prompting Trump to tweet that he had issued orders “to shoot down” Iranian gunboats if the harassment continued. Iran responded by threatening to destroy U.S. warships.
Amidst this spat, Iran launched its first military satellite, intensifying U.S. concerns over Iran’s improving long-range missile capabilities. While the threat of direct military confrontation eased over the summer, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, ignoring calls from European allies countries to ease its economic pressure in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tensions rose again in late November when Iran’s top nuclear scientist was assassinated, likely by Israel. Iran responded by moving even further away from the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. The potential that Iran could soon leave the deal entirely set the stage for high stakes diplomacy early in 2021.
7. Oil Prices Tank. Two thousand twenty was not a good year for oil producers or oil companies. The COVID-19 outbreak sent economies around the world into a tailspin, depressing the demand for oil. But the bad news for oil producers didn’t stop there. At a March meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Saudi Arabia proposed that OPEC members and aligned oil-producing countries known as OPEC+ cut their joint oil production by 1.5 million barrels per day to help stabilize falling oil prices.
Russia, an OPEC+ country and the world’s third largest oil producer after the United States and Saudi Arabia, rejected the plan, thereby ending six years of Russian-Saudi cooperation on production policy. Riyadh responded by cutting its export prices and boosting production. That sent oil prices plummeting.
In April, the U.S. oil market had its worst day in history. By that time, a deal had been cut among OPEC and OPEC+ members to cut global production by 9.7 million barrels to end the price war.
Oil prices climbed later in the year, briefly reaching $47 in late November, their highest level since March. Even with this bounce, oil prices were still 30 percent below where they started the year, meaning that most oil-producing countries faced tough economic times going into 2021.
6. Abraham Accords Signed. A bright spot in 2020 came from the Middle East of all places. On August 13, the Trump administration announced it had helped broker 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. On September 11, Bahrain announced it would join the deal.
Four days later, Trump hosted a signing ceremony at the White House for the Abraham Accords and expressed hope that they would lead to “real peace in the Middle East.” Sudan joined the deal in October, and Morocco followed suit in December. As the year closed, speculation continued as to 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 likely 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, only time will tell whether the benefits of the accords outweigh the costs.
5. The Killing of George Floyd. Racism has been called America’s original sin. But it is a sin that extends beyond the United States. On May 25, George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, was arrested in Minneapolis for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. One of the arresting officers kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and fifteen seconds, killing him.
Floyd’s death at the hands of officers whose mission is to “protect and serve” followed on the heels of literally hundreds of similar police killings of Black Americans, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor. Video of Floyd’s killing triggered protests across the United States and sparked a long overdue national conversation about systemic racism.
But the protests and conversations about justice and equality went far beyond America’s borders. From Paris to Nairobi to Rio de Janeiro, people took to the streets to protest Floyd’s death and to highlight their own countries’ racial inequalities. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “Racism is real. It’s in the United States, but it’s also in Canada.”
But the same could be said of most other countries, including those like China and Iran that seized on Floyd’s death as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy on human rights issues. Injustice and inequality remain a global challenge.
4. Climate Disruptions Continue. Welcome to the new climate normal: catastrophic wildfires, bigger and more frequent storms, and more intense droughts. The year began with Australia experiencing its worst fire season on record, with some six percent of the country in flames and nearly three million animals killed. The western United States faced similar record-breaking wildfires later in the year.
Other parts of the United States, Central America, and Southeast Asia were hit with numerous destructive tropical storms. Meanwhile, a prolonged drought in the southwestern United States could be the worst in 1,200 years, and the Sahara desert continues to grow. The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic did trigger a steep drop in carbon emissions; they were projected to fall by 11 percent in the United States.
But that decrease came against the backdrop of the world hitting new emissions highs in 2019 and the likelihood that economic activity will pick up in 2021. World leaders convened virtually in December to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement and made impressive pledges to move toward a carbon-neutral world. However, those vows were easier to make than to fulfill.
And China showed no willingness to abandon its ambitious plans to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants, a major source of emissions. In all, the world continues to hurtle toward a point of no return. Indeed, we may already have passed it.
3. China Asserts Itself. “Strategic engagement,” the idea that economic engagement would lead to Beijing becoming “a responsible stakeholder” in world politics, might have met its demise in 2020. China threw its weight around across the globe throughout the year, seemingly not minding whom it offended.
Early in 2020, Chinese officials escalated their “wolf warrior” diplomacy, aggressively (and undiplomatically) attacking countries and individuals they believed had slighted China. In April, China retaliated against Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus by launching a trade war.
In mid-June, days after a deal was struck to deescalate a border standoff with India, Chinese troops initiated clashes that killed twenty Indian soldiers. Weeks later, Beijing imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong designed to crush the pro-democracy movement. China was aggressive as well in its dealings with Taiwan as the Trump administration strengthened its ties with what Beijing regards as a renegade province.
China also continued its systematic repression of its Uighur minority with surveillance, imprisonment, and forced labor. By year’s end, China’s relative success in handling the pandemic and stimulating its economy had seemingly convinced Beijing that it was winning its contest with the West. Rather than fearing calls by U.S. officials for a decoupling of the two economies, China embraced steps designed to decouple from the West on its own terms.
2. Joe Biden Wins the Presidency. Americans felt passionately about the 2020 presidential election. The proof is in the turnout: More than 159 million people voted. That equates to 66.7 percent voter turnout, the highest since 1900. More than 100 million Americans voted early, either in-person or by mail, the first time in history that more people voted before Election Day than on it.
The size of the mail-in vote and a handful of tight races meant it wasn’t until November 7, four days after Election Day, that the race was called for Joe Biden. Trump refused to concede, however. Insisting he had won, he demanded recounts in several states, falsely claimed large-scale election fraud, and filed lawsuits in state and federal courts to overturn the results.
None of his challenges paid off. On December 14 the Electoral College elected Biden president. That outcome fit with the saying that while foreign policy doesn’t determine presidential elections, presidential elections determine foreign policy. Events overseas drove few votes in 2020 even though Biden offered a different approach to the world than Trump did.
We will see in 2021 if Biden’s abandonment of America First in favor of a more multilateral approach will produce better results. An open question is whether Trump’s refusal to concede in the face of clear evidence that he lost will embolden dictators and authoritarians.
1. The COVID-19 Pandemic. Things that start small can reshape the world. Few people noticed when news emerged last December that China had begun monitoring the outbreak of a new pneumonia-like virus, or even on January 11 after China reported its first death from the disease. Nearly a year later, COVID-19 had changed life as we knew it.
The World Health Organization estimated in October that as much as 10 percent of the world’s population had already contracted COVID-19; by year’s end some 1.7 million people had died from it. As countries implemented lockdowns to stop the disease’s spread, the global economy sputtered—it may have contracted by more than 4 percent—and poverty rates spiked. Some countries like New Zealand and Vietnam handled the pandemic well, limiting infections while sustaining economic growth.
But many countries, most notably the United States, bungled their response and saw soaring caseloads and death rates. Arguments will persist for years over why the crisis was mishandled; expect poor leadership, political partisanship, and distrust of government to figure prominently in explanations.
The year closed on a positive note as vaccines were approved in record time. The challenges now are distributing them widely and equitably while preparing to do a better job stopping the next pandemic. The novel coronavirus will not be the last of its kind.
Other stories to note in 2020. In January, the United Kingdom officially withdrew from the European Union. In February, protests in North East Delhi over India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act killed at least fifty-three people. In March, Turkey launched a major military operation against Syria after Syrian and Russian air and artillery strikes killed at least three dozen Turkish soldiers.
In April, Kim Jong Un missed a major North Korean celebration, sparking rumors that he was dying. In May, Israel swore in its new unity government, ending for the country’s longest political crisis. In June, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office that served as a de facto embassy for North and South Korea.
In July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the Hagia Sophia be turned back into a mosque, reversing the 1934 decision that made it a museum. In August, Putin critic Alexey Navalny was poisoned while on a flight to Moscow. In September, fighting flared in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In October, Bolivia held parliamentary and presidential elections, resulting in the return of former president Evo Morales’ party to political power.
In November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, ordered the Ethiopian military to suppress an insurrection in Tigray. In December, the U.S. government acknowledged that a massive and sophisticated cyberattack, most likely conducted by Russian intelligence services, had penetrated the computer networks of a range of U.S. government agencies and corporations.