It was the year of the hard man – the tough-guy leader with a ruthless streak and a big ego. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin, a role model for the genre, strengthened his harsh grip on domestic politics while intensifying Russia’s cyber-digital “war of influence” with the west. In Beijing, China’s president, Xi Jinping, attained a kind of immortality when his unoriginal thoughts were enshrined in the Communist party constitution. In Washington, Donald Trump enacted a charlatan parody of the US presidency, blending power and ignorance to an alarming degree.
The heavy mob attracted a cohort of emulators and imitators – “little big men” such as Kim Jong-un, the inexperienced, nuclear-armed North Korean dictator and Rodrigo Duterte, the homicidal president of the Philippines. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s choleric president, worked assiduously to dismantle his country’s secular democratic tradition, using a failed 2016 coup as a pretext. Saudi Arabia’s uncrowned leader and ostensible reformer, the youthful Prince Mohammad bin Salman, made a series of clumsy regional power plays.
The corollary to the rise of the hard man was a sense of debilitating weakness among western democracies and of a crumbling postwar international strategic and legal order. The rising power of one-party China, spreading authoritarianism in general, and divisive, populist and nationalistic regressions within Europe highlighted the dilemma. The west’s difficulties were compounded by uncertainty over how to handle Trump and navigate a disorientating new era of weakening American global leadership.
North Korea emerged as 2017’s most dangerous international security problem. Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles in defiance of the UN and its neighbours is not a new phenomenon. What changed in 2017 was the juxtaposition, in opposing corners, of two volatile, foolish and inexperienced leaders: Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
Aware of Trump’s campaign threats to topple his regime, Kim – in power since the death of his father in 2011 – appeared determined to test the new American president’s mettle. A series of missile test launches, some close to Japan, was followed in September by a first underground test of a powerful hydrogen bomb. Since then North Korea has threatened another nuclear detonation – this time in the atmosphere over the Pacific, possibly near the US territory of Guam. Pyongyang now says it can strike any part of the US – something Washington had vowed to prevent.
Trump’s response was contradictory from the start. He held out the prospect of talks with Pyongyang, and even a personal meeting with Kim, and criticised Japan and South Korea for not doing enough to defend themselves. At other times, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. He derided Kim as “little rocket man” and a “sick puppy” and scolded his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for wasting time by pursuing diplomatic solutions. Not to be outdone, North Korea dubbed Trump an “ageing lunatic” and “senile dotard”.
During an Asian tour in 2017, Trump pledged solidarity with South Korea and Japan, where Shinzō Abe, the hawkish prime minister, won reelection in October partly because of worries about North Korea. But the thrust of Trump’s approach – inducing China, North Korea’s only influential ally, to pressure Kim to disarm – brought mixed results. Beijing backed tougher UN sanctions but declined to cut vital oil supplies to Pyongyang. Xi remained reluctant to tackle Kim directly, fearing the instability the regime’s collapse would cause – and because China has no wish to see a reunified Korea allied to the US.
The Korean crisis has the potential to reignite at any moment, as yet another provocative, long-range missile test in late November demonstrated. Trump ordered a buildup of naval and air power around the peninsula, and nuclear-capable US bombers “buzzed” North Korean defences. Such brinkmanship is extraordinarily dangerous, since it may convince Kim he is about to be attacked. South Korea’s training of special forces whose only purpose is to “decapitate” the Pyongyang regime will likely increase his paranoia. A momentary miscalculation by either side could bring calamity.
Trump’s relationship with Xi, whom he invited to a get-to-know-you summit at his Florida estate in April and met again in Beijing in November, proved a one-sided affair. The US leader condemned China during his election campaign, terming it an “enemy” because of its supposedly unfair trade practices. But in Beijing, he praised Xi for outsmarting previous US administrations on trade. He seemed unduly impressed by Xi’s unchallenged domestic ascendancy, confirmed at a Communist party congress in October.
Speaking at the congress, Xi hailed a “new era” of Chinese prosperity and global power. China, he said, would transform itself into a “mighty force” in the world. “It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind,” Xi said. The potentially negative implications of these “contributions” for postwar American strategic dominance of the Asia-Pacific region, and western influence and interests in Africa and Latin America, were painfully obvious.
But apparently not to Trump. Prioritising a deal on North Korea, he gave Xi a free pass on trade and failed to challenge him, for example, on China’s illegal military expansionism in the South China Sea, its threats to Taiwan, its subjugation of Tibet, its yawning democratic deficit, or its dreadful human rights record. By withdrawing from the TransPacific Partnership, Trump gave the Chinese another opportunity to extend their reach. No wonder they like him in China. Yet Xi still denied him a breakthrough on North Korea.
Xi was not the only leader to benefit from Trump’s naivety, fondness for authoritarianism, and easily exploited egotism. Putin appeared to convince Trump that Russia was a trustworthy partner in solving problems such as Syria – despite Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s proscribed regime in Damascus and its alleged involvement in chemical weapons attacks and other war crimes. Putin pushed for a lifting of sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and still unresolved military intervention in Ukraine. To Europe’s dismay, Trump was sympathetic. He was persuaded not to go ahead – for now.
Most astonishingly of all, perhaps, Trump contradicted the findings of his own intelligence agencies and accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in last year’s US presidential election to disadvantage his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Despite an accelerating special counsel federal investigation, numerous Congressional inquiries, and guilty pleas by former advisers, Trump continued to deny any Russian connection, denouncing claims as “fake news”. Trump’s business dealings with well-connected Russians, dating back to the 1990s, also came under scrutiny.
This month, the reported agreement of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn to cooperate with prosecutors extended the scandal into the heart of the White House. If firm evidence is found of a conspiracy, coverup or obstruction of justice, Trump’s impeachment could follow.
In terms of negative headlines, Trump’s first 11 months in office may have set some kind of record. His travel ban targeting citizens of Muslim countries was repeatedly struck down in the courts, though earlier this month the supreme court ruled it could be imposed while multiple challenges are resolved.
His refusal to condemn violence by far-right nationalists and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought protests, with critics labelling him a racist and a closet bigot. US national divisions were fuelled, in turn, by Trump’s splenetic denunciation of American football players who knelt before games to highlight disproportionate violence against black people.
Issuing daily blasts via Twitter, Trump rarely missed an opportunity to start a row, raising America’s “culture wars” to a new level. This month he used Twitter to gratuitously insult a close ally, Theresa May. Yet despite the advantage of a Republican-controlled Congress, Trump’s legislative agenda, notably healthcare, went nowhere – with the exception of a bill cutting taxes for corporations and the very rich. Having failed to build political coalitions, he relied on executive orders of dubious validity. The Trump White House saw high level resignations and sackings. Trump finished 2017 as possibly the most unpopular, least respected president ever. He also set another record: more time spent playing golf than any predecessor.
Europe survived a year of unusual political turmoil, but its problems are far from resolved. The year’s opening saw a rising populist tide generated by fears about immigration, economic pain, Euroscepticism, loss of identity and plain old xenophobia. But despite predictions to the contrary, the centre held – just – in national elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Commenting on the voters’ rejection of the far-right Islamophobe Geert Wilders, the Dutch prime minister declared: “The Netherlands said whoa!”
Emmanuel Macron’s triumphal election as France’s president was nevertheless qualified by significant advances made by Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader, who came second with 34% support. If Macron fails to achieve the reforms he promised – and the year ended with his approval ratings slumping – then Le Pen could be well placed to supplant him next time. Likewise in Germany, Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats re-emerged as the biggest party in September. But they lost support to the far-right Alternative for Germany, while the centre-left Social Democrats were crushed. Merkel was still struggling to form a new coalition government at year’s end.
Germany’s unprecedented postwar political turmoil added to the jitters affecting the EU. The UK obsessed over negotiating the terms of Brexit, for which it formally applied in March, setting a leaving date in 2019. Compounding the uncertainty, May’s Conservative government lost its parliamentary majority in an ill-conceived snap election in June. In Italy, a rightwing alliance overseen by Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced former prime minister, looked poised for a comeback in 2018.
In Spain, a declaration of independence by Catalonia’s separatist leadership was rejected by the unionist government of Mariano Rajoy. In eastern Europe, Euroscepticism was on the rise. Governments in Poland and Hungary battled the European commission over civil rights and media curbs. The Baltic states worried about security, and Nato deployed troops to border areas.
For Europe as a whole, the intentions of Putin’s Russia appeared increasingly malign. Moscow was accused of using cyberattacks, misinformation, social media manipulation and other “active measures” to undermine and destabilise all the western democracies, not only the United States.
In Britain, Theresa May claimed in a tough speech in November that Putin was “weaponising information”. “Russia, we know what you are doing,” she said. By year’s end there was pressure in Britain to investigate claims that Russian money, trolls and internet bots had influenced the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. In Russia itself, the regime intensified intimidation of independent opposition politicians and media in advance of Putin’s expected re-election bid in March 2018.
Beset by internal turmoil, Europe paid less attention, and exercised reduced leverage, in crises along its periphery. Relations with Turkey deteriorated amid rows with Erdoğan over human rights. The flow of refugees and economic migrants from Syria and north Africa slowed, due in part to controversial EU-backed measures to contain migrants in camps in Libya. But there were predictions 2018 could bring another big surge.
Europe was sidelined as Russia and Iran, bypassing the UN, joined forces to enforce a prospective settlement in Syria keeping Assad in power. Iran’s leading role in the war, expanding influence in Iraq and Lebanon, and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen produced little in the way of an effective response from the west.
Trump further stirred the pot, and outraged the Palestinians, by recognising disputed and divided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and announcing plans to relocate the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. He also made a typically bellicose speech at the UN, threatening to tear up the multinational 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. It was left to Saudi Arabia, led by Prince Salman, to take concrete steps to challenge Iran’s regional ambitions. But the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, notably a blockade of its ports, succeeded only in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. A convoluted attempt in Lebanon to push back Hezbollah, Iran’s ally, backfired. And Saudi economic and diplomatic sanctions designed to force Qatar to renounce its ties with Iran had the opposite effect.
Amid all this upheaval, an ill-timed bid by Iraq’s Kurds to create an independent state flopped badly. If anything in the Middle East is predictable, it is growing confrontation in 2018 between Iran and Trump, backed by Israel.
Many pre-existing conflicts and problems persisted or worsened in 2017. Syria’s civil war dragged on remorselessly. Trump launched a one-off missile attack on a suspected chemical weapons store in April, but otherwise ignored the conflict.
In Afghanistan, the impact of the insurgency measurably worsened. After 16 years of war, civilian casualties hit record highs, according to UN figures. There was a 43% increase in death and injuries attributable to US and Afghan airstrikes. The Taliban were blamed for two-thirds of the overall total. The Afghan figures reflected a wider trend. Under Trump, the American military has greatly increased its use of armed drones, particularly in Somalia, where they targeted the terror group al-Shabaab.
The new tactics did not halt terror attacks. In Mogadishu, hundreds died in a particularly devastating truck bombing in October. In Egypt’s northern Sinai, more than 300 Sufi Muslim worshippers were killed by a group linked to Islamic State. Terrorists also struck countries involved in the international campaign against Isis. Horror came to London, Manchester, Barcelona, Paris, Ankara, Tehran and New York. As Isis was slowly dislodged from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul, concern increased that its adherents were regrouping in north Africa or returning to countries of origin in Europe and Asia.
The year saw its share of humanitarian disasters, manmade or otherwise. War, famine and disease further devastated South Sudan, while Yemen suffered a similar, wholly avoidable fate. In Myanmar, an army-led campaign of ethnic cleansing displaced huge numbers of Rohingya Muslims, who fled to Bangladesh. The resulting suffering brought fierce criticism of Myanmar’s civilian leader, the Nobel peace prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi, by those with scant understanding of her limited powers in a country still dominated by generals.
Destructive hurricanes linked to climate change ravaged the Caribbean and southern US, while heatwaves and wildfires hit Australia and California. An earthquake struck Mexico in September, killing 369 people. To the dismay of campaigners, a study showed that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increased at record speeds. Meanwhile, Trump backed out of the 2016 Paris climate change agreement. Even so, many American states and cities vowed to adhere to the Paris targets, while the rest of the world unanimously decided to ignore the White House.
In Europe, electric cars gained wider acceptance, battery storage technology advanced, and car manufacturers announced plans to phase out polluting petrol and diesel models.
There were many other glimmers of hope and progress. In July, 122 countries voted at the UN to support a new treaty outlawing nuclear weapons – a symbolic yet powerful statement. In November, the international court in The Hague sentenced the former Serb general Ratko Mladić to life in prison for genocide during the Bosnian war – although, overall, it was a discouraging year for the rule of international law.
Brazil and Colombia, recovering from enervating corruption scandals and a guerrilla insurgency respectively, planned restorative elections in 2018. The prospects for economically stricken Venezuela were less encouraging. A decision by the embattled socialist president, Nicolás Maduro, to install a political ally as head of the state oil company, PDVSA, encouraged speculation the country’s vital oil exports may fall, driving up world market prices in 2018.
South Africa saw growing anger at the kleptocracy and corruption associated with the ANC presidency of Jacob Zuma. And in Zimbabwe, the ageing despot Robert Mugabe was peacefully removed from power, sending a chill down the spines of stubborn autocrats in Uganda and elsewhere.
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