The year that will be ending in two days is remembered for many seismic events of political significance.
The dawn of the year was mired in political uncertainty, with the ratification of the biggest upset in the US political history -- the victory of maverick property tycoon Donald Trump over the favourite Hillary Clinton at the November 2016 presidential election, despite allegations of a secret Russian deal and several women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
His predecessor Barack Obama ended his two terms on an optimistic note marked by a historic deal to save the planet from an environmental Armageddon, an accord with Iran to halt that country’s nuclear programme and thereby yet another war in the Middle East, and a brave last-ditch effort to force Israel to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian land. But the White House’s new multibillionaire upended the momentum towards global peace and justice. He is now seen to be dragging the country’s international standing to the gutter levels in defiance of world public opinion. The civilisation itself is perhaps at stake for 2018.
Obama won the Nobel Peace prize, for his election stirred hopes for world peace. On the contrary, Trump’s election has spelt only chaos to the world, with the twitter-happy maverick president withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate deal, while he is threatening to undo the Iran nuclear agreement and, in an outrageous move, killed the Palestinian peace hopes, by recognizing the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The world is certainly not a better place but a more dangerous place now. With the liberal democratic principles the US has stood for more than two centuries being thrown to the wind, Trump, whipped up Islamophobia to placate his hardline constituency and issued a travel ban on citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. He is banking on xenophobic populism to keep his hopes alive for reelection though his popularity rating is taking a plunge.
His poor judgment in foreign policy has eroded the United States’ global leadership role. In one of his first foreign policy acts, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one the few mechanisms the Obama administration had in place to check China.
The US apparently has squandered its global leadership role. The world is moving towards multipolarity, as evidenced in the China-centric Belt-and-Road Initiative and Russia’s intervention in Syria.
His response to North Korea’s defiant missile and nuclear tests was at best rhetoric and at worst a policy of hitting A to intimidate B, as seen in the dropping of “Mother of All bombs” on an Afghan village. Often, Trump blamed China for North Korea’s provocation. North Korea in the meantime developed long range missiles capable of reaching any part of the United States. However, the North Korean crisis provided the US an excuse for a military buildup in the Korean peninsula. Obviously, China and Russia saw the US deployment of Thaad missiles in South Korea as a hostile move against them.
Although six of the 11 US carriers are in the Indo-Pacific region, China has almost annexed the nine-dash sea territory in the South China Sea and expanded its burgeoning blue water Navy to cover much of the Indian Ocean, through which 80 percent of China’s oil imports come.
While Trump, besieged by the Robert Mueller special investigation into the Russian role in the 2016 US elections, plays populist politics and wavers in the foreign policy realm, China’s President Xi Jintao etched his name and policy in the Chinese Constitution, raising his position to the stature of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in Beijing in October, Xi emerged as the undisputed leader. This week, a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) in London predicted that in 15 years, China would overtake the United States as the world’s strongest economy. But studies by others say it could happen even before that.
When Obama was president, the US navy regularly challenged China’s claim to disputed territories in the South China Sea, often leading to tense situations. Such activities are few and far between after Trump took over. As the US foreign policy making machinery moves in many directions – the Pentagon promoting one policy, the State Department another, the Congress yet another and the White House yet another -- China continues to reach out to the world with its investment diplomacy, which US and India see as a neo-colonialist bid to turn debt-ridden countries into Beijing’s satellite states.
To counter China’s rise, the US, India and Japan have formed an informal defence alliance. But Asia will benefit and its economic growth will be faster, if Asian giants such as China, India and Japan come together in a trade alliance. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which China promotes could be the first step to eliminate mutual suspicion among Asian nations. Sadly South Asian grouping SAARC could not hold its annual summit for the second year running because of bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan.
Trump’s faltering foreign policy saw Russia playing a bigger role in the Middle East, considered an exclusive domain of the US. Russia’s resolute military campaign against ISIS forced the US also to join the Iraqi government’s military operation against the terror group. As a result, 2017 will be remembered as the year the terror outfit ISIS was defeated and its self-declared caliphate crumbled. But the ISIS is not destroyed completely. It is active in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai and even in the Philippine’s Marawi. Its operatives acting as lone wolves struck terror this year in several European cities such as Barcelona and Manchester.
As hope grows for a solution to the Syrian conflict which has unleashed the worst ever refugee crisis in the post-World War II era, millions of people suffer from starvation and thousands of children die of cholera and other diseases in impoverished Yemen, where a Saudi Arabia-led alliance is fighting Houthi rebels said to be backed by Iran. The Iran factor is also one of the reasons for Saudi Arabia and some of its Arab allies to break ties with Qatar and impose an economic blockade on the tiny but rich Gulf state.
Saudi Arabia itself was shaken by a political earthquake recently when the new crown prince Muhammad bin Salman ordered the arrest of several princes and top businessmen in what was claimed to be an anti-corruption drive. In the absence of peace overtures to end the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Middle East will remain a powder keg for 2018 also, especially also in view of Trump’s Jerusalem move.
The biggest story for Europe in 2017 was Brexit or Britain’s exit from the European Union. As the year comes to an end, Britain and the EU have come to a basic agreement with regard to outstanding issues.
For Africa, it was the stepping down of Robert Mugabe after more than three decades in power. After it became clear that Mugabe’s wife was being groomed as the next leader, a benign military coup forced Mugabe to quit and hand over power to ousted vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Overall, 2017 is a year of error, terror, power games and little peace.