The world in 2017
The chief foreign beneficiary of Donald Trump’s insularity was Vladimir Putin, who has used his new strength in the Middle East as a springboard to bring Russia back to the geopolitical top table. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images
Across the western world in 2017, the defining ideological divide was not between left and right, but open versus closed. It was that cleavage – nationalism against internationalism, inwardness versus global-mindedness – that split politicians, exercised voters and delivered some of the biggest tremors felt by liberal democracies in the postwar era. Two of those earthquakes – Donald Trump’s election as US president and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union – hit in 2016, but this was the year that the scale of the damage began to reveal itself.
Brexit’s fallout is compartatively contained – it will harm Ireland and deprive the EU of a big member state, but by far the greatest pain, and the most vertiginous decline, will be suffered by the British themselves. To watch Theresa May, haunted by her own political weakness and propelled by the infinite delusions of a party she only nominally controls, as she folded on every major negotiating point as the price of a withdrawal she must know to be a terrible mistake, was to witness a tragi-comic spectacle that has only begun.
When asked for one good reason against holding a referendum on Brexit, May’s predecessor, David Cameron, replied that “you could unleash demons of which ye know not.” Those prophetic words might as well have applied to the United States, where the sight of white supremacists marching through 21st century cities – and the sound of a president responding with defensive equivocation – brought home the dark depths to which Trumpism has brougth a great country.
Almost a year after the property developer was sworn in, America’s allies are rattled and many of its enemies resurgent. Brick by brick, he has set about dismantling the global system of norms and alliances his predecessors painstakingly constructed. In defiance of his allies, he rejected the Iran nuclear deal and announced US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. He broke with decades of diplomatic consensus by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, scuppering what little chance there was of peace talks resuming under his watch. These decisions moved the US to the outer fringes of the international system, leaving it isolated and scorned. But as Trump’s reckless rhetoric on North Korea reminded us, ignoring him is not a luxury the world can afford.
If 2016 was the year of the populist revolt, this was the year in which its opponents regrouped. The spectacular rise of Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old technocrat who sprang from obscurity to win the presidency, was an important victory for the liberal European centre. Macron showed that the way to respond to the populist right was not to mimic it, as Nicolas Sarkozy had done, or to ignore it, as François Hollande had attempted, but to take it on. By defying the zeitgeist and fending off a challenge from the far-right Front National with a proudly internationalist, pro-European vision, Macron’s triumph was hailed as proof that the populist wave had been arrested. That was wishful thinking. The year ends with the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, formed by ex-Nazis, in power in Austria. Poland and Hungary are sliding towards authoritarianism. If Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc forms another coalition with the Social Democrats in the coming months, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland will be the leading opposition party.
The US’s inward turn, combined with its policy incoherence, has coincided with, and in some cases enabled, the consolidation and expansion of power among its biggest rivals. At the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress in Beijing in October – the most important global political event of the year – Xi Jinping was installed for a second five-year term as president while imposing himself as arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The quest for global stature commensurate with the country’s economic might has been a theme of Xi’s rule. His ambitious Belt and Road Initiative would strengthen Chinese influence by spending hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure in around 60 countries in Asia and Europe. On Xi’s watch, China opened its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, and has become more assertive in the South China Sea. As the US retreats, Beijing sees a chance to press its claim for global leadership.
The chief foreign beneficiary of Trump’s insularity was Vladimir Putin, however. By the time he declared mission accomplished in Syria in December, Putin had ensured the survival of his ally, President Bashar al-Assad, while securing Russia’s naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean. Across the Middle East, Russia is cultivating new alliances, expanding its trade (not least in arms) and spreading its influence on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just months from a presidential election he is guaranteed to win, that has provided Putin with a springboard back to the high table of global geopolitics.
In this era of populist upheaval, it was always clear who the losers would be. Now, as 2017 draws to a close, we see more clearly than ever who had the most to gain.