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Last year a lot of people were asking if 2016 was the worst year ever. (It wasn’t.) I haven’t seen anyone making similar claims about 2017, but that doesn’t mean that this year didn’t produce its share of significant world events. It has. Below is my top ten, listed in descending order. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories will continue into 2018.
10. Robert Mugabe’s Ouster. Can someone be both a hero and a villain? The career of Robert Mugabe suggests the answer is yes. Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mugabe endured years in prison to lead the movement that ended white minority rule in his country, then known as Rhodesia, but known today as Zimbabwe. That victory for human decency is to his credit. But unlike Mandela, Mugabe never grasped that democracy means letting go of power. He ran Zimbabwe for thirty-seven years and planned to rule for longer, even if that meant running the economy into the ground and becoming increasingly ruthless. His presidency ended only when tanks rolled into Harare in November to force him from power. The trigger was his decision to shove aside his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in favor his wife, Grace. The seventy-five year-old Mnangagwa had been Mugabe’s associate for more than half a century. Rather than go quietly, the man known as “the Crocodile” because of his ruthlessness struck back. Mugabe quickly lost the support of his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and after some hesitation, finally resigned. Zimbabweans rejoiced at the news of his ouster, and Mnangagwa promised to hold new elections next year. Based on his early decisions, however, the new boss looks a lot like the old boss.
9. Britain Triggers Article 50. The June 2016 “Brexit” vote was merely advisory. Actually initiating divorce proceedings from the European Union (EU) required Britain to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The move “from which there can be no turning back” finally came on March 29. Britain now has until March 29, 2019 to negotiate the terms of its departure. Prime Minister Theresa May tried to shore up Britain’s weak negotiating leverage this spring by calling a snap election. The decision backfired; her Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority and she ended up leading a hung parliament. In early December, Britain and the EU reached an agreement on several critical preliminary issues, including how much Britain has to pay to settle its debts to the EU (somewhere between €40 billion and €60 billion). Assuming that deal holds, the two sides can now focus on the rules that will govern their future economic relationship. Those negotiations will likely be difficult; EU members have yet to agree among themselves on what terms to offer and the British Parliament has asserted its right to vote on the final agreement. Unless a deal is signed, sealed, and delivered by March 29, 2019, or a unanimous EU agrees to an extension, Britain faces a “hard Brexit.” That would maximize how much disruption its divorce from the EU causes. The clock is ticking.
8. The Rohingya Crisis. The Rohingya may be the most persecuted minority group in the world. They have lived in Myanmar for centuries. Most of them are Muslims, though some are Hindus, in a country in which nearly nine out of ten people are Buddhists. The Rohingya have long been discriminated against, often violently so, and the Myanmar government refuses to acknowledge them as citizens. The latest and ugliest surge of violence began in August when Rohingya began fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh telling stories of mass killings, systematic rape, and torture. At last count, more than 400,000 have fled Myanmar and thousands more have been displaced internally. The Myanmar military denies committing atrocities, insisting that it is combating attacks on police posts and army bases by Rohingya insurgents. But it’s clear, as the U.S. government has charged, that the Myanmar government is engaged in ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and Myanmar’s most prominent official, has done little publicly to end the violence. That’s probably because the military still runs the country despite the political opening of the past few years.
7. The Fall of Mosul. ISIS shocked the world in June 2014 when its forces captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Within a month, ISIS had declared a new caliphate. Although President Obama once dismissed ISIS as “the JV,” it proved to be a stubborn foe. Finally, in October 2016, Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers, backed by Britain, France, and the United States, as well as by Iran, launched an offensive to liberate Mosul. In June 2017, after a three-year-long occupation, the city was finally liberated. The cost was high. Perhaps as many as 40,000 civilians died in the fighting and another million displaced. The city itself was devastated and will take years to rebuild. Unfortunately, the liberation of Mosul did not resolve the divisions that bedevil Iraq. In September, Iraqi Kurds voted for independence, which triggered clashes between the Iraqi army and Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi government, with the help of Iran, seized control of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk from the Kurds. By the same token, the loss of Mosul didn’t mean the demise of ISIS. The group has a cyclical history, waxing and waning in strength over time. As its territorial control diminishes, it’s likely to revert back to its insurgent roots. All in all, Iraq’s future remains troubled.
6. Mohammad bin Salman Remakes Saudi Arabia. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is a young man in a hurry. Back in June, his father, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, made the thirty-two year-old his heir, after deposing the previous crown prince, the king’s nephew and MBS’s cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef. MBS immediately got to work. His vehicle for remaking the country is Vision 2030, a two-year-old initiative that seeks to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy and society. The idea is to prepare the country for a post-oil future and to loosen its conservative social strictures. The former goal has Saudi Arabia proposing to take its state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, public, while the latter has it allowing women to drive. MBS moved quickly to consolidate power. In November, he had eleven of his cousins arrested on corruption charges. (Their jail cell was a Ritz-Carlton.) President Trump applauded the move. But MBS isn’t only looking inward. He is moving aggressively to counter Iranian influence in the region. He championed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen in 2015, which created a humanitarian disaster for Yemenis and a quagmire for the Saudis. He also pushed for this summer’s Saudi-led embargo of neighboring Qatar. Some experts think that MBS is Saudi Arabia’s best chance for a moderate and prosperous future. Others worry that he is reckless. A lot turns on which side is right.
5. Global Growth Picks Up. Ten years after the Great Recession started, global economic growth is accelerating and stock markets around the world are hitting record highs. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in October that “The outlook is strengthening, with a notable pickup in investment, trade, and industrial production, together with rising confidence.” The IMF added the caveat that “recovery is not yet complete.” However, even cautious optimism has been in short supply for nearly a decade. The IMF predicts that global economic growth will average 3.6 percent in 2017. That’s a half percentage point higher than in 2016. The Eurozone has been a particular bright spot—growth there is at a ten-year high and unemployment is at a nine-year low. The U.S. economy grew 3.3 percent in the third quarter of 2017, a three-year high, and unemployment is the lowest it’s been since 2000. China looks to be beating its target of 6.5 percent growth in 2017, though it continues to face risks. Even Russia, which has struggled for several years because of low oil prices and sanctions over Ukraine, is seeing modest growth. The big question is whether good economic news will give a political lift to globalization by tamping down rising protectionist and nationalist impulses around the world.
4. The Globe Continues to Warm. The news is not good. The earth is getting warmer, whether people believe it or not. In September, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that 2017 was shaping up as the second warmest year on record. What is the warmest year? 2016. The other eight warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Do the devastating hurricanes that struck the Caribbean this summer, causing upward of $290 billion in damage and displacing hundreds of thousands, prove that human activity is changing the climate? No. After all, catastrophic storms aren’t new, and storms may create more havoc today because societies are denser and more dependent on modern amenities. Still, the dramatic melting of the Arctic and Antarctic and of glaciers around the world is something that climate scientists have been predicting for decades. And it’s basic physics that warmer oceans temperatures mean bigger storms. But the mounting evidence that the climate is changing hasn’t moved governments to make substantial reductions in the emission of heat-trapping gases, even if only as an insurance policy against the fact that climate scientists might be right. President Trump announced in June that the United States would leave the Paris Climate Agreement, and words have been more common than deeds in other foreign capitals. The trend is not our friend.
3. North Korea Defies the World. Successive U.S. presidents have insisted that they would prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. They backed that up by offering carrots, imposing sanctions, and threatening military action. North Korea hasn’t listened. In early September, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. Three months later it tested a ballistic missile that looks capable of hitting any U.S. city. President Trump says he will stop North Korea in its tracks, vowing that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” tweeting that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded,” and calling North Korean leader Kim Jung-un “Little Rocket Man.” Trump has also pushed China to solve the problem. While Beijing is taking a tougher line on North Korea, it can’t—or won’t—compel Pyongyang to back down. Only military force looks likely to do that. But the cost of military action would likely be steep—possibly even “catastrophic.” On the other hand, allowing North Korea to remain a nuclear power poses big risks as well. Washington, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo have tough choices ahead in 2018.
2. Xi Jinping’s “Extraordinary Elevation.” Not even Adele with her five Grammy awards had as good a year as Xi Jinping. Although China blatantly exploits international trade rules, Xi won applause for his January speech at Davos championing globalization and likening protectionism to “locking oneself in a dark room.” In April, President Donald Trump feted him at a two-day summit meeting at Mar-a-Lago and quite noticeably avoided his typical China-bashing rhetoric. In June, Xi won more global accolades for doubling down on his commitment to the Paris climate agreement. But his biggest success came in October at the nineteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress. It was a coronation. Xi was named to his second five-year term as party general secretary. He was also named a “core leader,” a title denied to his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao. The congress also wrote "Xi Jinping Thought" into the party's constitution, an honor previously bestowed only on Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Best of all for Xi, the congress ended without naming anyone as his successor. When Trump called Xi “king of China” during his November “state visit-plus,” he wasn’t far off the mark. Xi is China’s most powerful leader since Mao, and he’s likely to be around for a while. If you’re wondering how he might approach foreign policy in the years ahead, consider this: in his 205-minute speech to the party congress he used the terms “great power” and “strong power” twenty-six times. So don’t expect him to sit on the sidelines while others try to set the agenda or the rules.
1. Donald Trump Champions America First. Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to do things differently and to do different things in foreign policy. He has been good to his word since getting to the White House. He has canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, refused to certify that Iran is in compliance with its nuclear obligations, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ramped up the use of drones, and relegated democracy and human rights to the sidelines of U.S. foreign policy. To be sure, Trump hasn’t enacted all of his campaign promises. He beefed up rather than withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and he hasn’t declared China a currency manipulator or kicked NAFTA to the curb. But his tough campaign trade talk may soon be U.S. policy. Trump is poised to take punitive actions against Chinese trade practices, his demands for a revamped NAFTA look to be unacceptable to Canada and Mexico, and he’s waging a low-level war against the World Trade Organization. Trump’s dismissal of traditional foreign policy practices even has some fellow Republicans questioning whether America First means embracing a “doctrine of retreat.” Many of America’s closest allies are worried. They fear the era of U.S. global leadership is ending. If so, the consequences are epic.
Other stories of note in 2017. In January, António Guterres became the ninth secretary general of the United Nations. In February, Israel announced plans for its first new settlement in the West Bank in more than twenty years. The United States began deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea in March. Violent protests wracked Venezuela in April, a critical point in the country’s constitutional crisis. In May, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen to become France’s youngest president. In June, Montenegro became the twenty-ninth member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The G20 met in Hamburg in July and failed to agree on climate action. In August, Britain’s Prince Philip announced he was retiring from making official appearances. Russia and Belarus carried out the Zapad 2017 military exercises in September. Catalonia’s October independence referendum triggered a political crisis in Spain. In November, thousands attended a far-right nationalist rally in Warsaw. The Australian parliament voted in December to legalize same-sex marriage, making Australia the twenty fifth country to do so.
So that’s my top ten world events of 2017 plus some other events of note. You may have a different list or you might put these events in a different order. If so, please let me know on Facebook or Twitter.
Corey Cooper, Madison Phillips, and Benjamin Shaver contributed to the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series: