India Pakistan

Image source: The Quint

The relationship between India and Pakistan is one of the great rivalries in international relations. On one level, it’s a fun, competitive rivalry: Indian and Pakistani soldiers strive to outdo each other in high steps and dramatic flourishes at the border-closing ceremony between Lahore and Amritsr, the 2 cricket teams attract especially wild enthusiasm whenever they face off, and Indians and Pakistanis overseas tend to get along well, just with lots of teasing and bickering. Yet on another level, it’s a deadly serious hatred: Indian and Pakistani soldiers shoot each other, the 2 countries go to war and interfere in each others’ affairs, and Hindus and Muslims are viewed with suspicion and contempt in Pakistan and India, respectively.

How did this relationship begin, and where is the rivalry headed?

It is important to recognize that India and Pakistan were once one country. (I frequently hear or read things that don’t seem to understand this.) That country was simply known as India, and it was ruled by Britain with the help of dozens of mostly tiny “princely states.” Before this, India hadn’t really been a united country (although some empires came very close). It was carved up by numerous small or medium-sized princes, emperors, rajas, sultans, etc. who warred with each other and came and went over many centuries of convoluted history.

Significantly, though, there was a major religious divide. Beginning in the 1000s, India had been the victim of several Muslim invasions. The Muslims won the upper hand and dominated India for centuries, especially through the Dilli Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Yet they were always a minority — by the time of independence in 1947 they made up only about a quarter of India’s total population. They developed a rich, prosperous and artistically inspiring culture that blended their own Persian background with local Hindu influences (the hybrid religion of Sikhism is an example of this). They also tended to persecute their mostly Hindu subjects.

By the time of the colonial era, communal relations had become combustible. India’s major Muslim rulers were dispossessed and Muslims became just another religious community within India’s tapestry of them. They longed for the days when they lorded over most of the subcontinent. Hindus also longed for the days when they had neither Briton nor Muslim to hold them back. The British exacerbated this antagonism as part of the time-honored “divide and rule” strategy of colonialism, although which community they favored basically depends on whom you ask.

By the 1930s, the tension was affecting India’s independence movement. Muslims grew concerned that an independent, democratic India would take revenge against its Muslim population and discriminate against them. A political party called the All-India Muslim League sprang up to push for India to be split into 2 countries. The new one would be called Pakistan as an acronym for Punjab, Afghania (referring to the parts bordering Afghanistan), Kashmir and Balochistan, Muslim-majority regions in northwest India. The name also means “land of the pure.”

The new party wasn’t treated seriously at first, but it gained popularity among Muslims. Pro-Pakistan rallies were attacked by Hindu mobs furious at their betrayal of Indian nationalism, sparking communal riots and adding evidence to the Muslim League’s dire predictions of a future Hindu-ruled India. India’s founding father, Mohandas Gandhi, begged with Pakistan’s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even offering him the post of prime minister. But Jinnah was unmoved, and the British were getting worried about India’s political stability, so the plan for partition was approved.


Image source: AP

The new India and Pakistan were born one day apart in August 1947. The colonial provinces of Sindh and East Bengal (confusingly located in east India far away from the rest of Pakistan) were transferred to Pakistan basically intact, but the big province of Punjab was split along religious lines. This did not go smoothly. Trainloads of migrants heading for the country matching their religion attacked each other. Columns of migrants heading on foot did the same. Minorities in Indian and Pakistani cities were sought out, harassed, raped and murdered. Looting, arson and kidnapping were rampant. Gandhi fasted in a bid to put an end to the violence, but only ended up shot by a Hindu extremist. (The movie Gandhi, by the way, is an epic and moving depiction of these events.)

The bloodshed of ethnic cleansing eventually led to the bloodshed of war. India and Pakistan started off on bad terms, with India spitefully withholding the financial assets that had been earmarked for Pakistan. Indian leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel talked about strangling Pakistan in its infancy, convinced that the experiment was crazy and destined to fail. While the princely states were allowed to choose which country they could join, most of them ended up in India. While some of these would have been impractical any other way (for example, there was a Muslim-ruled state in southern India, Hyderabad, that would’ve been surrounded by India if it hadn’t joined it), the big sticking point was Kashmir. This was a big state at the northernmost part of India famous for its cool weather, spectacular mountain scenery, and multireligious population. It also sat on the border between the 2 countries, and both of them really wanted it. Kashmir’s maharaja preferred independence, but India pressured him to join instead in 1948. Outraged at yet another territory slipping away, Pakistan invaded Kashmir, using guerrilla warriors as a front. A short war raged, with the result that Kashmir was also partitioned between India and Pakistan — although the Vale of Kashmir, the state’s most important part, remained within India.

Kashmir map

Note: Kashmir also has large Hindu and Buddhist communities outside of the Valley proper. Image source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Despite these odious beginnings, Indo-Pakistani relations weren’t so terrible in the early years. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opposed Partition and tried to maintain cordial relations with his neighbor. Travel across the border was common; many wealthy Muslims maintained houses in both countries for a while. A 1960 treaty arranged for the use of the waters of the Indus River, all-important for Pakistan even though its headwaters were in India and China.

But the Kashmir dispute festered. Kashmir’s population is mostly Muslim (hence the “K” in Pakistan), so Pakistanis were convinced that India had strongarmed them. For its part, India was eager to keep it, partly to taunt its neighbor but mostly to show that Pakistan was wrong and a Muslim-majority state could thrive in Hindu-majority India. In 1965, encouraged by India’s crushing defeat by China, Pakistan infiltrated Kashmir again. This provoked another war, leading to impressive tank battles in the Punjab but a tie with no territorial changes as the final result. Then another war broke out in 1971, when India intervened in a ferocious revolt in East Pakistan to beat the Pakistanis in 2 weeks and force them to surrender their eastern segment, which became independent as Bangladesh.

These disputes and wars obviously weren’t good for relations, and they have remained terrible ever since. Pakistan came to see India as a greedy state bent on subcontinental domination and itself as a heroic, virtuous bastion defending the faithful. Given India’s massive superiority in size and wealth, Pakistan had to compensate with a bigger, stronger military, and that meant fat budgets and military control of the government. Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq also pushed for a deeper Islamization of Pakistan in the ’80s, supporting madrassas (religious schools), aspects of sharia (Islamic law), and a narrow version of Pakistani identity. Pakistan’s few infidels felt themselves less and less welcome; the struggle against India took on the character of a jihad.

The Kashmir dispute continued to fester. Since it was obvious that Pakistan couldn’t defeat India in a conventional fight, it found ways of gaining leverage. Sponsoring an insurgency in Kashmir, which erupted again in 1990, was one way. Another was nuclear weapons, which were developed beginning in the ’70s (after India detonated a nuke of its own) and first tested in 1998. This locked the 2 brothers into a stalemate: outright war was out of the question, but Pakistan could still bleed India with its insurgency and needle it with terrorism (particularly in the ’00s), and its nuclear arsenal would keep India from doing much about it. It was a cheap, apparently effective way of keeping the conflict alive and India agitated, and later used to similar fashion in Afghanistan against the Western coalition there.

And so it has continued, more or less, to the present. Pakistanis have become stock villains in Indian films (and likewise Indians in Pakistan’s much less well-known films). Pakistani agitation reached the boiling point around the turn of the millennium, when an infiltration into the high mountains of Kashmir sparked a 4th war in 1999 (with no real lasting results) and a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacked India’s parliament in 2001. Another nerve-wracking episode occurred in 2008, when a group of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist organization, attacked the Taj, Mumbai’s swankiest hotel, along with other parts of Mumbai. Lashkar-e-Taiba is also sponsored by Pakistan, leading to a brief war scare, although nothing happened in the end.

It can be hard to predict which government is more interested in reconciliation. Despite their military ties, Zia and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan both made moves toward normalization, and despite his Hindu nationalist background, India’s Atal Vajpeyi held talks with Musharraf before the Parliament attack scuttled them. Similarly, India’s current PM, Narendra Modi, surprised many observers by reaching out a hand to Pakistan despite his fiery Hindutva ideology — he invited Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and visited him in Lahore in 2015.

Modi Sharif

Modi (left) and Sharif (right). Image source: PIB

Nevertheless, the relationship seems fated to swivel automatically back to a state of contempt and bile. Usually Pakistan is the culprit; it has not abandoned its policy of supporting and encouraging infiltrators to attack Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir. One such attack in September 2016 on an army camp froze whatever progress had been made in recent talks. Although Pakistan has been under civilian rule since 2008, the army maintains a tight grip on society and is widely suspected of pulling the strings behind the scenes. Its intelligence service, the ISI, maintains links with a medley of terrorist and extreme Islamic groups, prompting unending unease in India.

Meanwhile, developments in India also make the outlook for peace look grim. While it may still be too soon to say how lasting these changes are, Indian society is moving rightward since Modi’s election in 2014. Hindutva ideology sees India as a fundamentally Hindu state, casting suspicion on Muslims and other minorities and associating Pakistan with those old Muslim overlords. The details are obviously murky, but Pakistan claims that India is fomenting insurgency in Pakistan’s restive western desert as well; an Indian named Kulbhushan Jadhav was sentenced to death last year in Pakistan for this, although his sentence has been stayed. Kashmir remains a source of unrest and headaches for India; although it’s not quite clear that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Indian government there, leading to ongoing protests which are usually suppressed violently. This only feeds Pakistan’s narrative of India as diabolical, unscrupulous and bigoted.

The international situation unfortunately adds to the pessimism. While America was previously a major power broker between the 2 sides (especially after the Kargil War), it’s now soured on Pakistan and its unending duplicity and cut off military aid last month. Simultaneously, it’s tilted more toward India, which it recognizes as an enemy of its enemies (militant Islam and China). As for China, it wants to keep India weak and distracted, and fosters a very close relationship with Pakistan to enable it. Saudi Arabia also has a warm relationship with Pakistan and helps fund all those madrassas. And as Western power recedes in Afghanistan, Pakistani paranoia of a growth in Indian influence there only increases.

The sad thing is, in many respects, India and Pakistan are brothers (or sisters). The border cuts across ethnolinguistic lines; people on both sides of the border speak Punjabi, and Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, is very similar to Hindi, India’s main language. There are Hindu and Sikh sites in Pakistan and Muslim monuments in India. Indians for the most part recognize and enjoy Pakistani food. Indian movies have an avid audience in Pakistan (although they are often banned there). It would be hard to tell an average Indian and Pakistani apart. Domestic issues, like power and water shortages and a difficulty in building up an industrial base, are also shared. More trade would help economic growth in both countries. Despite the strong atmosphere of animosity, there are also big constituencies in both countries (especially India) that would support reconciliation. The Google India ad below, which shows an old Pakistani man reuniting with his childhood friend in India after 66 years, touched a nerve as Desis on both sides of the border remembered their old ties.

But hatred remains deep. As long as 64% of Indians have “very unfavorable” opinions of Pakistan, Indian politicians have more to gain by being tough on Pakistan than conciliatory. And as long as Pakistan remains wedded to its strategic conceptions of India as a threat to be undermined and pestered, conflict will continue and negotiations will stagnate. It may not be fair to lump the Indo-Pakistani conflict in the same category as bitter disputes like the Arabs vs. Israel, but a real breakthrough in bilateral relations remains almost as unlikely.




Image source: Imgur

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and hassling of eastern Ukraine, relations between Russia and the (rest of the) West have taken a nosedive. Mutual suspicions have poisoned diplomatic relations. Russian military maneuvers have unnerved Europe and prompted a redoubled defense effort, especially in the small Baltic countries bordering Russia. A debate rages within the West over how to respond to Russia, and whether bolstering Ukraine more would prompt Russia to back off or further inflame the situation.

One country that gets lost in these discussions is Belarus, a fairly large country in between Lithuania and Ukraine. But then again, Belarus usually gets left out of discussions. That’s partially because it’s only 27 years old.

If this section is too long and dull for you, maybe this Belarusian video is more interesting. Note: Medieval Lithuania is considered Belarusian in this version. (English subtitles available.)

Belarus may be only 27, but it exists at all because, well, the Belarusians have been around for a long time. How long exactly is a matter of debate. Their origin dates back to the Middle Ages, when the whole area around European Russia was referred to as “Rus” and was dominated by Kyiv (now in Ukraine). It was colonized by Vikings called “Varangians” and mostly developed along the long rivers that flow through this part of Europe. Given Belarusian’s close similarity with Russian and Ukrainian, it’s unlikely that the three different nationalities were well-distinguished back then; even when Kyivan Rus fragmented into minor principalities, it wasn’t really along ethnic lines.

The Mongol invasion of 1237 wiped out most of these, but the Principality of Polotsk — most of what is now Belarus — survived. It was weak and vulnerable (Belarus is mostly just forests and fields), and in the 1300s it was conquered by its northern neighbor, Lithuania. Lithuania was Europe’s last pagan holdout and spoke a completely different language from the Slavic Belarusians, but they didn’t really care as long as their underlings paid their taxes. Over the ensuing centuries, a Slavic language called Ruthenian even became the lingua franca over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, since it was more widely understood than Lithuanian itself. (Lithuanian is a Baltic language pretty different from other European languages except Latvian.)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania fused with its smaller western neighbor, Poland, in a dynastic union in 1386. At first it was mostly just a union of their rulers (although Lithuania converted to Catholicism), but in 1569 the union was bound into a tighter commonwealth. Lithuania and Poland became tangled together, with Belarusians still included within Lithuanian territory yet culturally closer to the Slavic Poles… except for their religion, which was Orthodox (a relic of the Kyivan Rus era). Polish became the common tongue, at least among the nobility. In addition, the whole commonwealth attracted a lot of Jews, and by the 1700s most of Belarus’s towns and cities were predominantly Jewish. They spoke either German, Yiddish (a German dialect) or Polish.

But Belarusians were coveted by Russia, which saw them as true Russians who adhered to a wayward form of Russian Orthodoxy (Greek Catholicism) under the influence of Catholic Poles.  They called the area “Belorussia,” or “White Russia,” for reasons which are much debated (there’s no consensus about this). Belorussia happens to lie between central Russia and Poland, with the result that it was overrun in a series of wars between the 2 powers in the 1600s, then suffered some more during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden in the first decade of the 1700s. In the 1790s, as any proud Pole will tell you, Poland-Lithuania was smothered by partition among its more powerful neighbors: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Belorussia naturally, went to Russia, which organized it as a governorate based in Minsk, a town pretty much right in the middle of the country. Its strategic location right in between Warsaw and Moscow now worked to its benefit.

While Poles chafed under Russian rule and revolted a few times, Belarusians were mostly O.K. with it and carried on much as before (although the local church was merged into Russian Orthodoxy). This was mostly because there still wasn’t much distinguishing them from Russians. The beginnings of a Belarusian national movement stirred in the 1800s, but the language — and Belorussia’s cultural identity in general — blurred into Ukrainian, and they were collectively referred to back then as “Ruthenian.” (Meanwhile, Jews had a much different experience, as the Russian Empire took a dim view of them, encouraged public persecution of them, and restricted their movement and lifestyle.)

Belarus cartoon

Poland joins with the infant Soviet Union to tear Belarus apart. Great way to recover from a long partition! (Also, both trample Ukraine.)

Belorussia suffered as much from the turbulent early 1900s as any other part of Europe, and arguably most of all. Its westernmost corner was mauled during World War I. Russia’s humiliating surrender to Germany in 1918 led to Germany setting up a Belarusian puppet state as part of its effort to fragment and weaken Russia. It was wiped out after only a few months by a resurgent Russia, only to be taken by a revived and ambitious/greedy (depending on your interpretation) Poland in 1919. After a short but fierce war, the region was partitioned once again between Poland and Russia. After a relaxing peacetime marked by forced collectivization, famine, and Communist purges, Germany invaded again in 1941. After a sadistic war in which a quarter of Belorussia was killed (including most of its Jews) and Minsk was utterly destroyed, the Soviet Union was triumphant, and emerged from the war with all of historic Belorussia under its control.

Belorussia went on to enjoy one of the higher degrees of industrialization among the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. Since the USSR was divided along ethnic lines, Belarusian identity also experienced a revival (even if this involved a little ethnic cleansing to make the units tidier). Of course, it still languished under a dysfunctional economic system with rudimentary consumer goods and little knowledge of the outside world. Also, the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl was just over the border from Belorussia and mostly affected Belarusians. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and for the first time since 1918, Belarus was an independent country.

Like many newly independent countries, Belarus was fragile and hesitant. It wasn’t sure what sort of political or economic system to adopt or what sort of cultural orientation to take. Belarusian nationalism had never really taken off. Russian identity and culture had taken deep root in the country over the centuries, and most Belarusians still speak Russian instead of their “native” language.

Again like many newly independent countries, Belarus soon fell back into dictatorship. The winner of its only competitive presidential election, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ruled with an iron fist ever since 1994. Political opponents are barred from the legislature, independent media outlets have been hounded into submission, and protesters are beaten and jailed. Lukashenko enjoys a Soviet-style personality cult with fawning songs and a nationalist youth union. The KGB, the Soviet Union’s infamous secret police, survive here. The Soviet state-run economy has been preserved as much as possible — 75% of it remains under state control, and farms are still collectively managed.

None of this really endeared Belarus to the EU. After a policy of patient disapproval and stern lecturing went nowhere, the EU slapped sanctions on the Belarusian leadership in 2006. Ties with the countries to its west are strained — tourists rarely visit, even from Poland, and Belarus is a nonentity in European affairs. Its frustrating and complex bureaucracy stifles most business ventures. Few Belarusians speak a language other than Russian or Belarusian. Sources about the country are scarce, except in Russian.


Minsk today. Image source: Sergey Nik-Menik via Pikabu

As a result, Belarus has been pushed into the arms of Mother Russia. As mentioned before, Russian is still widely used, even when ethnic minorities who don’t understand Belarusian are scarce. Society is still cast along the old Soviet model, and Belarus’s experience with many of the same disasters as Russia have given it the same sense of victimhood and unfair treatment that shape Russian nationalism. Lukashenko gets along well with Vladimir Putin, a fellow dictator with similarly earthy tastes, conservative mindsets, and an economic model of domination by a few companies with close ties to the state (meaning himself, basically) — a model usually called “oligarchy,” somewhat inappropriately, in the West. Belarus gets subsidized oil and gas from its petrostate neighbor. Belarus and Russia are so chummy, they formed a “Union State” in 1998, with the aim of a currency union and some kind of governmental fusion in the future.

So it may seem like Russia and Belarus are best buds joined at the hip with no meaningful distinctions… but in reality, it’s more complicated than that. The past decade has made it very clear that Russia sees the former Soviet republics (a region now called “Eurasia,” also somewhat inaccurately) as its rightful sphere of influence, with Putin as the modern czar of “all the Russias.” That’s a little too close for comfort for Lukashenko. Making your political opponents disappear might be fine, but when someone else does it and acts like your boss, it’s a lot less fun. Neither the Union State nor the currency union proposal have gone anywhere. Russia’s attacks on Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) rattled Belarus, and Belarus sheltered Kyrgyzstan’s renegade president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, when he fled in 2010. This has led to a few spats with Russia, including threats to cut off Belarus’s critical gas supply and a refusal to host a Russian air base.

This has led Western observers to come to the opposite conclusion on occasion and predict a falling-out, or even an imminent Russian intervention. The EU has softened its tone since the upheaval in Ukraine, seeing Belarus as the lesser of 2 evils and a possible wild card in its ongoing geopolitical game with Russia. But Belarus remains aloof and unpredictable. Landlocked, comparatively poor and weak, with a hazy sense of national identity to draw on, it is frankly unlikely to burn its many bridges with Russia anytime soon. (Moscow is only 300 miles away — very close by Russian standards.) For instance, it holds regular vast war games called Zapad (West) with Russia that react against a simulated EU-backed uprising in its western region bordering Poland. Relations with Lithuania are dismal due to a nuclear power plant built (again!) right by the Lithuanian border. Lukashenko sneers at the West’s high-handedness, capitalism, and tolerance for homosexuality. Memories of the Soviet Union are not nearly as bad as they are in its neighboring former Soviet republics — the Baltics were annexed unwillingly during World War II, while Ukraine was basically punished through famine in the 1930s.

So Belarus continues its delicate dance with its neighbors to the West. The EU and America were encouraged by a slight thaw in political repression and (probably more so) by Belarus hosting peace negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU in 2015. As a result, most of the sanctions against Belarusian leaders and companies have been lifted. But the thaw seems to have been an illusion, and protesters are still treated like armed gangsters by the KGB. It remains hard to imagine that Lukashenko would suddenly change his mind after all these years and democratize with the Russian military breathing down his neck. Belarusians still have much in common with Russians, from a love of borscht and vodka to a cynical sense of humor and suspicion of outsiders. But the experience of Ukraine isn’t lost on Belarusians either, and Russia isn’t exactly a trustworthy ally. It may not make the dramatic headlines that its neighbors often do, but Belarus is a country that deserves more attention, and could play a more critical geopolitical role that its location and history entitle it to.




It’s that time of year again — the very end, when every media outlet celebrates the New Year with retrospective articles and year summaries. My favorite has always been TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” series, which deems a person, group, or (unfortunately) concept the most influential of the year. It’s a fun tradition, although largely dictated by what would look best on TIME‘s cover. I like to make a more reasoned case for my selections and evaluate theirs too.

Let’s look at TIME‘s runners-up first. In general I think they made good choices, although as usual they are overly Americanocentric. Robert Mueller, the former head of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the special prosecutor investigating Donald Trump’s links with Russia, has been lurking in the background for the last half of the year and has charged 2 high-level officials, but I get the feeling that he will be more important next year. Colin Kaepernick shaped the news by protesting police brutality and systemic racism before the (American) football games he played in, and TIME relates how his protest spread to South Africa as well. But Trump played some role in rallying support for Kaepernick’s protest, and I’m not entirely convinced that either the original protest or the backlash against it has actually produced any meaningful, lasting change (a common problem with discussions about racism in America).

Kim Jong-un seems like a natural choice, given that his country, North Korea, has been in the news pretty much all year. Although North Korea has faded in and out of the news for 2 decades at least, it received the most sustained coverage this year, as it not only increased the tempo of its nuclear tests, but finally gained the long-sought capability to lob its nukes at America’s East Coast. This has jangled nerves around the world and led to ever tighter sanctions, even by China, North Korea’s only ally. But he doesn’t quite make my shortlist: as usual for these crises, there is much bluster and talk but little real action or change on the ground. It is entirely possible that Kim just wants to get nukes for his own protection, and the rest of the world will just leave it at that. It’s hard to see how Kim has effected real change.

One of 2017’s ongoing themes has been sexual harassment and assault, especially after the revelation of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual predation in October. The torrent of accusations and revelations is unprecedented, and it’s no surprise that TIME would choose to recognize this. Yet I disagree with its choice to deem victims of sexual harassment who have come forward with their stories (“the Silence Breakers”) as People of the Year. For 1 thing, I dislike TIME‘s occasional trend of giving the honor to nebulous groups rather than a single person. Choosing a journalist who broke the story (like Ronan Farrow, who wrote a lengthy expose in The New Yorker despite much opposition) or a victim (like Ashley Judd, the 1st actress to come forward) would have been better. For another thing, it’s still too soon to tell whether these revelations will have a real impact. The story really only began in October (despite a few earlier scandals involving Fox News) — although I personally suspect that the MeToo movement is too far advanced and women are too fed up with sexual abuse for the proverbial genie to be put back into the bottle. Patty Jenkins, the director of this year’s hit movie Wonder Woman, is an interesting choice, but other movies outgrossed hers, and it seems like she was chosen mostly to continue the feminist theme. (In general, arts and culture is very diffuse and it’s hard to pinpoint 1 figure there to have significant global influence in 1 particular year.)

Now for some submissions of my own:

Qasem Soleimani probably deserves recognition. The head of Iran’s Quds Force, which directs foreign military operations, he is the mastermind behind many of Iran’s maneuverings in West Asia. This year, the Islamic State’s back was finally broken, enabling Syria and Iraq to take back control of their former territory — and for Iran to extend its own influence there. Iranian-backed militias were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State — along with Kurdistan, which doesn’t wield nearly the same kind of geopolitical influence as Iran.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, shaped much of the news in Europe this year. He stood up to both America and Russia (an important aspiration for the French, and some Europeans in general) and carried out important labor reform, always a tricky issue in France and a major stumbling block in economic reform in general. But most importantly, he not only defeated the National Front — apparently putting an end, or at least a long pause, to the xenophobic conservative surge in Europe — but ushered a new political party into power in France, La République En Marche! But it’s also a little early to deem him 1 of the world’s most consequential figures.

And now for my top 3:


This is the most conspicuous omission from TIME‘s list, despite his coming out on top in a reader poll. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince has been pushing through real change and is making his mark in numerous areas. The most important reform in the long term is a reorientation of the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil, which is necessary as the oil price falls and global reliance on fossil fuels recedes. He is consolidating power by purging his opponents and older aristocrats resistant to change. He is realigning Saudi society to be more in tune with the younger generation that dominates it demographically, allowing women to drive, concerts to be held, and movies to be screened. He is also making a concerted push to challenge Iran and keep Saudi Arabia ascendant in its region by blockading his recalcitrant neighbor, Qatar, and battering Iran’s proxy militia, the Huthis, in Yemen (at the expense of Yemen itself). His belligerent foreign policy and reckless purge of Saudi Arabia’s elite has attracted a lot of criticism, but Saudi Arabia was long due for a shakeup, and he is providing one.


China’s dictator usually shapes the world as much as anyone else in any given year, and it can be hard to determine when he’s actually the “Man of the Year.” 2017 seems like a good year for Xi. In October, he consolidated his already formidable power at home at the 19th Communist Party Congress, where his failure to designate a successor prompted speculation that he intends to be dictator-for-life. In a 3½-hour speech, he emphasized the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” effectively announcing China’s intent to become the next superpower. China’s military is undergoing rapid modernization and expansion, and a border dispute with India, ongoing island-building and militarization in the South China Sea, and an economic boycott of South Korea has demonstrated to the world China’s newfound strength. But Xi has put a lot of energy into diplomacy too: China’s diplomats are active and numerous at international conferences and forums, Chinese infrastructure plans in Africa and Asia are ambitious and generous, and Xi himself gave a very well-received speech at Davos (where the world’s economic elite gather each January) on free trade and economic openness. In issue after issue — climate change, reining in North Korea, global trade — China is central. And Xi’s personal power is also very significant; he doesn’t act as merely a member of a committee of oligarchs like his predecessors did. No wonder The Economist deemed him “the world’s most powerful man” earlier in the year.

But once again, I wouldn’t say it was Xi Jinping’s year juuuust yet. For 1 thing, the Party Congress was more about putting on a grand show and celebrating the Party’s achievements than an achievement in and of itself. It provided a nice opportunity for the media to talk about China and Xi in particular, but most of what was said there has already been articulated before, and should have been pretty obvious to China-watchers. In addition, the main dynamic feeding China’s rise is really America’s decline, which is abetted by…


I am not surprised TIME did not choose to name Trump Man of the Year again. Besides his public show of disinterest in the honor this year, TIME rarely chooses the same person twice. Trump’s 1st year in office has been shaped mostly by petty quarrels, minor issues and media hype. Some say that he lets Congress or cabinet departments handle the details. Some of his biggest promises, like repealing Obamacare and building a border wall, have gone nowhere. The so-called “alt right” movement that he energized is very minor. The backlash against his presidency is more prominent and will probably propel Democrats into Congress next year. His much yearned-for rapprochement with Russia has stalled, thanks to the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s collusion with it, and instead America is continuing sanctions against it and arming Ukraine. There is a sense, sometimes articulated clearly, that Trump is just a big baby and “underlings” like Rex Tillerson (his foreign minister), James Mattis (his defense minister) and H.R. McMaster (national security advisor) are the “adults” that actually run the show.

But overseas, I think Trump’s influence is more obvious. As I’ve written before, he is withdrawing America from the world stage. His worldview is almost relentlessly negative, pessimistic, cynical and narrow-minded; other countries are seen in terms of what they can offer America and how they can threaten it. Since the world is still partly organized in terms of the American alliance system, this undermines it. Europe in particular is struggling to come to terms with a new America reluctant to support it unconditionally. The American president’s traditional support for democracy, human rights and free trade is gone (unless it suits his purposes). Speeches given by Trump this year at the UN and APEC (an Asian international forum) promoted his “America First” ideology, even though it was designed to appeal to cranky American voters who see the outside world as a problem. International trade architecture in particular is in turmoil because of Trump’s personal interest in the issue and his questioning of all kinds of trading relationships, from China’s to allies’ like Canada’s and Germany’s. Even South Korea has been blindsided with a Trump threat to pull out of its free trade agreement — while he menaces the country by making empty threats at North Korea over Twitter and in his “fire and fury” statement this summer. His hostility to immigrants inspires xenophobic populists in Europe; his hostility to the media validates repressive tactics in dictatorships. The tax reform passed recently starves the American government of much-needed revenue, which will hobble America’s ability to project its power and maintain its competitive edge in the near future. His State Department (foreign ministry) is being gutted of career diplomats. (Admittedly, this is mostly Tillerson’s doing.) In the turbulent politics of West Asia — basically the part of the world America is most concerned about — policy is increasingly in Saudi, Iranian and Russian control. (Admittedly, this began under Obama.)

Some say that Trump is just making foreign policy more realistic and that it’s naive to think of the world in emotional terms like “buddies” and “enemies.” I’m not entirely convinced that the shift in American foreign policy will outlast Trump, or that he’ll be reelected. But in the narrow terms of just this year, he was the primary factor driving global events.