MAN OF THE YEAR

I've always liked this picture of Putin because he looks like some kind of Bond villain. Image source: Vanity Fair

I’ve always liked this picture of Putin because he looks like some kind of Bond villain.
Image source: Vanity Fair

AN OPINION PIECE

At the end of every year, the American newsweekly TIME Magazine designates someone as “Man of the Year” — the person who, for good or for ill, most influenced the course of events in the past year. For the most part, it is an unreliable indicator of the year’s main mover and shaker. Sometimes, their choices are downright awful. (Pride of place in this category must go to their infamous 2006 choice, “You.”) The selections are plainly influenced more by who would look good on the cover of the magazine with the words “MAN OF THE YEAR” emblazoned above him. The whole tradition started with the slow holiday weekend of 1927 when the editor wanted to put Charles Lindbergh, a famous aviator of the era who flew across the Atlantic that year, on the cover. TIME likes to stress that the designation is not an endorsement and is purely a measure of influence. Accordingly, baleful figures like Adolf Hitler, Iosif Stalin and the Ayatollah Khomeini have all been recognized. But it sure seems like an award, and TIME balked at showing Osama bin Laden on the cover with “MAN OF THE YEAR” above him in the year when he murdered 2,000 innocent American civilians. As always, sales drives everything.

But it’s still a fun tradition, and I’ve always enjoyed predicting (or at least speculating) on who the latest choice will be. So in that spirit, I hereby present my own choices for Man of the Year.

A few notes first: This is actually a gender-neutral designation. Women have sometimes won. Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff are important figures, but I don’t think they’re quite important enough to merit consideration this year. Readers might also notice a preoccupation with political figures, but I think they are disproportionately influential. Businessmen and scientists are also disproportionately influential, but I can’t think of a figure in those fields that really stood out this year. With science and technology, of course, it’s hard to accurately judge influence except in hindsight. Ordinary people can also be influential (I think Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-seller who set off the Arab Spring, was the real Man of the Year in 2011), but I can’t think of one who really deserves consideration this year.

TIME’s choice this year was “the Ebola Fighters.” It’s a bad choice both because it lumps together several people (sort of like “the Protester” in 2011) and because it’s another case of TIME selecting a feel-good figure. The Ebola virus in West Africa was easily one of the year’s biggest stories, it continues to have a grave impact on the 3 countries it’s devastating, and it could always break out again. Of course, without their commitment and hard work we might all be dead now. But I don’t think fighting Ebola in Liberia quite qualifies you to be most influential person of the year.

Among TIME’s other choices (their runners-up), “the Ferguson Protester” is even more lame. For one thing, it’s lumping together several people again. For another, it’s still unclear whether the protests there are having much of an impact, other than driving a national conversation about race and policing. Also, it’s another example of the narcissism of American media. (You could ask why China’s equally unsuccessful protests in Hong Kong, which I discussed in an earlier blog post, didn’t get honored.)

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, was recognized for his valiant effort to fight off the Islamic State. It’s an interesting choice, but akin to the 2001 decision to honor Rudy Giuliani over Osama bin Laden. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, is responsible for its spread, and Barzani wouldn’t be influential without him.

Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, is a pretty good choice. Alibaba, a Chinese online market, has enjoyed roaring success this decade and had its IPO this year. I predicted that TIME would at least consider him, if only because a tech entrepreneur is a much more wholesome face for China than, say, Xi Jinping. But most likely its readers would go “Who?” if they saw him on the cover.

As for other candidates:

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has had an interesting year as well. Amazon has steadily grown and grown since its founding 20 years ago, and Bezos keeps coming up with new cool ideas. This year it launched Amazon Fire TV, got into a fight with a book publisher, and developed plans to use drones to deliver packages. Bezos is also a shadow influencer as owner of the major newspaper the Washington Post.

Mitch McConnell had a good year, taking control of the US Senate and delivering a stinging rebuke to Barack Obama’s policies. But it’s unclear how influential he is beyond stalling various Democratic initiatives, and I’m not convinced American politicians of his level are particularly influential globally.

Joko Widodo, the new president of Indonesia, is an interesting guy (see “Asia’s Sleeping Giant” for a bit more about him). But other than his significance in being the first outsider to be elected president in Indonesia, he hasn’t done anything especially influential so far, and Indonesia remains a marginal player in global politics.

– An important development in European politics this year was the success of far-right and Eurosceptic (inclined against the EU) parties in the European parliament in this year’s elections. It might have a significant long-term effect on European politics and the euro crisis. However, this is a story of several significant parties and leaders (Nigel Farage, Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders), and none of them really stands out.

Enrique Peña Nieto, president of Mexico, had a good year, opening up Mexico’s petroleum industry to outside competition and taking aggressive steps to combat his country’s persistent drug violence. But he has also been buffeted by a real estate scandal and a massacre of teachers by gangsters, and time will tell how influential his reforms are.

Shinzou Abe, Japan’s prime minister, continues his effort to reform the Japanese economy and revitalize its labor sector. He was reelected this month and patched up (to an extent) Japan’s dispute with China over some islands. But the Japanese economy is heading into recession once more, and it’s unclear how successful or dramatic his reforms will be.

– The president of America is usually a good choice, but Barack Obama hasn’t done a whole lot this year, other than lose an election and re-engage American forces in Iraq after a 3-year absence. In general Obama continues to be guided by outside events. But his actions on immigration and Cuba might herald a change in pace next year as he becomes increasingly desperate to leave a legacy.

Now for my choices of Men of the Year, in ascending order. First up is…

NARENDRA MODI

Modi ran what might have been India’s most exciting election ever, or at least since Indira Gandhi. Capitalizing on widespread discontent with Congress’s lethargy and corruption, he led a brilliant campaign, promising economic development and underplaying the Hindu nationalism that usually characterizes his party. His personal vigor and charisma did more than anything to carry Bharatiya Janata to victory. He has also moved aggressively in the field of diplomacy, reminding India’s neighbors in East Asia that India has a great deal of potential and is an economic and political force to be reckoned with. His party, the BJP, continued to do well in state elections in the fall. He’s shaking up and re-energizing the languid Indian bureaucracy.

But it’s too soon to tell how influential Modi really is. Giving people hope and inspiration is one thing; reform and revitalization is quite another. So far he hasn’t been nearly as ambitious as many of his supporters have hoped. Financial, trade and infrastructure improvements remain elusive or delayed. Hope that Modi would alter the Indian patronage system has also disappeared, and the government’s grown by 21 extra ministers. Still, it’s undeniable that the rest of the world has sat up and taken notice of a country it’s largely lost interest in this decade.

XI JINPING

As the world’s second most important country, China almost always deserves consideration as Man of the Year. TIME has notoriously failed to honor Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao, who governed China during its boom years last decade. (Again, who would recognize them on the cover?) Xi has spent the year centralizing power. The Chinese government mostly rules by collective decisions; it’s a small body of important decision-makers, but rarely does one figure stand out. Xi is changing that. An anti-corruption campaign against over-indulgent party officials around the country is turning into a purge of officials on his bad side. He has also promised to stand up for China’s interests abroad — and has moved aggressively in the East and South China Seas — while further enriching Chinese at home — his obligatory slogan is “the Chinese Dream,” meaning the dream of a house, a (small) family, a steady income, and a pleasant environment. His APEC summit in November was a rousing success. On a somewhat minor note, the protests in Hong Kong barely made a dent.

That being said, I’m not convinced China had a particularly memorable year; there were no major crises or headline-grabbing events. For all the fretting and gulping in East Asia, China hasn’t started a war yet, and is still at least somewhat concerned with rising peacefully. The Chinese economy is also sputtering, with an ominous credit bubble and rising national debt. Xi may be important, and probably deserved Man of the Year last year, but he’s not quiiite influential enough to take the top spot.

Instead, the true man of the year was…

VLADIMIR PUTIN

This was Putin’s year, through and through. It started out with the Winter Olympics, which, despite their weird choice of location (Sochi is in the warmest part of Russia) and exorbitant price tag, were a success, and showed off to the rest of the world the resurgence and confidence of Putin’s Russia. An international uproar about Russia’s new crackdown on GLBTs early in the year faded away, until to be replaced by an international uproar over Russian pressure on the Ukraine. Despite its people’s clear desire to join the EU eventually, and the better long-term prospects of hitching its wagon to the European train, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, defied them by siding with Russia instead. This led to a winter uprising in Kyiv’s main square, which climaxed in February with Yanukovich’s forced overthrow.

Not about to let the situation slip out of his control, Putin struck back as soon as the Olympics were over. A Russian army, in league with local sympathizers, seized Ukraine’s peninsula, Crimea. Aided by a largely enthusiastic response in Crimea and a restrained reaction by Ukraine, Russia annexed it. After a brief lull, during which the international community (O.K., mostly the West) howled at Russian aggression, Russia struck again in April by instigating an uprising in the Donbass, a heavily Russian part of east Ukraine. International response fluctuated between outrage (especially when the rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner) and reserved discomfort (especially on the part of countries unwilling to endanger relations with Russia too much, like Germany or India). Ultimately Putin has failed to push the Ukrainian government back into his camp — in fact, Ukraine as a whole has only gotten more anti-Russian — but he has created a de facto breakaway state in one of Ukraine’s most economically crucial regions.

The West does have a powerful card to play, though: economic sanctions. Over the course of the year, Russian businesses have been blacklisted, and Russia has been severed from the global financial market thanks to American punishment. Europe, while less aggressive in its sanctions, has begun to orient itself away from Russian gas. The result: the Russian economy is tanking, and the ruble’s value is crashing. Putin now faces the challenge of maintaining his country’s strong position in Ukraine while facing an incoming recession. It looks bad for him, but he has some tricks up his sleeve too: a gas deal with China, which is now looking like a better alternative to a hostile West, and further tightening of the Eurasian economic community into an economic union. Despite Ukraine’s defiance, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia seem increasingly meek.

I am no fan of Putin. A former KGB agent, he plays the political game in Machiavellian fashion, bumping off his opponents, intimidating dissidents, leashing Russia’s media, cowing its political institutions, and bullying neighboring countries into doing his will. But he has shaped events more than anyone else this year. The annexation of Crimea shocked the world and showed it the days of naked aggression and land-grabbing aren’t over. His tactics and political ideology have attracted admirers in Europe, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to France’s Marine le Pen. He has exposed EU and possibly NATO as paper tigers unwilling to defend their neighbors and less interested in the former Soviet Union than Russia is. He has also freaked out the rest of eastern Europe and renewed the original anti-Russian character of NATO. His approval rating is soaring at 88%; many Russians see him as reinvigorating an empire in decline. It is obvious that he is mostly responsible for the shenanigans in Ukraine. And you can’t deny that he’s quite the character. For all these reasons, and despite the fact that TIME has already chosen him before (in 2007), I think Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, is 2014’s Man of the Year.

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