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, 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 here are my choices for 2015’s Man of the Year.
First, let’s see who TIME chose as its runners-up. Second place went to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the baleful caliph (head) of the Islamic State. It’s a high ranking for such an evil figure. The Islamic State has definitely had a “good” year, humiliating the Iraqi army, holding its own in Syria, spreading into chaotic foreign outposts like Afghanistan and Libya, setting off terrorist attacks (the most spectacular being the November assault on Paris), and freaking out Western leaders and citizens. But it’s debatable how influential terrorists are, even though they have a much greater impact than their numbers and resources would suggest. And it’s also unclear how much Baghdadi guides the organization.
Donald Trump has dominated American media coverage for the past half-year. Most people interested in this tradition were wondering if he would be TIME’s Man of the Year. This is ridiculous, since he’s too controversial. Honestly, there’s a good case to be made that he was Man of the Year, since his rise in politics seemingly came out of nowhere and his campaign has dominated the American political conversation. Immigration, race relations and counterterrorism are the main political issues there now, and it’s thanks mostly to him. The other candidates have been reduced to reacting to him and trying to figure out how to effectively fight back without sinking to his level. He probably is the most important person of the year — in America, that is. Although his campaign has gotten a lot of international media coverage as well, it’s unclear how much he’s affecting the world as a whole (there are other, similar right-wing demagogues in Europe, but they predate him).
The Black Lives Matter movement has actually succeeded in keeping police brutality and racism in the national conversation this year. But it seems like a bad choice. For one, it’s only in America. For another, it’s a decentralized, grassroots movement, not a single person. But I also don’t think it’s had much influence, as the ongoing string of police murders of unarmed blacks and worsening race relations attest. Black Lives Matter activists often have a whiff of desperation to them, as if they’re worried their concerns will be totally ignored unless they’re obnoxious.
Hassan Rouhani is an interesting choice. Iran is certainly changing, with a growing consensus towards lightening up the country’s prickly foreign policy and engaging more with the rest of the world. The nuclear deal was a landmark achievement this year, and Iran continues to be a major player in West Asia’s complicated tangle of rivalries and conflicts. But it’s unclear (as TIME’s article admits) how much influence he has internally in Iran, and the nuclear deal owes much to Iran’s and America’s diplomats, Mohammed Zarif and John Kerry.
It’s probably too early to tell whether Caitlyn Jenner will be influential or not, but her change definitely put transgenders in the media conversation more than anyone else. This year might be looked back upon as a watershed moment in GLBT history if those who switch genders from now on are treated with more respect as a result.
As for other choices:
– Narendra Modi was on my shortlist last year, but he’s mostly proved to be a disappointment. He has achieved little at home and lost a big election in the state of Bihar in November. He has projected strength and made the world take notice of India, but his actual influence is debatable, and probably not great.
– Xi Jinping was also on my shortlist last year, and he’s still one of the most important people in the world, mostly because of how important China is. Xi has centralized authority and projected Chinese power in the South China Sea and projected Chinese economic clout in Southeast Asia and Africa. Despite worries about China’s massive local debt and its handling of a stock market crash this summer, China remains one of the world’s economic powerhouses and a major factor in international relations. It has a collective leadership, so credit must be shared with various officials, but Xi is at the helm and keeps the Politburo subservient.
– Considering how much attention the war in Syria got, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, might seem like a natural choice. But his actions have shown a lot of continuity from previous years; he is still fighting against a motley array of rebels and hasn’t gained much ground. (In fact, he might have been losing it before Russia intervened on Syria’s side.) Assad is not the real driver of events in Syria.
– Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman might seem like a good choice for basically starting a war in Yemen by intervening in a local squabble with bomb attacks. But Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has achieved little, other than create more refugees and worsen the sectarian split in the Muslim world.
– Abubakar Shekau, head of the Nigerian terrorist/insurgent group Boko Haram, might be a candidate considering how vicious the war in northeast Nigeria was this year. But since Muhammadu Buhari’s ascension to the presidency, it has suffered serious setbacks and controls few cities now. This achievement might be important enough to make Buhari the Man of the Year in Africa — if it holds.
– Pope Francis, TIME’s Man of the Year in 2013, seems to be becoming one of the most influential popes in modern times. His message of concern for the poor and the environment and a less greed- and hate-driven agenda is clearly resonating around Christendom. I think he’s probably the most popular person in the world, but I’m not sure if 2015 counts as his year. It’s also unclear how much he’s actually changing events, but he is drawing attention and reminding the world what Christianity is really all about.
– Choosing non-political candidates can be a bit tricky, since it’s harder to gauge their influence across borders and within such a short time frame. But I will name some standouts: J.J. Abrams, whose movie Star Wars Episode VII was a global box-office smash even though it only premiered at the very end of the year; Adele broke first-week sales records in November with her song “Hello,” which is ubiquitous these days; and America’s Carli Lloyd did so well in the Women’s World Cup final this year that she could be a role model for girls everywhere — but only time can tell.
Now for my choices of Men of the Year, in ascending order. First up is…
I actually think TIME made a good choice with this one. The tech industry continues to quietly but unmistakably change the world a little more each year, which can make it hard to choose one person to represent it, but also makes it hard to ignore. Last year TIME honored Jack Ma, CEO of the Chinese online retail network Alibaba, but this year it chose to honor the head of Uber instead. Uber isn’t as revolutionary as some people make it seem to be — it’s basically just a taxi service — but it’s a good representation of the power and potential of smartphones. Kalanick has pushed his company in international markets aggressively, and Uber could herald a change in the way businesses operate. It’s at the forefront of the “gig revolution” of companies hiring workers with flexible hours and conditions but at the expense of job security and the perks most people seek with jobs. It’s caused a great deal of disruption in the taxi industry and is emblematic of how new technology disrupts old sectors. Uber was founded in 2009, but this was the year it really expanded and became a fixture of everyday urban life and media coverage.
Last year I chose Vladimir Putin as Man of the Year. For the most part of 2015, I still thought of him as the leader most responsible for driving world affairs. Although the Ukrainian conflict has died down, he has made it clear that he is Boss in Eastern Europe, and other European leaders are much more cautious when dealing with him now. He has expanded his war with the pro-Western government of Ukraine to the West in general, and sponsors anti-Western invective through TV, radio, the Internet, and newspapers. He has further expanded his power by clamping down on opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down right outside the Kremlin in February. Most of all, he has brought Russia into the morass in Syria by sending his air force on bombing runs against rebels there. He just might have saved Assad’s butt. He is now the man to talk to when it comes to dealing with Syria, and since his September intervention most of the important events in that region have revolved around Russia (the worsening relations between Russia and Turkey, the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt by the Islamic State). Putin’s reputation as a glowering, brooding menace might be growing more and more, but it’s hard to doubt that he’s shaping world events more than other leaders, and he certainly drives international politics more than Barack Obama or Xi.
But I did choose Putin as Man of the Year last year, and it seems lame to choose the same person twice in a row. In the end, I think another leader deserves the title more anyway.
O.K., I guess the title of this post gave it away. Merkel has usually been considered the world’s most powerful and important woman since she became chancellor in 2005. Throughout her time in office she has maneuvered Germany into the most influential country in Europe and the crux of the EU, despite her mild-mannered, unassuming nature. But for the most part, she has remained in the background of world affairs, working behind the scenes and keeping Germany a minor player in military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her stodgy, modest attitude made many inside and out of Germany take her for granted, but as her term lengthened, international observers started to take note of how crucial she was in the euro crisis negotiations and how deftly she maneuvered her party, the Christian Democrats, to victory in election after election.
2015 was her year, though. As the most important country in Europe and the one with the most mixed feelings about Russia as a result of its divided past, Germany is at the forefront of Europe’s negotiations with Russia over its shenanigans in Ukraine. Merkel enjoys a certain rapport with Putin as well — as an East German, she speaks Russian and is familiar with Russians, and Putin respects her more than other Western leaders. Then there was the latest round of the euro crisis/northern-vs.-southern European squabble, which pit the rich EU economies (led by Germany) against Greece, led by Alexis Tsipras, a firebrand socialist newly elected in January who threatened to tear up Greece’s agreements with the EU. Merkel stood firm against Greece’s temper tantrums and eventually won its acceptance of her deal, despite a referendum there opposing it. It has become obvious that even though she’s not the cruel taskmaster some Greeks see her as, she is a canny politician and knows when to stand her ground — and of course, Germany is in a strong position in this fight.
But what clinched 2015 as her year was the refugee crisis, which followed shortly after the tussle with Greece. This summer the passageway across the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos became the most popular route to Europe for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and most of them headed onward to Germany, Europe’s powerhouse economy. Most of the eastern European countries frustrated their passage or discouraged them from lingering; Hungary took the hardest line and closed its border with a hastily erected wall. Merkel bucked this trend by welcoming the refugees to Germany. As a result, hundreds of thousands poured in, and most estimates are that about a million will have moved there this year. This has incensed other Europeans, since it means the refugees will be passing through their lands, and it’s flouted EU rules, which call for refugees to stay in the first EU country they enter. (Not that Greece really wants them.) But it’s also earned Germany and its leader unprecedented respect from other countries, as a country that once brought war, devastation and suffering now provided shelter, food, and social services to those fleeing war, devastation and suffering. As the year drew to its close, some Germans have started grumbling about the country’s welcoming policy, and it’s provided fuel for the Islamophobic movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), but once again, Merkel has stood firm, confident in the long-term benefits of her policy.
For the most part, I admire Merkel and have respect for her political acumen, foresight and conviction. I expected TIME to choose “The Refugee” or some other heartwarming but nonspecific person as Man of the Year (last year it was “The Ebola Fighter”), but instead they chose the right person. It’s not often that this happens, and I’m impressed. I expect next year we’ll see Hillary Clinton on TIME’s cover as she takes the mantle of world’s most powerful and influential woman.