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 2016’s Man of the Year.
First, let’s see who TIME chose as its runners-up. I find Hillary Clinton to be a weak choice; she lost the American presidential election, after all. America may be the world’s most important country, but it’s not THAT important. It is hard to exercise influence when you’ve lost the election. Perhaps you could argue that her hard-fought campaign and popular vote victory inspired politically minded women everywhere, but it’s hard to wield influence when you lose.
Hackers were certainly influential this year, as data ransacking of the American Democratic party, theft from the Russian central bank, and data wiping at Saudi Arabia’s aviation regulator made clear. Cybersecurity is a growing concern for technologically adept governments and businesses and its specter will only expand. But I prefer identifying actual people, not broad, vague (and in this case, totally anonymous) groups.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actually a good choice. Turkey has become more and more geopolitically vital, with both the EU and Russia trying to court it as the key link between Europe and war-torn West Asia. At the same time, Erdoğan has become more assertive and powerful within his country, especially after a failed coup on July 15 was followed up by a massive and deep purge of suspected dissidents. I don’t think his influence extends far enough in regional affairs to be a top contender for Man of the Year, though.
The CRISPR pioneers are an interesting choice in the science field. The new technique of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a form of genetic engineering, promises to have wide-ranging effects in crop nutritional enhancement, genetic mutations, and most of all, in fighting tough conditions like cancer. The pioneers of this method (namely, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier) might be worthy of the Women of the Year honor. But it’s hard to tell at this early stage how much impact CRISPR will have; the crucial trials to see whether it can cure cancer take place next year.
It’s hard to gauge the influence of figures like Beyoncé. On the one hand, it’s clear that she’s an enormously famous and influential singer, and one with an international fanbase. But the main reason TIME honored her this year is her passionate activism for feminism and improved race relations, and the latter is primarily an American issue. I’m also not convinced that she’s had a lot of influence in these fields; it seems more like wishful thinking on TIME’s part. Most of the people she has reached probably already believe her messages anyway. The smash success of her album Lemonade this year definitely makes her one of the main figures in the cultural field, though.
And now for some other possible candidates:
– Juan Manuel Santos probably deserves recognition as one of the most influential people of the year for bringing Colombia’s 50-year civil war to an end. His accord may have been rejected by voters in a plebiscite in October, but it still earned him a well-earned Nobel Peace Prize, and a peace agreement with the FARC rebels was eventually reached anyway. Still, his influence is mostly local.
– Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was my pick for Woman of the Year last year, but this year she didn’t make many headlines. Instead, she found herself on the defensive against a growing backlash within Germany against welcoming refugees and keeping the borders often and against growing discontent in Europe with sanctions against Russia.
– Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, continued to make headlines with his cruel and destructive war, the world’s worst. It has an impact beyond its region but Assad is no longer the key factor here.
– Xi Jinping, the dictator of China, consolidated his control this year, but made no headline-making moves. China, in general, is a difficult country for these sorts of exercises; it is extremely important and influential, but its leadership is mostly collective and its influence is incremental. A Chinese leader could be Man of the Year just about any year, because their decisions (especially economic and monetary ones) have enormous global impact.
– Rodrigo Duterte is another possible candidate. The new president of the Philippines has rattled East Asia with his unpredictability and realignment away from America and towards China. He could herald a turning of the tide in East Asia away from the American security umbrella and socioeconomic model (and away from democratic norms too). He is probably #4 this year given how this development would probably not have happened without him (well, at least not this fast). But his influence is still mostly regional, and it’s still unclear how much weight his words actually carry (at least in foreign policy).
The overriding theme in global affairs this year is a noticeable, transnational turn away from boring but pragmatic liberal democratic politics and toward angry, usually right-wing, protectionist and nationalist populism. Therefore it is worth keeping in mind which figures are doing the most to drive this trend. They are the ones I chose for 2016’s Men of the Year.
The first of two big political earthquakes this year with global repercussions was Brexit — the British exit from the EU. Even though it hasn’t even happened yet, the notion that such an important European country would leave the institution that binds the continent together rattled elites across the West. The British economy is suffering, British politics are in a state of uncertainty, and the leaders of the EU and its major countries are nervous about a precedent being set. While I didn’t cover it for this blog, it was undeniably a Big Deal. Although the referendum was a collective effort, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was the face of the Brexit campaign. His victory even sparked predictions that he would take David Cameron’s place as British prime minister. That didn’t happen, but he is Foreign Secretary and still an influential figure in the Brexit negotiations. He deserves credit for the vote and its impact on global politics. (The other major figure would be Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party until very recently.)
Putin’s back, baby! For the third time in a row, he makes my list. Despite all that the West has done to squeeze the Russian economy and elite, it remains an influential global player and wild card in geopolitics. Putin continued to rely on his preferred covert ops methods — hacking, espionage, pro-Russian media, funding for divisive politicians — to aggravate the growing cracks within the transatlantic alliance. Meanwhile, he continued to leverage Russia’s considerable hard power to punish Syrian rebels and the innocent Syrian people to make Russia look big and strong. Ukraine remains tied down by the war in the Donbass and Putin’s approval rating remains above 80%. A mostly unsuccessful effort this month by Japan to coax Putin into territorial and economic concessions proved once again that Putin is a man with a lot of leverage. His crowning achievement may have been getting Donald Trump, a candidate few took seriously, elected president of the United States. With the West in disarray and China more or less friendly, Russia is in good shape — and it’s mostly thanks to Putin.
Last year I wrote “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.” During the year I began to doubt this due to the continuing media fixation with Trump. I never imagined that it wouldn’t be true because Clinton would actually lose.
Trump’s election, as you have probably guessed, was the second big political earthquake of the year. It’s a development that came completely out of nowhere: in 2014 no one would’ve predicted this, and even in 2015 his victory seemed far-fetched given that Republican (and sometimes Democratic) voters have a tendency to favor wacky candidates at the beginning. Although he’s a Republican, he upended the normal dynamics of American politics with his platform, which favors protectionism and tight border controls as well as closer relations with Russia. The usual Republican concerns — small government, Christian values, a strong military — he ignored. Democrats, of course, are repulsed by his political incorrectness.
Although right-wing populism predates Trump, he has emerged as sort of the global standard-bearer for it. Others, like Farage, Marine le Pen in France, and Frauke Petry in Germany, cheered his win and see him as an inspiration. His revisionist foreign policy, which will involve some sort of retreat from America’s position of influence worldwide, has rattled governments everywhere. His election has made 2017 very uncertain. No one quite knows what to expect from him, given how many of his statements he’s backtracked on. Although it may seem premature to name him Man of the Year when he hasn’t even taken office yet, this is TIME’s standard practice with election winners, and the strong media spotlight given the American elections means his tweets and cabinet picks have major repercussions.
I find Trump to be an arrogant, boastful, brutish, bullying, crude, hateful, ignorant, lying, obnoxious, pandering, pessimistic, petty, racist, sexist, tacky asshole whose victory fills me with shame and dread, but that does not necessarily mean he is not influential. Throughout 2016, electorates have endorsed decisions that are tantamount to national suicide: a president who encourages drug addicts to get gunned down in the street and brags about murdering them himself; a split from a union that has delivered Britain peace, prosperity and new opportunities; an accord that brings Colombia peace and reconciliation with minimal risk; a constitutional reform that would’ve given Italy a fighting chance to overcome its quarrelsome political habits. Trump’s election is just the biggest and worst in this series. 2016 has given Chinese critics of democracy a lot of ammo in their argument that popular sovereignty is a dangerous system.
Note: Despite my fixation with political figures, I do acknowledge that business, scientific, technological and even cultural figures can have widespread influence too. But in most years it’s hard to measure their influence against the years before. Ongoing developments in robotics, self-driving cars, mobile devices, and so on could shake the world much more than the likes of Putin or Trump, but it’s hard to tell at this point.