AN OPINION PIECE
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:
PRINCE MOHAMMAD BIN SALMAN
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.