It would be too predictable to argue that the presidency of Donald Trump that began in January was its defining event, mainly because that is largely true. But it would be equally true to say that his ascent to the most powerful post in the world was a reflection of the current state of the world, perhaps of contemporary humanity, epitomizing the rise and rise of a parochial-populist nationalism whose main aim is to roll back globalism and liberal thinking.
It hasn’t been all bad in 2017. Economists are upbeat about global growth, and at 3 percent it is the highest since 2011. The use of clean energy has reached a record high, and Daesh has been defeated in Syria and Iraq. But even this good news cannot conceal a general mood of gloom and doom.
President Trump, deliberately and at times possibly inadvertently, has dominated 2017 and is the inevitable link to many of the phenomena that have made headlines this year. The new administration in Washington exemplifies the deep rifts that have opened up within the world’s liberal democracies, and the loss of direction of many of them.
Toxic nationalism, xenophobia and racism became legitimate during 2017’s many and various election campaigns. Blaming immigrants for societies’ ills became prevalent, represented also by Trump’s travel ban on countries with a Muslim majority, a move made despite the lack of a shred of evidence that this would enhance US security. Elections became more of an arena for protest against the establishment than a way to support any candidate or party manifesto. Instead of celebrations of democracy, in which the pertinent issues facing a country are constructively debated, elections have turned into exchanges of personal, below-the-belt punches rather than policy-based facts and proposals. This year has revealed in full that elections are not the key to resolving rifts in societies, but are more likely to expose them and at times deepen them. The current US president didn’t win the popular vote, while the British prime minister and the German chancellor both suffered body blows at the ballot box and — like President Trump — can barely run their administrations.
The election campaigns of 2017 also served to highlight the worrying phenomena of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” It is not that public debate was previously free of half-truths and complete lies; nevertheless, new technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have made it extremely and painfully easy to spread the kind of “information” that has a tenuous link to reality. An FBI investigation into Russian involvement in posting pro-Trump items on social media during the US elections has the potential to further expose the damaging nature of fake news and alternative facts, and how they are taking hold on our societies.
No reflection on the passing year could be complete without noting what seems to have been a real turning point in women’s readiness to call out men’s criminal, sexually abusive behavior in the workplace, be it in politics, the entertainment industry, the media or any other walk of life. What started as a trickle of allegations against a Hollywood mogul became a flood of exposures of routine and revolting harassments and assaults that women are enduring daily. The reaction by millions of women to the #MeToo movement, which encouraged them to share their stories of such attacks, underlined how widespread this phenomenon is. Harvey Weinstein has already been sacked from the production company he founded and managed. Two British ministers and several US congressmen have been forced to resign following allegations of sexual misconduct, and Roy Moore lost the Alabama Senate elections amid allegations that he had sexually abused teenagers. The enormous number of cases and their nature should serve as a wake-up call to men that this kind of behavior cannot and should not be tolerated, and when it happens it cannot go unpunished. The brave women who have been prepared to speak out this year about their harrowing experiences at the hands of bullying men have done a great service to society, and one can only imagine at what a painful cost to themselves.
From his inauguration in January to his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December, the presidency of Donald Trump has been the defining event of 2017.
It is hard to believe that 2017 will be sorely missed. It leaves behind a difficult legacy. Europe is struggling to keep it together, and negotiations on Brexit will have to intensify and reach a decision, one way or another, long before the end of the year. Germany and Spain are facing months of political instability, and America’s decisive indecision on the Paris climate change agreement is having an ongoing impact on the international community’s ability to provide an adequate answer to the damage we are inflicting on the only planet we have. Meanwhile the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea has been, and will remain, a major threat to international stability, with potentially grave consequences. And finally, as the year drew to a close, Trump announced that Washington would now recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. This controversial decision will reverberate next year, not only in relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but across the world.
It has been a year awash with irrational and illogical decision making, in which people’s fears have been cynically exploited for the sake of political power and the accumulation of wealth. It remains to be seen whether this represents the shape of things to come, or whether it will shake people up sufficiently to re-evaluate such a worrying trend.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg