In India, the year 1984 will always be remembered as annus horribilis. It was the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the subsequent anti-Sikh riots and finally the Bhopal gas tragedy. It’s the year we in India would quickly want to forget and hope there will never be a repeat of. In the global context, if there were such a year, an annus horribilis, 2016 has to be it. It was the year in which the world as we know it, unravelled. And not just because the world’s most celebrated democracy elected a divisive, racist, misogynist man to the most powerful office in the world. 2016 not just saw the rise of the new hyper-patriot or super-nationalist, it also decimated some of the most cherished and well-established post-war ideals and institutions.
Let’s start with Syria. The genocide in Aleppo will go down as one of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity in the 21st century. The blood of more than half a million Syrians in this nearly six-year-long war is on the collective hands of Barack Obama, David Cameron and Francois Hollande. Failure to act in Syria exposed what was already a hollow institution called the UN Security Council. Vladimir Putin and Russia were able to single-handedly stall any meaningful action against a monster like Bashar Al Assad. The UN Security Council is dead. Long live the Council.
The other two defining events of 2016 were Brexit on this side of the Atlantic and the election of Donald Trump on the other. It was not just a latent whitelash coming out of the closet, but also a resentment towards free-trade and globalisation as was established by leading western powers over the course of six decades, post the Second World War. It was the revenge of the ‘forgotten people’. In 2017, Donald Trump and Teresa May will find it tough to ignore this core constituency, the thorns that adorn the crown they wear.
2017 will be defined by two fundamental global relationships. The way America conducts business with its two biggest adversaries, China and Russia. With Russia, a lot has been said about the so-called bromance between Trump and Putin. The appointment of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State is the clearest sign yet that Trump wants to extend an olive branch to Moscow. Ultimately though America’s ties with Russia will be defined by a narrower self-interest than has been seen since the end of the Cold War.
In contrast, ties with Beijing are all set for a more tumultuous phase. The appointment of Peter Navarro as the head of Trump’s trade council is just the tip of the iceberg. We are not just going to see a phase of intense trade wars between Beijing and Washington but it also has the potential of spilling over into the political and military spheres. Expect a likely flashpoint either in the South or East China Seas.
Closer home, India will find it harder to navigate the choppy diplomatic waters around the Indian Ocean as Russia, China and Pakistan come closer. India will need unqualified help and support from the new Trump administration. A lot will depend on how quickly Mr. Modi is able to build connections with Trump’s people. The Indo-US relationship is fundamentally strong and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.
In 2017, Europe will see the fall of another great power to this rising tide of hyper-nationalism. Barring a miracle, France will fall to Marine Le Pen and her ultra-nationalist French National Front. Things look far more certain in neighbouring Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel is the candidate to beat in the general elections in autumn. If Merkel were to lose it would be the last of the liberal leaders in the first decade and a half of the new century to bite the dust. In Latin America too, which represents the last remaining citadel of left-liberalism, there’s been a reversal of the Pink Tide which brought in populist left-leaning governments in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela at the start of the century.
As we close out 2016, a symbolic farewell to one of the icons of liberalism, Barack Obama. There is unlikely to be another one like him. For the millennials he represented hope and change and gave a reason why it is worth fighting for the values and ideas espoused by liberalism. Obama will be missed.