As we live through it, every year seems packed with significant events and key players who, for better or worse, seize our attention on the world stage. But as 2016 draws to a close and the white noise of 24-hour news cycles and transient Twitter storms fades into the background, it is already clear that history will remember only a handful of those people, each of whom has taught us something about ourselves and the rapidly changing world in which we live.
When Donald Trump is inaugurated as 45th president of the United States on January 20, America and the world will be forced to come to terms with the fact that a man with no political experience now holds the codes to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Much parodied, Trump has been the most prominent face of the tide of populist politics that is threatening to engulf the world and revert nations to a dangerous isolationism.
Trump based his presidential campaign – waged as much against his own party as against the Democrats – on a series of offensive, racist, ill-informed and occasionally downright false statements, any one of which would have cost any other candidate the race. Instead, every off-the-wall utterance appealed to a vast raft of American voters, apparently disenchanted with globalism.
If Trump’s triumph has left many dispirited, it fell to a bereaved Muslim-American couple to deliver a heartfelt and badly needed antidote to the poisonous populism beginning to infect much of the world. Stung by Trump’s intemperate comments, in August Khizr and Ghazala Khan spoke movingly about their son, US Army captain Humayun Khan, who had died fighting for his country in Iraq. Their dignified rebuke reminded their fellow Americans that their country was born as a nation of immigrants of all faiths and colours.
Vladimir Putin also cast a long shadow over the year and will be judged by history not only for his intervention in Syria, but also for his determination to prove to a timid, appeasing world that Russia is still a major player. Together, Putin’s fierce nationalistic pride and Trump’s impetuosity could collide in the months and years ahead, with unpredictable consequences for the world.
Former British prime minister David Cameron, author of one of the biggest political miscalculations in history, will be remembered as the unwitting architect of the so-called “Patriotic Spring” now shaking up politics across the world.
It was Cameron who, in promising British electors an entirely unnecessary referendum on continued membership of the European Union, started the ball rolling, plunging Britain, Europe and the world into an era of political and economic uncertainty because he lacked the courage to face down the far right, and the conviction to reassure his own MPs, fearful for their seats.
History might well lay the blame for Trump, and the likely success of the far right in 2017 in countries including France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic, at Cameron’s door.
Not for the first time in history, nor for the last, people and events in the Middle East have dominated the news throughout 2016. It has not always been possible to put a face to the key players, but chief among them must surely be The Refugee. In June the United Nations revealed that, around the world, forced displacement was at a record high, with more than 21 million refugees on the move. More than half had fled from just three countries – Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. The world’s attention has moved on since the plight of refugees dominated the news in 2015. But throughout this year, men, women and children hoping for a better life in Europe have continued to drown in their thousands in desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
No mention of refugees would be complete without recognition of the role played in the fate of so many by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has continued to defy widespread and almost hysterical criticism in her own country and beyond, and, despite the huge political risks, steadfastly stuck by her humane open-door policy. How she acts now, in the wake of the Berlin truck attack, will not only dictate her role in posterity, but may even yet save Europe from the moral corruption that threatens to turn back the clock to darker days.
Which brings us to the faceless ISIL lone wolf – the apparently unstoppable, internet-inspired disciple of a movement of hate, whose acts of violence have sown fear in European cities and driven a wedge between peaceful Islam and western popular opinion. As ever, of course, perspective alters the dynamic. In addition to the 130 lives taken by the lone wolf this year in Brussels, Nice and Berlin, in dozens of attacks throughout the Middle East ISIL affiliates have killed more than 1,200 people.
Away from the apparently interminable chaos of the Middle East, another potentially far greater threat to world peace may be developing in the Korean Peninsula, thanks in part to the actions of Park Geun-Hye, South Korea’s first female president. She earns her place in the top 10 of the most influential in 2016 not for the domestic corruption scandal that continues to threaten to bring her down, but for the dangerous way she is seeking to divert attention away from it. Rallying popular support by talking up the bellicosity of North Korea and ordering her military to be ready to ”finish off” the country’s nuclear near-neighbour may yet prove to be the ultimate selfish play – gambling with the lives of millions of people in a bid to cling on to the power which many believe she is no longer fit to exercise. On December 9, 234 members of the 300-member National Assembly voted to impeach Park, but until the Constitutional Court rules, Park’s authority is only suspended and she retains the title of president and the immunity from prosecution that goes with it.
Once again, this year Syria has furnished more than its fair share of conscience-pricking imagery, and few who saw the images of Omran Daqneesh, the bloodstained 5-year-old boy sitting silently in shock in the back of an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble of an airstrike in Aleppo, would have been unmoved.
But the world has already moved on. Like Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee washed up drowned on a Turkish beach in 2015, Daqneesh’s brief appearance on our television screens reminds us that, while our hearts might be in the right place, as individuals we feel ultimately powerless to alter the course of the juggernaut of world events.
Against the backdrop of such darkness, the occasional flash of light was all the more brilliant, and sorely needed. Perhaps none was brighter than that provided by Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss adventurer who, with André Borschberg, co-piloted the first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe.
The unforgettable sight of Solar Impulse 2 returning to Abu Dhabi one night in July, at the end of its epic voyage, reminded the world of the perils of global warming, while offering proof positive that practical solutions to man-made problems are within our grasp, if we can only find the will to embrace them.