2017 was a year of turbulence, a year where disorder and disruption became the new normal. Deep, underlying currents, both social and geopolitical, have largely been the source of this change. Who have been the directors of these currents though? What men and women have been most influential in taking these trends and directing them to their own goals and ends? In my assessment these were ten (eleven technically–one ranking is a pair) whose vision and exercise of political power, for good or ill, most shaped the world in 2017.
1. President Donald Trump
It is hard to deny the incredibly disruptive effect the 45th president of the United States has had upon the globe. Questioning decades of U.S. foreign policy commitments from free trade to multilateral security, economic, and environmental initiatives, President Trump has turned the U.S. into the principal source of uncertainty in the global order. Some Americans and world leaders welcome this assertive unilateralism; a majority ardently oppose it. Regardless, Trump has forced world leaders to reckon with the populist forces buttressing his power and reconfigure their policies to deal with Trump’s transactional propensities.
Domestically, Trump has intensified deep-seated divisions among progressives and conservatives, while upending the general ideological consensus of the left-right divide held in place since the rise of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It remains to be seen if his policies will be ephemeral, but in 2017, his voice dominated the U.S. and world stage.
2. President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, exercising near unilateral control of Russian state and military resources. He remains immensely popular at home due to his propagandistic programming that papers over internal economic malaise and trumpets Russia’s reassertion on the global arena.
Putin has faced blowback from these reassertions in Ukraine and the election meddling in Western countries, which spells trouble for Russia in the long term. However, in the near term, Putin’s aim of muddying the West’s trust in democratic institutions has largely succeeded, while Putin has exploited the vacuum in the Middle East to challenge the U.S. as the principal external mediator in Middle Eastern affairs. With the upcoming 2018 elections, Putin will likely to continue to actualize his vision of resurrecting Russia as an imperial power and himself as its neo-Czarist leader.
3. President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping made an indelible mark on Chinese politics this year when his name and philosophy was inserted into the Chinese constitution. No other Chinese Communist leader save for Mao and Deng Xiaoping have been accorded such an honor. Furthermore, Xi did not name a successor at the start of his second five year term, signaling his intention of extending his rule past the traditional ten year mark.
Beyond solidifying his political future and elevating his thought into Chinese canon, Xi has exploited U.S. retrenchment to extend Chinese influence abroad. Economically, Xi’s global infrastructure project, One Belt, One Road, has positioned China to knit the Eurasian continent together and be its central economic player. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade deal negotiated by 11 countries encompassing 40% of the global economy, has allowed Xi to lobby for a new trade bloc centered on China instead of the U.S. Geopolitically, Xi has opened China’s first overseas military base and continued to build islands in the South China Sea. Overall, Xi’s leadership has led China to take significant steps towards becoming the preeminent power in East Asia.
4. Fed Chair Janet Yellen
In a turbulent political climate, outgoing Fed Chair Janet Yellen has held a steady hand to the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy has continued to grow at a good pace of around 2.5% while inflation and unemployment have been incredibly low, nearly ideal macroeconomic conditions (wage growth and income inequality is a different story, but largely outside the Fed’s purview). This is in no small part to Yellen’s incremental approach to interest rates, which have discouraged high inflation while not undercutting U.S. economic growth. This has allowed the U.S. to maintain some semblance of its strength, even as U.S. political capital has deteriorated, and permitted the global economy more broadly to benefit, undercutting the appeal of populist rhetoric.
5. President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron emerged from relatively obscurity to reinvigorate the movement for reform in both France and the European Union more broadly. Representing the charismatic, centrist response to right wing populist backlash, Macron’s economic reform efforts within France, albeit slow going, have begun to jumpstart its economy and rebalance France’s role as principal partner to Germany in the EU. Macron’s push for France to be the leader on EU reform has become increasingly important as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the mantle bearer of EU unity, has seen her power wane as she combats far-right opposition. If Macron successfully implements both France’s domestic reform and broader E.U. governance changes, he could be considered the most consequential French leader since Charles de Gaulle.
6. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un
The most worrisome geopolitical development in 2017 was the accelerated development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It has stoked fears of sparking nuclear proliferation throughout East Asia, which in turn could exacerbate ongoing Sino-Japanese antagonisms. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. now faces the threat of a hostile actor launching a nuclear weapon onto the United States. All these developments can be attributed to North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. After his ascent to power in 2011, Kim had the option of freezing his country’s nuclear weapons program in order to bargain for more favorable economic treatment from the U.S., South Korea and the international community at large. Instead, he doubled down on his father’s, Kim Jong Il, nuclear program, betting that it was better for North Korea to be feared through its nuclear deterrence than embraced for its political reform. It remains to be seen if Kim’s gambit will pay off.
7. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg is the sole individual on this list not holding public office because his platform, Facebook, has become the major mediator of media content on the web. Increasingly, a majority of people are finding their political news on Facebook making it, effectively, the world’s largest political information disseminator on the planet. Controlling what stories can be seen, what are pushed through its opaque, complex algorithms, has allowed Zuckerberg to shape the messaging of thousands of political actors. Additionally, Zuckerberg’s allowance for fake news and extreme ideologies to have a major public forum has permitted the erroneous and extremist views that buttress them to gain a larger traction. These developments do not have easy answers, tying in questions of free speech with ethical standards for ensuring public safety, but the one who has had and will have the most influence on them is Zuckerberg himself.
8.) Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has continued his political rise in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to reform the oil-dependent kingdom. Organized under the label Vision 2030, Salman’s economic and social reform has fostered hope within his country he will wean them from oil dependence and relax harsh social strictures, allowing for greater economic opportunity. On the other hand, there is concern Salman’s recent anti-corruption campaign is no more than moral veneer masking his consolidation of power.
Beyond his ambitious economic and social reforms, Salman has marked a shift in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, continuing its controversial, bloody involvement in Yemen’s civil war and instigating a blockade of neighboring Qatar. All of these moves have intensified the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which, with Salman’s influence, will define the Middle East in years to come.
9. Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski
The Republican Party began 2017 with a rare phenomenon in U.S. politics: control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency. However, this power was tenuous given the GOP’s slim majority in the Senate. Given this slim majority, Senate Republican leaders needed nearly every Republican Senator to back their major agenda items. At critical junctures, Senators Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) decided to not play ball. They are the only two Republican senators who opposed every Affordable Care Act repeal bill, preserving President Obama’s signature achievement and tanking one of President Trump’s main campaign promises. Their demands slowed down Congressional Republican’s ambitious agenda and, unintentionally, contributed to the narrative of ineffectual GOP governance.
Some of this effect has been tampered by the recent passage of the Republican’s tax reform bill, but even there, Collins and Murkowski’s influence has been felt. Collin’s preference for preserving certain medical expense and property tax deductions made it into the final version. For Murkowski, her support was awarded with a provision opening up oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Overall, it was evident Collins and Murkowski were the critical swing votes in implementing the GOP’s domestic agenda in 2017.
10. General Qasem Soleimani
One of the most overlooked portions of the fight against ISIS has been the instrumental role Iranian militia and ground troops have played in buttressing Syrian and Iraqi military forces. That effort has been overseen by General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force. The Quds Force is the military arm of Iran conducting overseas operations including supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Soleimani can claim a significant victory this past year as his Quds Force helped to essentially crush ISIS and other Syrian rebel organizations, preserving Assad’s power and ensuring Iran remains the principal power broker in Iraq. Soleimani has already shaped the battlefield of the most significant humanitarian crisis today. Now that he commands the most powerful ground force in Iraq and Syria, it is likely he will also shapes its tenuous peace.