Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 18 December 2017

Goodbye to a Trump-dominated year 

In 2017 that is ending, Donald Trump dominated the year by using US clout to change many aspects of global relations, and not for the better.


What a year it has been!   As 2017 slips away, many wonder if the world will ever be the same.

Credit or blame goes mainly to United States President Donald Trump for this radical change.  This time last year, after he won the presidential elections, it was a toss-up whether Trump would implement his campaign promises or become a statesmanlike President.

After all, most candidates are extreme on the campaign trail to win votes, then become moderate on assuming office.

Not Trump.  For the past year, he has ruled as if he was catering to his extreme right voter base, with its narrow, anti-foreign and anti-internationalist views.

Trump’s policies have been in line with implementing his America First inauguration slogan, which really meant the America of his voter base, and also why should we bother about the rest of the world?  And he reached out directly to his base and the world public via a daily dose of tweets.

Broad minded Americans (which increasingly include many Republicans) were aghast.  And the rest of the world was outraged by one policy after another.  The list includes insults to traditional allies (Australia, Germany, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom) and traditional and new foes real or imagined (North Korea, Iran, several Muslim-majority countries whose citizens now can’t enter the US) and with threats to economic rivals especially China but also countries with trade surpluses with the US, whom he labelled “cheaters.”

The new US leadership threatened NATO, paralysed the G7, pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement, UNESCO and Global Compact on Migration, reduced funding for the United Nations and all funding to the Green Climate Fund.

The year ended with two more shocks. First, Trump announced the US recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, going against the official UN position and the status quo (where the city is presently shared between Palestine and Israel) and sparking protests and outrage across the world.

This move, planned by his son-in-law and not the US state department, destroyed any remaining hopes, if any, of a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict and will trigger another tragic round of bloody clashes in a region already fraught with wars.

Second, the US brought its antagonism to the present trading system to the Ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation held last week in Buenos Aires. 

Its entrenched position refusing to recognise the WTO’s 16-year-old Doha agenda, or to honour a previous Ministerial commitment to create a permanent solution to a food security issue (known as public stockholding), or to acknowledge the principle and new proposals for special treatment of developing countries, was the main reason why the conference ended without the traditional Declaration and key decisions.

The Trump effect certainly dominated events and trends in 2017.  The biggest fear is that by design or accident or even an insulting tweet, conflict may break out between the US and North Korea, escalating into a nuclear war. If at least this can be avoided, we can thank our lucky stars.  So low have expectations of the world order fallen. 

The year will also be remembered for the depths of inhumanity inflicted on fellow humans.  

Top of the list is the violent persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Since end-August, almost 700,000 crossed to Bangladesh to find refuge, at least 6,700 were killed in the first month and houses and villages burnt by the military and others.  Despite widespread condemnation, including the top UN human rights official terming this as “elements of genocide”, the future of the Rohingya is both uncertain and bleak.                              

Natural calamities continued unabated.  Some Caribbean countries suffered almost total wipe-out from storms and hurricanes, earthquakes caused damage in other countries, forest fires swept across parts of California and drought affected millions of people in Africa.

In Malaysia, the frequent incidents of floods and landslides in Penang caused shockwaves and re-ignited debates about hillside development, while floods also affected other states including Kedah, Johor, Kelantan and Sabah.    

We are more and more witnessing the effects of climate change. The warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour, with higher potential for rainfall, while the warming oceans affect weather patterns and cause more powerful tropical storms and hurricanes.

But during the year, efforts to counter global warming were still at much too slow a pace. Details on how to share the burden of transition to a low-carbon world have still to be worked out, and this hampers the speed of environmental action.   The US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the about-turn in its domestic climate policies made things worse.

The global economy performed moderately in 2017.  The US, Europe and Japan had positive though still low economic growth and China’s economy expanded by near to 7%.   Buoyed by exports, Asian developing countries will attain better-than-expected 6% growth this year, according to latest Asian Development Bank estimates.

Some experts are however warning about the build-up of debt and predict another bout of instability in capital flows and foreign exchange rates.  So whether the 2017 momentum can be sustained is unclear. 

But that’s not the only thing that is unclear.  As the year ends, there is great uncertainty in many areas and issues in the world.  There are a few more days left in 2017:  have a merry Xmas and a happy new year!