The 2017 news roller-coaster did not just hit the United States. From North Korea’s missiles to Russia’s maneuvers to the fall of one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, major events have come to a head this year, each posing challenges to the world order and the new U.S. administration.
Here, NPR international correspondents take a look at some of the global figures who finished a tumultuous year on top.
The presidency of Donald Trump — marked by a systematic retreat of US leadership from the global stage — has been the gift that keeps on giving to Xi Jinping, a leader bent on exporting the products, policies and political ideology of China’s Communist Party. On his first day in office, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ceding a region that makes up two-thirds of global economic growth — and its regulatory framework — to the world’s second-largest economy. Trump’s vow in June to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord similarly handed the reins of global climate policy to a government that has allowed rapid economic growth to turn its environment into an unmitigated disaster. Xi recently enshrined himself and his guiding principles into China’s constitution, solidifying his stature as one of China’s most powerful leaders in modern history. Little did Xi know that the end of 2017 would also see him as one of the world’s strongest leaders.
— Rob Schmitz, Shanghai
Kim Jong Un
North Korea’s supreme leader began the year by announcing that his military had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile.” President Trump declared “It won’t happen!” But as we look back on 2017, it was Kim who lived up to his promise.
After three intercontinental ballistic missile tests that could, in theory, reach the U.S. mainland and a sixth underground nuclear test, the international community is as vexed as ever in how to rein in North Korea’s advancing program.
Kim’s country is destitute — the average North Korean earns $1 a day. And yet North Korea’s despot has managed to put the rest of the world, notably the U.S. and China, back on its heels. It leverages key built-in advantages — the country’s geographic proximity to South Korea and Japan make a military option way too costly, its traditional “lips and teeth” relationship with China means China continues to be a patron, and the U.S. has little leverage and a history of bad faith in trying to make a deal with Pyongyang.
The international community has been left to add “pressure” this year through increasing sanctions that, so far, aren’t bringing Kim to the table or curtailing his weapons advancements. So Kim gets a “win,” defined in the most dubious and dangerous of ways.
— Elise Hu, Seoul
Russian President Vladimir Putin is the big winner in the Middle East. As the Trump administration devises its policies in the region, Putin has used brute force in Syria to become an indispensable player. He has drawn on Soviet ties to Syria, Egypt and Iraq, as well as forged impromptu alliances with traditional rivals such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Today Putin is the only leader who can pick up the phone and talk to the heads of any of those countries — plus Israel.
Putin is interested not only in being the Middle East’s go-to guy, but strengthening ties with U.S. allies. Saudi King Salman made his first visit to Russia in October, and Putin has worked tirelessly this year to improve relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015.
Just as he begins his campaign for a fourth presidential term, Putin has declared victory over ISIS and started bringing the troops home. But just in case the need arises, he’s not withdrawing his forces completely from Syria.
— Lucian Kim, Moscow
Israel’s right-wing conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now leads alongside his first Republican president in the White House.
And what a bromance it is.
President Trump has sided with Netanyahu in objecting to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has adopted a more tolerant policy toward contentious Israeli settlement construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Trump handed Netanyahu a victory with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Netanyahu also boasts of nurturing better friendships with countries around the world, including discreet ties with Arab countries that have long seen Israel as the enemy.
He’s the country’s second-longest-serving prime minister after founding leader David Ben-Gurion. Time magazine once crowned him King Bibi (Bibi is the Israeli leader’s nickname). But he could be in danger of losing the throne.
Netanyahu is under investigation for suspected corruption, and if police recommend an indictment, he could face pressure to resign. Thousands of Israelis have already taken to the streets to demand he step down.
— Daniel Estrin, Jerusalem
The European Union
In 2016, many in Brussels worried that the European Union might begin to fall apart. First the Brexit vote stunned the world, followed by the election of Donald Trump, an EU critic who had once called Brussels a “hell hole.” There were even fears that anti-EU nationalists Geert Wilder and Marine Le Pen might win elections in the Netherlands and France, creating a populist wave in Europe. But both candidates lost and — despite right-wing gains in Austria and Germany and the ongoing separatist movement in Catalonia — the mood in Brussels today is confident and optimistic. Serious problems, including migration and terrorism, persist, but the remaining EU 27 states appear unified as they prepare for new trade talks with the United Kingdom. If the Brexit vote has served to unify the EU, it has created political disarray in the UK’s ruling Tory party and damaged the country’s economy, which is grappling with rising inflation, a weakened currency and preparations by financial firms to move thousands of jobs to other European countries so they can continue to work seamlessly inside the EU.
— Frank Langfitt, London
Alternative for Germany
Recent national elections in Germany showed that most politicians there have lost the German public’s trust. But not so Alternative for Germany, known by its German initials AfD, a populist party founded in 2013 on a largely anti-euro platform that has since evolved into one that is anti-Islam and anti-refugee. Like other nationalist and right-wing parties across Europe, AfD managed to convince voters that Muslim immigration is hurting their country’s identity, security and economy. Similar fears in Austria led its new chancellor to recently partner with the far-right Freedom Party and assign it key cabinet posts.
In Germany, some top AfD members have called on Germans to be proud of their soldiers’ achievements in both World Wars and one even described the Holocaust Memorial as a monument Germans should be ashamed of. Most Germans reject those calls, but 12.6 percent of them nevertheless voted for AfD in September, sending a right-wing, nationalist party to the German parliament for the first time since 1957.
Many AfD votes came from conservative voters once loyal to Angela Merkel, which has left the powerful chancellor badly weakened and unable to form a new government. Her Christian Democrats and all of the other parties in the new German parliament have pledged to sideline AfD by refusing to partner with it on any issue. But as the third-highest vote-getter in the recent elections, AfD will have a powerful voice, especially if, as expected, it becomes the main opposition party with access to public funds and key parliamentary posts.
— Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Berlin
Emmanuel Macron is said to never sleep. His fans say he shines brilliance on everything he touches. Even critics who call him arrogant admit he’s transforming France and beyond.
Despite being one of Europe’s youngest heads of state (he turned 40 Thursday), the frank-speaking, new French president has impressed world leaders.
Macron had no compunction telling President Vladimir Putin what he thinks of the Kremlin’s “propagandist media,” and he’s earned an almost childlike admiration from President Trump.
Macron believes it’s important to work with Trump in the hope of bringing the American president “back into the fold of nations.”
But many argue Macron’s biggest success in his few short months in office is that of almost single-handedly reversing the flagging fortunes of the European Union.
By staunchly defending and promoting Europe’s core values of democracy, free-trade, human rights and decency, Macron has ended talk of the EU dissolving in the face of resurrected national borders.
Europe is once again the empowering and protective club that nations aspire to be a part of, not leave.
— Eleanor Beardsley, Paris
What a whirlwind end to 2017 for Zimbabwe, after dramatic developments in November. Longtime leader Robert Mugabe, in power for 37 years, was pushed off his perch by the military — and people power. The army top brass backed Emmerson Mnangagwa — the vice president Mugabe fired in favor of his wife, Grace Mugabe, who appeared destined to succeed her husband. Within two weeks, Zimbabwe’s political hierarchy was turned upside down. The freshly energized, yet divided and rivalry-riven, governing ZANU-PF party, that had hitherto answered only to Mugabe, ditched him unceremoniously and is now apparently doing the bidding of Mnangagwa. Nicknamed the Crocodile, for his political savvy and stealth, he was Mugabe’s loyal lieutenant for decades. The question is can Mnangagwa, who still calls Mugabe “my father, my mentor, my leader,” carve his own path? Mnangagwa has promised a new democracy, economic revival and to tackle corruption in Zimbabwe. But who’s really in charge — the puppet or the puppet master; Mnangagwa or the military that propelled him to power?
— Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Dakar
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the military defeat of ISIS in December, after a three-year struggle that had threatened the existence of Iraq as a state. Abadi presided over a reconstituted Iraqi army that collapsed rather than fight ISIS in 2014. But perhaps his biggest achievement has been balancing the influence of Iran and the United States — countries hostile to each other but both key powers in the fight. He has worked to repair ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states that for more than a decade viewed Iraq’s Shiite-led government as illegitimate. His post-ISIS challenges though are considerable. Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitaries, which played a vital role early in the fight, will have to be demobilized. Serious political, financial and security disputes with the Kurdistan region threaten the country’s stability. And Abadi’s promise to combat Iraq’s endemic and deeply entrenched corruption could prove almost as difficult as fighting ISIS.
— Jane Arraf, Cairo