Sun, Dec 31, 2017 - Page 7 News List

A year of tough-guy leaders and foolish brinkmanship

In the year that ends today, the US ceded influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Trump proved soft on China and Western strategies in the Middle East proved ineffective, the Guardian’s foreign affairs columnist says

By Simon Tisdall  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

It was the year of the hard man — the tough-guy leader with a ruthless streak and a big ego. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a role model for the genre, strengthened his harsh grip on domestic politics while intensifying Russia’s digital “war of influence” with the West.

In Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) attained a kind of immortality when his unoriginal thoughts were enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) constitution. In Washington, US President Donald Trump enacted a charlatan parody of the US presidency, blending power and ignorance to an alarming degree.

The heavy mob attracted a cohort of emulators and imitators — “little big men,” such as inexperienced North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and homicidal Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Choleric Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan worked assiduously to dismantle his country’s secular democratic tradition, using last year’s failed coup as a pretext. Saudi Arabia’s uncrowned leader and ostensible reformer, the youthful Prince Mohammad bin Salman, made a series of clumsy regional power plays.

The corollary to the rise of the hard man was a sense of debilitating weakness among Western democracies and of a crumbling postwar international strategic and legal order. The rising power of one-party China, spreading authoritarianism in general and divisive, populist and nationalistic regressions within Europe highlighted the dilemma.

The West’s difficulties were compounded by uncertainty over how to handle Trump and navigate a disorientating new era of weakening US global leadership.


North Korea emerged as the year’s most dangerous international security problem. Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles in defiance of the UN and its neighbors is not a new phenomenon. What changed this year was the juxtaposition, in opposing corners, of two volatile, foolish and inexperienced leaders: Kim and Trump.

Aware of Trump’s campaign threats to topple his regime, Kim — in power since the death of his father in 2011 — appeared determined to test the new US president’s mettle. A series of missile test launches, some close to Japan, was followed in September by a first underground test of a powerful hydrogen bomb.

Since then North Korea has threatened another nuclear detonation — this time in the atmosphere over the Pacific, possibly near the US territory of Guam. Pyongyang has said it can strike any part of the US — something Washington had vowed to prevent.

Trump’s response was contradictory from the start. He held out the prospect of talks with Pyongyang and even a personal meeting with Kim, and criticized Japan and South Korea for not doing enough to defend themselves.

At other times, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, derided Kim as “little rocket man” and a “sick puppy” and scolded US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for wasting time by pursuing diplomatic solutions. Not to be outdone, North Korea dubbed Trump an “aging lunatic” and “senile dotard.”

During an Asian tour, Trump pledged solidarity with South Korea and Japan, where Hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won reelection in October partly because of worries about North Korea. But the thrust of Trump’s approach — inducing China, North Korea’s only influential ally, to pressure Kim to disarm — brought mixed results.

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