From the rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Winter Olympics in January to December’s frantic news agenda, 2018 has had no shortage of surprises. Below are my key picks for the defining moments of the year.
Elon Musk, Mars, and a roller coaster year for billionaires
On Feb. 6, Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket blasted into space from Florida and sent a cherry-red Tesla roadster hurtling toward Mars. It was a powerful statement about the influence and ambition of a new generation of tech billionaires.
Overall, however, 2018 would be a rough year for the group, and Musk was no exception. By July, he was embroiled in a high-profile spat with a British cave rescue diver over a miniature submarine he had hoped would help rescue 12 boys trapped underground in Thailand, just one of a series of increasingly negative headlines.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – once touted as a potential U.S. presidential candidate – had scarcely a better year, his firm plagued by its own stream of scandals and political headwinds.
Google, whose chief executive Sundar Pichai became the latest tech chief summoned before Congress, faces a mutiny from some workers on multiple topics, including his dealings with the U.S. and Chinese governments. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos faces mounting criticism over working conditions and low tax payments.
Yet none of this looks set to stop tech firms from continuing to radically disrupt the world – indeed, many of their founders appear to believe their mission is to do so. Expect these battles to grow in 2019, particularly if new technology such as artificial intelligence and driverless cars accelerate change.
Trump fires advisers, tightens his grip
One billionaire learning his way around the political system in 2018 was U.S. President Donald Trump. After reports of growing frustration with some of his most senior officials, March saw him fire Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Both had been viewed as moderating influences on Trump, with successors Mike Pompeo and John Bolton perceived as less prone to questioning him. December's departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly leaves Defense Secretary James Mattis the key restraining influence.
Overall, Trump seems increasingly keen to trust his own judgment rather than that of establishment-based gatekeepers or Republican insiders.
POTUS woos Kim and Putin. Elsewhere, diplomacy unravels
In Singapore in June and in Helsinki in July, Trump upset many in his own administration with the warmth of his meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The friendliness of the summits stood in stark contrast to the G7 gathering of Western and Allied leaders in Canada, also in June. There, Trump appeared more isolated than ever before on topics including climate change, protectionism and relations with Russia. The G7 leaders were unable to agree on a communiqué, with the six non-U.S. members making their own statement independent of Washington.
Events at the G7 pointed to a wider malaise in international diplomacy. World leaders at November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea also failed to agree on a communiqué, this time due to divisions between China and the United States and its allies over trade.
Military posturing is also on the rise. Russia, China and NATO each held their largest war games in recent history this summer, while confrontations between jets and warships in the South China Sea and Europe have also increased markedly.
Khashoggi killed as authoritarian states take the gloves off
The world’s authoritarian states appeared at least equally as focused on stifling dissent and opposition. Nowhere was that clearer than in the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and reportedly dismembered in his own country’s consulate building in Istanbul. Like the suspected Russian nerve agent assassination attempt on a former double agent in the UK town of Salisbury the previous year, the killing sparked international outrage and some diplomatic isolation of Riyadh – but little in the way of convincing apology from those believed responsible.
A string of autocratic governments appears increasingly dismissive of human rights, openly taking draconian action against critics and enemies alike. Russia is continuing its ruthless military campaign against remaining rebel enclaves in Syria, and a Saudi-led coalition has persisted in its war in Yemen – at catastrophic cost to civilians, where millions now face starvation.
China is cracking down on its Muslim Uighur minority, with a U.N. report citing estimates Beijing has interned up to one million in “re-education camps.” Such steps suggest authoritarian rulers like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Putin may not feel as secure as they appear – or that they believe such brutal tactics are simply necessary to retain their grip.
G20 meets as Paris burns
November’s G20 gathering in Argentina was perhaps the year’s most successful multilateral gathering, with world leaders managing to agree on a largely bland communiqué on reform of global trade. Trump’s meeting with China’s Xi brought some temporary relief from the two countries’ trade war, even as Ukraine tensions and Mueller’s Russia probe made a Trump-Putin meeting impossible. There was still no shortage of disagreements on show, however – and as the leaders met, riots in Paris were grabbing global headlines.
Almost every Western leader in Argentina returned home to an existential political crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron has since bowed to some of the demands of the “yellow vest” protesters, particularly over fuel tax, but that has not been enough to stem the unrest. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signalled she will shortly leave politics, although she has seen some success in appointing a protégé to lead her party. Trump went back to Washington to face the fallout from former lawyer Michael Cohen’s admission of lying to Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow; British Prime Minister Theresa May has so far failed to find a Brexit deal she can get through Parliament.
Many of these impasses stem from a much wider crisis in Western nations, with rising wealth gaps and often mounting discontent and hardship among the poorest. Solving those issues will be tough – and more disruption feels inevitable through 2019 and beyond.
A Reuters global affairs columnist, Peter Apps is the founder of think tank Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defence, political risk and emerging markets.