Annus Horribilis

Annus Horribilis

T.P Sreenivasan

For Queen Elizabeth II, 1992 was an annus horribilis (horrible year). “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis,” she said in November 1992. Kofi Annan, the then United Nations Secretary-General, used the phrase in his year-end press conference on 21 December 2004. He reflected: "There's no doubt that this has been a particularly difficult year, and I am relieved that this annus horribilis is coming to an end." In 2007, the Spanish Royal Family, in particular King Juan Carlos I, faced a difficult year. Family tragedy and a series of controversies led to Spanish newspapers to refer to the year as the king's annus horribilis.

By these criteria, for most of the world, 2018 was an annus horribilis. Though nothing catastrophic happened and no major war broke out, most developments around the globe did not augur well for the world. A tectonic shift in the world situation is in the offing, with no guarantee at all that the world will be better in 2019 than in 2018. The trade war between the US and China marked the beginning of the end of regulated and fair trade. The callous way in which the climate change negotiators handled their agenda in Katowice raises doubts about the future of the planet itself.

Never in history has a democratically elected leader has done so much harm to the world as Donald Trump has done in two years. Short of ordering launching of nuclear missiles, he has done everything to destroy peace and stability. The whole global architecture built by the US itself after the Second World War lies shattered, with the US withdrawing from various bodies and treaties and disavowing globalism and multilateralism.

The Singapore summit between President Trump and President Kim Jong un was the most spectacular peace initiative of the year. It was preceded by much sabre rattling by both sides, but it appeared that Trump had a method in his madness. North Korea ceased nuclear testing and even claimed that some of its nuclear facilities were destroyed even before the summit. The agreement reached in Singapore appeared significant in the sense that both sides agreed to denuclearisation of Korea, though with different interpretations of the concept. By meeting face to face with an American President and being praised by him, Kim Jong un achieved something which his predecessors had failed to do. The cold peace on the Korean Peninsula and the tentative move towards normalisation between the two Koreas was a silver lining of 2018. But an explosion cannot be ruled out on account of mutual accusations of betrayal.

The turmoil in Europe, created partly by Trump, aggravated in the year with grave implications for the future. The refugee crisis triggered many political changes in Europe, including Brexit, which was in shambles at the end of the year. The revolt in the ruling party in Britain threatened Theresa May’s Prime Ministership and raised the possibility of reversing Brexit itself. The “Yellow Vests” in France undermined President Emmanuel Macron, even though he conceded the demands of the protesters. A popular hero became a villain overnight. The revolt raised the question whether democratically elected governments can pursue their agendas simply because it has a majority. Macron’s pro-rich policies became suspect even though his intention was to generate wealth and to protect the environment. The movement spread to neighbouring countries, prompting countries as far as Egypt to ban the sales of yellow vests. The fall of Angela Merkel, though slow and painless, was another sign of the turbulent times.

The most explosive move by Trump was the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the shifting of the US Embassy there. But the relative calm with which the international community reacted to the move showed that disruptive moves in frozen situations could lead to solutions eventually. The changed situation in Saudi Arabia and other countries, which had become more tolerant of Israel left the Palestinians with no option except protests and mobilisation of international support. War was no more an option in the Middle East.

The US reaction, particularly of Trump to the foulest murder in history of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was also a sign of the times. As far as Trump was concerned, after the biggest arms contract signed by Saudi Arabia, brutal crimes and violation of human rights were of no concern. The Davos in the desert moves on even with other countries as oil is considered thicker than blood. With the President’s son in law as his best friend, Mohammed bin Salman has nothing to fear.

Among all the agreements that Trump has pulled out, the most significant are the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on climate change. But a catastrophe was immediately avoided because the other parties to the Iran deal did not follow suit and Iran reacted with uncharacteristic restraint. But, in the long term, the US withdrawal from these agreements will impact international peace and security and the future of the planet. Having undermined NATO, he US cannot rely on its European allies to serve the interests of the US.

The biggest beneficiaries of the Trumpian gymnastics were China’s Xi Jin Ping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who emerged strong and stable during the year. The pressure on China in the Indo-Pacific is much less today, now that the Quadrilateral has receded. China has also found spaces in Europe and elsewhere to put their foot in. Putin has a love and hate relationship with Trump and his capacity to change the fortunes of the US has been established. Though there is no automaticity of support from any of the allies of the three major powers, they can count on support of several countries on an issue by issue basis. Unlike Trump, Xi and Putin do not have to face elections or impeachment in the near future.

India has begun to readjust its foreign policy after the advent of Trump as nobody is certain what his next tweet will proclaim. Trump has not said or done anything against India except to demand reciprocity in trade and to reduce the intake of Indians with H1B visa. In fact, in the case of Iran and Russia, the US has exempted India from the policy of using sanctions to fight political battles.The new symphony that PM Modi promised in the US Congress has not materialised because of the unpredictability of the US leadership. He has, therefore, sought to reset relations with China and Russia through his visits to Wuhan and Sochi. Putin is pleased that he sold the missile defence system to India and China has benefitted from India’s political and economic concessions without insisting on reciprocity. Modi may be seeking to establish some equi-distance from the three big powers to seek a fourth pole in a multipolar world. With his poor performance in the five state elections and the unpredictability of the results of the general elections, Modi is in a desperate hurry to declare success in his assertive diplomacy. He will not be able to do it unless he gets a second term.

Most nations of the world would be glad to see the annus horribilis go and usher in an annus mirabilis. But only a miracle can bring back some semblance of global order from the chaos created in 2018.