As 2017 comes to a close, the major events of the year will dominate the year-end retrospectives: President Trump’s tumultuous first year in office, European elections from the Netherlands to France to Germany, the dramatic rise of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the body blows dealt to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the on-again off-again trade tensions with China, the shadow of Russia in U.S. politics, the United Kingdom’s tortuous Brexit negotiations and the North Korea nuclear challenge, among others.
However, the events that make headlines are not always the most consequential stories. Often, hidden beyond the headlines of the day, the tectonic plates are shifting imperceptibly, quietly — these deserve our close attention.
Here are my top four ICYMI (in case you missed it) stories of 2017 that were just below the radar, but will have significant consequences for the United States and the world.
1. China’s artificial intelligence strategy
By now, we’ve all heard of the extraordinary promise — and peril — of artificial intelligence (AI). The business world is being transformed by AI and, in the military sphere, industrial-scale robotic killing capacity awaits us. In our personal lives, from virtual assistants to driverless cars, AI is changing how we live, consume, and connect. The Swiss economist and founder of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab put AI at the heart of what he calls the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution, a transformation that he argues “will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” Elon Musk warns that AI advances could lead to World War III and Vladimir Putin has declared that the winner of the AI race will be “ruler of the world.”
Enter China. They quietly declared an AI strategy through the year 2030 that aims for nothing short of global dominance of the industry. “The rapid development of artificial intelligence will profoundly change human social life and the world,” the report with the clunky title, “Notice of the State Council Issuing the New Generation of Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,” begins. Eric Schmidt, the recently departed Executive Chairman of Google’s parent company says the United States desperately needs an AI strategy, too. So far, no takers in the Trump administration. Watch this space.
2. Post-American trade deals
Within days of sitting in the Oval Office, President Trump declared the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, encompassing some 40 percent of the global economy, dead on arrival, leaving longtime allies like Japan, Singapore, and Australia in the lurch. Meanwhile, as U.S. trade negotiators are chipping away at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the President turned up at global conferences in Europe and Asia declaring “America first” and the days of getting “taken advantage of” by others is over. The United States, the leader and founder of the rules-based, post-World War II liberal trade order, seemingly wants out.
Trump’s views notably sparked hand-wringing across the globe, but the hand-wringing changed to hand-shaking as countries from Europe to Asia, Latin America to Africa are going on with trade deals of their own, inaugurating what might be a series of post-American trade deals. Mexico and the European Union are close to launching a new trade deal. Japan and the E.U. are also working on a major deal. Several TPP members frustrated by Washington are signing on to a China-led trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that will account for nearly half the world’s population and a quarter of the global economy. As for the TPP that Trump declared dead, Tokyo is leading an effort to revive it — without the United States.
3. The news of Europe’s death was greatly exaggerated
Brexit and the rise of populist nationalism dominated the headlines out of Europe this year. Three elections — Netherlands, France and Germany — were framed as pivotal turning points for the future of Europe. In all three, the far-right parties gained but could not achieve majorities, and attention was turned back to Europe’s other tragic drama: the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations, a remarkable own goal in slow motion that is difficult to watch for those who admire the island in the North Atlantic.
But something happened amid the election excitement and the Brexit twists and turns: Economic growth returned to Europe. The euro-zone countries are on pace for the fastest growth in a decade with 2.4 percent growth on the year, according to the European Central Bank. The broader European Union is also growing respectably, a far cry from the days of zero or negative growth in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown and the 2010 European debt crisis.
Countries on the verge of implosion a few years ago, like Greece or debt-saddled Portugal have made recoveries ranging from cautious to robust. Not long ago, the talk was of Europe’s moribund economies. Today, the continent’s leaders may feel a bit like Mark Twain when he read his own obituary in the newspaper and replied: “the news of my demise has been greatly exaggerated.”
4. The enduring popularity of Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have had a rough year. In early 2017, he had to deal with the fall out of a currency demonetization program that wreaked havoc on the economy and slowed economic growth. The after-effects lingered throughout the economy for much of the year. Then, in another major economic initiative rolled out with much fanfare, Modi eliminated a series of taxes that inhibited India from becoming a truly common market of 1.3 billion people. While full of long-range potential, the tax reform roll out had more than its fair share of glitches and is still hurting small businesses, the backbone of the economy.
Despite these stumbles, Modi’s popularity ratings remain sky high, and Indians are among the most optimistic about their future in the world, according to polling from Pew Research Center. After years of policy sclerosis, many Indians might simply be pleased to see a prime minister “doing something” to break the logjams to India’s development, willing to countenance short-term loss for long-term gain. Or it might be that Modi is an excellent showman who knows how to touch populist and nationalist nerves. Whatever the case, for his uncanny ability to remain popular while enacting ambitious reforms that could finally unleash India’s true economic potential, Modi should win the emerging world’s person of the year.