Often, hidden beyond the headlines of the day, the tectonic plates are shifting imperceptibly, quietly. These 2017 developments deserve our close attention.
1. China’s artificial intelligence strategy
By now, we’ve all heard of the extraordinary promise — and peril — of artificial intelligence, or 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. World Economic Forum founder 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.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared 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,” its official report begins. Ex-Google chief Eric Schmidt says the United States desperately needs an AI strategy, too. So far, no takers in President Donald Trump’s administration. Watch this space.
2. Post-American trade deals
Within days of sitting in the Oval Office, Trump declared the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership or 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, the president turned up at global conferences in Europe and Asia declaring “America first.” The leader and founder of the rules-based, post-World War II liberal trade order, seemingly wants out.
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. Several TPP members frustrated by Washington are signing on to a China-led trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership 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. 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.
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.
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 fallout of a currency demonetization program that wreaked havoc on the economy and slowed economic growth. Then his tax reform rollout 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. 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.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.