2017: the year we all moved a little further apart

A look back at 2017
A look back at 2017

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A look back at 2017 03:18

Nic Robertson is CNN's diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

The world might be getting smaller, but is the distance between us getting wider?
The year 2017 has felt like a drift toward a less familiar world. Division, at many levels, it seems, is on the rise.
    Democrats versus Republicans; Sunnis versus Shias; militant Islamists versus everyone; Catalans versus the Spanish; Brexiteers versus Remainers; nationalists versus liberals. It feels like we are being asked to pick a side at every turn.
    We didn't arrive here by accident. Political winds -- now aided by an increase in autocratic-style leaders -- have been shifting and shaping discourse all over the planet.
    Amplified by the megaphone of social media, we have long been on this trajectory. But in 2017, the wind really got behind its sails.
    No single thing is to blame. We are living in an age where there are more enablers than ever before. It's not a perfect storm, but an ugly rough patch that we will either sail through or capsize.
    That outcome may come down to us to spot the warning signs and act. If not, the world's growing number of strongman leaders will focus on their own agendas, ignoring the dangerous divisions they are creating.
    Each one of these leaders uses chameleon-like methods: cloaking themselves in the garb of the alienated, offering a saccharine alternative and surfing popular trends.
    There is perhaps nothing new in this: indeed, some would say it is merely politics as usual. Yet this year has felt different.
    New on the scene were US President Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's next-in-line to the throne.
    When Trump landed to a red carpet royal welcome in Riyadh earlier this year, few could have predicted the speed with which the pair have shaken up the already polarized region.
    President Trump is welcomed by Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh.
    Within months of the visit, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had picked a fight with Qatar. The dispute over support for terrorism and Qatar's alleged funding of Islamist parties has been simmering for several years. Yet a symbiosis of shared interests with the US -- namely containing Iran -- sparked division way beyond the region.
    Saudi and its ally the United Arab Emirates demanded that countries outside the region pick a side.
    US support for Saudi Arabia in response to Iran's perceived growing influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has significantly upped the stakes of the Sunni-Shia conflict.
    It's embroiled Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who flew to Saudi Arabia to resign, then later went back to Lebanon to reverse his decision.
    It is a telling sign of bin Salman's growing power that seems sanctioned by Trump.
    US President Donald Trump with Saudi  Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
    Add to that Trump's recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Divisions that had arguably been left on the back burner for too long were brought to an ugly simmer.
    The only way to stop this all boiling over would be a peace plan that Trump has yet to unveil, but is widely believed to have been created with bin Salman.
    Iran, meanwhile, is silently sidling through the region, shoring up its influence and control in Syria and Iraq, adding to bin Salman's visceral fears of an expansionist theocracy that not only throws shade on the regional role he wants for himself, but highlights another of his fears that some of the greatest threats to his own power are getting too close for comfort.
    Such a brew of toxic fears -- now with the added zest of Trump's national US focus -- are corrosive and divisive in the extreme.
    It is not the only region where Trump's desire for populism at home is perhaps unintentionally enabling growing division overseas. But he is far from the only one responsible for the growing space between us.
    Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, has become more confrontational as he speeds to his goal of nuclear-tipped ICBM missiles capable of delivering nuclear mayhem to mainland USA.
    In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan transferred most of Turkey's levers of powers to himself this year -- and is asserting himself more forcefully at home and regionally.
    His prospective membership in the EU is all but toast -- not just by calling for the return of the death penalty (which is outlawed by the EU) -- but over specific European objections, parachuting ministers into the Netherlands, Germany and France for divisive rallies.
    China's leader Xi Jinping has seen his powers and influence grow, orchestrated and authorized through his Communist Party.
    By flexing China's fledgling overseas military muscle beyond its borders, he is stoking tension and fear in Asia. All signals suggest a more assertive China is to come.
    President Xi Jinping President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017.
    And then there is Russia's Vladimir Putin. He has been at it longer than the rest and no longer needs to hide his agenda, having successfully paired it with Russia's national interest. His control of much of the country's media shapes the image to fit his needs.
    His alleged role in Russia's US election meddling is a burning ember heating much division in the US. Even a year after the election, Trump appears yet to accept what many of his experts take as fact.
    Divisions of this magnitude inside the White House are extremely rare.
    Dissent and division are not part of Putin's script at home, but his engagement in Syria -- which is far from done -- has the power to leverage nationalist sentiment in Europe.
    The exodus of so many Syrian refugees seeking better lives in Europe has been a big driver in the resurgence of populist nationalism from Austria to Hungary, from Paris to Berlin, and was a big feature of the Brexit campaign in Britain.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron triumphed over nationalist candidates, but their victories have rung a little hollow since. Not only because nationalists are on the rise, but because these two economic powerhouses of Europe are divided over its future.
    Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in Berlin, on 15 May, the day after Macron was sworn in as President.
    Had nationalism not raised its divisive head, they may have more political room for maneuver.
    The trends that got us here were apparent before 2017. But the ills they portend have begun to metastasize this year.
    Take Brexit, championed for years by populists such as Nigel Farage, whose handiwork galvanized a mostly slumbering electorate out of its political apathy.
    But his work over a number of years not only triggered angry political debate, but awoke tensions across family dining tables and around the televisions of Britain.
    Farage's charismatic populism that in 2016 stoked division in the UK has continued.
    This year, Brexit and the negotiations around it have further divided the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even London have different visions of what the country's relationship with the EU should look like. This division threatens the very Union that Theresa May spoke most passionately about when she took office last year.
    A protester interrupts Theresa May at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester on 4 October 2017.
    While she does not fit the chameleon model -- indeed quite the reverse, a somber, solid, dependable pastor's daughter -- she has been pushing Brexit through and despite her best efforts, exposing the UK's divide with Europe.
    Most major EU nations knew the UK was never a wholehearted EU player. Until Brexit is delivered, divisions around dining tables and between nations risk being raw.
    The planet is not getting any bigger and we are filling it faster and faster every day. Finite resources will ultimately mean finite prosperity.
    The Paris Climate accord, from which Trump so spectacularly withdrew this year, was intended as the first significant global reality check -- an acknowledgment that we need to close down the spaces between us. Find understanding, and commonality, not differences and division.
    Burying heads in the quicksands of populism, nationalism and division won't stop the inevitable decline in prosperity.
    If these chameleon leaders and their policies have seemed remote in the past, 2017 has been a wake-up call about where they are taking us.
    In 2018, if world leaders don't fight back against division, reach out across the aisle, across faith, across colors and orientation, if they don't look beyond nationalism and build bridges instead of burning them, the space between us all will continue to grow.