World on edge in 2017, say envoys

The world in 2017 is an uncertain place with heightened anxieties,paralysed into inaction by the shocks of 2016, diplomats concluded in the Embassy End-of-Year survey.

Although not markedly worse off, many envoys felt problems inherited from last year had been left to fester. “There is no favourable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go,” noted one diplomat.

The most common words used to the describe 2017 were “uncertain”, “regressive”, “ineffectual”, “challenging” and “a minor annus horribilus”.

Lack of leadership
A lack of leadership was a common complaint with one diplomat saying: “The world is still being run by opportunists without wider vision and real responsibility for global issues.”

US President Trump’s volatile foreign policy and provocations by North Korea’s Kim Jong UN were raising anxiety levels, as was escalating Sunni-Shia rivalry in the Middle East, the fallout between Qatar and the other Gulf nations, continued instability in North Africa and the “painfully slow progress” in the Brexit negotiations.

Some diplomats were concerned by climate change – such as the catastrophic hurricanes as well as devastating fires. “After making headway with the Paris Climate Accord, the US pulls out,” said one envoy.

Trumpeting Trump
The global event that had the most impact in 2017, according to the majority of the respondents, was President Trump taking office. His unpredictable tweets kept everyone on edge with one envoy describing his diplomatic style as “an elephant in a glass store”.

Neighbouring Canada, meanwhile, was redefining its role, with its Strong, Stable and Engaged defence policy.

Middle East muddle
With the crisis in Yemen, and tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations, the Middle East was worse off. Trump’s intervention on the status of Jerusalem had not been helpful. Turkey’s emboldened Erdogan after the constitutional referendum added another “strong man” to a volatile mix. But diplomats did point out that the defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria was a glimmer of good news.

Reasons to be cheerful
The Europeans have got their mojo back with all EU envoys responding that their region was “better off” in 2017.

President Macron’s election in France was the most significant event, turning the tide on populism, as was the welcome upturn in the Eurozone’s southern periphery.

But Europe is not out of the woods, warned one diplomat: “Those polarising groups have made advances in the recent elections of some countries.”

In the Balkans, ICTY trials came to a dramatic conclusion but some are still in denial, noted one diplomat. “The roots of the ideas are still present in the country… Hopefully, verdicts should bring more justice.”

Ups and downs
Asia has had “high notes and low notes” said one Asian diplomat. North Korea’s nuclear tests were a source of anxiety as was the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar but on the other hand, ASEAN celebrated its 50th anniversary and is a more “economically resilient” region. China’s assertive Xi Jinping was “one to watch” said a diplomat.

Some good, some bad
It’s been a mixed year for Africa: the ousting of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe was seen as a positive sign, but ongoing violence in the DRC was a worry.

It was a so-so year for Latin America with the return of the centre-right in elections in Peru, Chile and Argentina, but there was “too much provocation” in the region said one envoy.

Weak and unstable
Britain is worse off at the end of 2017 – there were shocking terrorist attacks and the Grenfell tragedy, which revealed painful truths about British society, but some of the problems were self-inflicted, said diplomats.

Prime Minister May’s gamble of the snap election failed. A hung parliament left the government “weakened, unstable and divided” with tensions with devolved administrations.

“This made Brexit negotiations more difficult than they already were. I believe some quarters call it ‘shooting themselves in the foot’?” said one envoy.

One embassy worker worried about the “lack of vision” over Brexit. “Economic data is already showing what might be a slow decline. The UK will survive but is likely to be akin to a car travelling on a deflated tyre.”

But non-EU diplomats felt Britain would “find its way” because it has strong fundamentals. “The UK may be better off in the long term. The idea of the EU is good, but is not always a winning recipe.”

It’s been a testing, “chaotic” year for diplomats, with little progress in unresolved problems. Yet, some felt that skilful diplomacy had contained highly volatile situations and 2018 promised more of the same.

As one envoy concluded: “Diplomats will not be on the endangered species list just yet!”