Five events that shaped 2012

While the Western world preoccupies itself with a shift towards Asia, it's striking how movements in Europe and the Middle East still dominate.

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Everybody agrees that economic and political power is moving east. Barack Obama has constructed a whole new foreign policy around this theory – the "pivot to Asia”. But, as I assemble my annual list of the five most important events of the year, it is striking how events in Europe and the Middle East still dominate.

During 2012, "old Europe” seemed to hold the fate of the world economy in its unsteady hands. The fear that the euro crisis could go critical was a constant theme. By the summer, some leading politicians and financiers were in a state of near panic. The man who took the steam out of the crisis was Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank. If the euro crisis spirals out of control again, then Draghi’s promise to do "whatever it takes” to save the euro, coupled with a later pledge of potentially "unlimited” bond purchases, may yet turn out to be footnotes in history. But, for the moment, the Draghi intervention definitely qualifies as one of the five most important events of the year.

Events two and three – the war in Syria and the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – demonstrate why the Middle East continues to soak up the time, energy and anxiety of world leaders. The Syrian civil war has claimed some 40,000 lives. The US, however, remains apparently steadfast in its determination not to be sucked into another conflict in the region.

What follows the Assad regime remains a mystery. By contrast, the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt in June is the single most significant pointer yet to the direction of the region. Morsi’s victory, and the strong presence of the ultra-fundamentalist Salafists in the Egyptian parliament, is testimony to the growing power of political Islam. The fact that Morsi has just managed to get his controversial new constitution through a referendum suggests that Egyptian (and Arab) liberalism will continue to be on the retreat next year.

This was a year of leadership transitions in four of the five largest economies in the world. The US and France held presidential elections. Japan returned the Liberal Democrats to power, with Shinzo Abe as the new prime minister. And China appointed a new general secretary of the Communist party.

If Xi Jinping turns out to be a transformational leader, then his arrival at the apex of Chinese power would certainly rank as one of the key events of 2012. But, for the moment, it is too soon to tell.

As for Franois Hollande, who won the French presidency, he seems unlikely to be a transformational figure. And no new Japanese leader for the past 20 years has been capable of shaking the country out of its economic torpor.

As a result, the only one of the big elections to make my list of the five most significant events of the year is the US presidential poll, which was also the only one that, formally speaking, changed nothing. The re-election of President Obama represents continuity. But the world would feel very different if we were sitting around waiting for the inauguration of Mitt Romney.

Many China-watchers would argue that the downfall of Bo Xilai, the charismatic governor of Chongqing, should be on the list. But by the time of the Communist party congress in November, order had been restored at the top of Chinese politics – at least on the surface.

By contrast, China’s relations with the outside world are more disorderly than for many years. The fact that China and Japan are indulging in military shadow boxing over the ownership of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea is a frightening pointer to the future – all the more so since America has made it clear that the islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty. So the fifth and final event to make my list for 2012 is the dispute between China and Japan.

Several other events did not quite make my list but were a big part of the story of the year. Superstorm Sandy battered New York and may have helped to turn the presidential election. At a time when US politicians had almost given up talking about climate change, it forced the subject back on to the agenda. The massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook may do the same for gun control.

On a personal level, the most memorable political conversation I had this year was an evening chat in Beijing with a group of Chinese intellectuals who were passionately divided over whether liberal democracy could work in their country. The most interesting trip was into the villages of Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state with a population larger than Brazil. The most inspiring single meeting was with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose role in transforming Myanmar was one of the stories of the year.

The most striking event I witnessed was a massive anti-Putin march in Moscow, its exuberance undimmed by the subfreezing, January temperatures.

Watching Romney and Marine Le Pen speak live also offered contrasting pointers in the art of rhetoric. I don’t think I have ever seen a big political address that was as disastrously wooden as Romney’s acceptance speech to the Republican convention. By contrast, Le Pen showed that the art of rabble-rousing demagoguery is alive and well in France. Her smoker’s voice – calling for national revival – was memorable. Fortunately, her electoral performance was more forgettable.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.