The Thickest Review of 2018: An Overview

Numbering 100 printed pages, at about 50,000 words, the thickest review of 2018 is about to be published here in four parts over the next few days. A year in the making, and more than just a chronicle, this work is based on a wide range of very different sources, including official documents, with a consistent dose of source criticism. The total number of sources is nearly 1,700. The review covers the period from January 1 to December 20, 2018, with some periods of interruption due to other research commitments (meaning that some topics would not be covered as much as others).

The purpose of the review, despite the apparent thickness, was quite precise: the idea was based on the assumption that events since Trump’s election in 2016 would begin to unleash disparate forces that would collide in striking ways in 2018. This year had to be a focal year for Trump: the next two would increasingly be occupied by a domestic re-election campaign, and save for part of 2019 it would be the primary year for Trump to achieve any of his more substantive goals. The assumption was proven correct as 2018 arguably turned into the most important year for international relations since the ascent of nationalist movements in Europe and the US in 2016.

The focus of the review, despite the length of the publication, is also fairly narrow: the geopolitical impact of US foreign policy and the transformation of international relations away from a unipolar world. Significant in all this was also what was changing at home, in the US, and thus at the end of each month there is a list of key articles that deal with domestic conflict and division, primarily around identity politics and the culture wars, as well as articles that deal with the decline of imperial unipolarity.

Given how the purpose and focus were defined, Donald Trump inevitably stands out as one of the central actors in this review, but without indulging in hagiography. There is no doubt his words and actions dominated international media coverage throughout the year, as millions around the world continue to be fascinated, amused, or horrified, each to a degree not seen with any US president in generations. The other key actors in the international arena that drove many of the developments making headlines were Xi Jinping (China), Kim Jong-un (North Korea), and Vladimir Putin (Russia). Not as prominent but still significant in terms of regional changes, were Viktor Orban (Hungary) and Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines). Latin American politics continued to produce stunning outcomes, with the two giants—Mexico and Brazil—electing a leftist populist (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) and a right-wing populist (Jair Bolsonaro) respectively. Arguably generating the least impact were assemblies that were previously prominent affairs in international relations, such as the G7 meeting and the World Economic Forum at Davos. Even NATO gatherings of heads of state/government have become displays of disaffection, and the July meeting was especially tense.

Some Highlights of 2018

We thus follow Trump as he opens the year by allegedly referring to African and Caribbean nations as “shit holes,” and accompany him to Davos on his first major foreign trip of the year. At Davos, during his meeting with Israel’s Netanyahu, Trump decided to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, even targeting Palestinian refugees. Later we followed Trump as he visited Quebec for the acrimonious G7 summit, then Singapore for the summit with North Korea, and later the explosive NATO meeting in Brussels and Trump’s visit to the UK, followed by the Helsinki summit with Russia, and later in the year trips to France and then Argentina for the G20.

Russia and China both made significant military and economic advances, and strengthened their coordination. For his part Trump acted on threats of a trade war with China, expanded into a trade war with almost all of the US’ allies. Trump could only produce the weakest of overtures to Russia given domestic pressures arising from the orchestration of Russiagate hysteria and conspiracy theories, popular with the media and the opposition. In fact, Trump dramatically escalated and expanded sanctions against Russia, to an extent never seen even during the first Cold War.

We then saw the Trump administration react, at first with great hostility, as the two Koreas (backed by China) made dramatic diplomatic moves toward peace—on striking display at the Winter Olympics in February. Trump had publicly humiliated Rex Tillerson for “wasting time” speaking to North Korea, only to then fire him, then insult him, and then turn around and court North Korea’s Kim Jong-un with some exceptionally flattering statements. This was not the only whiplash-inducing twist and turn on the part of Trump: after making a speech vowing to withdraw US forces from Syria, he rapidly turned around and bombed Syria, and promised what sounded like permanent war, and permanent occupation—until he sounded like he was reversing himself, yet again, near the end of the year. The US’ “longest war,” in Afghanistan, also became the focus of criticisms—even in conservative publications—with several key military and foreign policy officials arguing for a US withdrawal. In some ways Trump seemed stuck, in others he appeared to be unpredictable and dynamic, as did his competitors overseas.

As usual in situations of heightened international conflict, major sporting events became major political events—this was true in the cases of both the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and the World Cup of Football in Russia.

Trump’s trade war went global, with the US imposing general steel and aluminum tariffs on a wide range of trading partners. In the process, Mexico and Canada felt enough pressure to concede to replacing NAFTA with the new USMCA, which has yet to be ratified in either the US or Canada. Trump, who in 2017 declared himself both a nationalist and a globalist, dropped the globalist label altogether in 2018. This was reflected in some of the notable White House firings and resignations: gone were Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, H.R. Mcmaster, Jeff Sessions, John Kelly, Nikki Haley, and then James Mattis at the end of the year. Gone were thus some of the stalwarts of neoliberal imperialism in the Trump administration.

In the context of this review the most memorable aspects of 2018 and perhaps its most important were, in no particular order:

  • Cold War II
  • Russiagate conspiracy theories and their impact on US foreign policy
  • The Skripal Affair
  • The Trade War
  • The Kim–Trump Summit in Singapore
  • The Putin–Trump Summit in Helsinki
  • The termination of the Iran nuclear agreement
  • The US bombing of Syria
  • The rupture between Turkey and the US
  • Increased divisions in NATO
  • Tensions between the US and Canada
  • The “Migrant Caravan” from Central America at the US border
  • The “Yellow Vests” in France
  • The fallout of the Khashoggi murder for US–Saudi relations
  • Spotlights on censorship by US Internet corporations, particularly Twitter, Facebook, and Google
  • Journalists’ production of “fake news” to promote regime change

To What Ends? Three Outcomes

What appears as the result of this swirl of events and contradictions? First is that regional actors are increasingly taking the initiative in mastering their own affairs, independent of the US. The neoliberal establishment’s fears of a “new world order” in decline were thus justified. Funerals for John McCain and George H.W. Bush were thus turned by the media, and the old establishment, into sanctimonious salutes for virtual saints or popes of all that was deemed true, pure, and holy. (Even Canada’s own CBC, at the service of the ruling Liberal Party, offered nearly uninterrupted coverage of these events as if they should hold a special, very dear meaning for Canadians.) Second, with the year ending with the eruption of massive nationwide protests in France by the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests), provoked by carbon pricing that deepened austerity and once again passed the costs of social transformation to workers—another major change was in the offing: neoliberal “climate change” policies, like immigration/refugee policies, were guaranteed no safe passage in a changing world “order”. Implausibly divorced from considerations of environmental damage were discussions of the increased potential for nuclear war—though arguably unlikely, the prospects for nuclear war are still dramatically less unlikely than they have ever been since the Cold War. Thus the third possible outcome was that trade wars, sanctions, military buildups, and broken international agreements might fuse together to produce a dramatic escalation in 2019. Those with the least ability to resist US plans, could be targeted first (as usual): thus one of the things we must all look out for then are the prospects of a new war in 2019, with those at greatest risk being Iran and Venezuela. On the other hand, thus far Trump shows no signs of wanting to be yet another president who starts a new war—in fact, he has shown the opposite tendency. As for the Trump presidency, its political fortunes will be increasingly (not solely) determined by developments overseas, primarily the economic consequences of the trade war with China, and the failure to achieve anything resembling the “total denuclearization” of North Korea. One mistake however would be to underestimate Trump’s ability to manoeuvre, the way his critics have done to their own disadvantage.

Some Memorable Statements from 2018

“What worries me most, however, is the fact that the rules-based international order is being challenged. Quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor: the US”.—Donald Tusk

“Looking at latest decisions of @realDonaldTrump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies. But frankly, EU should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm”.—Donald Tusk

“The biggest danger to the national security of the United States is the president of the United States, who is single-handedly, before our eyes, blowing up the international architecture that the United States has relied upon for our own security for 70 years”.—Ben Rhodes

“We’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathizers. How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad”.—Barack Obama. And here is where Obama actually stood: refusing to support a UN declaration against the glorification of Nazis.

“Sometimes our friends, when it comes to trade, are treating us worse than the enemies”—Donald Trump

“I would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics”.—Donald Trump

“[Peter Thiel] is pure symbol: less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future”.—Mark O’Connell

The Top 5 Essays of the Year on Zero Anthropology

This was the year that we deleted the accounts for Zero Anthropology in Twitter and Facebook, in response to active censorship on the part of both that negatively affected our distribution. In spite of this, and by other means, our articles continued to generate interest with readers. The top five of this year’s 31 articles, in terms of the number of readers were:

  1. Deactivism: The Pleasures of Life without Social Media
  2. The Helsinki Summit: Trying to Turn the Page on the New Cold War
  3. This Does Not Represent the Views of the University
  4. What Happened to the American Empire?
  5. Privilege: White, American, or Imperial?

For 2019, Zero Anthropology will continue to concentrate on what became key offerings of this site in 2018: in-depth reviews of documentary films, books, and soon to be added, reviews of special issues of select journals.

The Thickest Review in Four Parts

The four parts of the review are listed below. Each item will be hyperlinked once an instalment has been published online.

  1. Unloading the American Empire (January–March)
  2. Dealing in Danger and Diplomacy (April–June)
  3. The Trade War plus Cold War II (July–September)
  4. Nationalism, Deglobalization, plus the US exit from Syria (October–December)