The year 2006 may best be remembered as a year when outsize personalities drove events — rather than abstract political forces — although there were, as always, lingering issues that defied resolution. In Pyongyang, supreme leader Kim Jong Il continued his brinkmanship, struggling to keep the world’s attention without earning its enmity. At the beginning of the year, he made a secret trip to China, walking in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, ostensibly studying the economic policies that provided a foundation for China’s staggering growth. Six months later, he ended a six-year moratorium and launched a battery of short- and medium-range missiles; three months after that, he went ahead with the nuclear test that enabled North Korea to claim its membership in the elite club of nuclear-weapons possessing nations.
Mr. Kim’s objective is simple: He wants to keep aid flowing to his impoverished state and threatens instability to the surrounding region if he does not get it. So far, he has succeeded.
Mr. Kim’s doppelganger is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose calls for the destruction of Israel and denial of the Holocaust would be disturbing in any case, but are especially so when the speaker is a head of state and who oversees a program that is suspected to be committed to developing nuclear weapons. Messrs Kim and Ahmadinejad are running interference for each other, gauging international reaction to the other’s provocations and quickly pushing the envelope in defying world opinion. It looks as if they will get away with it.
There is the possibility, though, that they will miscalculate. If they do, it will be because they misjudged the third vital personality of 2006 — U.S. President George W. Bush. Mr. Bush suffered several blows to his self-confidence this year: the quagmire in Iraq is the most visible and festering sore. The repudiation of his policies was demonstrated in the midterm congressional elections in which Democrats reclaimed control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Iraq has drained the energy from the Bush administration, limited its diplomatic options and hampered its foreign policy when dealing with nuclear crises involving North Korea and Iran. Yet Mr. Bush appears committed to “staying the course” and underestimating his resolve could have dire consequences for adversaries and the world.
If those three men cast long global shadows, three others made impressions by leaving the scene. The first was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, felled by a massive stroke. His replacement, Mr. Ehud Olmert, lacked Mr. Sharon’s experience and self-assurance. Those shortcomings were evident when Israel overreacted to Hezbollah provocations and launched a war against the Islamic militant group, which fought to a draw.
In Thailand, rising unease with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra triggered a coup by disgruntled army officers who suspended constitutional rule to “save” the country from the prime minister’s populism. While many Thai intellectuals and members of the middle and upper classes were glad to see Mr. Thaksin go, the coup undermined the respect for law that is the foundation of democracy. It will take time to see whether Thailand has returned to an old order dominated by coups and military leaders or has resumed its democratic ways.
The third personality to depart the political scene is Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. After two terms, Mr. Koizumi kept his promise to retire and handed the reins of government to Mr. Shinzo Abe. Mr. Koizumi leaves a mixed legacy: He helped usher in a new era of activism and self-confidence in Japanese foreign policy, and took relations with the U.S. to new heights. At the same time, he alienated China and South Korea and threatened at times to draw a line through East Asia, forcing regional governments to take sides in the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo. Mr. Abe seized on the opportunity of Mr. Koizumi’s departure to try to begin rebuilding relations with Beijing and Seoul.
The power of the individual personality was evident in another way in 2006: the awarding of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, a pioneer in the practice of microfinancing — extending tiny amounts of money to working poor so that they can pull themselves up from poverty. To date, the bank has lent more than $6 billion with a 99 percent repayment rate. Fifty-eight percent of the women who have borrowed money (nearly all of the bank’s customers) have escaped “poverty.” Mr. Yunus’ work is a reminder that every individual can make a difference.
That message was heard by U.S. businessman Warren Buffet, who announced in June that he would give away more than $30 billion of his personal fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — an unprecedented act of charity.
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