10 Questions That Got Answered in 2017

1- What sort of president will Donald Trump be?

Trump has approached his role as president just as he played the role of candidate. He has opened nearly every negotiation — with foreign leaders, US lawmakers, reporters, and everyone else — with aggressive accusations and maximalist demands. He has repackaged modest results and several defeats as historic victories. He has shown that he knows what his most loyal supporters want to hear — and that he doesn’t understand how the US government works. Trump doesn’t change.


2- How much longer will China’s leaders follow Deng Xiaoping’s advice to hide the country’s strength and bide their time?

This turned out to be the most significant change in world politics in 2017. President Xi Jinping used October’s Party Congress to make clear that he is entirely in charge and that Beijing will now play a much more forceful role in the world. He used the phrases “great power” or “strong power” 26 times during a speech at the event. As Trump scales back US leadership ambitions, Xi has offered China as a leader on trade, investment, and the fight against climate change. Expect a more assertive Beijing in 2018 and beyond.

3- Do French voters want President Marine Le Pen?

Merci, non.There was a time when it appeared French voters might follow the trail blazed by Brexit and Trump toward an establishment-rattling protest vote. But of course, the French don’t follow the Anglo-Saxon lead on anything. They still dealt the traditional center-right and center-left parties a smack of historic proportions, but they did it with a fresh-faced, pro-European centrist with big aspirations for France and the EU.

4- Can Theresa May deliver a Brexit breakthrough?

Yes, but as public sausage-making goes, this process has been particularly hideous. UK Prime Minister Theresa May still lives at №10, the Europeans are still talking, and negotiations have advanced from “divorce terms” to future UK-EU relations. But nothing is final until everything is final, and the main lesson we learned this year is that May will step on more mines than she manages to avoid. #SausageMakingInaMinefield

5- Will Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) make his move to become king?

No doubt about that. We’d grown use to a young prince willing to start wars to bolster his resume (see Yemen). But 2017 proved that MbS is ready for all kinds of fights, and the length of his list of enemies (and potential enemies) would shock Michael Corleone. Iran? On notice. Qatar? Isolated. Religious conservatives? Overruled. Saudi royals of doubtful reliability? Detained. He’s not yet king, but he’s clearly in charge.

6- Can Erdogan win Putin-like powers in Turkey?

Yes, he can. In April, Turkey’s president won a narrow victory in a constitutional referendum that significantly extends the powers of his office. To get there, he dialed up his natural charisma, conjured fear of internal plots, stoked Turkey-against-the-West defiance, and probably ordered a bit of ballot-stuffing. He won’t get his new powers until he wins the next election, likely in late 2018. But Erdogan has cleared the highest hurdle on his way to the finish line.

7- Can the African National Congress (ANC) move beyond Jacob Zuma?

Yes, but it won’t be easy. Just this week, delegates at the ruling ANC’s party conference chose Cyril Ramaphosa as their new leader. Zuma remains South Africa’s president. He might even stay on the job through 2018. He certainly won’t go down without a fight. The choice of Ramaphosa brings potential for a change within the ruling party that South Africa badly needs, but Zuma loyalists will fight him every step of the way.

8- Can Brazil’s president survive the year with a single-digit approval rating?

Yes, he can. In fact, his approval rating surged from 3 to 6% just this week. Michel Temer doesn’t have much political future, but he has so far avoided both political oblivion and prison. (In today’s Brazil, that’s not nothing.) For millions of Brazilians, next October’s presidential election can’t get here fast enough.

9- Can I pass off Chuck E. Cheese game tokens as Bitcoin?

This question still lacks a clear answer. Earlier this week, your Signal author became very excited over reports that a man had successfully passed off round metal tokens used in the video game section of a popular pizza restaurant as Bitcoin. That report turned out to be a hoax, and I was inconsolable for several minutes. But the fact that it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it couldn’thappen.

10- Can NYC authorities prove the killer squirrel is dead?

Apparently not. The murderous squirrel that captured international attention in July by attacking people in Prospect Park — less than one mile from my apartment — has not reappeared. City officials say he’s dead, but they have not shown me (or anyone else) a corpse. Stay awake, Brooklyn.

Facebook unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency and payment system on Tuesday. It's called the Libra, and it's not-so-modest goal is to "reinvent money," and "transform the global economy" so that "people everywhere can live better lives." Ambitious much, Zuck?

This is a huge political gamble, but the rewards could be enormous. Here's a quick look at the tradeoffs:

The risks: Facebook is asking its 2.5 billion users — and government regulators — to entrust it with something that's vitally important to people everywhere and a power that governments jealously protect: access to money. And it's doing so at a time when trust in Facebook and other big Silicon Valley companies is at a low ebb.

Whether it's a concern that Big Tech has become too powerful or that it's not doing enough to protect privacy or put a stop to fake news, it's a heck of a time to launch a new techno-utopian project that could give Silicon Valley much more power — including the ability to track not just what people say they like but how they spend their money.

Mark Zuckerberg understands this — the Facebook founder is setting up Libra as a Swiss-based non-profit that will be governed by an "association" of 28 tech and financial companies and non-profits of which Facebook is just one member. He's also promising that Facebook will not mix personal data with payment information, and to cooperate with regulators.

But this will always be Zuckerberg's baby, and by launching Libra, he's painting a big new political bullseye on his own back.

The payoff: If Libra can survive the inevitable political and regulatory storm (and convince its billions of users that they can trust the underlying technology and financial stability of the new cryptocurrency) the upside could be enormous.

How enormous? The Libra website claims that more than 30 percent of the world's population — about 1.7 billion people — currently lack access to traditional bank accounts. Many more pay steep fees to transfer money using traditional payment services. Libra, by contrast, promises access to anyone in the world with a simple smartphone — and to make payments as inexpensive as sending a text message.

Plug those capabilities into a social network whose user base is roughly double the population of the biggest country in the world, and the results could be revolutionary — not just for billions of people who would gain new access to financial resources, but for Facebook's business model, and for central banks and governments that have traditionally sought to control the flow of money through their economies.

That would be a techno-utopian dream come true, but it's a power that governments won't willingly surrender.

If Willis's story on Tuesday about Argentina being plunged into darkness after a nationwide power failure didn't get you packing a flashlight and checking that your car has a full tank of gas, this one should. Over the weekend, the New York Times said anonymous US officials had revealed a US campaign to plant "potentially crippling malware" inside Russia's power grid "at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before."

Quick thoughts:

This is a big provocation. It's the cyber equivalent of mining a harbor — an aggressive move that falls short of actual conflict but sends an unmistakable message: mess with us, and we'll mess you up.

The leak was probably intentional. The campaign fits with the new US strategy, launched under the Trump administration, of trying to deter cyber adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran from hacking its critical infrastructure. By disclosing the US campaign, US officials are effectively telling Russia (and by extension China and Iran), that they've got a loaded gun cocked and pointed at their economies.

That's dangerous. People — and governments — may not always behave rationally when a gun is pointed at their heads. Russia might be even more inclined to lash out. And unlike more conventional forms of conflict, cyber isn't a domain where the US can be sure it has an overwhelming advantage if push comes to shove.

It gets worse. The Times said US cyber officials described a "broad hesitation" to go into details of cyber operations against Russia with President Donald Trump because they feared he might cancel it or tell other governments about it. Among other things that are disturbing about this story, a lack of communication between the President and US cyber warriors could send mixed signals that further embolden US adversaries.

It's no secret that cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace. But where do most of them originate and what countries do they target most? The graphic above shows the most significant offenders and victims since 2006. Hackers in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea account for three-quarters of all major attacks. Nearly a fifth of attacks, meanwhile, have targeted institutions or companies in the United States.

(At least that we know of: this chart highlights known attacks on government agencies, tech companies, and other operations that caused more than $1 million in economic damage. But many cyberattacks are never disclosed, and some countries are more transparent than others, so consider this a cross-section of a much bigger — and more disturbing — picture.)

China's outrage against Swiss bankers – Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS and a former colleague of your Wednesday Signal author, ended up in hot water last week after he wrote that an outbreak of swine fever that had pushed up pork prices in China, "matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world." The Swiss bank put Donovan on leave after a nationalist tabloid picked up the story, unleashing a torrent of invective from angry Chinese citizens, industry groups, and clients. Although we're a bit puzzled at the intensity of the outrage, we're following this story closely. The anger of 1.4 billion people is a powerful thing, and if the US-China standoff over tech and trade continues to escalate, US firms could soon find themselves on the receiving end.

What we are ignoring: Trump on ICE

Trump's Deportation Threats – As Donald Trump revved up his official reelection campaign in Florida on Tuesday, he took to Twitter to vow mass deportations of "millions of illegal aliens" starting next week. We are ignoring this for two reasons: First, it looks more like a campaign trail stunt than a well-thought-out plan — the scale of deportations Trump envisions would require massive logistical coordination, and it's not clear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can deliver it — even if the federal force got help from local police, who may be reluctant to participate in mass arrests in their communities. Second, while this type of rhetoric may play directly to Trump's base, images of crying children torn from their parents will galvanize the president's opponents — and, in particular, the suburban women crucial to his 2016 victory. We're not ignoring the pain and trauma that mass deportations would inflict on immigrant communities if Trump delivers on this threat. We're ignoring a boast that's likely to prove a political bust.