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The moments that defined 2018

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Tech billionaires, authoritarian leaders and trade disputes shaped the year's political and economic landscape

From the rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Winter Olympics in January to December's frantic news agenda, 2018 has had no shortage of surprises. Below are my key picks for the defining moments of the year.

Elon Musk, Mars, and a roller coaster year for billionaires

On Feb 6, Mr Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket blasted into space from Florida and sent a cherry-red Tesla roadster hurtling toward Mars. It was a powerful statement about the influence and ambition of a new generation of tech billionaires.

Overall, however, 2018 would be a rough year for the group, and Mr Musk was no exception. By July, he was embroiled in a high-profile spat with a British cave rescue diver over a miniature submarine he had hoped would help rescue 12 boys trapped underground in Thailand, just one of a series of increasingly negative headlines.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had scarcely a better year, his firm plagued by its own stream of scandals and political headwinds.

Google, whose chief executive Sundar Pichai became the latest tech chief summoned before Congress, faces a mutiny from some workers on multiple topics, including his dealings with the US and Chinese governments. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos faces mounting criticism over working conditions and low tax payments.

Yet none of this looks set to stop tech firms from continuing to radically disrupt the world. Expect these battles to grow in 2019, particularly if new technology such as artificial intelligence and driverless cars accelerate change.

Trump woos Kim and Putinbut diplomacy unravels

In Singapore in June and in Helsinki in July, Mr Trump upset many in his own administration with the warmth of his meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The friendliness of the summits stood in stark contrast to the G7 gathering of Western and Allied leaders in Canada, also in June. There, Mr Trump appeared more isolated than ever before on topics including climate change, protectionism and relations with Russia.

The G7 leaders were unable to agree on a communiqué, with the six non-US members making their own statement independent of Washington.

Events at the G7 pointed to a wider malaise in diplomacy. World leaders at November's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea also failed to agree on a communiqué, this time due to divisions between China and the US and its allies over trade.

Military posturing is also on the rise. Russia, China and Nato each held their largest wargames in recent history this summer, while confrontations between jets and warships in the South China Sea and Europe have also increased markedly.

Khashoggi killed as authoritarian states take gloves off

The world's authoritarian states appeared at least equally as focused on stifling dissent and opposition. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and reportedly dismembered in his country's consulate building in Istanbul.

The killing sparked international outrage and some diplomatic isolation of Riyadh - but little in the way of convincing apology from those believed responsible.

A string of autocratic governments appear increasingly dismissive of human rights, openly taking draconian action against critics and enemies alike. Russia is continuing its ruthless military campaign against rebel enclaves in Syria, and a Saudi-led coalition has persisted in its war in Yemen, where millions now face starvation.

China is cracking down on its Muslim Uighur minority, with a UN report citing estimates Beijing has interned up to one million in "reeducation camps". Such steps suggest authoritarian rulers like China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Putin may not feel as secure as they appear - or that they believe such brutal tactics are simply necessary to retain their grip.

G20 meets as Paris burns

November's G20 gathering in Argentina was perhaps the year's most successful multilateral gathering, with world leaders managing to agree on a largely bland communiqué on reform of global trade.

There was still no shortage of disagreements on show, however - and as the leaders met, riots in Paris were grabbing global headlines.

Almost every Western leader in Argentina returned home to an existential political crisis.

Many of these impasses stem from a much wider crisis in Western nations, with rising wealth gaps and often mounting discontent and hardship among the poorest. Solving those issues will be tough - and more disruption feels inevitable through 2019 and beyond. - REUTERS

The writer is Reuters global affairs columnist

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