That was the case this year in the Middle East, which in 2011 saw the Arab Spring. Egypt, which toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak last year, had a notable moment. "Egyptians choose their leader for first time in 5,000 years," read a headline in The Daily Telegraph of London.
But after elected President Mohamed Morsi claimed sweeping powers and rushed through a vote on a new constitution, tens of thousands of protesters chanted, "Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak's face!"
In Tunisia, President Moncef Marzouki, appearing at a ceremony commemorating the first revolution of the Arab Spring, was greeted by a stone-throwing crowd angry at police brutality. Human Rights Watch accused the Iraqi government of carrying out mass arrests and holding the detainees for months without charges and incommunicado.
The government that took over in Libya after Moammar Gadhafi's removal struggled to assert control over armed militias -- including one that killed the U.S. ambassador. Morocco's king, who responded to the 2011 protests by agreeing to share power, was widely accused of taking it back.
Syria's Bashar al-Assad declined to share power, preferring to carry out a savage war against opposition rebels that left 40,000 dead.
Green shoots were scarce elsewhere as well. The Islamist-dominated government of Turkey, a democracy that belongs to NATO, now imprisons more journalists than any nation on Earth. A 15-year-old Pakistani girl survived being shot in the head by a Taliban assailant for the sin of advocating education for girls.
When it holds elections next year, Pakistan may achieve something new. "No civilian, elected leader in Pakistani history has ever completed a full term in office and then passed power to an elected successor," noted The Economist magazine.
China installed new rulers, making Hu Jintao, The Wall Street Journal noted, "the first Communist Chinese leader to cede all formal powers without bloodshed, purges or political unrest."
Chinese novelist Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and said the government's censorship was no more objectionable than airport security measures. Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, may disagree, since he is serving an 11-year prison term for signing a petition in favor of human rights.
A rare positive development came in Burma, whose government has undertaken major political reforms. After spending most of the past two decades under house arrest, dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to victory in parliamentary elections.
"It's becoming difficult to find things to complain about," remarked an official of a dissident exile group. Barack Obama marked the improvement by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been in power since 1999, won re-election despite runaway inflation and rampant crime. Apparently unable to defeat the cancer for which he has undergone multiple operations, El Comandante designated a preferred successor in case he is not available to serve.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who abetted terrorism, murder and rape in Sierra Leone's civil war, became the first head of state convicted of crimes against humanity by an international court since the Nuremberg trials.
In Senegal, Africa's oldest democracy, President Abdoulaye Wade ran for a third term despite a two-term limit but lost. Mali suffered two military coups. On Thursday, the UN Security Council voted to send African troops to root out al-Qaida forces that have taken over the northern part of the country, but set no timetable.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated in May after police beat protesters with nightsticks and arrested hundreds. His spokesman later expressed regret about the police conduct: "I would have liked them to act more harshly."
The government passed a law to punish unauthorized demonstrations with fines as high as $9,000 per person. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told me that Putin is mounting "the biggest crackdown in Russia since the Soviet era."
In that respect, Putin is acting in the spirit of the times. Climate experts say 2012 will likely be the warmest year ever in the United States. In the global political realm, though, it's been a Big Chill.