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Ten crucial questions about the world in 2021

Our international editor indentifies important global trends in the year ahead – and makes some predictions.

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Last January I published ten questions about the world in 2020 and made predictions for each. On 29 December I returned to those predictions, marking their accuracy on a scale of zero to three and awarding myself a final score of 18 out of a possible 30. Now I am returning to repeat the exercise. What are the big questions looming over global affairs in 2021, and how might they play out?

Like last year’s effort, this list is non-exhaustive. It also offers reflections on the factors bearing on each question and makes forecasts (with varying degrees of specificity) about what might happen, to be returned to at the end of the year.

For more on the world in 2021, listen to the latest episode of the New Statesman’s World Review podcast in which Emily Tamkin, Ido Vock and I discuss several of the below predictions and others. And read Emily’s predictions for 2021 here.

1. Will vaccines bring a return to normality?

The issue: It is hoped the rollout of vaccines will make 2021 the year life returns to normal; the year in which lockdowns are lifted for good, travel opens up again, economies pick up and the world gets returns to where it was at the end of 2019 and advances from that point.

The decisive factor: The question of how we return to normality turns not just on vaccine production but also on distribution; how new variants of Covid-19 develop; how effectively economies can be restarted and whether what emerges afterwards really looks like the old “normality” anyway. One reasonable test will be the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, now due to start on 23 July this year. Billed as global normality’s comeback show, whether and how the games go ahead will be a measure of how far the world has improved by the summer.

My prediction: In the rich world, logistical and political problems will make for slower-than-hoped shifts to herd immunity. When “normality” returns it will often be different, as new patterns of work, technology and travel forged during lockdowns live on in reopened societies. In mid- and low-income countries, vaccination programmes will stretch far into 2022 or even 2023 and the economic fallout of the pandemic will prove much more severe than in rich countries. By the end of the year, talk of “back to normal” will seem misplaced and the pandemic will still be the biggest topic in global affairs.

2. Will relations between China and major democracies deteriorate further?

The issue: The suspected origin of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, as well as China’s aggressive diplomacy, its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its belligerence towards Taiwan and other neighbours and its growing relative strength (helped by its effective response to the pandemic) have all heightened tensions between the country and the world’s major democracies in recent months.

The decisive factor: Differences in tone notwithstanding, China policy will broadly be an area of continuity between Donald Trump’s outgoing administration and Joe Biden’s. The year will be marked by various initiatives to tighten cooperation among China-sceptic allies and partners of the US. Biden is proposing a “summit of democracies”; the UK is pointedly inviting India, South Korea and Australia to join its G7 summit to found a new “D10” of democracies; France and Germany are pushing their “Alliance for Multilateralism”. But though the schemes sound harmonious, they belie major tensions between the democracies that constitute them, of which US-EU discord about the EU’s new investment agreement with China is just one example.

My prediction: Disputes over the pandemic, technology and East and South Asian security (especially over Taiwan) will deteriorate further, driving cooperation between China-sceptic powers, particularly in the Indo-Pacific arena. But underlying differences – motivated by hard-nosed calculations about national interests – between various major democracies will set limits on their cooperative efforts to contain Beijing.

3. Will the COP26 climate change summit succeed?

The issue: Postponed from 2020, the COP26 summit in Glasgow from 1 November will be the most significant international climate gathering since the Paris summit of 2015. Countries will review progress towards the Paris Agreement’s goals and, it is hoped, will make new commitments to bend the trajectory of global temperature rises closer to 1.5 to 2 degrees, within which some more cataclysmic outcomes of the climate crisis can be contained.

The decisive factor: Last year, the hottest on record, saw the EU, China, South Korea, Japan and Canada make new commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, and China, notably, also pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Under Biden, the US will join them. What COP26 will need to deliver, as countries set their new five-year reduction goals, are the details and resources setting that on track. One reasonable yardstick will be where its agreements put annual carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Current unconditional commitments would see these rise slightly over the decade to 56.1 gigatons equivalent, far higher than the 22.9-to-41.9 gigaton range consistent with the 1.5-to-2 degree goal. The more the summit is able to close the gap, the more it deserves to be considered a success.

My prediction: In the build-up to the summit we will see an unprecedented global mobilisation of environmentalist civil society movements, further extreme climate events illustrating the urgency of the issue, a welcome new competitiveness between major emitters and ongoing economic and behavioural shifts driven by the Covid-19 pandemic. All these factors are reasons to be optimistic that the Glasgow summit will reduce the gap enough to put the upper limit of the 1.5-to-2 degree goal within reach.

4. Will the US leave Afghanistan?

The issue: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, the longest of America’s “forever wars”. Under an agreement with the Taliban last February, the Trump administration has reduced the US troop presence there from about 12,000 to some 2,500 (from a peak of over 100,000), with all forces due to be withdrawn by May this year. But violence has been rising as the Taliban strains the bounds of the agreement, and the Afghan government is struggling. Progress in the second round of talks in Qatar is slow. 

The decisive factor: The withdrawal decision falls to the Biden administration. The incoming president has promised to end his country’s “forever wars” and in the past has been a relatively sceptical voice about continued US involvement (opposing the surge in 2009). Reversing troop reductions would be politically and operationally difficult. But completing the withdrawal without a sustainable peace deal risks leaving a power vacuum that would benefit the Taliban. And staying in the territory with a small presence risks exposing the remaining US troops to Taliban retribution over the missed deadline, without much leverage with which to bring the Taliban to the table. There are no good options.

My prediction: Withdrawal from Afghanistan commands cross-partisan support, from “America First” Trump-ites to the Democratic left, and chimes with Biden’s personal sympathies. So it would take a lot to push his administration off that course. Short extensions to the talks, a small lingering US special forces presence, extensive non-military support for the Afghan government and incentives for its regional neighbours to support stabilisation efforts could all help finesse the deal while ensuring all regular US troops are gone by the latter part of the year.

[See also: World Review podcast: what happened in Washington – and 2021 predictions]

5. Will Ethiopia avert humanitarian disaster?

The issue: The coming year will be grim for the world’s poor, as low-income economies suffer the economic fallout of the pandemic, unemployment and hunger rise, international conflicts and proxy conflicts rage on, environmental crises grow more severe and global vaccine supplies flow disproportionately to the rich world. Countries struck by multiple crises at once will be at particular risk of humanitarian disaster. Among those is a country that, until recently, seemed to be on a positive track: Ethiopia.

The decisive factor: Africa’s second most-populous country is at the intersection of several such crises. War between the central government in Addis Ababa and the ruling party in the northern region of Tigray is escalating and aid organisations reckon on 2 million internal refugees. The conflict could destabilise the rest of Ethiopia’s wider ethnic federal settlement and spill over into neighbouring countries: Eritrea is already involved, an Ethiopian crisis could strengthen jihadist al-Shabab militants in Somalia and tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan are rising over a border dispute, refugees and Ethiopia’s new mega dam on the Blue Nile. Collapsing economic growth and the worst locust outbreak in decades already saw the number of Ethiopians in humanitarian need rise from 7 million to 16.5 million over the past year.

My prediction: The risk of Yugoslavia-style violent break-up has loomed over Ethiopia since long before the current crisis. Abiy Ahmed, its prime minister, won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his moves to open up the country, make peace with Eritrea and de-escalate conflicts elsewhere in the region. In past months, his authoritarian response to the Tigray crisis has wrecked that reputation. If he cannot rediscover his skill for reconciliation, a runaway internal and regional conflict could follow, bringing with it a humanitarian nightmare for Ethiopia’s people.

6. Will cracks in the EU widen?

The issue: In 2020, the EU agreed a large pandemic recovery fund supported by common debt, agreed a long-term budget, overcame internal divisions and sealed a favourable Brexit trade deal with the UK. The coming year will again put the union’s cohesiveness to the test.

The decisive factor: The two biggest challenges facing the EU this year are Covid-19 vaccinations, which is where member states have pooled their procurement efforts, and the implementation of the recovery fund. Digital regulation, EU-wide taxation, sharing the costs of decarbonisation and Europe’s geopolitical future will also be big topics.

My prediction: Without improvement, the EU’s slow start to the vaccination rollout will dent citizens’ faith in the union and could even spark political crisis. So too could disagreements about the efficiency and efficacy of the recovery fund. Instability in the union’s near abroad risks exposing divisions and leaving Brussels looking ineffectual (bubbling tensions with Turkey are a particular concern). With Angela Merkel stepping down, Europe will lose its most experienced and powerful compromise broker. German elections in September and looming French elections in 2022 could distract the EU’s two leading states, rendering them inward looking. The EU’s fundamental resilience should not be underestimated, but 2021 will in many ways be a more difficult year than 2020.

(Bonus prediction: the new German federal government will include the pro-European Greens.)

7. Will the global protest movement grow?

The issue: The wave of protests that began in 2019 and continued through 2020 took hold in a diverse range of countries around the world, from the US to Thailand, Belarus to Brazil. But many of these protests concentrated on similar or related issues. Declining living standards, ineffective or autocratic governments, Covid-19 responses and institutional racism brought demonstrators out to streets around the world. What will 2021 bring?

The decisive factor: With the above grievances unresolved and the means of protest ever more widespread, it is safe to say the coming year will see more such mobilisations. But one factor will become more prominent this year and could shape their development: the economic fallout of the Covid-19 shutdowns may well be most severe and prolonged in mid- and low-income states with limited fiscal resources, welfare safety nets and slow access to vaccines. The ideal conditions for protests will be found in mid-income countries with large urban middle classes and authoritarian or incompetent governments; there, the governments may attempt to subdue demonstrations with oppressive crackdowns, nationalistic bombast at home and adventurism abroad.

My prediction: Protests will continue in a range of countries and could be especially prominent in places such as Turkey, India, Russia, Iran, the Philippines, Algeria and South Africa. Latin America, in particular, will be interesting to follow. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is advancing an authoritarian restoration, and a wave of elections – presidential elections in Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Chile, legislative elections in Mexico, Argentina and El Salvador – over the course of the year will provide focal points for discontent and, in many places, opportunities for anti-establishment politicians.

[See also: World Review podcast: what happened in Washington - and 2021 predictions]

8. Will the Middle East be stabilised or destabilised by the year’s shifts?

The issue: A new US president, the ongoing normalisation of relations between Israel and some Arab states, the global shift away from fossil fuels, simmering rivalries between the Gulf states and a growing Chinese presence point to a year of shifting balances of power in the Middle East. But will these shifts produce greater stability or greater instability?

The decisive factor: Where the Trump administration sought to build up an anti-Iran alliance of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration will take a tougher line towards those traditional US allies and rejoin the deal. Improved relations between Israel and some Arab states, and lately between feuding Gulf states, also hint at reduced tensions in 2021. Tightened belts among oil producers might mean less cash to throw at foreign adventurism, proxy conflicts and mutual meddling. However, economic stress could lead to domestic political ructions that spill into international relations. The long-term US pivot away from the Middle East towards the Pacific could create gaps other powers will seek to fill. And alliance-based conflicts in Middle Eastern politics will not subside simply because Washington is less set on stoking them.

My prediction: Though the notes of reconciliation are promising, it would be naive to ignore the lesson of history: shifting balances of power, such as those awaiting the Middle East in 2021, are often the source of new conflicts.

9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?

The issue: I qualified my predictions last year by noting that predictable aspects of world events can always be entirely overturned and overshadowed by unexpected ones and ventured that at least one such crisis of the international system would strike in 2020. It did. The same point applies this year.

The decisive factor: The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic should only make us warier of the risks latent in complex and interdependent global networks, particularly when the international structures tasked with overseeing and protecting those networks lack adequate information, power or reach. Governments and civil society movements can strengthen those structures to help prevent disasters from striking in the first place, but they are also well advised to build up resilience ready for when they do. 

My prediction: Specific “known unknown” concerns in 2021 include humanitarian and security crises caused by the secondary effects of the pandemic, autocratic power-grabs under the cover of lockdowns, crippling cyber-attacks, violent insurgency by Trump loyalists in the US and a stock market crash (perhaps caused by a debt crisis or a loss of confidence in supposedly pandemic-proof stocks). But, most of all, the last year should make us aware of “anthropocene” risk; of the blowback from humanity’s impact on nature. Any pessimistic look ahead must include the possibilities of further mutations of Covid-19, of the “next pandemic” and, of course, of natural disasters caused or exacerbated by climate change.

10. Where will the unexpected good news occur?

The issue: Good news stories do not always get the attention they deserve, especially when up against as gloomy an international picture as we're currently looking at. That applies as much in 2021 as it did in 2020.

The decisive factor: In past years, good news has often come from broad-based improvements in human development far from the news cameras: reductions in child mortality, rising literacy rates, falls in hunger. The economic disruption of the pandemic has stalled or reversed many of those good news stories. But just as the bad news can come from the vulnerabilities of interdependent global systems, so the good news in challenging times can arise from instances of individuals or societies mastering those vulnerabilities.

My prediction: “Known unknown” possibilities include an unexpectedly successful COP26 summit paving the way to sustainably lower emissions, and a big multilateral push to speed up Covid-19 vaccine distribution to poorer countries. Other bright spots might include Ukraine and Greece, which are both tentatively overcoming recent crises and now have grounds for optimism about the impact of a Biden administration. Elsewhere, I still draw hope from the unfinished business of global protests calling for democracy and social, economic and racial justice; in 2021, several, at least, will deliver major positive changes in government or policy. The growth of digitally enabled civil society movements in sub-Saharan Africa, such as End Sars in Nigeria, Y’en a Marre in Senegal and Shut It All Down in Namibia is a related trend to watch and might, with any luck, provide some much-needed good news in 2021. 

[See also: Emily Tamkin's 7 predictions for the world in 2021]

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

He co-hosts the weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.