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5 January 2020updated 15 Jan 2021 10:02am

Ten crucial questions about the world in 2020

The fundamentals that will decide global affairs in the year ahead.

By Jeremy Cliffe

What will the upcoming year bring in world affairs? A presidential election looms in America; the wave of leaderless protests from Chile to Lebanon is rolling on; China’s rising belligerence is being felt on the streets of Hong Kong and in the expanses of cyberspace; regional tensions in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and in east Asia all threaten to escalate into wars; Europe’s future remains uncertain. Will 2020 be known for an explosion of conflict and instability, for a reassertion of norms and order, or for some as-yet unanticipated historical shift?

These matters too are uncertain to make firm forecasts possible, but you can try to identity the critical factor in each case. The below is my stab at doing so: a (non-exhaustive) list of big questions about the year ahead with the factors that will decide them and a prediction of how those crucial factors will turn out. I will return to these predictions at the end of the year to see how well I did.

Update: at the end of 2020, Jeremy returned to his predictions to see how they had fared.

1. Will there be war with Iran?

The issue: At the time of writing America has just killed Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran’s proxy forces across the Middle East, in a drone strike in Baghdad. Tehran has vowed “severe revenge”. This could accelerate the existing spiral of escalation, pulling in players like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and possibly lead to American air strikes on Iran and outright war.

The decisive factor: The Iranian leadership knows war with America would be catastrophic but believes (seemingly correctly, at least until now) that Donald Trump does not want direct conflict. The question is whether the president might blunder into a different position in the heat of the moment. An election is looming and voters do not want war, but Trump is also thin-skinned, volatile and will be desperate to save face if Iran retaliates spectacularly.

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My prediction: Iran will most likely calibrate its response to avoid pushing Trump and American public opinion on to a full war-footing; by targeting American allies and interests rather than directly attacking Americans and by using proxies like Shia militias in Iraq and Hezbollah. More likely than outright American-Iranian war is a proxy war played out the Levant, the Persian Gulf and especially Iraq.

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2. Will Donald Trump be reelected?

The issue: On 3 November Donald Trump will go up against a Democrat challenger in America’s presidential election. His approval ratings are below those of previously reelected presidents like Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton, but as in 2016 he does not necessarily need to win the popular vote to secure victory under the electoral college system.

The decisive factor: Trump’s victory relied on a coalition spanning hardline Republicans, moderate Republicans who accepted his theatrics as the price of tax cuts and white working-class voters who defected from the Democrats over cultural issues. That coalition is fairly robust, so the Democrat candidate’s chance of overturning it relies on his or her ability to build a culturally and, crucially, geographically broader coalition taking in states like Wisconsin and Arizona.

My prediction: With the Trump coalition more consolidated than the fragmented Democrat one, the fundamentals point to reelection for the president.

3. Will global carbon emissions peak?

The issue: Under the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rises above pre-industrial levels to the 1.5 to 2.0 degree range (within which the future impacts of climate change rise from moderate to very high), global greenhouse gas emissions need to plateau this year and start falling next year. That requires a step-change in global efforts, as 2019 saw carbon dioxide levels rise to record levels and at almost the same rate as in the previous year.

The decisive factor: This will largely be decided by policy in three places: China, the United States and the EU. Together these three largest emitters generate about half of the world’s greenhouse gases. The good news: the “Green New Deal” – the notion of a radical ecological re-wiring of the economy – will be a major feature of US and European politics this year and China is sticking to its Paris targets. The bad news: America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will take place over 2020 and, having stabilised for several years, China’s emissions are growing again.

My prediction: With most countries failing to meet their Paris targets and none of the big three (particularly America and China) decarbonising their economies fast enough, emissions will continue to rise in 2020.

4. Will Boris Johnson get an EU trade deal?

The issue: The newly elected prime minister has until the end of June to decide whether to extend the transition period beyond the current deadline of the end of the year. He has pledged not to prolong this “vassalage” but will struggle to negotiate more than a basic trade deal – one most disadvantageous to Britain rather than the EU – with Brussels in that time.

The decisive factor: Any fast deal will probably cover goods (where the EU has a surplus) but not services (where Britain has a surplus). Nor will it cover many matters relating to data, science or security. The question is whether Boris Johnson believes that his 80-seat majority in the Commons is big enough to absorb rebellions when it comes before parliament, whether he believes voters will tolerate the costs of such a deal and whether, on the first of these at least, he is right. 

My prediction: Johnson’s self-confidence and the momentum of his electoral win will allow him to push through a bare-bones deal, sowing the seeds of political crisis in 2021.

5. Will China march into Hong Kong?

The issue: Last year’s Hong Kong protests, sparked by plans to allow extradition to the Chinese mainland, have carried on into 2020 with violent clashes on New Year’s Day. With no resolution in sight and Chinese troops massing at the border, the threat of a military intervention to crush the protests, a second Tiananmen, continues to loom.

The decisive factor: The protesters, boosted by supportive results in district council elections in November, are standing by their demands of universal suffrage, an amnesty for arrested protesters and an independent inquiry into police brutality. So the endgame depends on whether the Chinese leadership’s highest priority is to maintain political, economic and diplomatic stability or to make a example of Hong Kongers to discourage anti-Beijing rebellions elsewhere in its neighbourhood or within mainland China. The former militates for patience, the latter for violent intervention.

My prediction: With Hong Kong due to lapse to full Chinese control in 2047 anyway, Beijing can afford to play the long game, continuing to squeeze Hong Kong and vilify the protesters without a full intervention. With its domestic economy slowing, it needs stability. Only if the unrest in Hong Kong threatens to spill over onto the mainland, which currently looks unlikely, will the Chinese army march in.

6. Will the wave of global protests continue?

The issue: Hong Kong was just one of many places struck by last year’s wave of street protests. Others included Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, France, Spain, Chile and Bolivia. The motives were various but many concerned autocratic or corrupt governments, low living standards or climate change, and most were leaderless movements organised online. Were they a one-off, or part of a longer trend?

The decisive factor: Protests tend to subside when one or more of four conditions are met: grievances are addressed, governments crack down successfully, the means of organisation are curtailed or protest-fatigue sets in. Whether 2019 will be seen as an exception depends on the presence of these factors in the main arenas of protest in 2020.

My prediction: In some cases, like Chile and Lebanon, governments are changing tone or policies in light of protesters’ demands. But even there, protest movements are merely developing into broader more long-term movements. Grievances linger on, most obviously the international intransigence on climate change motivating the Fridays for Future protests. And the opportunities for mobilisation afforded by social media are only growing. Do not expect the protests to go away; instead expect them to evolve.

7. Will the EU become a more serious player?

The issue: Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency of the European Commission gets under way as member states squabble over the next seven-year budget, big challenges like euro-zone reform and migration policy remain parked and relations between Paris and Berlin continue to be at a low ebb. Emmanuel Macron wants to reinvigorate the EU alongside von der Leyen but his proposals, including greater “strategic autonomy” from America and NATO, are divisive. 

The decisive factor: Essentially there are two countervailing forces at work. On the one hand Trump, Brexit, the crisis years and shifting geopolitical circumstances are pushing the EU to become a more serious, hard-nosed actor; Angela Merkel’s big EU-China summit in September will be a case in point. On the other this process is exposing new divisions on things like common defence, emissions reductions, the future shape of the union and the relationship with outside powers. The question is whether the centripetal forces (events, threats and other shifts pushing the union together and forward) exceed the centrifugal ones (differences of outlook and interest pulling it apart and holding it back).

My prediction: On balance the EU is more resilient than it looks. But while it may muddle its way forward in 2020, major advances will only take place in the heat of the next crisis.

8. Will there be conflict between India and Pakistan?

The issue: Tensions between India and Pakistan grew in 2019, with tit-for-tat air strikes and diplomatic sanctions. India has revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state, and further inflamed tensions last month by introducing an anti-Muslim citizenship rule, the latest in Narendra Modi’s increasingly blatant flirtation with Hindu nationalism. Further attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir by Pakistani-linked Jihadis, or another terror attack in India like that in Mumbai in 2008, could easily escalate.

The decisive factor: The region is a tinderbox. Modi and Pakistan’s Imran Khan have ramped up their rhetoric, mass media outlets in both countries are talking up confrontation and both countries face economic problems fuelling political grievances. So the question is whether the mechanisms for deescalation still work. An attempted Modi-Khan reset in 2018 came to little and neither America (distracted) nor China (considered partisan by India) make ideal mediators.

My prediction: Though neither Modi nor Khan want war, the possibility of a runaway escalation between the two nuclear powers is one of the most underpriced global risks of 2020.

9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?

The issue: Lawless and rogue states, inadequate global governance and climate change are three defining features of our age. With them come risks of state collapse and war, cyber-attacks and terrorism, uncontrollable epidemics and refugee crises and environmental catastrophe. 2020 will doubtless see various as-yet-unpredictable instances of many or all of these.

The decisive factor: Most of the world’s states, especially in the complacent West, are less truly sovereign and more interdependent than they believe themselves to be. It is this delusion that causes them to be caught by surprise when an unexpected crisis occurs, as chaos or risk from one part of the world ripples through the global system. The question is not whether this will occur but how resilient states and international organisations are when it does.

My prediction: Given the risks I expect at least one of each of the following categories of cataclysm. First, an extreme climate event hitting part of the West not used to the levels of climate chaos already felt in the global south (the fires raging in Australia are but a foretaste). Second, an instance of violence or other instability in one of the world’s rogue or war-torn zones (most probably North Korea, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Venezuela or eastern Ukraine) causing a crisis in a country far from its own borders. Third, a crisis or calamity specifically caused by a failure of international governance and democracy; that is, by insufficient coordination, information sharing or collective action at the supra-regional or global level.

10. Where will the unexpected good news occur?

The issue: It is customary, in these end-of-year or start-of-year round ups, to nod to how many good things have happened beyond the headlines: poverty rates and infant mortality falling, literacy and immunisation rates rising. But each year also throws up specific causes to rejoice. In September for example Tunisia held what were widely deemed the Arab world’s first TV debates, during its second free election since the Arab Spring. There will be such happy moments in 2020 too.

The decisive factor: China, Latin America and Africa have thrown up plenty of good rising-living-standards stories in recent years. But with authoritarianism on the march in China and Brazil, and Africa’s rise more halting and troubled than some sunny predictions of the past decades suggested, the picture there is more mixed.

My prediction: There will nonetheless be specific and epochally good news from Africa in 2020. It is possible that the Ebola epidemic will be finally vanquished during the year. And Ethiopia goes to the polls in May, with good prospects of victory for the reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed (winner of 2019’s Nobel Peace Prize). That would put Africa’s second most populous country, its future in the balance, on a positive course. Elsewhere this could be a further year of growth for progressive mobilisations, from the Fridays for Future marches to anti-nationalist movements like Italy’s “Sardines” and emerging digital rights campaigns; I predict that these will trigger at least one major, positive change of national government or international policy during 2020.

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran