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29 December 2020updated 01 Jan 2021 10:57am

In January, I made ten predictions for 2020 – how did they turn out?

An end-of-year report card for our international editor’s preview of the year.

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 5 January, I published a preview of 2020 in world affairs. In it, I posed ten crucial questions about the year ahead, described the factors that I thought would decide each and in each case offered a prediction. I concluded with a pledge to return to these at the end of the year to see how well I had done, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Here is that report card.

Also on 5 January, the World Health Organisation issued a warning about a “pneumonia of unknown cause” detected in Wuhan, though reported “no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission”. The first reported cases of the virus now known as Covid-19 were then peripheral compared with the big global story of the moment: two days earlier, a US drone strike had killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top general.

That the first of my crucial questions was “Will there be war with Iran?” and not “Will there be a global pandemic?” speaks to the fears that were swirling in the days immediately afterwards.

The nearest I came to anticipating how the year would actually play out came in question nine, in which I predicted one or more crises in which “chaos or risk from one part of the world ripples through the global system” (citing “uncontrollable epidemics” as one example), tests “how resilient states and international organisations are when it [hits]” and exposes “insufficient coordination, information sharing or collective action at the supra-regional or global level”. I have chalked up that admittedly broad gesture in the direction of subsequent events as more of a hit than a miss.

It was not the only one of the ten that proved to be somewhere between the two; not least as my predictions were sometimes fairly capacious and preceded by discussions qualifying them (all of which can be read in full on the original article).

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To reflect those nuances, I will mark each of the ten on a scale of zero to three: 0/3 for a total miss, 1/3 for a mostly-miss, 2/3 for a mostly-hit and 3/3 for a total hit. Out of a possible 30 points for a clean-sweep of hits, then, how did I do?

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1. Will there be war in Iran?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: This was the most current of my predictions, coming two days after Soleimani’s killing. Iran’s retribution came three days later, on 8 January, with missile attacks on two bases housing US troops in Iraq. But as I predicted, it seemed calibrated; no US service personnel were killed. Tehran later quietly lowered the temperature of its relations with the US and 2020 saw no sequels to the 2019 Iranian attacks on major Saudi oil installations. Iranian proxies previously nurtured by Soleimani – like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon – have continued to sow havoc in the region, but not to a markedly greater extent than before his killing. The year ends with the prospect of the US rejoining the Iran nuclear deal under Joe Biden’s administration. There are still reasons for gloom about the relationship – Tehran’s appalling execution of the exiled journalist Ruhollah Zam earlier in December among them – but the risk of war now looks lower.

Accuracy rating: I was right that war would not come but hedged slightly too much (there was no clear escalation in the proxy war either) and missed the possibility that Tehran would essentially decline to rise to the provocation. 2/3

2. Will Donald Trump be reelected?

My prediction in January:

“With the Trump coalition more consolidated than the fragmented Democrat one, the fundamentals point to reelection for the president.”

What happened: Trump’s chances in the November presidential election looked decent through the spring, as different wings of the Democratic Party slugged it out for the party’s nomination. But two things then changed the calculus. One I could not have predicted: Covid-19. With Trump at best failing to coordinate the nation’s response and at worst actively promoting behaviour that helped spread the virus, the US death toll was the highest in the world by April and remained so. The other I could have predicted but did not: Joe Biden not only won the nomination but also fought a less-bad campaign than many expected; not spectacular, but essentially competent. The combination of the pandemic, Biden’s inoffensiveness and other factors like the Black Lives Matter movement and long-term demographic shifts saw the Democrats defy concerns about low turnout and flip Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania to win 306 electoral college votes to Trump’s 232.

Accuracy rating: My qualification “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” does describe the Biden campaign, but fundamentally I got the big call wrong. 0/3

3. Will global carbon emissions peak?

My prediction in January:

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.”

What happened: The Global Carbon Project estimates that carbon emissions are down 7 per cent in 2020, including a roughly 10 per cent drop in vehicle emissions and a roughly 40 per cent drop in aviation emissions. Industrial activity too fell as economies locked down, shops dropped their shutters and factories ground to a halt. This was, admittedly, an unpredictable one-off event and emissions will almost certainly rise again next year (so whether this marks peak emissions, as I titled this item, remains to be seen) but the fact stands that my prediction of another rise was far off what happened. More than that, 2020 also saw a series of new commitments to decarbonisation by major polluters. The EU increased its carbon reduction target for 2030 from 40 per cent to 55 per cent; China committed to net zero by 2060; South Korea and Japan by 2050; Biden has pledged to commit the US to net zero by 2050 when he takes office (with emissions-free power by 2035). Huge questions remain about the execution of these plans but the fact remains that 2020 has been better than expected for the fight against climate change – albeit at the same time as the realities of climate change become ever more daunting (see question 9).

Accuracy rating: A miss is a miss. 0/3

4. Will Boris Johnson get an EU trade deal?

My prediction in January:

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.”

What happened: Britain declined the option at the end of June to extend its Brexit transition period beyond the end of 2020, setting up a crunch for the end of the year. A final flurry of negotiations produced a deal on 24 December, which for Boris Johnson seems certain to secure parliamentary approval. As I predicted in my discussion of this question, the deal facilitates goods trade (where the EU has a surplus) but less so services trade (where the UK has a surplus). Also as I predicted, it leaves big unresolved questions over data (a “data adequacy” agreement remains to be negotiated), science (it is unclear what sort of access Britain will retain to research programmes like Horizon) and security (how will the country replicate its forfeited role in Europol?). Clinching a deal will surely deliver a short-term political dividend for the UK government, but the unfavourable terms of the country’s exit – if not as bad as those of the feared no-deal outcome – help set the secessionist Scottish National Party up for triumph at the Scottish election in May, one that would surely pave the way to a second independence referendum and potentially the end of the union.

Accuracy rating: My instinct was that the momentum of Johnson’s election triumph in December 2019 would enable him to close a deal on terms far worse than those touted during Britain’s 2016 referendum and get away with it in his party, parliament and much of the British press. 3/3

5. Will China march into Hong Kong?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: The year started with lingering hopes that good results for opposition groups in Hong Kong’s local elections in November 2019 could translate into a new boost for the pro-democracy movement. But the onset of the pandemic made public gatherings difficult, China imposed a National Security Law in June drastically curbing the right to protest or otherwise dissent from the territory’s Beijing-friendly government and in the second half of the year many leading figures of the pro-democracy movement (like Nathan Law, who recently spoke to the New Statesman) quit for more benign jurisdictions – including Taiwan, which saw a renaissance in its international profile in 2020 as it stood firm in the face of Beijing’s threats, all while marshalling an exemplary collective response to Covid-19.

Accuracy rating: I was right that China would not opt to march into Hong Kong, but overestimated its actual need to do so. Through targeted forms of oppression and violence, and its own legal clout, Beijing has managed to break Hong Kong without anything like a full military invasion. 2/3

6. Will the wave of global protests continue?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: The 2019 protests did not prove a one-off. Were it not for the pandemic, their continuation and growth would have been the global story of 2020. In cities all over the world, people marched against ills including autocracy, racism, abuse of power, incompetence, corruption, squalor and stagnation (and imagined ills like the supposed tyranny of common-sense lockdown requirements) in countries including the US, Thailand, Russia, Nigeria, Lebanon, Brazil, India, France, Mali, Mexico, Germany and South Africa. The year saw one movement take off internationally like nothing before: Black Lives Matter (BLM) has shaped debates across the globe, possibly even more so than the international Fridays for Future protests that I cited in January. BLM was also innovative, for example by popularising the practice of flooding hostile hashtags with its own messaging.

Accuracy rating: The protests continued and evolved, as I said they would. 3/3

7. Will the EU become a more serious player?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: The next crisis came sooner expected, just weeks after I committed these lines to the page. Initially the onset of the pandemic looked to be a mortal threat to the European project, with media outlets speculating that it could spell its doom. I stuck to my prediction that the union had an underestimated resilience and, writing in the New Statesman in April, argued that not only would the union survive this test, but it could even grow thanks to it: “Even on the shibboleth of mutualised debt, the union is edging in the right direction… Big structural taboos are being broken, in ways that will change the future of the European project.” In July, the union duly agreed a €750bn recovery plan backed by common debt that had previously been written off as politically impossible. Though there were battles over the details – Poland and Hungary opposed moves to make budget payments dependent on rule of law standards – a workable compromise was found and on 10 December both the plan and the union’s seven-year budget were agreed. Enduring challenges (migration, China, the “health union” now being touted by EU leaders) remain to be tackled, and the union may come to regret beginning its Covid-19 vaccination programmes several weeks later than many other rich economies. But overall the union comes out of 2020 in better shape than most expected, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen strengthened.

Accuracy rating: The union proved resilient. It muddled its way forward and then took a big leap forward in the heat of a crisis. 3/3

8. Will there be conflict between India and Pakistan?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: 2020 was not a good year for India-Pakistan relations. The wounds of 2019, when India revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state, did not go away. In the summer, both countries halved their staffs in their respective high commissions. As I wrote in my discussion, China was not an ideal mediator between the two; more than that, Chinese and Indian troops even exchanged fire in a lethal border clash in the Himalayas in the summer. And yet despite all that, the two countries were largely waylaid by domestic concerns in 2020. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan has come under intense political pressure from domestic opponents, while India’s Narendra Modi presides over a struggling economy and protests (albeit while pressing on with his Hindu nationalist project). 

Accuracy rating: Tensions remain, but the “runaway escalation” did not come. 1/3

9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: As discussed at the top of this piece, the most foresightful part of this item was in the discussion, where I raised the prospect of a systemic crisis like an epidemic exposing the lack of preparation and resilience on the part of international organisations and particularly Western societies. But on the specifics it was also fairly sound. Extreme climate events in 2020 included record-breaking Atlantic hurricanes and unprecedented wildfires in Russia. In France, the teacher Samuel Paty was murdered by a Chechen-born Islamist terrorist, prompting nationwide outrage. And there could have been no greater crisis of “insufficient coordination, information sharing or collective action” than the Covid-19 pandemic.

Accuracy rating: I was right about the spectre of a systemic crisis in which “chaos or risk from one part of the world ripples through the global system” and about a global epidemic possibly being one such instance. But all three “categories of cataclysm” were borne out, so this feels like a hit. 3/3

10. Where will the unexpected good news occur?

My prediction in January:

“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.”

What happened: There was good news in the battle against Ebola: a new outbreak was detected in the Democratic Republic of Congo in June but was defeated by November thanks to improvements in monitoring and treatment networks. In August, the African continent was also declared free of wild polio. And worries that it could be crippled by Covid-19 have fortunately been proven wrong. Yet my optimism about Ethiopia now looks glaringly naive: the country has seen violent regional conflicts culminating in bloody military clashes in the northern region of Tigray, a refugee crisis and international outrage at Abiy.

The global protest wave has indeed continued. Some protests have delivered political change: the BLM movement has produced some police reforms, felled some statues, prompted valuable debates about history and justice, and may even have played some role in the high-turnout defeat of Donald Trump; in August, Lebanon’s government stood down amid protests over the Beirut blast; Poland’s government has delayed implementing a draconian new abortion law; modest protests against Vladimir Putin in Russia coincided with setbacks for his United Russia party at local elections; demonstrations in Mali preceded a change of government, albeit by coup d’état.

Yet when measured against the scale of the year’s protests – spanning the globe from Brazil to India, Hong Kong to Minnesota, and in some countries larger than anything in recent memory – the achievements are frankly modest. Alexander Lukashenko remains president in Belarus; Thai protesters’ demands for constitutional reform remain unmet; the same tarnished leaders are still running Lebanon; the #EndSARS movement against police brutality in Nigeria, despite some early success, has been stalled by arrests and a mass shooting of protestors; arrogant, autocratic misgovernment persists in many of the countries where righteous anger has broken out onto the streets. None of which is to say that these movements are not worthwhile, just that they may need much longer to achieve their goals.

Accuracy rating: My predictions about Africa and protests were at best mixed, that about Ethiopia specifically a total miss and I did not hit on the biggest good-news topic: the step-change in global commitments to emissions reductions. 1/3


All of which gives me a passable but emphatically improvable 18/30 and sets a yardstick by which to measure my ten crucial questions for 2021 in another twelve months. Look out for those, including my assessments of the factors that will decide them and my predictions, on the New Statesman website early in the new year.