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20 December 2021

In January, I made ten predictions for 2021 – how did they turn out?

Our international editor’s end-of-year report card.

By Jeremy Cliffe

At the start of 2020 I identified ten big questions about the world in the year to come, and offered predictions for each. At the end of that year, I returned to them to assess how accurate the predictions had been on a scale of zero to three. I scored a total of 18/30. In January this year I did the same for 2021, with ten questions and accompanying predictions for the year ahead in global affairs.

Now, with 2021 drawing to a close, it is time to repeat the grading exercise. Did my annual look-ahead perform better or worse than in 2020?

1. Will vaccines bring a return to normality?

My prediction in January: “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.”

What happened: In retrospect, it is hard to believe that this was even in question 12 months ago. Yes, 2022 has brought vaccinations, especially for the rich world. But some 45 per cent of the world has not yet been vaccinated; overwhelmingly so in poorer countries. That, the spread of the Omicron variant, and the looming threat from further new variants betoken a virus that remains far from beaten. A vaccine covering all variants is not expected until 2023.

Score: 3/3 – Entirely correct, sadly.

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

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My prediction in January: “Disputes over the pandemic, technology and East and South Asian security (especially over Taiwan) will deteriorate further… but underlying differences… between various major democracies will set limits on their cooperative efforts to contain Beijing.”

What happened: The year ends with the US and some allies pledging a diplomatic boycott of the February 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, growing concerns in the West about China’s designs on Taiwan and its military technology, and few signs of de-escalation in the trade war. The Aukus submarines deal between the US, Australia and the UK spoke of a collaborative West, but was unnecessarily inflammatory towards France, while Biden’s vision of an alliance of democracies remains vague.

Score: 2/3 – Mostly correct, with one point deducted for overstating the Trump-Biden continuity on China (Trump would not have cooperated with China at Cop26).

3. Will the Cop26 climate change summit succeed?

My prediction in January: “[There] 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°C goal within reach.”

What happened: Despite some progress on coal and fossil fuel subsidies, Cop26 was not the turning point that some (including me) thought it might be. Going into the summit, Climate Action Tracker forecasted temperature rises on current trends of 2.7°C, a level that would bring humanitarian and ecological catastrophe. Early assessment of the summit’s conclusions put the current trajectory at 2.4°C, a disappointingly modest improvement given the lack of time remaining. In his concluding comments Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, described the goal of 1.5°C within which the most disastrous outcomes would be avoided as “alive… but its pulse is weak”.

Score: 0/3 – The summit was much closer to a failure than to a success.

4. Will the US leave Afghanistan?

My prediction in January: “Withdrawal from Afghanistan commands cross-partisan support… So it would take a lot to push [Biden’s] administration off that course.”

What happened: As with prediction 1, here it is almost hard to believe that this was really in question at the start of 2021. Biden announced full troop withdrawal in April, without anticipating the speed at which the Taliban would take over the country. Scenes of panic and violence amid the fall of Kabul in late August evoked the fall of Saigon 46 years earlier. This humiliation for America, and its poorly informed and supported allies, emboldened anti-Western forces the world over. Now Afghanistan is sliding into a humanitarian crisis.

Score: 2/3 – I was right about the withdrawal but underestimated its speed, completeness and disastrous handling.

5. Will Ethiopia avert humanitarian disaster?

My prediction in January: “If [the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed] cannot rediscover his skill for reconciliation, a runaway internal and regional conflict could follow, bringing with it a humanitarian nightmare for Ethiopia’s people.”

What happened: The Abiy government’s war with Tigrayan rebels has come at vast humanitarian cost: there are now over four million refugees in Ethiopia, and around half a million Tigrayans face famine. Abiy, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, has interned tens of thousands of Tigrayans in government-held territory, and thoroughly wrecked his international reputation in the process. International observers warn of a possible looming genocide.

Score: 3/3 – A tragically safe prediction.

6. Will cracks in the EU widen?

My prediction in January: “[For the EU] 2021 will in many ways be a more difficult year than 2020.”

What happened: The past year brought the difficult task of implementing the bold recovery fund agreed by the union in 2020. Geopolitics – the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the rogue regime in Belarus, transatlantic relations – was also a point of division. Splits between Poland and Brussels are especially worrying. Yet elsewhere, there have been signs of resilience: for example, pro-European tilts in the leaderships of Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And the EU’s slow vaccine rollout early in the year did not become the existential crisis some predicted.

Score: 2/3 – Mostly correct (and my bonus prediction that the German Greens would join the new federal government was right).

7. Will the global protest movement grow?

My prediction in January: “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.”

What happened: It was, as I indicated in January, a year of protests – especially in mid-income countries, as working- and middle-class voters aggrieved by stagnant or falling living standards, heavy-handed or autocratic leaders and mishandling of the pandemic took to the streets. Russians protested the arrest of Alexei Navalny in early spring. Turks demonstrated against the downward spiral of their country’s economy. Protests also returned in Brazil, Algeria and South Africa. In a particularly troubled Latin America, elections in Peru, Chile and Honduras saw outsider political movements reshape governments.

Score: 3/3 – Correct, though again a relatively safe prediction in the first place.

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

My prediction in January: “Shifting balances of power, such as those awaiting the Middle East in 2021, are often the source of new conflicts.”

What happened: New conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas in the summer, shattering Trumpian claims of a newly conciliatory Middle East. But oil-price rises driven by the gradual global reopening defied my suggestion of a crisis of low prices in major Opec states (though instability persisted, for example in Iraq’s turbulent elections in October and the subsequent assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi last month). And while the US pivot away from western Asia towards the Indo-Pacific did cause instability, as I had predicted, this took place in Afghanistan rather than the Middle East. As the year ends, it is Iran, and the failure of nuclear talks, that looks most alarming.

Score: 1/3 – Turbulence caused by a changing balance of power was not the major story.

9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?

My prediction in January: “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… 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.”

What happened: The year 2021 did indeed bring authoritarian power grabs (like the coup in Myanmar in February), further mutations of Covid-19, and natural disasters driven by climate change (sandstorms in China, a heatwave in Canada, flooding in Germany, megafires across southern Europe, drought in Chile, flooding in South Sudan). What I might have foreseen in advance, but did not, was how quickly the Biden presidency would become mired in problems – the outlook for American democracy is gloomier now than it was in January.

Score: 2/3 – More hits than misses.

10. Where will the unexpected good news occur?

My prediction in January: “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… 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.”

What happened: While the efforts to distribute Covid-19 vaccines have been welcome and heartening, overall they have fallen short of what a genuinely multilateralist system could have delivered. Cop26 was a disappointment. And Ukraine ends the year with Russian troops massing on its border and a real possibility of invasion. Bright spots included a German election campaign that produced a broadly promising new government, Lithuania’s plucky willingness to stand up to Russian and Chinese bullies, and China’s commitment to stop funding coal power internationally. But of a year of protests driving real progressive change, there was only patchy evidence.

Score: 1/3 – More misses than hits.

All of which gives me a grand total of 19/30. One better than last year! But I am struck that my three direct hits (predictions one, five and seven) were all relatively safe predictions at the time. So perhaps for the 2022 predictions, I need either to make them more specific or raise the bar for success.

We will be discussing these predictions, and 2021 in review, on the next episode of the World Review podcast, out 23 December. Also, look out for my (and Emily Tamkin’s) predictions for global affairs in 2022, which we will be publishing on the New Statesman website in the final week of this year.

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