AT this time of the year many reports and assessments are published looking at the year ahead, identifying global dynamics and forecasting geopolitical shifts. They usually offer a big picture view of trends as well as global risks.
There is little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic that dominated 2020 will continue to be the overwhelming challenge across the world. Managing its economic fallout will preoccupy and test governments everywhere. Several dynamics are in play at the start of the year — another surge in Covid-19 cases in many countries and rollout of vaccines that offers the promise of eventually ending the pandemic. But mass inoculation will take time while vaccine distribution will be uneven with richer countries having greater access to supplies while poorer states will have to wait.
WHO officials have repeatedly urged that the vaccine be equitably shared. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made similar entreaties saying vaccines should be viewed as a ‘global public good’. Despite such calls to make vaccines available to people everywhere, ‘vaccine nationalism’ will be more in play in 2021. Tom Standage, editor of The Economist’s ‘World in 2021’, named this as the year’s top trend, predicting “fights over vaccines…within and between countries over who should get them and when”.
A striking aspect of the pandemic has been the lack of international solidarity that was needed to deal with the common challenge. While global cooperation is essential to negotiate the pandemic’s economic and social consequences, will the trend continue of countries turning inwards and acting on their own? “Insularity” is posited as the defining feature of 2021 by Geopolitical Futures’ (GPF) annual forecast, with countries “consumed” by their own problems. The annual survey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) describes this trend in a wider sense, as not only anational approach to the pandemic, but also a national impulse in geopolitics. It sees “strategic self-determination” driving more efforts by states to “develop their own strategic identity rather than have this shaped for them by regional or institutional affiliations.”
The year will present both risks & opportunities at a time when global leadership will be in short supply.
This raises the much-debated question about the future of multilateralism at a time of growing multipolarity. The retreat from multilateralism emerged as a dominant trend in the last decade with the rise of hyper nationalism and right-wing populism. Major powers and regional ‘strongmen’ have been pursuing unilateralist policies in defiance of international law, which has eroded a rules-based international order. The advent of the Biden administration in the US has however raised hopes that the trend away from multilateral cooperation will be gradually reversed. President-elect Biden has already declared his intention to rejoin the Paris Climate agreement, return to WHO and re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. 2021 will certainly offer an opportunity to strengthen multilateralism although Stratfor’s 2021 Forecast sees a “constrained return to multilateralism” by Biden.
Most assessments agree that the greatest geopolitical risk of 2021 concerns relations between two global powers, the US and China — the world’s most pivotal relationship with global impact. Some see Biden trying to mend ties with China while others predict intensifying tensions between them. The US-based Atlantic Council says relations could reach a denouement over Taiwan. GPF predicts a freeze in relations. Still others think the relationship will stabilise. It may not be as “overtly confrontational” as it was under President Trump according to the Eurasia Group’s report on Top Risks for 2021. This asserts that “both sides will seek some breathing space”. But it also says that the desire for stability will be offset by other factors to rule out détente. Many assessments suggest an intensification of both trade tensions and the tech war. The Economist report says that fragmentation of the digital world and its supply chain into two parts, “one Chinese-dominated and the other American-led”, will continue. The IISS survey also cites the prospect of “digital spheres of influence.”
Many Western analysts see a fundamental difference between Trump and Biden in engaging allies to pursue the competition with China. The Economist argues that Biden will seek cooperative ties with allies to “more effectively” wage the trade war with Beijing. Most annual reports however failed to anticipate the diplomatic skill and speed with which China has moved to forge deals with US allies — an investment treaty with the EU and a trade deal (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) with 14 Asia-Pacific states. This has begun to limit US options to enlist allies in this regard and has been described as a “strategic win” for China by The Financial Times.
Economic recovery will be the main preoccupation for all countries in 2021. Varied prospects are forecast for a global financial rebound from the impact of the pandemic. There seems agreement that this will be patchy as the virus will take time to contain and continue to induce a deep recession and job losses. Developing countries will face tougher challenges. Despite some debt relief initiatives by richer states, debt liabilities have risen to record levels for them. The World Bank forecasts that millions more will be pushed into extreme poverty. Contraction in growth will greatly inhibit job creation and set back poverty alleviation efforts in developing countries. The overall outlook is for an increase in inequality within and between nations. This obviously has implications for social stability.
The IMF in its outlook says the crisis is likely to leave “deep and unequal scars” with “uncertainty and risks exceptionally high”. Financial market turbulence can be expected to continue for much of 2021. The speed and extent of recovery in countries will depend on several factors especially on how effectively they get the virus under control and effects of their economic stimulus policies. Only China’s economic growth is expected to be robust.
Although many other risks are identified by several annual assessments, the one that finds common emphasis is cyber security. This will continue to loom large as a concern for governments and businesses. The Eurasia report calls 2021 “the year that cyber conflict will create unprecedented technological and geopolitical risk”.
Thus 2021 will present both risks and opportunities but at a time when global leadership will continue to be in short supply.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2021