Although 2020 proved that some developments just cannot be foreseen, certain voices are better placed than most to predict the likely direction of the year ahead. We asked 10 experts in international and geopolitical affairs to stick their necks out and tell us which way the world will turn in 2021.
Uncertainty and instability will characterise 2021: our multilateral structures will face severe challenges in responding to international peace and security matters. Shared geopolitical spaces that lack robust security co-ordination mechanisms – such as the Red Sea, eastern Mediterranean, Sahel, South China Sea and the Arctic – will face serious political and military competition.
However, major breakthroughs could be driven by external factors: climate change, social pressures, economic shifts or the retrenchment of democratic systems. My hope is that clear, stable and representative leadership, combined with a strong global convening authority, can still emerge in time to steer the next generation in a positive direction.
China will become a market leader in low-carbon technology. Unlike the US, it recognises the opportunity that stems from climate change and will dominate the market for solar, batteries and hydrogen in a way that nobody else can. China’s pledge for its co2 emissions to peak in 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060 was a sign.
I’d hope that China could use its capacity to build renewables as part of its development practice, instead of dumping its excess fossil-fuel capacity on other countries. The Belt and Road Initiative is a disaster in this regard; a way of keeping industries going that have exhausted their market at home. China could be a renewable soft power – but that’s a hope rather than an expectation.
As 2021 starts to unfold, coronavirus vaccines and therapeutic drugs will be developed. China and most advanced economies will begin offering them to their citizens, although they will not be widely available across the rest of world. The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, after being postponed for a year, will finally get underway in something of a hybrid manner. These events will set a new standard for the world’s most popular sports festivals, with athletes competing in Japan and the audience watching them virtually, symbolically demonstrating that humankind can overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With the erosion of multilateral approaches to global challenges, conflicts will intensify in the Middle East, along with calls for governance systems that recognise differences, be they geographic, ethnic or sectarian. This will usher great instability, particularly in less cohesive states. Meanwhile, as the dislocation generated by economic and political instability intensifies, authoritarianism is rising and people are being asked to choose between stability and freedoms. As Lebanon teeters on the brink of an economic and political abyss, the ripple effects of its collapse will be felt far beyond its borders. The only silver lining is the admirable resolve of its people and other like-minded citizens across the region to maintain their struggle for a better future.
There are two partners in the transatlantic relationship; more than two if you count the individual European countries. The relationship will not return to a status quo ante. There has been a lot of water under the bridge over the past four years: there are questions and scepticism on the European side but the US administration will also be asking its European partners to contribute more. There will be continued pressure on Europeans to spend more on defence and to co-operate with the US across a host of areas where the policies are not necessarily common. So the future of this relationship does depend on the US administration. But it also depends on our European partners – what they see as the future and what they’re willing to invest in that relationship going forward.
In 2021 most Latin American countries will hopefully be in a position to better integrate their economies – both regionally and globally. This will depend on the success of their own fiscal policies as well as on efforts to resist protectionist pressures at home. In particular, those economies relying on the production and exports of natural resources must invest more in their infrastructure, health and education if they want to provide more and better jobs, and become more competitive. With that, the foreseeable future should offer a new opportunity for Latin America’s market-oriented economies to develop sustainably.
Globalisation is not going to stop but it will have to be governed in such a way that the independence and cohesion of the European nations is ensured. Responsible capitalism must be at the heart of the reconstruction of the EU. The year ahead will require a new deal between every EU member state and its companies, with the notion of responsibility at its core. In 2019, France approved a law that pushed the country’s corporations to define their social and environmental objectives, as well as their raison d’être. This initiative serves as a clear illustration of the kind of legal framework that Europe should put in place to help accompany its firms in their transformation.
Three countries in this region will continue to face significant economic and political challenges: Zambia is defaulting on its debt; Mozambique has an insurgency spreading in the north; and Zimbabwe’s political crisis will continue as the government clamps down on the opposition. This means that South Africa will have to deal with more migrant flows, which will further stress the economic and social fractures in its society and give fuel to the xenophobia that is never far from the surface. So the region, which has generally been more stable than other parts of Africa, will face greater instability in 2021.
The Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] region will continue to serve as “ground zero” in the conflict between China and the US. Although the China-US trade war has benefited some Asean countries, any further deterioration of Sino-US ties, if left unmanaged, will harm the region and undermine its centrality in Asian regionalism in the long run. The US administration is unlikely to improve things given the bipartisan promises to “get tough” with China. With Xi Jinping seeking to further consolidate his rule ahead of the Communist Party leadership contest in 2022, pressure on the Asean states to choose sides is likely to intensify.
When it comes to coronavirus we need to have strategies in place that enable us to live with it because there’s a very large population of people who will remain unvaccinated. Younger people in particular will be impacted in many more ways than just economic – delays to their education will affect them through the rest of their lives. And we know that the best determinant of a person’s health in the long term is their wealth: if you have more money in your pocket you make healthier lifestyle choices, you lead a better life and therefore you will live longer. People are being invited to see this virus through the lens of six months – and no one can blame them – when actually what is happening has massive long-term implications and impact.