The World in 2020: Ten Issues That Will Shape the Global Agenda

Written by | Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

As well as immediate challenges, 2020 will encourage us to think about those in the medium and long term. A new year begins and so does a new decade. We leave 2019 behind with public protests on half of the world’s streets, with the economic crisis so many have warned of still to surface, new examples of Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy at the helm of what remains the leading global power and growing awareness of the climate emergency and gender gap.
So what will the world look like in 2020? Which major challenges will shape the decade that is just beginning? It may be summed up as disoriented, unequal and desynchronised. The world we face is disoriented by a lack of stable reference points: institutions that are failing or contested often prove unable to channel the frustrations of wide swathes of the population, to alleviate their fears and buttress their hopes. This disorientation causes perplexity, or even, an inability to take timely decisions.
This is also an unequal world in more ways than one: inequality exists between countries but above all within societies, between the few that have a lot and the many who have little. There is a huge gender gap, about which awareness and mobilisation levels are rising, but progress is too slow and hampered by the rise of regressive political or social forces. Inequality is also territorial, whether that be within a single city or between the parts of a country that are well connected and those that have been forgotten. The fifth inequality is generational, which is not only material but also one of expectations.
As a result of these inequalities and accelerating technological changes, we will have a world that is out of sync, one that advances at very different speeds. There is global and social desynchronisation. A new form of inequality may even be spoken of between those who are prepared for the acceleration and those who fear being left behind and feel terrified by the absence of a safety net to soften the blow. Like every year, this exercise places the spotlight on ten issues where the global agenda is particularly charged, either for reasons of timetabling – the US elections are the clearest example of this – or due to signs that the forces of change are likely to be stronger or more visible this year.
1. Protests and Responses
The second half of 2019 has been especially intense in terms of citizen protests – from the gilets jaunes to Hong Kong, via the Catalan independence movement, the persistent peaceful marches in Algeria, the anti-sectarian movements in Iraq and Lebanon, the marches for and against Brexit, and the anti-government protests in Guinea and Zimbabwe and all across Latin America. In 2020, we will continue to discuss what unites these protests and where they differ. In terms of differences, in some cases those mobilised seek to change the entire system and the establishment that runs it, while others reflect pre-existing social or territorial divisions. But what comes after the protests? That will be the great question of 2020.

2. The Politicisation of Climate
The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg will continue to make headlines in 2020 but real success for this movement will lie in its depersonalisation and, above all, its ability to jolt consciences, change habits and increase social pressure on companies and governments. In 2020, the Paris Agreement comes into operation. The latest report by the United Nations Environment Programme leaves no room for doubt: it is imperative that in 2020 action against climate change is accelerated. Over the next ten years, the planet’s environmental health will be decided based on whether global warming is mitigated or accelerated. The fight against climate change will produce winners, losers and transition costs and where right-wing populism will come into picture.

3. The UN at 75: Retirement or Reinvention
In 2020, the 75th anniversary of the entry into force of the Charter of the United Nations swill be commemorated. A notable anniversary at a time when multilateralism is being questioned along with what has come to be called the liberal global order, even by those who contributed to building it. Apart from the UN’s future, in 2020, also those of other multilateral frameworks such as the WTO and the G-20 will be discussed. The necessary reform of the UN Security Council clearly shows the degree to which the body is increasingly dysfunctional and obsolete, mainly because its current composition does not reflect the new distribution of world power. This coincides with an acute funding problem, exposing the organisation to its worst liquidity crisis in a decade, with 64 states still failing to make their contributions.

4. A Drifting Economy
The acute sense of economic risk and the related concerns – including the US-China trade war, the economic slowdown in Europe, Brexit and Italian debt, and doubts about emerging economies – has dissipated at the start of 2020. The recurring theme will also continue to be whether the necessary lessons have been drawn from the previous crisis and whether enough tools exist to deal with a new financial or growth crisis. Added to these concerns are others with longer histories: the future of capitalism, the impact of digitalisation and automation on the labour and fiscal sphere and on the increase of all kinds of inequalities, and the dynamics of social precariousness, especially in developed economies.

5. Technology as a New Frontier of Power
2020 will be the year of 5G and the decade begins in which we will see great advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which may radically alter the economic system, security policies and power relations. What is new generates hope but also confusion, especially among those who feel they may figure among the possible losers of this revolution. The frequency with which we speak of digital nationalism, digital sovereignty and technological hegemony is a clear indicator of this. This year, but also beyond, three types of tensions will become even more visible: between states (US-China), between states and corporations (states trying to rein in major tech firms who control date as the most valuable resource), and between digital activists and repressive forces (notably EU’s Digital Services Act to regulate tech giants and platforms).

6. China: Forced to Choose?
China’s re-emergence as a global power divides those who perceive it as a risk from those who see it as an opportunity. The former are concerned about losing relative power and the new dependencies and vassal states. The latter may be attracted by diversifying relations with global powers, many seeing Beijing as a partner, a investor, or an ally. Protests in Hong Kong and the repression of the Uighurs will continue to figure on the international agenda in 2020. In places, most notably Africa and also increasingly Latin America, where China has gained most clout, the debate on the new dependencies in terms of debt, development aid and exports will grow. The EU is the other place divisions are opening up over what China’s empowerment means. Another focus will be the desire and capacity of other Asian powers, particularly India and Japan, to act as counterweights to the rise of China.

7. Elections in the United States
International interest in US presidential elections on 3 November is due mainly to Trump’s outlandish behaviour and his erratic decisions that will remain one of the main sources of global uncertainty and perplexity in 2020. International dimension will enter the electoral campaign if only because a third country, Ukraine, was at the center of Trump’s impeachment inquiry. Other international issues, such as Iran, Syria, Paris Climate Change Agreement, immigration, will once again have a prominent place in these elections. The main international actors, notably China and Russia, are scrutinising Trump’s positions to try and take advantage of the current occupant of the White House’s electoral needs. So, we will increasingly wonder which elements of the evolution of the US position in the international system are structural and which depend on who occupies the White House.

8. A Geopolitical Europe: Anything More Than a Slogan?
2020 will reveal whether the new EU leaders are setting a new course and whether the priorities and the ways of doing politics will change. With Germany at the EU’s helm and with the election looming, this will increase discussion about Merkel’s influence on the European project and the void her departure may leave. In 2020, we will also see whether von der Leyen’s (and Macron’s) geopolitical Europe is more than a slogan or a provocation. Importantly, to develop a geopolitical vision, resources and allies will be needed. Russia and Turkey, the EU’s main neighbours, will continue to act with a geopolitical mindset and their relations with the EU form part of their calculations. In addition to trade and the environment, the other high priority is going to be Africa, though very different ways of approaching cooperation with the continent coexist.

9. Afro-Optimism and Afro-Realism
Africa will continue to attract a lot of interest, not least from Europe, perhaps more than the continent can withstand. This is true above all when this interest is accompanied by geopolitical ambitions that make the continent a preferred space for competition in a global or regional rivalry. In any case, the days of Afro-pessimism have gone and in the decade that now begins the discussion about Africa will oscillate between Afro-optimists and Afro-realists. This will be the case when it comes to development and economic growth, most notably with the mechanisms of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement coming into operation in mid 2020. Dynamic social and political mobilisations – sometimes called African springs – will continue to develop in Algeria, Sudan and elsewhere.

10. Mediterranean: Cooperation and Conflict
While Africa has moved from pessimism to optimism, the Mediterranean has gone in the opposite direction. The Mediterranean will pose a collective challenge, especially for the EU: because of proximity but also because of the approach an EU with renewed leadership may take. Europe’s preeminent position will likely continue to be challenged by Russia and also China. In 2020, the discussion on the Mediterranean will again be captured by immigration and refugees. The Mediterranean will also be the scenario of several conflicts, notably Syria, Libya, Palestine and Lebanon. The Mediterranean encapsulates many of the issues that will shape 2020: the three trends we announced at the beginning – inequalities, dyssyncrony and disorientation – manifest themselves with particular intensity in this region.

‘The World in 2020: Ten Issues That Will Shape the Global Agenda’ – Article by Eduard Soler i Lecha – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Article can be downloaded here

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