Uncertainty. A common term for describing the future, but 2021 will give it new meaning. The outbreak of the pandemic in 2019 has spread a feeling of vulnerability across the planet. It has changed our daily lives with a speed and intensity that has reminded us of the fragility of what we thought strong and the malleability of what we thought immutable. We are now much more aware of the immediacy and forcefulness with which unexpected changes can take hold. The pandemic has been a powerful reminder of the weaknesses of our warning systems and our lack of preparedness for handling future crises. If COVID-19 has been a kind of examination, collectively we need a rest.
2020 was a year of perplexity. The shock’s intensity and a lack of recent precedents of similar magnitude resulted in confusion, doubt and poor problem-solving capacity. However, 2021 will be a year of action, of individual and collective decisions whose impact will stretch far beyond the year itself. 2021 will be a fork in the road, a critical juncture, a time of risks, but also of opportunities that may or may not be seized. When we reflect in ten years’ time, tracing the origin of the dynamics shaping interpersonal relations and international relations, it is likely that we will look for their origins in the crisis of 2020 and the decisions taken in 2021.
2020 was a year of destruction, but 2021 could be synonymous with construction or reconstruction. Since the virus emerged in Wuhan, many lives and jobs have been lost and trust in certain institutions has dissipated. News stories about treatments and vaccines will raise hopes and could produce signs of recovery sometime in 2021. But will everyone benefit? What should be done with those left out of vaccination programmes, with individuals and territories suffering from crises other than health, and those at risk of falling behind given the accelerated change the pandemic has brought about? The pre-coronavirus world was already deeply unequal, and the decisions made in 2021 will either correct or widen those inequalities on multiple levels.
Many would include the Trump factor in the list of vectors of destruction even beyond 2020, believing his four-year tenure has eroded democracy inside and outside the United States, as well as trust in institutions. Encouraging news about vaccines and their economic repercussions and a different face in the White House will generate excitement but, once again, not for everyone. How will the authoritarian regimes that have counted on the favour of the leader of the US react? Will Trump supporters cause trouble for the new Democratic administration? What if the Biden–Harris duo fails to bring about the changes that both their base and many of their international partners expect of them? Can confidence in multilateralism be regained, and if so, how?.
One question will repeatedly arise in 2021’s multi-level (re)construction exercise: Is a return to the normal possible or even desirable? This question will permeate all manner of debates: on international cooperation and conflict, the United States’ role in the world, the economic recovery, the environment, immigration, the urban agenda, managing unrest, as well as everyday issues like work, mobility and consumption, and the validity and adaptability of the European model to these changes.
1. INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM: COOPERATION OR CONFLICT? — The dysfunctions in global governance have been laid bare by the pandemic: contested international bodies, the tensions triggered by a China looking to assert its place in the world, and a liberal order undermined by those who created it. In 2021, vaccines will be incorporated into these dynamics. Simultaneously, vaccine geopolitics will emerge. Humanitarian crises may also be exacerbated in 2021 by increasingly frequent and devastating natural disasters or by the thawing of conflicts that were frozen in the second half of 2020 in the Caucasus, the Horn of Africa and the Sahara. Accumulating crises will continue to fuel debates over why some countries and societies are better prepared to tackle the pandemic and its effects: authority, cohesion, values? The new administration in the United States will raise hopes of the revitalisation of a multilateralism of variable geometries.
2. BIDEN: RESTORATION OR REORIENTATION? — The Biden–Harris inauguration will be seen as a time of change, of high hopes for some segments of US society, but also of frustration for the over 74 million who voted for more of Donald Trump. Outside and inside the United States, three debates will recur: Is it possible to depolarise the United States? Is Trumpism defeated or rearming? Does the new administration aspire merely to restore the United States as the main power in the system or to change its direction? As part of the “deTrumping” process, we will, for example, see democracy and human rights return as a foreign policy priority. Notwithstanding this desire for restoration, domestic and international factors will favour reorientation. In international affairs, the main driver of reorientation will be China. Biden will defend US interests against China as vigorously as Trump did, but he will much more actively seek alliances to address this challenge in both the transatlantic and Indo-Pacific spheres.
3. ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE: POSTPONEMENT OR ANTICIPATION? — In 2021 we will see how green the first steps of the economic recovery are, what impact the Biden administration’s arrival has, what willingness exists to reach agreements, and how they translate into commitments around November’s COP26 in Glasgow. Will they build on the announcements by powerful economies like China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union of steps to achieve climate or carbon neutrality? Moreover, along with regulation and individual consumption patterns, new technologies, such as hydrogen, will raise hopes in the climate field.
4. RECOVERY: GLOBAL OR PARTIAL? — Despite the soaring stock markets, a return to pre-pandemic activity will be much slower to arrive and will above all be uneven – the big issue of 2021 will be the distribution of wealth and income (in part driven also by widening education gaps). For broad swathes of the economy and society the recovery will be very fragile, weak and even non-existent. Any negative health developments, such as vaccination processes failing or the virus mutating could shatter the hopes that began to build in late 2020. As 2021 begins, economists debate whether the recovery will be V, U or W-shaped, but the new year’s economic outlook is perhaps best illustrated by letter K, given the likely bifurcation of recoveries. The gaps will grow between those with access to credit and those without, and between the different levels of preparedness and adaptability to technological transformation. China will represent one of these different speeds, as its dissociation from the other major international economies continues. Moreover, one of the consequences of the re-emergence of the state’s role in the economy has been higher public debt that future generations – well beyond 2021 – will have to deal with.
5. WAY TO LIFE: BACK TO NORMAL OR NEW NORMAL? — Of the changes brought by COVID-19, the fastest were in the ways we work, travel, consume, relate and even conduct international relations. Will these also be the deepest and longest-lasting changes? To what extent might a new normality condition the international agenda? Diplomacy may be among the first areas to return to normality but in other areas of everyday life, the changes may have been deeper, one of the clearest being remote working. This may encourage networking and the creation of teams based in different cities and even continents, promoting inclusion and diversity. It could also speed up the relocation of some administrative work to places with lower wage costs and, in turn, drive the rise of cloud data storage up the list of key issues for 2021. With the return of some of the lost mobility, the holding (or not) of the Tokyo Olympics, the Dubai Expo 2020 and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will set the tone. That the prospects for the recovery of the badly-hit tourism sector in the first half of 2021 do not seem encouraging leaves some economies and territories that overly depend on tourism (most notably Thailand or Mediterranean countries) in a very delicate situation. We will also see if habit changes in the area of consumption (especially in catering, culture and retail) will become entrenched or will start slowly returning to pre-Covid era.
6. DIGITAL GIANTS: EXPANSION OR EXPOSURE? — Digitalisation is a mega-trend that is hard to reverse and in 2020 it suddenly accelerated. In 2021, giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft will continue to dominate, but the fastest growth will be among their Chinese rivals and new companies that emerge almost from nothing. Digital expansion will continue to lead to greater scrutiny by public opinion and governments. In 2021 the exposure of the digital giants will be reflected in three areas: taxation, competition and sovereignty. As states will need revenues more than ever to cover the social costs of the pandemic and recovery plans, taxing digital services provides an opportunity. In 2021, one point where the Biden and European digital agendas could overlap is the need to limit oligopolistic behaviour. With the trend towards the creation of two spheres of technological influence pivoting around the US and China likely to continue, the EU will respond by deploying its regulatory arsenal (Digital Services Act). By contrast, many countries of the Global South will be increasingly concerned about data colonialism and the viability of the newly-introduced digital yuan.
7. CITIES: MORE LIVEABLE OR MORE UNEQUAL? — In 2021, cities will remain on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic, with extra focus on managing its economic and social effects. The clash between two opposing forces will intensify: on the one hand, recentralisation to handle an emergency situation, and on the other, greater demands for autonomy and resources for decentralised cities and territories to move towards economic and social recovery. With the current urban model strained due to the pandemic, local authorities and social movements will continue to demand more liveable, healthier cities with more sustainable individual and collective mobility. But in 2021, social unrest will grow in cities as the pandemic deepens inequalities.
8. MIGRANTS: PUBLIC HEALTH OR NATIONAL HEALTH? — With internal border closures normalised to control the pandemic, it will be easier to demand the building of walls and the application of exceptional measures to keep borders sealed and to repel arrivals. One of the paradoxes of 2021 is that the societies that will seek security through border closures are those that will also try to attract foreign medical and healthcare staff. But the desire to close borders will face increased migration pressure from countries that have suffered employment loss in sectors like tourism, the overexploitation of natural resources or an accumulation of structural problems or falling remittances. With regard to international migration, 2021 will not differ much from the previous years: mismanagement, short-termism, dehumanisation, sporadic crises, securitisation, erosion of rights and an attempt to move the real border further and further from the official one.
9. DISCOMFORT: INDIVIDUAL OR COLLECTIVE? — Ten years have passed since the Arab and African springs, the indignados in Spain and the Occupy movement in several Western countries. 2021 will be a time to look back and consider the results of these emancipatory protests and what is left of the hope they managed to generate. It will also be a time when the major unrest that spilled onto streets in 2019 from Hong Kong to Latin America via Baghdad, Algiers and Beirut is “unconfined”. In a context of pandemic and mobility restrictions, some may believe that the cycle of protests has ended. But as 2021 progresses we are likely to see that it was merely on pause and any attempts to make permanent the restrictive measures applied during the pandemic will only increase the agitation. It may well be that the pandemic has only aggravated and spread the discord that caused people to take to the streets in 2011 and 2019.
10. EUROPEAN UNION: RECOVERY OR BLOCKAGE? — The European Union has a project for itself and for the international system. The question is whether internal and external conditions in 2021 will favour its promotion. For 15 years the European integration project has faced a string of unprecedented crises and challenges like the UK’s departure. This pattern of continual crisis means debates on whether lessons have been learned from previous crises will continue throughout 2021. It will also be judged on whether it responds ambitiously, generously and promptly not just to the pandemic but to the recovery strategies. The prospects for 2021 for the European construction and the international system clearly converge on one point: the pandemic has exposed weaknesses and contradictions, but it has also been a powerful reminder of high levels of interdependence and the need for cooperation and solidarity. 2021 provides an opportunity that may or may not be seized. Perplexity is no longer an option, and in a year with multiple forks in the road, the intensity of processes of change oblige us to choose a direction.
‚The World in 2021: Ten Issues That Will Shape the International Agenda‘ – Article by Eduard Soler i Lecha – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.