Two thousand twenty had its fair share of big news stories. The same will be true of 2021. Some of those stories no doubt will surprise. Few experts a year ago were warning of an impending pandemic. Maybe a year from now everyone will be talking about cascading debt defaults in emerging market economies or a mass terrorist attack that surpasses September 11. Or maybe not. As Yogi Berra apparently didn’t say, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” But a fair number of significant world events are ones we know are coming—call them the “known knowns.” Here are five known stories to follow closely in 2021. Any one of them could turn into the dominant news event of the year—or fade away. We’ll know in twelve months which will sizzle and which will fizzle.
COVID Continues. The novel coronavirus turned the world upside down in 2020. As the year closed, the death toll worldwide had topped 1.7 million, any economic recovery was “likely to be long, uneven and highly uncertain,” and experts and laypeople alike were wondering whether life will ever return to a pre-pandemic normal. The good news is that two highly effective vaccines have been approved for use, with more on the way. But distributing the vaccines widely, efficiently, and equitably will take many months and pose major logistical challenges. Missteps are almost inevitable. A split could also develop between those countries that are vaccine “haves” and those that are “have nots.” Much is expected of COVAX, the international alliance to produce, manufacture, and ship vaccines. But it could be hobbled if countries hoard supplies or use what they get unwisely. India and South Africa are pushing to strip intellectual-property protections from COVID vaccines and therapeutics for reasons that may have as much to do with commercial interests as humanitarian ones. Critics worry that such a move could diminish incentives to discover future vaccines and treatments. Meanwhile, questions remain about how long the immunity offered by contracting COVID or getting vaccinated will last, whether it’s possible for someone who has been vaccinated to contract the virus and infect others, and whether the virus will continue to mutate in ways that make it more contagious. As a result, measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, testing, and contact tracing will continue to play a major role in combatting the spread of COVID-19 throughout 2021 and perhaps beyond.
Biden Begins. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. Those words come to mind as Joe Biden prepares to become the 46th president of the United States. He is inheriting an overflowing foreign-policy inbox and a public that expects him to fix an array of daunting domestic problems led by a once-in-a-century pandemic. Biden will move quickly to reverse elements of Donald Trump’s America First policy, with decisions to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization leading the way. But Biden hopes to put a few issues, like the trade war with China and trade policy more generally, on hold while he staffs up his administration, reviews his options, and makes progress on his domestic agenda. Events, however, may not permit this leisurely approach. Biden could face early tests with Iran’s nuclear program, possible North Korean missile or nuclear tests, and fallout from Russia’s massive hack of the U.S. government and corporations. Trump’s hardline policies give Biden some leverage, but probably not as much as he would like. Biden also faces headwinds back in Washington, DC. Unless Democrats prevail in Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections in two weeks, he will be the first president since George H.W. Bush and the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland to take office without his party controlling both houses of Congress. While presidents have greater latitude in foreign policy than in domestic policy, they don’t have carte blanche. Making matters worse, Trump likely won’t lead a quiet retirement. He will instead be egging on Republican lawmakers in opposition. In all, Biden sits in an unenviable position: a lot is expected of him while his ability to deliver is limited.
China’s Choice. “Hide brilliance, cherish obscurity” was Deng Xiaoping’s mantra for China’s foreign policy. Xi Jinping has tossed that strategic guidance aside. China is increasingly throwing its weight around. In 2020 alone, China ramped up its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, sought to punish Australia economically for requesting an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, provoked a border clash with India, imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong that violated the terms of the treaty governing the city’s handover from the United Kingdom, and repeatedly sought to intimidate Taiwan for strengthening its ties with the United States. The predictable reaction has been rising concern that China seeks to dominate world politics, steamrolling the interests of others in the process. The question is, will China acknowledge those concerns and chart a more cooperative course, especially now that it faces a new U.S. president bent of rallying countries to counter Chinese power? Or will it double down on confrontation? The answer seems to be the latter. Although the coronavirus first took hold in Wuhan, China has handled the pandemic far better than most Western countries and certainly better than the United States. The Chinese economy has already rebounded and is expected to flourish in 2021. The conclusion that China seems to have drawn is that it is winning its contest with the West; its propaganda hails the "institutional superiority" of its model of government. So rather than fearing calls by U.S. officials for a decoupling of the two economies, China is embracing steps to decouple from the West on its own terms. As the saying goes, never change a winning horse. So expect increased tensions, and possible showdowns, in the months to come.
Global Growth. COVID-19 hit the global economy hard in 2020. World output is projected to shrink by as much as 5.2 percent this year. That compares with pre-pandemic projections of 2.5 to 3.4 percent growth. China may be the only large economy that grew in 2020, though at an estimated 1.8 percent it was still far below its target growth rate of 6 percent. Poor countries, not surprisingly, have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn. The number of people pushed into extreme poverty worldwide by the pandemic could exceed 120 million. That means that a decade of progress in fighting global poverty could be wiped out. The good news is that COVID-19 vaccines should create a tailwind for the global economy in 2021. Just how big a tailwind will vary from country to country—those with low public debt, sensible economic management, and effective limits on the spread of the coronavirus are likely to fare the best. On that score, China could account for as much as one-third of the world’s economic growth in 2021. By contrast, Europe’s and North America’s contributions are likely to lag their share of the global economy. Overall, any recovery is likely to be slow. The International Monetary Fund has lowered its projections for global economic growth after 2022 and warned that increases in global poverty could continue beyond 2020. The World Bank expressed similar concerns, noting that emerging economies that rely on trade, tourism, and remittances are likely to be especially hard-hit. An open question is whether these economic troubles will mean more political conflict, whether within or between countries.
Democratic Decay. Democracy is under threat. Freedom House reports that political rights and civil liberties have deteriorated around the world for fourteen years in a row. Populist leaders in countries like Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey have enacted a range of policies that have undermined their democratic institutions. Beijing has clamped down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong by imposing and aggressively enforcing a new security law that curbs dissent. Hong Kong’s governing body, the Legislative Council, is set to hold elections in 2021, but it no longer has any pro-democracy lawmakers. To be sure, some bright spots exist. Belarusians took to the streets after longtime President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in the country’s fraudulent August election. As the year closed, speculation mounted that he was losing the support of the security forces who keep him in power. Incoming U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to reinvigorate democratic values, including by hosting “a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” The problem is, the United States may no longer be the best messenger. Trump’s long and sustained attacks on his opponents and the press, coupled with his refusal to recognize Biden’s election, his false claims of large-scale election fraud, his efforts to persuade state officials to overturn the election, and the refusal of most leading Republican officials to criticize his behavior, show how much democratic norms have eroded in the world’s oldest continuous democracy. When Biden calls for reinvigorating democratic values worldwide, he may hear the response: “Physician, heal thyself.”
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.