Two thousand twenty-one had its fair share of big news stories. The same will be true of 2022. Some of those stories no doubt will surprise. Here are five that won’t. 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-19 Persists. There was a moment in July 2021 when it seemed that the COVID-19 pandemic was ending. Scientists had produced vaccines at a record pace. Seemingly all that was left to do was to get shots into arms. But the behavior of people and the virus defied that optimism. In countries with ample vaccine supplies, far too many people refused vaccination. Most countries, though, couldn’t get enough vaccines for their citizens. The culprit was a mix of governments hoarding supplies for domestic use—just 20 percent of the 2.74 billion vaccine donations pledged for global use have been donated—a disjointed international response, and the sheer logistical challenge of vaccinating billions of people. So the World Health Organization isn’t likely to meet its goal to have 70 percent of the world’s population vaccinated by September 2022. Low-income countries clearly won’t get there—at the end of 2021 less than 5 percent of people living in poor countries were vaccinated. Meanwhile, the Omicron variant emerged in late 2021 and quickly spread worldwide. Initial research showed it to be more transmissible than the Delta variant and less likely to be stopped by existing vaccines or the natural immunity conferred by having already contracted COVID-19. So a new surge in hospitalizations and deaths seems inevitable. One piece of good news is the arrival of antiviral treatments that substantially reduce the risk of hospitalization or death. Even so, the global pandemic, and its many consequences, won’t be ending anytime soon.
U.S.-China Tensions Continue to Bubble. Whether or not the term “new cold war” is the best descriptor for the current U.S.-China relationship, relations between world’s two leading countries are frosty. Xi Jinping has made it clear that he sees China as the ascending superpower that will reshape the global order to its liking. Joe Biden has vowed that the United States will “prevail in strategic competition with China” and has made countering Beijing “Job 1” in U.S. foreign policy. To that end, Biden has acted both unilaterally and with likeminded countries. In terms of the former, his administration kept in place Donald Trump’s trade tariffs, sent U.S. ships through the Taiwan Strait, condemned China’s suppression of freedom in Hong Kong and human rights abuses of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which China is hosting. In terms of the latter, the Biden administration held the first-ever Quad Leaders’ Summit, persuaded NATO and other allies to issue tough statements on China, and unveiled the AUKUS deal. The near-term flashpoint could be Taiwan. China in 2021 increased the size and scope of its intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, raising concerns it was rehearsing for an invasion of the island. Biden and Xi held a “respectful” three-and-a-half hour call in November to discuss their differences. The conversation didn’t conclude with any agreements or joint statements, nor did it cool the rhetoric coming out of either capital. Both sides have good reason to keep their differences contained. But the future is likely to bring testier relations.
Russia Threatens Ukraine. The surging tensions between Russia and Ukraine in the final months of 2021 have deep roots. Russian President Vladimir Putin regards the breakup of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." His foreign policy has long sought to reverse that catastrophe. He took a significant step in that direction in 2014 when he reacted to the Orange Revolution that swept Ukraine’s pro-Russian president from power by seizing Crimea and encouraging Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin repeated his belief this past summer that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and that “the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” However, his focus on Ukraine probably reflects geopolitical calculations more than a sentimental attachment to the Ancient Rus. As two scholars put it, he “views Ukraine as a Western aircraft carrier parked just across from Rostov Oblast in southern Russia.” NATO is open to the possibility of membership for Ukraine, something its current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has pursued with steps such as supporting joint NATO-Ukraine military drills. Putin warned in November that NATO would cross a “red line” if it expanded into Ukraine and called for “legal guarantees” that it won’t expand further east. Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders could be a bid to force that issue. In December, Biden rejected Putin’s red line but agreed to a meeting with four leading NATO members to discuss Russian concerns. Diplomacy may provide an off ramp to avoid a war neither side likely wants. But history is rife with examples of off ramps missed.
Iran’s Nuclear Program Advances. Is Iran poised to become the world’s newest nuclear state? Joe Biden came to office hoping he could avoid confronting that question by persuading Tehran to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. But as 2021 came to an end, seven rounds of negotiations had failed to yield a breakthrough. Nor had Iran stood pat during the year. In an ostensible response to what was presumed to be Israeli sabotage, Iran began enriching uranium to 60 percent, a level not needed for any civilian purpose. By year’s end, Iran appeared capable of producing enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon within a month of deciding to so. Whether it would remained an open question. Many experts argue that Iran will settle for being a threshold nuclear state, capable of “going nuclear” on short notice. But such a latent capability could still upend the security situation in the Middle East by potentially emboldening Iran’s malign activities in the region. The Biden administration looks to be hoping that China and Russia will pressure Tehran to step back. That pressure may not come or, if it does, it may not work. Israel, which understandably views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, has urged the United States to take military action. The Biden administration, though, looks to be no more eager to use military force against Iran than its predecessors were. But if military force is off the table, and sanctions won’t change Tehran’s calculations, then a nuclear, or almost-nuclear, Iran looks to be inevitable.
The U.S. Trade Agenda Founders. Joe Biden likes to say that “America is back.” That’s not the case when it comes to trade. Biden has continued most of his predecessor’s trade policies. As 2021 ended, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods remained in place, even though they cost more jobs than they created and cost U.S. consumers money. Biden similarly continued Trump’s policy of blocking appointments to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) appellate body, effectively immobilizing the organization. Biden also directed U.S. government agencies to buy more products made in America, a move that invited trade partners to retaliate in kind. And Biden rejected calls to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade deal he once supported and which is now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Biden argued that he first needs to “have made major investments here at home and in our workers” before changing course on trade. That approach is misguided. As many as one in five U.S. jobs depends on trade, while technology accounts for most job losses. America’s trade partners aren’t waiting for the United States gets its house in order. They are negotiating new deals that put U.S. exporters and workers at a disadvantage. Standing pat is also undercutting Biden’s top foreign policy priority—countering China. Beijing is now seeking to join the CPTPP, the very agreement intended to counter its rising power. Don’t expect Biden’s to soften his self-defeating trade policies in 2022. With midterm elections next November, political rather than economic or strategic calculations will likely dominate the administration’s thinking.
Charlotte Peterson and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.
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