One good thing can be said about 2021: it wasn’t as tumultuous as 2020, which put in a claim to be the worst year ever. That, however, may be damning with faint praise. Yes, the past twelve months did bring some good news. Indeed, for a moment in early summer it seemed that COVID-19 was in the rearview mirror. However, it isn’t. And 2021 brought other bad news. So here are my top ten world events in 2021. You may want to read what follows closely. Several of these stories will continue into 2022 and beyond.
10. The AUKUS Deal Debuts. On September 15, President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson jointly announced a new trilateral security partnership named AUKUS. The most significant part of the deal was the U.S. pledge to provide Australia with technology to build eight nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) submarines. The only other country to receive similar access to U.S. technology is the United Kingdom. The statement announcing the pact justified it as necessary to “preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” Although none of the three leaders mentioned China by name, AUKUS was widely seen as a response to growing Chinese assertiveness. Not surprisingly, Beijing denounced the pact as “extremely irresponsible” and “polarizing.” But China wasn’t the only country unhappy with deal. France fumed because AUKUS terminated a $37 billion agreement it struck with Australia in 2016 to build a dozen diesel-electric powered submarines. As a result, Paris recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington, a move without precedent in bilateral relations with either country. Biden subsequently admitted that the announcement of the pact had been “clumsy,” while France used the incident to press its case for “strategic autonomy,” that is, the ability of the European Union to act independently of the United States in world affairs. Doubts remain about whether the new Australian submarines will ever be built; they come with a hefty price tag and won’t become operational for more than a dozen years.
9. Migration Crises Test Rich Countries. The downturn in international migration flows in 2020 triggered by COVID-19 continued into 2021. That didn’t translate, however, into the end of migration crises. A case in point was the southern U.S. border. By October, the number of people entering the United States illegally had hit 1.7 million over the prior year, the highest number since 1960. COVID-19, economic hardship, and political and natural events—the assassination of Haiti’s president and a subsequent earthquake sent thousands of Haitians abroad—drove the surge. But so too did the expectation that the Biden administration would be more welcoming than the Trump administration. To stem the inflow of migrants the Biden administration continued many of its predecessor’s harsh anti-immigration policies. Where it didn’t, the Supreme Court ordered it to. The European Union saw a 70 percent rise compared to 2020 in the number people entering illegally, with critics arguing that the EU was failing its duty to help migrants. A surge in migrants crossing the English Channel from France triggered a diplomatic row between Paris and London. Meanwhile, Belarus encouraged migrants to cross its territory to enter Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in a bid to pressure the EU to end sanctions it imposed to protest the rigged 2020 Belarussian presidential election. These crises are unlikely to let up in coming years. Some 84 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Conflict, economic collapse, and climate change are likely to drive that number higher.
8. Iran’s Nuclear Program Advances. The year began with optimism that the Iran nuclear deal might be revived three years after President Donald Trump quit the agreement. Joe Biden came to office calling Trump’s Iran policy a “self-inflicted disaster” and pledging to return to the deal if Iran returned to compliance. Making that happen was easier said than done, however. In February the Biden administration accepted an invitation from the European Union to rejoin negotiations. Diplomatic jockeying between Tehran and Washington delayed the start of talks until April. An explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility in mid-April, likely the result of Israeli sabotage, prompted Iran to announce it had begun enriching uranium to 60 percent, a level that has no civilian use though it is below the threshold required for a weapon. Five more rounds of negotiations took place before Iran’s presidential election in June, which saw hardliner Ebrahim Raisi emerge victorious. He immediately dampened speculation that an agreement was near, saying “that the situation in Iran has changed through the people’s vote.” Negotiations finally resumed in late November, but Iran walked away from the concessions it made in earlier rounds and restated its initial demand that the United States lift all the sanctions the Trump administration imposed. As 2021 came to a close, the talks were on the verge of collapse, with Iran by some estimates just a month away from acquiring weapons-grade uranium and the Biden administration facing the question of what to do should diplomacy fail.
7. Supply Chains Falter. “Supply chains” became a household term in 2021. For decades businesses believed that outsourcing production was the key to success. That strategy worked: companies that honed their supply chains saw their costs drop and profits rise. Then came COVID-19. It exposed the downside of supply chains: shortages and stoppages far away create shortages and stoppages at home. When the pandemic first hit, factories closed and many companies let inventories dwindle to avoid being stuck with unsold goods. But when consumer demand surged in 2021 as vaccines became available, many companies found themselves short on parts and supplies. Shortages of shipping containers and backups at ports around the world further complicated matters. It didn’t help that in March the container ship Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal, blocking one of the world’s major waterways for a week and generating costs estimated to run $9.6 billion a day. The shortage that got the most attention was in computer chips, particularly those used in gaming consoles and car production. Ford Motor Company projected it would lose 1.1 million vehicle sales in 2021 because of semiconductor shortages. Other goods in short supply in 2021 included gasoline, palm oil, chicken, corn, chlorine, and hot dogs. Even when supplies were abundant, labor was often in short supply. In the United States alone, the size of the workforce fell by five million people from the start of the pandemic. The supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19, which have contributed a worldwide surge in inflation, could to linger for years.
6. The Taliban Return to Power. The U.S. war in Afghanistan ended as it started twenty years earlier: with the Taliban in power. In 2020, President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban that required withdrawing all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021. Two weeks before that deadline, President Joe Biden ordered that a complete U.S. withdrawal be concluded by no later than September 11, 2021—the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As the withdrawal proceeded, the Afghanistan national army collapsed and the Taliban overran the country. Kabul fell on August 15, trapping thousands of foreigners in the capital city. The United States launched a massive effort to evacuate stranded Americans by August 31, a deadline set by the Taliban. The U.S. withdrawal ended on August 30, leaving behind more than one hundred U.S. citizens and as many as 300,000 Afghans who may have qualified for expedited U.S. visas. Biden called the withdrawal an “extraordinary success.” Most Americans disagreed and his public approval ratings hit new lows. Allied dignitaries called the withdrawal “imbecilic” and a “debacle” among other things. The United States spent more than $2.3 trillion on Afghanistan over two decades, or roughly $300 million a day for twenty years. More than 2,500 U.S. service members and 4,000 U.S. civilian contractors died in Afghanistan. The number of Afghans who lost their lives likely topped 170,000. Despite claiming to be different, the new Taliban government so far has looked and acted just like the one that horrified the world twenty years ago and a massive humanitarian crisis looms.
5. Ethiopia’s Civil War Worsens. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for brokering peace with neighboring Eritrea. Less than two years later, Ethiopia is embroiled in a bitter civil war. The immediate pretext for the fighting came in November 2020 when Abiy ordered the Ethiopian military to attack the northern province of Tigray after forces linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) looted a federal army base. But bad blood between Abiy and the TPLF predated that incident; upon coming to power in 2018 Abiy drove the TPLF out of the ruling political party, ending its decades-long domination of Ethiopian politics. Federal forces won important early victories, most notably by capturing Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. But the tide soon turned. In June 2021, TPLF forces recaptured Mekelle. By November, the TPLF and affiliated militias were advancing south toward Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and east toward Djibouti, threatening to cut off the route that supplies Ethiopia with 95 percent of its maritime imports. The TPLF’s success raised the prospect that Ethiopia could collapse, potentially triggering regional convulsions. Even if the fighting stalemates, the consequences have been horrific. Some two million Ethiopians have been displaced, and all the parties to the conflict have committed war crimes like ethnic cleansing, massacres, and gang rapes. Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting so far have gotten nowhere. The coming year could bring more heartache to a country that has seen more than its share.
4. The Global Democratic Erosion Continues. The global erosion of democratic governance that has been underway since 2006 continued in 2021. The United States, long the champion of democracy, saw its peaceful transition of power disrupted for the first time in its history by the January 6 insurrection. That event, coupled with efforts in many red states to restrict voting rights and give legislatures the right to overturn election results, led to what was once unthinkable—the United States being named a “backsliding democracy.” It had plenty of company on that front. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cracked down on critics, prompting Freedom House to downgrade India from “free” to “partly free” and Reporters Without Borders to label it as “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attacked the legitimacy of his country’s elections, prompting talk that “democracy is dying in Brazil.” Fledgling democracies in Myanmar, Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Sudan all were ousted in coups. Meanwhile, authoritarian governments continued to suppress dissent. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was imprisoned after returning from Germany to Russia. Neighboring Belarus diverted a passenger jet in order to arrest a prominent critic. China tightened its grip on Hong Kong. Cuba arrested thousands of critics after the largest protests in its history. In December, President Joe Biden hosted a virtual Democracy Summit to “focus on challenges and opportunities facing democracies.” It wasn’t clear the event would, or could, do much to reverse a troubling global trend.
3. Joe Biden Becomes President. “America is back.” Joe Biden made that point repeatedly in 2021. He moved quickly upon taking office to fulfill his promise to strengthen relations with America’s allies. He returned the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, renewed New START for five years, sought to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and ended U.S. support for offensive military operations in Yemen. These moves away from former President Donald Trump’s America First policies drew applause overseas; initial polls showed a sharp improvement in the U.S. image abroad. As the year progressed, however, many foreign capitals openly wondered just how different, and how sustainable, Biden’s foreign policies were. On critical issues like China and trade, Biden’s policies differed from his predecessor’s more in tone than in substance. Biden also alarmed many allies, especially in Europe, with his penchant for unilateral action. He canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, withdrew from Afghanistan, supported a waiver for intellectual property rights for vaccines, and created AUKUS without significant consultations with critical partners. The bungled Afghanistan withdrawal, the clumsy AUKUS rollout, and the slow pace of announcing ambassadors also raised doubts about the Biden administration’s competence, which had been presumed to be its strength. With Biden’s approval rating sinking at home and the odds improving that Republicans will retake one or both houses of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, U.S. allies have to entertain the thought that Trump and America First might return to the White House in 2025.
2. COVID-19 Vaccines Arrive as the Virus Mutates. The vaccines created to address the novel coronavirus may join the smallpox, polio, and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines as major advances in saving lives and diminishing morbidity. The speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed was stunning. Vaccines historically took ten to fifteen years to develop. The quickest any vaccine had been developed previously was the four years it took to create the mumps vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines were created in less than a year. Just as important, the leading COVID-19 vaccines worked stunningly well; the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both more than 90 percent effective against early COVID-19 variants. More than 7.4 billion vaccine doses were administered in 184 countries in the first eleven months of 2021, with seventy countries making donations. Unfortunately, too many people who could have been vaccinated chose not to, and too many people who wanted to get vaccinated couldn’t. That was deadly because COVID-19 is incredibly adaptive. The Delta variant, first identified in December 2020 in India, was more infectious than its predecessors and soon became the dominant strain around the world. In November 2021, South African scientists identified the emergence of the Omicron variant. Within weeks it had been found around the world. As 2021 ended, it was unclear whether Omicron presented a greater health threat or would send the global economy into another tailspin. What was clear is that more than 5 million people globally and 800,000 Americans had died from COVID-19.
1. Countries Fail the Climate Change Challenge—Again. “A code red for humanity.” That’s how UN Secretary General António Guterres’ described the UN report released in August that concluded that humanity faces catastrophic climate change unless the emission of heat-trapping gases is slashed. But one didn’t need to read the 4,000-page report to know that. Extreme weather dominated the news in 2021, as it has for much of the past decade. Record drought wracked the American southwest. Record flooding devastated Belgium and western Germany. Epic wildfires tore through Greece. Late season monsoons ravaged India and Nepal. Climate optimists could find some developments to cheer in 2021. President Biden committed the United States to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office. China agreed in September to discontinue financing coal-fired power plants overseas, and Iceland opened a facility to take carbon dioxide out of the air. At the COP-26 meeting in Glasgow in November countries pledged to take steps to address climate change, including by cutting methane emissions. But pledges aren’t accomplishments. Carbon emissions jumped in 2021 as the global economy roared back to life. Even as President Biden pushed Congress to address climate change in a major infrastructure bill, he asked OPEC to increase oil production in a bid to lower gasoline prices. He was hardly the only world leader hoping to have his cake and eat it too. The transition away from fossil fuels poses difficult choices. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t give credit for degree of difficulty.
Other stories to note in 2021. In January, Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen its border with Qatar, ending a three-year-long diplomatic crisis. In February, the U.S. Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. In March, Pope Francis met in Iraq with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the first ever meeting between a pope and a grand ayatollah. In April, a dispute over access to water triggered a clash on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, leaving 55 people dead and some 50,000 displaced. A cyberattack orchestrated in May by Russian criminal hackers forced the closure of the Colonial Pipeline, disrupting the delivery of gasoline in the eastern United States. In June, G7 leaders agreed to back a minimum global corporate tax rate of at least 15 percent. Lithuania agreed in July to allow Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in Vilnius, a decision that prompted China to downgrade relations with the Baltic country. In August, the White House approved the sale of $750 million in arms to Taiwan, a decision that China quickly denounced. In September, the United States dropped a three-year-old request that Canada extradite a senior Huawei executive, prompting China to release two Canadian citizens it had arrested when the extradition warrant was first filed back in 2018. In October, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the Pandora Papers, which contained more than 12 million documents showing how the wealthy and powerful use off-shore accounts to evade taxes and hide money. In November, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived a drone strike on his home. A Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border prompted Biden to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin in a December video call that the United States “would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event” Russia invaded Ukraine.
Charlotte Peterson and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.
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