2021 Geopolitical Trends

Professor Amelia Hadfield: Dean International, Head of Department of Politics, Co-Director of Centre for Britain and Europe

Christian Turner: Junior Fellow, Centre for Britain and Europe

2021 will be an uneven year. Key trends include regional economic downturns in most key markets apart from China, as the full impact of Covid’s cost hits, heightened use of key global summits to re-establish US influence, possibly leading to increased trade and global health policy tensions. Much resetting will take place too, from President Biden on the one had to the post-Brexit UK on the other. Grand strategies include the EU’s ‘Green Covid recovery’, increased attempts by Brazil to reassert regional dominance, and likely spikes in aggression by China over Hong Kong and the South China sea, plus border forays initiated by Russia. The advent of ‘Covid Diplomacy’ will see key states, including middle-powers like Canada and Sweden, regions like the EU, and organisations like the OECD support the mass purchase of vaccinations for developing countries. With an early 2021 national lockdown likely for the UK and other countries, it’s helpful to review possible themes and trends elsewhere.

International Summits and organisations: Expect attempts by both the US and the UK to reassert their post-Trump and post-Brexit identities respectively. The composition of the UN Security Council is especially interesting, with the UK (one of five permanent members) holding the February Presidency, followed by the US in March, China in May, France in July, and Ireland in September. Leaders of each of these states are likely to initiate specific strategies associated with regional and national interests, including post-Brexit UK on climate change, and post-Trump US on global democracy. France and Ireland may reinforce various approaches to European-based leadership.

US Redux:  Online bilateral and multilateral engagement may remain online until Biden can make in-person visits later in 2021 to Ireland, the UK, France and Germany, as well as Brussels to re-establish trans-Atlantic relationships focusing on trade, climate change, democracy and fighting corruption. 

The key question at the top of the new year is whether Biden will wholly overhaul US approaches to multilateralism, or simply reengage with a few IGOs? One of the chief criticisms of Trump’s term was his unflinchingly sharp rhetoric towards global and regional institutions, including the UN, WTO, EU and especially NATO. From berating NATO over its budget to tariff wars with the EU, from castigating the UN and hobbling the WTO to threatening to defund the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is a plentiful group of IGOs that Biden can choose from in terms of re-engaging. 

Biden’s charm offensive needs to erase both Trump’s personal antipathy for global multilateralism and specific anxieties about US leadership in key areas including human rights, democracy, rule of law, and of course climate change. Equally, reengaging with IGOs and their various goals and members presents Biden with the opportunity to rework American leadership and the obligations of specific IGOs. The WTO’s ability to effectively set trade regulations and impose sanctions for breaches, and the WHO’s obligations to facilitate global health issues – particularly in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic – remain key to US demands for enacting major reform in trade and health policies respectively. Similarly, topics including NATO’s budget, and even certain mechanisms within the Paris Climate Agreement may arise as key points of negotiation.  

Re-funding Diplomacy? 

Despite such opportunities, Biden clearly understands the global risks of defunding American diplomacy. It will come as a relief to many international observers that Biden is determined to “elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy”, defining it as the “building and tending [of] relationships and working to identify areas of common interest while managing points of conflict”.

Some of Biden’s suggestions to “place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners” are likely to go down well. The EU in particular will be supportive of Biden’s intention to host a global Summit for Democracy, as well as his goal of fighting corruption, pushing back against authoritarianism and advancing human rights. Other goals however, including establishing a “foreign policy for the middle class” based on restoring the US’ overall lead in the global economy –  itself predicated on talking tough on tariffs with China and possibly the EU –  may have fewer fans. While Biden’s argument that suggestion that “economic security is national security” was likely honed for domestic rather than international audeinces, putting it into action could presage either continued tariff spats or economic protectionism, either of which would ultimately erode rather than strengthen American influence abroad. 

UK-EU relations: On the night before Christmas, Ursula Von Der Leyen and Boris Johnson prresnted each other with the gift of a Brexit deal. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreementsailed through the British Parliament on the 30thDecember, with the EU Council agreeing to provisionally apply the deal, pending formal EU Parliamentary approval in early 2021. This ensures the avoidance of a chaotic no-deal – particularly the precipice of tariffs and quotas on WTO terms – ensuring that Britain’s departure from the EU was at least orderly if not entirely smooth. It remains to be seen both how the finer details of the four-fold deal are implemented in practice in the days and weeks following 1stJanaury 2021, as well as the material imposition of customs checks at key UK and EU ports. 

Kickstarting the deal: Even more interesting will be the range of areas that were either not included in the deal (financial services) or not worked out in complete detail (e.g. mutual recognition of of professional qualifications), as well as issues that in the coming years provoke outright disputes. Will the newly-created shared Partnership Council be able to broker a workable compromise on areas including country-specific rules, the notoriously ticklish challenges of state aid, and mutual recognition of standards? Or will thematic spats become the hallmark of EU-UK relations, with many problems being referred by the Partnership Council to the designated arbitration panel, with the ever-present threat of one side imposing tariffs on the other? Much is likely to depend on the goodwill displayed by both sides as these new rules are phased in by both sides throughout 2021, and the kinks in their actual implementation ironed out. As astutely argued by Anna Isaac of Politico, “the scope on paper may end up differing from the nature of the implemention – having a trade mechanism written into a deal is very different from having something that industries can readily enact.”

Global Britain?Will 2021 see the much-vaunted post-Brexit foreign policy of a ‘Global Britain’ take root? In terms of timing, 2021 could prove a good year for the UK. From reworking UK-US transatlantic somewhere along the ‘specialness’ relationship spectrum to concluding an erstwhile trade and cooperation deal with the EU, the UK has a number of opportunities to deploy its new range of international goals at key points during this year’s calendar. These include the the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council in February, the rotating G7 Presidency for 2021, and hosting the delayed COP26 UN climate summit in November, all of which could assist the UK in a post-Brexit reset with key allies. At the UNSC for example, the UK can underwrite efforts at restoring faith in the WHO, and ensure support for developing countries struck by the pandemic, while the G7 may see Johnson unveil his 2020 proposal of a ‘D10’, essentially adding the democracies of Australia, South Korea, and possibly India. 

Challenges of course will remain in terms of reworking foreign and security policy relations with the EU, for two key reasons. First, ensuring that the Trade and Cooperation deal with the EU not only helps to lay the groundwork for a robust series of parallel engagements (which was excluded from the current deal); second ensuring that the management of border issues relating to Northern Ireland – as well as broad UK-EU relations – work as part of the UK’s overall reengagement with the US.  Biden it should be remembered has from the outset opposed Brexit, and “deeply regrets the U.K.’s exit from the EU”. The UK will need to demonstrate a series of newly-forged transatlantic credentials in terms of global governance rather than instrumental focus solely on a UK-US trade deal. If handled well, the triad of international summits in 2021 present opportunities for the UK to at last clarify its foreign policy goals, while building bridges to partners in the EU, and the US, including Biden’s own objectives of strengthening international institutions. 

EU Divisions & Ambitions:  The majority of EU leaders support the concept of “green Covid recovery” enabling zero carbon sustainability to underwrite post-pandemic economic revival. However, regional recovery and unity has been undermined by the stand-off between Poland, Hungary and the rest of the EU over proposals to link EU funds to the explicit observance by member states of the rule of law, deadlocking the tardy EU budget. While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been effective in creating breakthroughs (or at least circumventing roadblocks), 2021 will present real changes, including telescoping green-oriented growth as the prime catalyst for post-Covid recovery. 

In addition to the first post-Brexit relations to be forged with the UK, major Franco-German power shifts are on the horizon, with the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel this year (German federal election predictions are as yet unclear), and ongoing ambitions by President Macron regarding European strategic autonomy. A strategic reboot for the EU presents itself – Covid permitting –  via the two-year conference on the “Future of Europe”. Whether this resuscitates integrationist philosophy (and a new treaty) or clarifies the rationale for looser forms of association remains to be seen. In foreign policy terms, the EU still has much on its plate in terms of working with its neighbourhood to the east, and the south. Here, its overhauled budget and new series of budgetary instruments may help provide greater focus both for groups like the Eastern Partnership, emerging specialisms like security sector reform, and key areas in need of either urgent humanitarian support, or more long-term cooperation with a view to accession (e.g. Balkans). 

China: ongoing attempts to reclaim aspects of control over Hong Kong, coupled with attempts to reset the balance of trade with the US, while pushing ahead with the Belt and Road initiative are likely to be China’s goals for 2021. China’s economic output may well hit pre-pandemic levels by Q4 or even Q3 2021, with a predicted growth rate of between 6-8%. China may well be wary of President-elect Biden’s pitch for multilateral action against China, not helped by the fall-out from the initial outbreak of Covid in the Chinese city of Wuhan. 

Middle East: Towards the end of President Trump’s term, there has been a somewhat surprising relaxation of relations between a number of Middle Eastern states and Israel, including Saudi Arabia. It remains to be whether this is accelerated in 2021 but it provides hope that long-held hostilities may possibly ease as the region adapts to more recent challenges, particularly the sustained refugee crises arising from systemtic upheavals in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

Pandemic Geopolitics

While anti-Covid vaccines will gradually filter across the continent, the likelihood of a second major outbreak (or a new variant as per the UK) remains high. The 2020 trend of weaponizing both the pandemic, and the response to it is likely to deepen in 2021. The geopolitics of pandemics enables states and regions to deploy mass responses to counteract widespread loss of life and the collapse of public services. Responding to the virus requires the strategic assets of states including  enormous cross-government coordination, huge budgetary reosurces, insightful and proactive responses, and civil cooperation. 2020 witnessed striking failures in leading powers, both large and small, to  get their act together in this respect, the US being the most clearcut example. No state or region was equipped to face the challenge. Post-pandemic responses for 2021 need to be much more clearly established and deployed to allow the world to recover from the first onslaught and to be prepared for what lies ahead. 

Vaccine diplomacy: 2021 promises to be the year that Covid vaccines are finally rolled out on a mass scale, presenting hope that the “beginning of the end” may be in sight when it comes to restrictions on personal liberty. Yet, there have been some early indications that the vaccine rollout is adopting geopolitical tendencies. The UK, USA and EU have all approved and began rolling outthe Pfizer vaccine; with the latter two set to start using the Moderna vaccine. The UK has also approved usage of the far cheaper AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine, which looks to be the heart of India’s inoculation drive. The Russian-created ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine has been given approval to be rolled out in Hungary, a further sign that Orban is continuing to look East, whereas China’s “CoronaVac” looks set for use in Indonesia and Brazil. All the while, concerns are mounting that the poorest nations, not least those in the African continent, are being left to flounder, preventing the global eradication of Covid.