For the past four years, America forged a controversial but bold new place for itself in the world. It treated allies as threats and populists and dictators as potential friends, yet also demonstrated why no global agreement, whether on climate change, public health or nuclear weapons, can truly succeed without Washington. Now, as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take charge, OZY’s Sunday Magazine looks beyond the obvious to spot surprising ways in which the world is fundamentally changing again. Hop on for your first intercontinental journey of 2021.
As former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin writes for OZY, Biden faces no shortage of foreign policy challenges from day one. From the pandemic to climate change to a type of global terrorism that looks much different than the post-9/11 decade, Biden won’t have the luxury of time to get his feet under him. The hottest immediate crisis he will face involves the sophisticated Russian cyberattacks on key federal agencies that have been going on for months. Biden has promised a tough response.
It’s all fine for the U.S. and Biden to seek to reestablish its traditional leadership of the world — but it won’t work if America’s neighbors emerge as the country’s biggest headache. The past year has seen the return of socialist or left-leaning governments in Bolivia and Argentina that are wary and critical of Washington. Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro (pictured) has entrenched his power further after winning December’s legislative elections. And the region’s two largest economies — Brazil and Mexico — are led by populists who got along with President Donald Trump and waited an entire month before acknowledging Biden’s win.
Saharan quicksand awaits Biden. This fall the Trump administration brokered peace deals for Israel with Sudan and Morocco. The headlines look great, but they've come at a cost. The Trump administration has offered to pay $850 million to families of 9/11 victims so they won’t sue Sudan, which sheltered Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. And the U.S. will recognize Morocco’s claims over the disputed region of Western Sahara, effectively agreeing to an occupation that the U.N. doesn’t accept. Will Biden try to renegotiate these controversial agreements?
Yes, Trump can be a bull in a china shop. But China is the one shop where America’s Asian friends would be happy to see Biden continue to wreak a bit of havoc. Trump’s tariff war with China — while disruptive for Japan, India, Australia and South Korea — helped these nations start to rebuild their own manufacturing bases, while signaling to Beijing that the Indo-Pacific region’s democracies can still mount a collective challenge. Now these U.S. partners are worried about a return to an Obama-era relationship between Washington and Beijing, which promised an American reset to Asia but then failed to deliver.
Biden wants to get back into the nuclear deal with Tehran. Iran says it’ll join in an hour if the U.S. returns to the terms of the agreement that Trump pulled out of. But there isn’t much time — Iran’s presidential elections are coming up in June and moderate President Hassan Rouhani is term-limited. Complicating matters further,Israel and Saudi Arabia won’t sit quiet if the U.S. seeks a thaw with Iran. As they amp up the pressure, Biden won’t want to sacrifice the growing warmth between Arab nations and Israel — and that gives these nations leverage over him.
The biggest challenger to America’s crown as the world’s dominant superpower has rebounded from the pandemic-sparked recession faster than anyone else. Biden can’t appear soft on China and has in fact promised to call a summit of major democracies to showcase a united front against Beijing. But he also can’t afford to continue with the unending cycle of escalatory tariffs that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping got into. American firms are relying on the Chinese market to overcome the losses of the global recession. Beijing knows that — and will exploit that advantage.
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While much of the world was recovering from a hangover on the morning of Jan. 1, Africa launched its most ambitious economic idea ever. The African Free Trade Area will be twice the size of the European Union, covering 1.3 billion people. Can it replicate — or even surpass — the success of the E.U. by finally improving connectivity and trade among Africa’s 54 nations?
The COVID-19 crisis has seen countries worldwide close borders, rethink supply chains and look inward to fight a virus that knows no boundaries. And now rich powers are trying to hoard vaccines. It all adds up to an anti-globalization tide the world over. But as policymakers assess what went wrong this time, they will no doubt conclude that international cooperation will be crucial to nipping the next pandemic in the bud.
It’s the pact that could unambiguously make Asia the center of the world economy for decades. In keeping with the boring labels trade negotiators love, the name Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership doesn’t tell you much. But the 15 countries that in November signed on to the deal — including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia — will together form the largest trade bloc in history, once members ratify it. China will dominate it, but even its rivals in the bloc see benefits.
4. Beijing’s Bold Move
For years, China saw the U.S.-led proposal for a Trans Pacific Partnership — a free trade agreement among the U.S., Pacific coast nations in South America, and American allies in Asia and Oceania — as a threat. Once Trump withdrew from those negotiations, the others went ahead with a new agreement without the U.S. Now China wants to make sure that it isn’t left out of that pact if Biden revives the idea. Shortly after the U.S. election, Xi Jinping said China is now open to joining the modified version of the TPP that went into force without the U.S. in 2018.
5. Digital Free Trade Zone?
It could be a reality soon. Chile, New Zealand and Singapore are discussing a deal under which they would finalize joint rules for digital trade. The three nations are ahead of the curve as digital economies and could lay out a blueprint for a free trade zone specifically for online commerce.
6. Outlier: The Original Globalizer
Long before the internet, Great Britain was the original globalizer, using its brutal colonial enterprise to connect distant parts of the world through trade and the movement of people (indentured laborers from Asia were taken to Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands). Now it wants to sit out, formally severing its bond with the EU as of Jan. 1. Some nations, such as India, see a future with Great Britain, but others will not.
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America is still dealing with the aftereffects of its most divisive election in generations. But 2021 could bring its own share of contentious votes in other parts of the world. Expect the left to gain in Ecuador and Chile (pictured); prepare for Uganda’s dictator to crack down on all meaningful opposition; hold your breath on the future of the Iran nuclear deal; and hope that Hong Kong and Ethiopia finally hold long-delayed elections.
For years, the region has been a relative beacon of democracy in Africa, with multiple peaceful transfers of power. Now, country after country is slipping. Ivory Coast’s septuagenarian President Alassane Ouattara had previously pledged to step down after two terms. Instead, he contested and won a controversial vote in November. Togo and Guinea held referendums in 2019 and 2020 that, while ostensibly instituting term limits, have allowed their current leaders to legally stay in power longer by starting the clock afresh on their stints in office. Liberia, under former soccer star George Weah, and Gambia could be next.
The far-right is seeing a decline in popularity. But as 2021 starts, populists in Poland and Hungary remain firmly entrenched in power, challenging the European Union and serving as a magnet for aspiring like-minded leaders.
It was arguably the most hopeful moment for global democracy in 2020: Chile voting decisively in a referendum to discard a constitution from the brutal period of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, and to instead craft a new one. That process will start in earnest in 2021. Meanwhile, a surge of people’s movements — from Hong Kong to Thailand, Belarus to Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria to India — challenged draconian laws, police brutality, bigotry and election fraud in organic ways that their leaders failed to discredit.
hotspots to watch
1. The Sahel
Militant rebels and terrorists are increasingly in charge of the region just below the Sahara. Burkina Faso passed a law in 2020 allowing its military to work with militant groups — the only way, the country concluded, it could provide any stability. In the Central African Republic, the president charters planes at taxpayer expense for warlords he needs. Contrary to claims by governments, Boko Haram and other militant groups are only expanding their influence — as demonstrated by the abduction of Nigerian school students in December.
It’s more than just the South China Sea. Beijing is in a series of skirmishes on its periphery — with India in the Himalayas; with Indonesia, Vietnam and others in the seas; with New Zealand and Australia over Hong Kong; with Australia additionally over trade; with Taiwan over its very existence. If any one of these embers are allowed to grow, they could start something that would make California wildfires look tame.
Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are at loggerheads over potentially giant gas reserves under the Mediterranean Sea, a key shipping route that connects the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Turkish and Greek ships have threatened each other in recent months and Cyprus — an island already divided between hostile Greek- and Turkish-majority regions — is in the crossfire. And on the southern edge of the Med sits Libya, a nation trapped in a civil war for the better part of a decade.
After weeks of devastating bombing and fighting, Azerbaijan and Armenia are at peace — sort of. They signed an accord in November, but continue to accuse each other of violating the agreement. Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian knows Biden and is expected to play that card to persuade Washington to tip the scales in a conflict in which Azerbaijan has captured large parts of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. But the only guarantor of peace is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who brokered the deal between Baku and Yerevan.
It was Africa’s fastest-growing economy before the pandemic. Now it’s a nation led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner that’s at war with itself. Addis Ababa might have won the first round against Tigray forces seeking greater autonomy. But if history teaches us anything — consider Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan — it’s that boots on the ground only get you so far.
She’s been called Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “Charm Cannon,” and the telegenic 40-year-old mother of three relishes her role as the chief global defender of Orbán’s authoritarian approach to the rule of law that has Europe worried. You might not be convinced by the justice minister’s defense of a law giving Orbán the power to effectively rule by decree during the pandemic, but she’ll keep at it.
The Iranian revolutionary guards commander is emerging as the favorite presidential candidate of conservatives and clergy, and he could be Iran’s next elected leader. Dehghan holds a PhD. in public administration but over the years has shown that his principal expertise lies in crushing opposition to the country’s cleric-led regime. Plus, he’s been linked to the deadly attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.
3. Daniel Jadue
The communist mayor of a Santiago suburb is a leading candidate in polls ahead of Chile’s 2021 presidential elections. For half a century, Chile has been led by a succession of conservative governments. Jadue’s an architect by training. Can he build a new Chile?
1. Climate Change
Biden has promised to return to the Paris agreement immediately after he takes office. While that will be celebrated on multiple fronts, success in containing the threat that is global warming will depend on China and America — the world’s two biggest polluters — working together. After all, there’s a reason Obama reached out to Xi and sealed a bilateral deal that gave the Paris pact true heft. Now Biden must work with an arguably more hostile Xi if the world is to have any chance of making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Space Militarization
China, the U.S. and Russia have all taken dangerous steps this past year that could set the stage for a war in orbit. But in many ways, the opening shot in this latest race was fired by Trump and his creation of the Space Force military branch. Will Biden reverse that and launch fresh negotiations to ensure cosmic peace?
The pandemic has been clouding the longstanding terrorism threat that continues to hover over the world. The recent attacks in France and the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the U.S. point to the challenges ahead. With so many threats in common, this is an area where most major nations would want to cooperate.
For years, attacks on major shipping routes declined, with 2019 registering the fewest incidents globally since 1994. The pandemic changed that. With governments preoccupied by the public health crisis, they’ve had fewer resources to devote to combating piracy. And ships have had to stay at sea longer, with countries unwilling to let them dock — making them sitting ducks for pirates. All of that led to a sharp spike in incidents of piracy in 2020. Can the world beat piracy back again this year?