2020: The year a virus thrived in a G-Zero world

Art by Annie Gugliotta

The year kicked off with a US strike on a top general that put Iran on the brink of war with America. US President Donald Trump survived impeachment, Brexit became official, Jared Kushner unveiled a (one-sided) US peace plan for the Middle East, India became a "rogue state," and we learned about the first cases outside China of a mysterious new virus that originated in Wuhan.

COVID-19 unleashed a pandemic that upended the world by mid-March. As entire countries shut down their economies, and the death toll climbed, first across Europe and then the US, China deflected blame. The entire world was impacted by the worst global crisis since World War II and prepared for an economic hit that would far exceed the last worldwide recession.

The summer saw major street protests, first in the US over racial justice following the killing of George Floyd, and then to oust decaying regimes in Belarus and Thailand. We covered political, social, and economic crises in Lebanon, the South Caucasus, Ethiopia, and Venezuela. Jair Bolsonaro went through ups and downs in Brazil, and local journalists around the world braced for a bitter US election in the fall — which Joe Biden won.

As we look back at this annus horribilis, here's what we learned about the state of geopolitics today.


First, we live in a world that is a lot more G-Zero now than just twelve months ago.

A G-Zero world is one in which the G7, G20, and G-everything else gives way to a more broadly fragmented global power structure with no leadership compass. Faced with a once-in-a-generation crisis in 2020, global cooperation was almost entirely absent, with most countries dealing with the common COVID enemy on their own (as Trump did by walking away from the World Health Organization).

The crisis did, however, spur unprecedented progress in the vaccine race, and forced a rare consensus within the European Union on a rescue package for the bloc's economic recovery.

In a global power vacuum, China saw an opening to make its move on Hong Kong, where democracy is now officially over. China also clashed with India over their Himalayan border, and the US-China rivalry heated up with tussles over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Second, the pandemic exposed deep fissures in our societies.

Crises always do, but COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the poor, minorities, and women in the US and other countries. When the George Floyd protests went global, we looked into the broader r issue of policing in America, and racial equality around the world.

The pandemic also revealed the fragility of the US economy, took an enormous toll on mental health, and cast a light on widening inequality — which multilateralism is struggling to address (along with climate change) as the United Nations turned 75.

Third, the US election turned out to be every bit as contentious and contested as we expected.

As the Joe Biden campaign gathered momentum, we predicted what his foreign policy would look like, and discussed how to hold a safe election with a surge in mail-in voting amid a pandemic. We later analyzed how taking office will be no walk in the park for Biden, whose administration's future success in part depends on the result of a January runoff election in Georgia for control of the US Senate.

Even as individual states certified the results, Trump still refused to concede, and his efforts to question the legitimacy of the vote will reverberate for years to come. Biden inherits a deeply divided country.

Looking ahead: The good news is that 2020 is almost over, and we are ending it on a (cautiously) optimistic note with vaccine rollouts in a host of countries, and continuing hopes that the Brexit saga ends with a trade deal. But the pandemic won't be over anytime soon, and just as no one saw COVID coming one year ago, 2021 will surely bring this G-Zero world a few challenges that no one will have foreseen.

Each month, Microsoft receives about 6,500 complaints from people who've been victims of tech support scams. But it's not just Microsoft's brand that the scammers leverage; fraudsters have pretended to be from a number of other reputable tech companies and service providers. These scams will remain an industry-wide challenge until sufficient people are educated about how they work and how to avoid them.

To measure the scope of this problem globally, Microsoft commissioned YouGov for a new 2021 survey across 16 countries. Results from the 2021 survey reveal that, globally, fewer consumers have been exposed to tech support scams as compared to the 2018 survey. However, those people who continued with the interaction were more likely to have lost money to the scammers than we saw in our previous survey. To read the highlights of the survey, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Next week, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who is ideologically and personally close to Iran's 82 year-old supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be inaugurated as Iran's president. This power transition comes as the country experiences a fresh wave of protests that started in Iran's southwest over water shortages earlier this month and has since spilled over into dozens of provinces.

Some close observers of Iranian society and politics say that popular discontent there is now more widespread than it has been in years, making the Iranian regime more vulnerable than ever.

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Was the world so focused on climate change that warning signs about the COVID-19 pandemic were missed? Historian and author Niall Ferguson argues that, while the climate crisis poses a long-term threat to humanity, other potential catastrophes are much more dangerous in the near future. "We took our eye off that ball," Ferguson says about COVID, "despite numerous warnings, because global climate change has become the issue that Greta Thunberg said, would bring the end of the world. But the point I'm making in DOOM [his new book] is that we can end the world and a lot of other ways, much faster." Ferguson spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview for GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Predictable disaster and the surprising history of shocks

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On Sunday, the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, President Kais Saied responded to widespread protests over the ailing economy and COVID by firing embattled Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspending parliament for 30 days. Troops have surrounded the legislature, where rival crowds faced off on Monday, with one side chanting in support of the move and the other denouncing it as a coup.

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week:

As COVID-19 cases rise, are vaccine mandates coming?

Oh, you just want to get me in more trouble. Yeah, some mandates are coming, but they're not national mandates in the United States. In some cases, you're looking at federal and state employees, in some cases you're looking at lots of individual corporations, universities, and such. I mean I've already been to a number of events where vaccines have been mandated in New York. You've got this Excelsior Pass if you want to go to the Brooklyn Nets games, as I certainly do. You show it off and that gets you in with your vaccine. So I think it's really going to be a decentralized process. But clearly, given Delta variant and the number of people that are getting sick and dying because they're not vaccinated, you're going to see moves towards more mandates, as a consequence.

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13: The two Koreas have restored their communication hotline almost 13 months after Pyongyang abruptly cut it in response to Seoul not doing enough to prevent North Korean defectors from sending propaganda leaflets across the shared border. The hotline was established in 2018 following a historic meeting between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

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Now that the Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, your Signal crew will be bringing you some intriguing, uplifting, and quirky facts about the Games that have many people on edge.

Today — what's the smallest country (by population) to win a gold medal in a summer Olympics?

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