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.

During the past year, 58% of all cyberattacks observed by Microsoft from nation-states have come from Russia. And attacks from Russian nation-state actors are increasingly effective, jumping from a 21% successful compromise rate last year to a 32% rate this year. Russian nation-state actors are increasingly targeting government agencies for intelligence gathering, which jumped from 3% of their targets a year ago to 53% – largely agencies involved in foreign policy, national security or defense. The top three countries targeted by Russian nation-state actors were the United States, Ukraine and the UK. These are just a few of the insights in the second annual Microsoft Digital Defense Report. Read additional highlights from the Microsoft on the Issues blog and find the full report here.

If you had to guess which current world leader has made the most trips to Africa, who would you say? China's Xi Jinping? Nope, hardly — he's been there just four times. France's Emmanuel Macron? Pas de tout.

The answer may surprise you: it's Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been to the continent more times than the leader(s) of any other non-African state. Just this week he notched his 28th visit, with stops in Angola, Nigeria, and Togo. Sure, being in power for two decades creates a lot of opportunities for exotic travel, but even Putin isn't close: he's been to Africa just five times, all to visit South Africa or Egypt.

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Former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi was killed by rebels on 20 October, 2011, after a NATO intervention designed to protect civilians helped strengthen an uprising against his regime. Since then, the country has been mired in chaos as different factions have battled for control, resulting in extensive destruction and human causalities. Libya has been nominally governed since 2014 by warring administrations backed by foreign powers in the west and east of the country. Last year, UN mediation efforts finally began to gain traction with an agreement on a cease-fire and a roadmap for elections to be held later this year. We talked with Eurasia Group expert Ahmed Morsy to find out how things are going.

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China's GDP grew a lower-than-expected 4.9 percent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021, a whopping three percentage points less than in the previous period. It's a big deal for the world's second-largest economy, the only major one that expanded throughout the pandemic — and now at risk of missing its growth target of 6 percent for the entire year.

Normally, such a drastic slowdown would have put the ruling Communist Party in a tizzy. But this time, Xi Jinping knows this is the price he must pay for his big plans to curb rising inequality and boost the middle class at the expense of the CCP's traditional economic mantra: high growth above all else.

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6,000: Poland has doubled the number of troops guarding its border with Belarus to almost 6,000 because of a surge in migrants trying to cross over (there were 612 attempts on Monday alone). Warsaw accuses Minsk of sending non-EU migrants into Poland as payback for EU sanctions against Belarus.

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Religious tension rising in Bangladesh: Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh have surged over the past week, leaving at least four people dead. After an image was posted on Facebook showing the Quran at the feet of a statue at a Hindu temple, Muslims burned Hindu-owned homes and attacked their holy sites. Both sides have taken to the street in protest, with Hindus saying that they have been prevented from celebrating Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in the country. Such acts of sectarian violence are not uncommon in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country where Hindus account for nine percent of the population. Indeed, as Eurasia Group's Kevin Allison recently warned, unverified social media content stoking inter-ethnic conflict is a massive problem throughout South Asia, where for many people Facebook is synonymous with the internet.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Read Ian Bremmer's wide-ranging essay in Foreign Affairs that puts in perspective both the challenge, and the opportunity, that comes from the unprecedented power of Big Tech.

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here on the road, something we haven't done very much recently, but will increasingly as we try to move through COVID. And I want to talk to you about a new article that I just put out in Foreign Affairs that I'm calling "The Technopolar Moment." Not unipolar, not bipolar, not multipolar, technopolar. What the hell does technopolar mean?

It means that increasingly big technology companies are themselves geopolitical actors. So to understand the future of the world, you can't just look at the United States, Europe and China. You need to look at the big tech companies, too.

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China gets away with a lot these days in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. That's because over the past decade, its economy has experienced explosive growth, making it an indispensable trading partner for almost every country in the world. At the same time, China has been expanding its share of the global economy, and is now set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economic powerhouse in the near term. We take a look at China's annual growth rate and share of the global economy based on GDP over the past decade.

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