2021: Groundhog Day in a G-Zero world

2021: Groundhog Day in a G-Zero world

Did 2021 actually happen, or are we still stuck in 2020? So many things seem to have barely changed this year. After all, we’re entering yet another holiday season worried about a fresh wave of the pandemic, and uncertain about what comes next for our economies and our politics.

In a lot of ways, the past 365 days feel like a year of unfulfilled promise. Let’s have a look back at what did, and did not happen in 2021.


The year kicked off with US democracy in deep trouble: first the Capitol insurrection, and later Donald Trump's second impeachment over it. After Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, he told the world: America is back. (Spoiler: the world is still waiting.)

Global attention soon turned to the COVID vaccine rollout. It sputtered at first, but even when it got better it exposed deep divisions over things like health passes, vaccine mandates, and patent waivers. The vaccination gap between the rich world and everyone else was hard to ignore. Still, to have inoculated half the world’s population in under a year is no mean feat.

Middle East politics got hot again with a brief war between Israel and Hamas, Iran's presidential "election," and Bibi Netanyahu ousted as Israeli PM after 12 tumultuous years.

Then came a series of extreme weather events that focused everyone’s attention on climate change just months ahead of the COP26 climate summit. But first, the world watched in disbelief as the US chaotically withdrew from Afghanistan, and then the Taliban reclaimed power virtually overnight — right before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Like in 2020, global cooperation was hard to come by, as we saw a bit at UNGA but much more at COP26. The fact that even faced with such an existential problem, the world’s top polluters failed to agree on the same deadline for net zero emissions revealed again how fragmented global politics have become. Forget G20 or G7 — we live in a rudderless, G-Zero world.

In such crazy times, arguably the smoothest political transition came after the German election, with Angela Merkel handing over the reins after 16 years as chancellor — and Europe’s de-facto leader — to Olaf Scholz.

And now, as the end of the year approaches, we are about to mark the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse worrying about whether Vladimir Putin actually intends to invade Ukraine.

More broadly, there are three things that didn't really play out as many people expected they would at the start of the year.

First, US-China ties didn't get quite as bad as many feared. With Biden in the White House, the world’s two largest economies didn't exactly bury the hatchet. They remain at odds over trade, technology, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Xinjiang. But they did find some common ground on climate — and domestic distractions for both countries helped quiet the rumblings of a new Cold War. (Not to mention a hot war, which as retired US Adm. James Stavridis told us, could start over Taiwan.)

The arrested development of deteriorating relations wasn't the product of anybody's grand design. Biden began his presidency with big foreign-policy ambitions, but he soon got bogged down at home by squabbling among Democrats over his domestic agenda, and later by Afghanistan. Xi Jinping, for his part, showed more interest in further consolidating his own power over tech giants, the Chinese economy, and the ruling Communist Party than in picking fights with Biden.

Whether the Cold Peace will hold in 2022 will likely depend on what happens inside each country, especially if they really start to recover from the pandemic.

Second, 2021 was the year of the vaccine, but the jabs on their own didn't end COVID. The good news is that vaccines were successful at bringing down deaths and severe illnesses. The bad news is that distribution was unequal, and hesitancy higher than expected in some places.

Where access to jabs was lacking, the delta variant brought a more deadly wave, like the one that ravaged India for weeks. (We spoke to Indian journalist Barkha Dutt the day after her own father had succumbed to the virus.) Now we are waiting to see how effective the current jabs are the face of omicron.

Finally, the post-pandemic recovery was not what we hoped for — mainly because we never made it to the “post-pandemic” at all. Even where economic growth rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the lingering virus messed up supply chains (check out Ian Bremmer's explainer), drove up the prices of food, energy, and pretty much everything else.

US economist Larry Summers told us why he sounded the alarm bell on inflation earlier in the year. We also learned from LSE's Minouche Shafik about how women bore the brunt of the unequal pandemic recovery.

It’s been a disappointing year, but one way in which 2020 mirrors 2021 is that we end the year with fresh hope. Last year we looked forward to the arrival of the vaccine to change things. This year we look ahead to 2022 hoping that the current pandemic wave may be the last major one. Let’s see how our optimism fares this time around.

People working at computers in a room labeled Malware Lab

Microsoft observed destructive malware in systems belonging to several Ukrainian government agencies and organizations that work closely with the Ukrainian government. The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) published a technical blog post detailing Microsoft’s ongoing investigation and how the security community can detect and defend against this malware. Microsoft shared this information over the weekend to help others in the cybersecurity community look out for and defend against these attacks. To read more visit Microsoft On the Issues.

President Vladimir Putin

No one knows whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans on invading Ukraine. But the president of the United States sure seems to think this is a real possibility, saying Wednesday that Putin will likely "move in" in the near term. Biden, prone to political gaffes, was then forced to awkwardly walk back comments that Russia would face milder consequences from the West in the event of a "minor incursion."

The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.

Indeed, with the Kremlin having amassed at least 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the growing threat is impossible to ignore. So what would a Russian military offensive into Ukraine actually look like, and how might the West respond?

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, discusses the Democrats voting bill.

What is the status on the Democrats voting bill?

The Democrats are pushing a bill that would largely nationalize voting rules, which today are largely determined at the state level. The bill would make Election Day a national holiday. It would attempt to end partisan gerrymandering. It would create a uniform number of early voting days and make other reforms that are designed to standardize voting rules and increase access to voting across the country. This matters to Democrats because they think they face an existential risk to their party's political prospects. They're very likely to lose at least the House and probably the Senate this year. And they see voting changes that are being pushed by Republicans at the state level that they say are designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for minorities, a key Democratic constituency.

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Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.

Not China. Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy has worked wonders until now, but it's unlikely to survive omicron, explains Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

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Chilling at the beach, retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel is so over politics. Or is she?

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Happy Tuesday after the long weekend for those of us that had a long weekend. I thought I would kick us off with the first major foreign policy crisis of the Biden administration. And that is of course, Russia-Ukraine. Afghanistan, of course, was a debacle, but not exactly a global crisis. This of course has the potential to really change the way we think about European security and about US relations with the other major nuclear power in the world. So, I would say that the level of concern is even higher and there are a lot of things we can say.
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What We’re Watching: Xinjiang at the Beijing Olympics, Boris in deep(er) trouble, Indonesia’s new capital

Selling Xinjiang. Xi Jinping — a man well known for both his grand vision of China’s future, and for his willingness to get large numbers of people to do things they might not otherwise do — said in 2018 that he wanted 300 million Chinese people to participate in winter sports. The Chinese government announced this week that this goal has been met in honor of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which open in China’s capital on February 4. Multinational companies are consistently impressed by the commercial opportunities created when 300 million people decide to try new things. But it’s an inconvenient truth that most of China’s most abundant snow and best ski slopes are found in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, a place where Western governments and human rights organizations have accused Beijing of imprisoning more than one million minority Uyghurs in re-education camps. In these prisons, critics say inmates have experienced “torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment.” As China’s government opens new profit opportunities in Xinjiang, multinational corporations will face pressure from multiple directions not to invest there.

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Hard Numbers: Tongan emergency fundraising, EU docks Poland pay, new Colombian presidential hopeful, Turkey gets UAE lifeline

345,000: As of Wednesday afternoon ET, Tonga's Olympic flag-bearer has raised more than $345,000 online to help the victims of Saturday's volcanic eruption and tsunami. Pita Taufatofua, a taekwondo fighter and cross-country skier, has not yet heard from his father, governor of the main Tongan island of Haapai.

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China vs COVID in 2022

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COVID at the Beijing Winter Olympics

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