2021's Top Risks: global challenges intensify

Eurasia Group today published its annual list of the main geopolitical threats for 2021. For the second year in a row, the #1 Top Risk is rising political polarization in the United States, which not many years ago was deemed one of the world's most stable nations, with strong institutions and — as the sole global superpower — with a clear mandate to lead the world on many fronts.

That's all gone, for now. Why, and what does this mean for America and other countries?


As outgoing US President Donald Trump continues to undermine democracy by questioning his recent election loss to Joe Biden, and Republican lawmakers heed Trump's call to erode the legitimacy of US political institutions, we've reached a new normal in American politics, Eurasia Group Chairman Cliff Kupchan said during a livestream discussion to launch the 2021 Top Risks report.

That new normal is that in future US elections, the American president will be rejected by half the country no matter his agenda, Kupchan explained: in the current political environment, the world simply cannot look to the US to solve any global problem, much less a once-in-a-generation crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

For Ian Bremmer, president of GZERO Media and Eurasia Group, America is in no position to provide global leadership at a moment when other countries would have hugely benefited from it, so other rising powers may fill the void created by the US abdication from its own role as superpower. The prime candidate to do so is China, which is increasingly competing with the US for global influence.

Indeed, Kupchan expects US-China rivalry to intensify — albeit in a different way than under Trump — when Biden takes office. There'll be a bidding war between both sides to win global hearts and minds as the new US president attempts to "multilateralize" US competition with China on issues such as COVID-19 vaccines or green technology.

Bremmer believes that China has the upper hand in vaccine diplomacy, and that unless Biden's US vaccine rollout is a roaring success, China is better positioned to exercise its soft power throughout the developing world with jabs that are cheaper and easier to distribute than the American vaccines.

Sustainability will be another arena for competition. Biden will try to clip China's wings on Chinese quest to benefit economically from the world's renewed push for renewable energy due to the pandemic, Bremmer added.

A longer-than-expected recovery from COVID-19, furthermore, is poised to make the world even more "GZERO" than it was a year ago. Kupchan said that the lasting scar tissue of the pandemic will create haves and have nots between and within countries in a leaderless world where the US is simply too divided to govern itself — let alone the international system it helped create after World War II.

For Bremmer, the coronavirus did not spur a more "GZERO" world, which we were already in before COVID-19, but underscored its urgency by accelerating all other geopolitical risks. It made everything a lot worse, a lot faster.

Watch the above video for more insights from both experts on other 2021 Top Risks, including why we'll see huge inequality in how different parts of the world recover from the 2020 public health crisis, and questions posed by readers. Check out the full report here and GZERO Media's summary here.

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This weekend, world leaders will open the COP26 climate summit, the UN's annual climate change conference, in Glasgow. Some insist this event is crucial to the multinational fight to limit the effects of climate change; others dismiss it as a circus that will feature politicos, protesters and celebrities competing for attention – one that's long on lofty promises and short on substance.

What's on the agenda?

Political leaders and negotiators from more than 120 countries will gather to talk about two big subjects. First, how to reduce the heat-trapping carbon emissions that scientists warn can inflict catastrophic damage on millions of people. This is where they'll offer their "nationally determined contributions," diplomatic jargon for their updated promises on their climate goals. Second, how to help poorer countries pay for adaptation to the climate damage that's already unavoidable.

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What pandemic result will have the largest and longest-lasting impact on women? Is the world really building back better for half the global population? How can we ensure that the post-pandemic recovery is fair to women? And how does this all play into a wider GZERO world? A group of global experts debated these and other questions during a livestream conversation hosted by GZERO Media in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, moderated by eNCA senior news anchor Tumelo Mothotoane.

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Iran to resume nuclear talks — but it might be too late. Iran's top negotiator says that his country is now ready to rejoin talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Those negotiations have been on ice since June, when a hardline new Iranian president was "elected." But hopes for a breakthrough are slim. For one thing, Iran and the US still disagree about who should do what first: Tehran wants the toughest US sanctions lifted immediately, while the Americans say no way until Iran stops steaming ahead with its nuclear programs. (For a good primer, check out this Puppet Regime.) The other big obstacle now is that since Donald Trump ditched the deal in 2018, Iran has made immense progress in enriching uranium, breaking through all the limits set by the original agreement. Reviving that pact would now entail forcing the Iranians to give that all up, which Iran's hardline leadership is very unlikely to do, while Washington certainly won't want to write up a new deal that accepts Iran's recent nuclear activity — in fact, the Biden administration is under pressure to impose fresh sanctions. Fresh talks are good, but things don't look promising.

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Less than a year after the world started putting COVID vaccines into people's arms, most regions have immunized at least half their populations, but Africa still lags behind. With industrialized nations hoarding jabs and the COVAX facility faltering, barely five percent of the African population is fully vaccinated.

Some enterprising South African scientists are now making a bold bid to change that, with an experiment that could benefit not only Africa's 54 nations and billion people, but the entire world: Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a Cape Town-based startup, has developed a plan to reverse-engineer Moderna's mRNA shot and manufacture it for priority distribution on the continent.

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11: Hit by a massive new COVID wave, Moscow has issued an 11-day lockdown of schools, businesses, and all "non-essential" services. Russia is now one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, having recorded 400,000 deaths by some estimates. Russia's high rate of vaccine skepticism isn't helping.

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

Has Russian behavior in cyber changed after President Biden and President Putin's meeting earlier this year?

Well, unfortunately, we see ongoing assertiveness and aggression from the Russian side, targeting the US government, but also US tech companies. And the fact that there is so little accountability probably keeps motivating. Shortly before the Russian elections, Apple and Google removed an app built by opposition parties, to help voters identify the best candidate to challenge Putin's party. The company sided pressure on their employees in Russia, but of course, the pressure on the Russian population is constant. And after these dramatic events, the silence from Western governments was deafening.

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No government today has the toolbox to tinker with Big Tech – that's why it's time to start thinking of the biggest tech companies as bona fide "digital nation states" with their own foreign relations, Ian Bremmer explains on GZERO World. Never has a small group of companies held such an expansive influence over humanity. And in this vast new digital territory, governments have little idea what to do.

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Big Tech: Global sovereignty, unintended consequences

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