Top Risks 2020

Top Risks 2020

Each January, Eurasia Group, our parent company, publishes its forecast of the top ten global political risk stories of the coming year. You can read the full report here:

The report's authors, Ian Bremmer (our boss) and Cliff Kupchan (fan favorite), raised a lot of eyebrows today by choosing US politics as risk #1 for 2020. We'll detail that choice here, and then touch (very) briefly on the rest of this year's list.

#1 - Rigged!: Who Governs the US? - If the November US presidential vote is close—most of us think it will be—the loser will challenge the legitimacy of the result. And unlike the contested George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election 20 years ago, this year's loser, regardless of party, is much less likely to simply accept a court-decided outcome as the final word.


Making matters more intense in 2020: The United States is already a deeply polarized nation and, unlike in 2000, the current president believes America's divisions are politically useful.

If Trump wins, Democrats will charge Republicans with "voter suppression" in closely contested states and accuse them of benefitting from foreign interference, particularly from Russia, in the election process. If Trump loses, he'll charge that millions of people voted illegally and that a hopelessly biased media distorted the process.

Whatever the veracity of these charges, millions of Americans on the losing side will decide to believe them—no matter the available evidence. That's why the controversy is as likely to play out in (potentially violent) protests as in the courts.

Then there's the impact, even before votes are counted, on US foreign policy and its implications for other countries. Bremmer and Kupchan argue that President Trump is more likely to "pet the dog" than to "wag the dog," meaning that he's more likely to make bad diplomatic deals that give way too much to Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-un than to deliberately start a war. (Iran news notwithstanding.)

The bottom line: Inside the distracted and divided military superpower, a president prone to erratic decision-making and an opposition that hates him will face voters ready to render judgment on the political status quo. What could possibly go wrong?

On to the rest of the list…

#2- The Great Decoupling

In 2020, the ongoing decoupling of the US and China will move beyond strategic technologies like semiconductors, cloud computing, and 5G into broader trade and investment. This trend will plague the $5 trillion global tech sector, but also create a deepening economic, and cultural divide that could become permanent, casting a chill over global business.

#3- US/China

As this decoupling occurs, US-China tensions will provoke a more explicit clash over national security, influence, and values. The two sides will continue to use economic tools in this struggle—sanctions, export controls, and boycotts—with shorter fuses and goals that are more explicitly political. Confrontation will grow over Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Uighurs, the South China Sea, and a host of other issues.

#4- MNCs not to the rescue

Far from filling the gaps on critical issues like trade liberalization and climate change created by underperforming national governments, multinational corporations will face new pressures from political officials, both elected and unelected, eager to reassert their authority in 2020.

#5- India gets Modi-fied

Prime Minister Modi's recent actions signal that, to bolster his popularity, he'll move toward religious and economic nationalism and away from the reforms that have lifted the country's economy. State-level opposition to Modi's moves will further polarize the country.

#6- Geopolitical Europe

European officials will chart a more independent course this year—on trade, regulation, and even security. Friction with both the US and China is inevitable.

#7- Politics vs. Economics of Climate Change

As erratic weather takes a heavier human, economic, and political toll around the world, climate change will put governments, investors, and society at large on a collision course with corporate decision-makers, who must choose between carbon reduction commitments and their bottom lines.

#8- Shia Crescendo

The failure of US policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Syria creates serious risks for the Middle East. Though their histories suggest that neither Trump nor Iran's leaders want all-out war, they might well stumble into a costly confrontation. Iraq is now caught between Iran's orbit and state failure. Feckless US policy in Syria isn't helping.

#9- Discontent in Latin America

Following a year of protests and political turnover in multiple Latin American countries, public anger over sluggish growth, corruption, and low-quality public services will keep the risk of political instability high across the region in 2020. Vulnerable middle classes expect more from their governments.

#10- Turkey

President Erdogan's fortunes are in steep decline. Key political allies are becoming rivals, Turkey's economy is in trouble, and outside pressures are growing. When things go badly, Erdogan tends to lash out.

Red Herrings

You don't see populism, Brexit, North Korea, Syria, or Venezuela on this list. That's not because Bremmer and Kupchan expect these stories to disappear, but because they believe that all of them remain long-term issues that are likely to remain (relatively) quiet through 2020.

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"The people are stronger," pro-democracy demonstrators chanted as news broke that the Sudanese military had staged a coup Monday, overthrowing the joint civilian-military government and dashing hopes of democracy in the war-torn country.

The backstory. In 2019, Omar al-Bashir – a despot who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for 30 years – was deposed after a months-long popular uprising.

Al-Bashir was a bad guy: he cozied up to terrorists like Osama bin Laden and dropped barrel bombs on his own people. He also embezzled truck loads of money from oil production while millions of Sudanese went hungry, and oversaw a genocide in the Darfur region that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 1.6 million.

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Sort of, but governments haven't lost all control yet. On the one hand, The Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson says that governments can still push tech companies for transparency in their algorithms, while Microsoft has partnered with the US government to together fight hackers "so the company is seen as a champion for freedom and democracy." On the other, over time Thompson expects tech firms in the US and China to gradually become more powerful as the state becomes less powerful toward them. Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

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

As COP26 nears, the need for real climate action has never been more urgent. There are reasons for hope, but many scientists believe the ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is unattainable without immediate and significant change. Governments, financial institutions, and private sector companies alike have all recognized the need for a multistakeholder approach to solving this crisis of a lifetime.

Watch "Climate Crisis: Is net zero really possible?" a one-hour virtual livestream, hosted by GZERO Media and Microsoft as part of the Global Stage series, to hear scientists, corporate leaders and policymakers debate this question and offer critical perspectives on the way forward. Live on Tuesday, November 2nd at 11am ET, we'll break down what "net zero" means, take stock of where the world is on the path to carbon neutrality, and discuss critical steps needed to make real progress.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hey everybody and happy Monday. Back in the office, getting a little cool. So I've got my sweater going on. It's the first time I've had a sweater on. What do you do with that? Discussing fashion, as I talk to you about what is on my mind this week?

And what's on my mind this week, Facebook. Facebook is on my mind. It's a tough week for Facebook. There are all sorts of whistleblowers out there. There's testimony going on. There's calls for regulation. Everybody seems unhappy with them. Indeed, you even got the government relations types, Nick Clegg, who I've known for a long time back when he was a policymaker in the UK saying that the headlines are going to be rough, but we're are going to get through it. But I will say, first of all, I'm kind of skeptical that any of this goes anywhere in terms of impact on how Facebook actually operates.

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Turkey's Erdogan ups the ante with the West: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared diplomats from 10 Western countries "persona non-grata" after the group — which includes the US, France, and Germany — called on Ankara to release Osman Kavala, a Parisian-born Turkish businessman who's been held in jail since 2017 but hasn't been charged with a crime. Erdogan says that Kavala was involved in an attempted coup against the government in 2016. This latest move is a sign of Turkey's authoritarian drift in recent years, which has seen Erdogan's government increasingly crack down on opposition members as well as journalists. It also reflects Turkey's increasingly fraught relations with the West: things got particularly bad between Washington and Ankara after Turkey purchased missile defense systems from the Russians in 2019. The Council of Europe (the continent's leading human rights organization) had previously warned that Ankara has until November to release Kavala or it would impose "infringements," though it's unclear what those would be.

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ASEAN gets tough(ish) with Myanmar: The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet Tuesday for their annual summit with one notable absence: the head of Myanmar's military junta. It's a rare snub from ASEAN, a regional bloc that's gotten a lot of heat in the past for giving tyrants a free pass. The junta says ASEAN violated its traditional principles of deciding by consensus by disinviting its leader, and non-interference in domestic affairs for demanding the bloc's special envoy meet detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For their part, the other ASEAN members have grown visibly alarmed at Myanmar's rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation since the February coup, and they're worried about the spillover effects of Myanmar becoming a failed state. More importantly, Myanmar is a big thorn in ASEAN's side as it walks a fine line between keeping warm ties with the US — which most members want cash and security from — and getting along with China, one of Myanmar's few remaining friends and viewed with suspicion by most ASEAN members over its South China Sea shenanigans.

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149: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record-high 413.2 parts per million in 2020, 149 percent above pre-industrial levels. A new report by the UN weather agency released ahead of the COP26 climate summit found that last year's lower emissions due to COVID-related lockdowns had no impact on the overall amount of greenhouse gases causing global warming.

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