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.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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More than a dozen COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved or are currently in early use globally, and COVAX, the global initiative started last year by the World Health Organization and other partners, is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for all. But most of the half billion jabs given so far have gone to citizens of wealthy countries, with half going to the US and China alone. What's the problem with so-called vaccine nationalism? Ian Bremmer explains that besides the clear humanitarian concerns, the continued global spread of COVID increases the risk of new mutations and variants that can threaten the entire world, vaccinated or not.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Should wealthy individuals and nations shoulder more of the burden in addressing climate change? Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that Big Tech leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should shift more of their focus to fighting for our own planet's survival, instead of space exploration. "We're doing as much as we can to make life difficult on planet Earth for ourselves. But there's virtually nothing we could do to make it as difficult as life on Mars, where there's, among other things, no oxygen." Kolbert, the author of Under a White Sky, discusses why it's so crucial for a few rich countries to bear most of the climate burden, since they're also the biggest emitters. Her conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 16. Check local listings.

In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.

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Fighting climate change is about making the planet get less hot. The more quickly countries slow down their carbon emissions, the faster that'll happen. All the more important for the nations that pollute the most — but not all of them are on board. Although the majority, including China, are setting future targets to go Net Zero, India doesn't want to commit (yet) to when to stop burning fossil fuels to spur economic growth. We take a look at when the world's top polluting economies intend to go carbon-neutral, compared with their share of global emissions, of renewable energy as a source of electricity, and percentage of global coal consumption.

Peruvian runoff: Perú's presidential election is going to a runoff in June between two surprise and polarizing contenders, each of whom won less than 20 percent of votes in a highly fragmented first round. Pedro Castillo, a far-left union leader and teacher who benefited from a late surge in the polls, will battle rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Castillo wants to rewrite the constitution to weaken the political influence of the country's business elite and maybe to allow the state to nationalize parts of the mining sector to pay for social programs for the poor. Fujimori wants to use mining revenues to create jobs by investing in infrastructure and healthcare. The runoff will probably be a national referendum on Fujimori, a divisive figure running for the top job for the third time. No Peruvian president has ever left office without facing corruption charges, but Fujimori already faces several — and she'll avoid jail time if she wins.

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900 million: Egypt has impounded the Ever Given, the ship that recently blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week, until its owners pay some $900 million in compensation for losses and the cost of the rescue operation. The blockage of this major naval chokepoint caused severe disruption to the global maritime shipping industry.

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