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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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