Top Risks 2021

Art by Annie Gugliotta and Jessica Frampton

Every year, Eurasia Group, our parent company, produces its list of the top 10 geopolitical risks for the coming year. This year's report is authored by Eurasia Group's president, Ian Bremmer, and its chairman, Cliff Kupchan.


(Full disclosure: Ian Bremmer is my boss, and I've been working on Eurasia Group Top Risks reports for 16 years.)

For 2021, Bremmer and Kupchan double down on the accelerating polarization at the heart of the world's sole superpower. Last year's report opened with the question "Who Governs the US?" Top Risk #1 centered on the election-year threat to the integrity of American political institutions.

This year's Top Risk #1 is titled "46*," as Joe Biden's term opens the era of the asterisk presidency, a time when every Oval Office occupant is seen as illegitimate by roughly half the country — and (some of) the lawmakers that election skeptics send to Congress. This week's expected insurrection by dozens of Republican lawmakers on behalf of outgoing President Trump and his charges of election fraud on the floors of the US House and Senate underline the depth of partisan bitterness.

The significance beyond US borders is that Republicans and Democrats will disagree sharply — with each other and among themselves — over most of the objectives of US foreign policy.

In addition, the size of Trump's base, and the broadening of that base to include more minority voters, leaves allies and potential partners wondering whether the next "America First" president and foreign policy are just four years away.

Top Risk #2 is called "Long COVID" to capture the lingering impact of COVID-19 on both political stability in many countries and the global economy. The pandemic will leave a legacy of high debt, displaced workers, and lost trust. The distribution of vaccines will further divide haves from have nots, both within and among nations, stoking anti-incumbent anger and public unrest in many countries.

Here are brief summaries of Top Risks 3-10.

#3 - Climate: Net Zero meets G-Zero

Climate policy will move from the playground of global cooperation to the arena of global competition. China's long-standing industrial policy approach will now face a much more aggressive climate push from Washington. Some parts of the clean energy supply chain will face political pressures like those seen in the tech sector. The push for net-zero emissions targets will create enormous opportunities for private capital, but winners and losers will be determined as often by political factors as by market forces.

#4 - US-China competition broadens

A shared desire in Washington and Beijing for stability in US-China relations will briefly ease headline tensions, but intensifying vaccine diplomacy and climate tech competition will combine with longstanding frictions over questions like trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea to further complicate the US-China rivalry.

#5 - Global data reckoning

A slowdown or halt to the free flow of sensitive data across borders will raise costs for companies, and disrupt popular apps and digital business models. This risk begins with the US and China, but it doesn't end there. Even as the data-driven 5G and AI revolutions gain steam, other governments concerned about who is accessing their citizens' data – and how – will erode the foundation of the open global internet.

#6 - Cyber tipping point

A combination of low-probability but high-impact risks and inexorable technology trends will make 2021 the year that cyber conflict creates unprecedented technological and geopolitical risk in cyberspace.

#7 - (Out in the) cold Turkey

Economic setbacks in 2021 and Turkey's poor COVID response will leave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struggling to win back voters disillusioned with his two-decade rule. That will encourage Erdogan to launch more foreign-policy adventures to fuel nationalism and distract his supporters, but in 2021, Turkey's president won't have international friends to shield him from the consequences.

#8 - Middle East: Low oil takes a toll

Energy-producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa faced a collapse in global energy demand in 2020 that left governments from Algeria to Iran with less cash flowing into their coffers as the pandemic sickened citizens and weakened economies. 2021 will be worse, because energy prices will remain low. Reforms will slow, and protests will grow.

#9 - Europe after Merkel

Angela Merkel's departure later this year after 15 years as Germany's chancellor will drive risk in Europe. The EU faces an economic hangover from lockdowns in several countries, and Merkel won't be there to encourage flexibility in the multilateral response. Without Merkel to serve as a strong and neutral negotiator, diplomatic efforts to resolve energy and territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean will struggle. The EU position will become more hawkish as France pushes more member states to get tough with Turkey.

#10 - Latin America disappoints

Governments in Latin America face intensified versions of the formidable political, social, and economic problems they confronted before the pandemic. There will be no large-scale vaccinations until late in the year, and countries are poorly positioned to deal with another COVID wave before then.

Agree with this list? Disagree? Tell us what you think, Signal readers!

Each month, Microsoft receives about 6,500 complaints from people who've been victims of tech support scams. But it's not just Microsoft's brand that the scammers leverage; fraudsters have pretended to be from a number of other reputable tech companies and service providers. These scams will remain an industry-wide challenge until sufficient people are educated about how they work and how to avoid them.

To measure the scope of this problem globally, Microsoft commissioned YouGov for a new 2021 survey across 16 countries. Results from the 2021 survey reveal that, globally, fewer consumers have been exposed to tech support scams as compared to the 2018 survey. However, those people who continued with the interaction were more likely to have lost money to the scammers than we saw in our previous survey. To read the highlights of the survey, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Next week, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who is ideologically and personally close to Iran's 82 year-old supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be inaugurated as Iran's president. This power transition comes as the country experiences a fresh wave of protests that started in Iran's southwest over water shortages earlier this month and has since spilled over into dozens of provinces.

Some close observers of Iranian society and politics say that popular discontent there is now more widespread than it has been in years, making the Iranian regime more vulnerable than ever.

More Show less

Was the world so focused on climate change that warning signs about the COVID-19 pandemic were missed? Historian and author Niall Ferguson argues that, while the climate crisis poses a long-term threat to humanity, other potential catastrophes are much more dangerous in the near future. "We took our eye off that ball," Ferguson says about COVID, "despite numerous warnings, because global climate change has become the issue that Greta Thunberg said, would bring the end of the world. But the point I'm making in DOOM [his new book] is that we can end the world and a lot of other ways, much faster." Ferguson spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview for GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Predictable disaster and the surprising history of shocks

Tunisia, the only country that emerged a democracy from the Arab Spring, is now in the middle of its worst political crisis since it got rid of former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over a decade ago.

On Sunday, the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, President Kais Saied responded to widespread protests over the ailing economy and COVID by firing embattled Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspending parliament for 30 days. Troops have surrounded the legislature, where rival crowds faced off on Monday, with one side chanting in support of the move and the other denouncing it as a coup.

How did we get here, do we even know who's really in charge, and what might come next?

More Show less

Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week:

As COVID-19 cases rise, are vaccine mandates coming?

Oh, you just want to get me in more trouble. Yeah, some mandates are coming, but they're not national mandates in the United States. In some cases, you're looking at federal and state employees, in some cases you're looking at lots of individual corporations, universities, and such. I mean I've already been to a number of events where vaccines have been mandated in New York. You've got this Excelsior Pass if you want to go to the Brooklyn Nets games, as I certainly do. You show it off and that gets you in with your vaccine. So I think it's really going to be a decentralized process. But clearly, given Delta variant and the number of people that are getting sick and dying because they're not vaccinated, you're going to see moves towards more mandates, as a consequence.

More Show less

Castillo takes over in Peru: After almost two months of protests, baseless allegations of fraud from his rival in the runoff election, and even rumblings of a coup, Pedro Castillo will be sworn in as president of Peru on Wednesday. A former rural school-teacher famous for riding on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat and waving a giant pencil to show how much he cares about education, Castillo has big plans to achieve big change. But he won by just a razor-thin margin in a deeply divided country, and Peru's dysfunctional political system will likely hobble his attempts to get major legislation passed. Moreover, despite having moderated his positions, half of the country still sees him as a communist who might turn Peru into another Venezuela. Castillo's most immediate task is dealing with the twin crises of a deadly pandemic and a COVID-fueled economic crisis that has hit poor Peruvians — his base — the hardest.

More Show less

13: The two Koreas have restored their communication hotline almost 13 months after Pyongyang abruptly cut it in response to Seoul not doing enough to prevent North Korean defectors from sending propaganda leaflets across the shared border. The hotline was established in 2018 following a historic meeting between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

More Show less

Now that the Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, your Signal crew will be bringing you some intriguing, uplifting, and quirky facts about the Games that have many people on edge.

Today — what's the smallest country (by population) to win a gold medal in a summer Olympics?

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal