What We’re Watching: Irish reunification, China’s COVID passports, Ethiopian election boycott

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a map of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland

Will Northern Ireland leave the UK? Unifying the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland into one sovereign state has long been a pipedream for Irish nationalists. But recent polls reveal that public sentiment is changing. The combination of demographic shifts and Brexit, which resulted in Northern Ireland exiting the EU as part of the UK, have upped support to break away from London in the near term: one survey found that 42 percent of people in Northern Ireland support reunification, and the number was even higher among the under-45 cohort (47 to 46 percent). Meanwhile, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, which made massive gains in Ireland's general election last year, recently said that Dublin, Belfast, and London need to start getting ready for Irish reunification — and soon. But the issue is extremely difficult to reconcile: The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of bloodshed between Irish nationalists and pro-UK unionists, says that a united Ireland can only be achieved if most Northern Irelanders consent. However, in 2016 most Northern Irish (56 percent) did say they wanted to stay in the EU. Could an Irish reunification referendum actually happen soon?


China launches COVID passport: As the global vaccine effort is well underway, with 313 million shots having been given in 118 countries, China has become one of the first countries in the world to issue an official certificate to show proof of vaccination and test results. Chinese officials are hoping that the new vaccine documents will boost both domestic and international travel for Chinese citizens, but there are two big remaining issues: To date China has only inoculated 4 percent of its population. Though that's still a lot of people, it has a lot of vaccinations to give before this program can really get off the ground. Additionally, it's still unclear which countries will accept China's COVID passport — and which nations Beijing will be willing to accept similar documents from. It's likely that some of the dozens of countries that China is already supplying its own vaccines to, as well as those with tourism-dependent economies that are desperate for cash from Chinese travelers, will be willing to play ball. Nevertheless, China's decision is a major development in the immunity passport saga, and could spur other nations to adopt similar measures as vaccinations become more widespread.

Ethiopian opposition boycotts vote: Two of Ethiopia's main opposition parties have pulled out of the country's June legislative election, citing the jailing of some of their leaders and interference with their parties' operations by the incumbent government. The election is seen as a major test for embattled Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose reputation as a peace lover has taken a massive hit since launching a military offensive in the Tigray region last year, which has displaced over 2 million people. Interestingly, the two factions who are boycotting the polls are ethnic Oromo nationalist parties that used to support Abiy — an Oromo himself — until two years ago, when the PM opened Pandora's box by ushering in ambitious reforms that many Oromos viewed as detrimental to their interests. The tensions boiled over last summer, when Ethiopia was swept by mass protests following the murder of an Oromo nationalist singer. Abiy responded by cracking down on Oromo activists, deepening ethnic tensions in the already divided state. Indeed, Ethiopia's leader is now in a tough spot: his ruling party will now surely win the vote, but that victory will be regarded as illegitimate by large swaths of the population due to the opposition boycott. Expect more political turbulence in the ethnically diverse country as we get closer to the election.

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State of the World

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The President of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term – and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I want to talk about Russia. And you will, of course, be hearing all of the stories about Russia gearing up for a war with Ukraine, taking more territory. The Americans saying don't do it, but not setting up any clear red lines. What's actually going on here? Well, it's worth going back to the last that Biden and Putin met with each other. That was in Geneva back in mid-June. And you'll remember that Biden snapped at the end of the meeting and the press conference. He was asked by someone, "How come you trust Russia, you trust Putin?" And he said, "I don't trust Putin. We'll see what happens over the coming months." Now at that point, Ukraine was not the big topic that was being discussed.

This was on the back of the attacks, the cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline in the United States, clearly coming from criminal gangs in Russia, operating with the full knowledge of the Kremlin. And the big takeaway from the meeting, from the summit, from Biden was telling Putin, "look, you need to put a stop to this because if you don't, they're going to be direct consequences." A stop to what? A stop specifically to cyberattacks emanating from Russia, even if not directly from the Kremlin against critical infrastructure in the United States. Not espionage, which the United States does as well, of course. Not attacks, malware attacks against noncritical infrastructure, which is an annoyance, which the American would like to put an end to. But which Biden was not saying was a red line, but specifically critical infrastructure. And indeed, it's been several months now, almost six months and there has been movement. There has been some progress.

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Watch Ian Bremmer's State of the World 2021 speech live on December 6

WATCH LIVE: Join us Dec 6 at 8 pm ET to hear Ian Bremmer's unique perspective on the most pressing geopolitical events shaping politics, business, and society in our "GZERO" world.

Ian's State of the World speech will examine:

  • Are the US and China engaged in a cold war?
  • How powerful have tech companies become on the global stage?
  • Is there hope for the world to unite to fight climate change and other shared challenges?
A Q&A session with Ian follows, moderated by Julia Chatterley, anchor and correspondent at CNN International. Tweet your questions for Ian to @gzeromedia using the hashtag #SOTW.
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What We’re Watching: Biden and Putin chat, Scholz takes the reins in Germany, Remain in Mexico returns, Pécresse enters the French fray, Suu Kyi learns her fate

World War III or nah? US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to speak by phone on Tuesday, as the crisis surrounding Ukraine gets dicier by the day. Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops along its border with the country, and the US is warning that Putin is gearing up to invade soon, though the underlying intel isn’t public. No one is quite sure what Putin’s up to with this stunt. Is he trying to pressure Kyiv into moving ahead with the lopsided (but probably best possible) Minsk peace accords of 2015? Or is the Kremlin seeking a broader NATO commitment not to expand further? Or does Putin actually want to invade Ukraine? Either way, Biden has his work cut out for him. Putin is clearly more comfortable risking lives and money to preserve a sphere of influence in Ukraine than the West is, so the US president has to be careful: don’t set out any red lines that NATO isn’t willing to back, but also don’t push the situation into a broader war that no one (ideally) wants.

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 The Beijing 2022 logo is seen outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Shougang Park, the site of a former steel mill, in Beijing, China, November 10, 2021

US government reps will boycott Beijing Olympics. The US announced Monday that American government officials will not attend the Beijing Winter Olympics. China responded to reports of the diplomatic boycott by saying that the move is a “naked political provocation” and an affront to China’s 1.4 billion people. For months, the Biden administration has toyed with whether to skip the Beijing Games because of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Washington, however, has not banned US athletes from competing, which would be a major escalation at a time when US-China relations are at their lowest point in years. Still, from Beijing’s perspective, the move is humiliating and a blow to its prestige on the world stage, particularly if other countries follow suit and pull their representatives, too. Beijing vowed Monday to hit Washington with “countermeasures” if it goes ahead with the diplomatic boycott, though it’s unclear what the CCP might whip up as payback.

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 President Hakainde Hichilema presents his national statement as a part of the World Leaders' Summit at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 1, 2021

A harrowing debt default, cinema-worthy corruption cases, and a controversial attempt to change the constitution all provided the backdrop for Hichilema Hakainde’s election as Zambia’s president earlier this year. Despite attempts by incumbent president Edgar Lungu to rig the vote, Hichilema won a landslide victory by promising to boost jobs and crush corruption. But does Hichilema, a businessman-turned-politician, have what it takes to fix the faltering fortunes of Africa’s second-largest copper producer, a country that was once one of the continent’s fastest growing economies?

We sat down with Eurasia Group analyst Connor Vasey to find out how things have gone during the new president’s first few months in office.

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Hard Numbers: Indian Kalashnikovs, Evergrande stock crashes, Gambian president re-elected, UK citizenship law

600,000: Russian President Vladimir Putin met Indian PM Narendra Modi in Delhi on Monday. The two leaders inked a few bilateral defense deals, including one for India to produce more than 600,000 Kalashnikovs to replace old local military rifles.

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Can “cattle boy” fix Zambia?

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