At the start of 2021, the United States is the most powerful, politically divided, and economically unequal of the world’s industrial democracies. China is America’s strongest competitor, a state capitalist, authoritarian, and techno-surveillance regime that is increasingly mistrusted by most G20 countries. Germany and Japan are much more stable, but the most powerful leaders both have had in decades are out (former prime minister Abe Shinzo) or on their way out (Chancellor Angela Merkel). Russia is in decline and blames the US and the West for its woes. And the world is in the teeth of the worst crisis it has experienced in generations.
Happy New Year.
You’d hope a global pandemic would prove an opportunity for the world’s leaders to work together. That was at least mostly true after 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis. Both were smaller in scale but set against a broadly aligned geopolitical order … and politically functional United States. Not so today.
That matters because just as 2020 was overwhelmingly about healthcare responses to Covid-19 (and how much many governments got wrong), 2021 will overwhelmingly be about economic responses to Covid-19’s lingering symptoms and scar tissue (debt burdens and misaligned politics), even as vaccines roll out and the healthcare emergency fades. As economic issues come to the fore, there is no global leadership on political models, trade standards, and international architecture to follow.
In decades past, the world would look to the US to restore predictability in times of crisis. But the world’s preeminent superpower faces big challenges of its own, from unemployment and lack of economic opportunity to questions about President-elect Joe Biden’s political effectiveness and longevity, the future of the Republican Party, and the very legitimacy of the US political model. The credibility of US foreign policy and the sustainability of US domestic policy will be tested this year as they’ve not been in the postwar era.
A superpower torn down the middle cannot return to business as usual. And when the most powerful country is so divided, everybody has a problem. Despite an economic recovery, the geopolitical recession—and the factors driving our G-Zero world—will intensify as a result.
And so, we go to our Top Risk #1, 46*.