2021 – the story of a year in 12 leaders

In 2021, the world will slowly begin to fight back against Covid. But what else will change as the vaccines are administered? Here are the figures who will shape a vital year


Joe Biden United States

The year will begin on a positive note: the inauguration of Joe Biden as 46th US president on 20 January. Biden is in the restoration business. The US will quickly rejoin the Paris climate change agreement and the World Health Organization. He will offer closer cooperation with allies in Europe and Asia and, as the Covid-19 vaccine rollout accelerates, he plans a big stimulus package to revive the US economy.

The appointments Biden makes to his cabinet presage a return to multilateralism and a re-set of the rules-based international order. His flagship initiative is a new “alliance of democracies”.

This appears intended to counter China while avoiding head-on confrontation with Beijing. Ties with other authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, will be frostier. New trade deals, such as that sought by the UK, are on hold pending a US recovery, he says.

Biden’s honeymoon will be brief. Unless Democrats win both run-off elections in Georgia on 5 January and gain control of the US Senate, the president-elect may struggle to make his legislative mark.

He must contend with a conservative-dominated supreme court where a battle looms over abortion rights. Those hoping for swift action on police violence, and racism in general, may be disappointed – and may turn against him.

Biden faces three personal political challenges in 2021: the “stolen election” myth peddled by Donald Trump, who – if he stays out of jail – will use TV platforms and his fanbase to de-legitimise his successor; leftwing Democrats opposed to his centrist policies; and nagging questions about his health, which, at the age of 78, could become a distraction.


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey

Turkey’s president, who will turn 67 in February and is celebrating 20 years since he founded the ruling Justice and Development party, is the archetypal elected “strongman”. The global power struggle between such leaders and reformist, pro-democracy forces from Peru and Thailand to Belarus and Hong Kong will characterise 2021.

Like many such leaders, Erdoğan runs an aggressive foreign policy intended to whip up nationalist-patriotic sentiment and distract from domestic problems. Thus the year will see more violence against Kurds in Syria and more Turkish meddling in Libya, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Yet Trump’s departure, and Biden’s less sympathetic approach, may encourage Erdoğan to patch up relations with the EU, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Copycat authoritarians seem unbowed despite the loss of the defeated US president’s patronage. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may soon succeed the ailing 85-year-old King Salman. At least MBS does not pretend to be a democrat. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, claims a bogus mandate for ever more repressive, incompetent rule, as do Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. None of them will have it all their own way in 2021.

India’s Narendra Modi is another elected autocrat who has successfully replicated the populist majoritarian model. Modi, too, may face growing domestic pushback in 2021.

The success of such leaders arises in part from western connivance, indifference or realpolitik. Notwithstanding Biden, there’s scant reason to believe this will change significantly.

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad Illustration: Bela Jude


Bashar al-Assad Syria

Syria’s catastrophic civil war will be 10 years old in March. Its cities have been destroyed, its people killed or displaced in their millions, and yet still the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, survives. Pressure to prosecute him and other war criminals will grow in 2021. But Assad can still count on Russia and Iran to protect him. A final military push this spring in Idlib, the last province outside regime control, threatens a new refugee catastrophe.

This year will also mark 20 years of war in Afghanistan, dating back to the 11 September 2001 attacks. Peace talks between the government and Taliban will probably stumble on, even as fighting escalates. Biden wants to get out but will not do so without a credible peace deal. As the Taliban pushes for total victory, that may prove as elusive as ever. And as ever, neighbours and rivals India and Pakistan will try to shape any settlement.

For people living in other conflict zones, 2021 will be a year of living dangerously. Hopes are rising that another “forever war”, in Libya, may be nearer resolution after a ceasefire was agreed last autumn. If all goes well, elections could be held this year. But the country remains a proxy battleground for regional states. The Yemen conflict could also begin to wind down if, as pledged, Biden obliges the Saudis to pull back. Meanwhile, Ethiopia enters 2021 fighting a pointless “whatever war” in Tigray.


Emmanuel Macron France

It’s four years this month since a young political upstart, Emmanuel Macron, narrowly won the first round of France’s presidential election and went on to seize the Élysée. In April 2022, Macron will face voters again. Prominent among the issues on which he will be judged will be his record as a champion of French secularism – laïcité – and his handling of Islamist terrorism and “separatism”.

Unlike other western leaders, Macron offers an ideological rebuttal of extremists’ attempts to divide people by religious belief, upholding the egalitarian, republican principle of universal citizenship. Critics say his stance has provoked the jihadists. France has suffered a string of attacks by individuals or small terror cells. 2021 may bring similar horrors there and elsewhere.

Overall, however, the frequency of Islamist terror attacks in Europe declined in 2020, according to the Global Terrorism Index, and this downward trend may continue in 2021. Syria, Iraq and the wider Arab world have also seen reduced Islamist violence. The main focus in 2021, especially for Islamic State (Isis) affiliates, will be sub-Saharan Africa, notably Mozambique, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and northern Nigeria, where a resurgent Boko Haram has been terrorising rural areas.

The coming year may also see a continuation of recent increases in far-right and white supremacist violence in Europe and the US, where it has become a bigger threat than jihadism. The rise, fanned by populist politicians and fuelled by social alienation, inequality, poor education and racial hatred, could be exacerbated by the pandemic.


Nicola Sturgeon Scotland

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon Illustration: Bela Jude

Britain faces a daunting triple challenge in 2021: halting the Covid-19 nightmare while attempting an economic recovery; dealing with post Brexit chaos; and avoiding a constitutional crisis and the break-up of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will play a key role in all three dramas, but it is the latter – her Scottish National party’s drive for independence – that may dominate as the year goes on.

If, as expected, the SNP sweeps to victory in May’s Scottish parliament elections, the drive for a second referendum will be on, but UK prime minister Boris Johnson insists he will not allow another vote. No one knows what might happen then. Some point to Catalonia, which held an independence referendum in 2017 in defiance of Spain’s government. That ended badly.

Sturgeon is popular, but many Scots say health and the post-Brexit, post-Covid economy are more pressing issues than independence.

Johnson will face more political storms. This year will be Britain’s first fully outside the EU since 1973, and the country looks chronically unprepared. His mishandling of the pandemic destroyed Johnson’s public standing. 2021 will be a bumpy year for him.


Hassan Rouhani Iran

Iran’s presidential election on 18 June and the departure of the two-term incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, who cannot stand again, could be a turning point for the Middle East. Rouhani was a disappointment. He failed to deliver promised reforms and oversaw a period of domestic repression and economic recession caused by Covid, corruption and US sanctions. But at least he was not against dialogue with the west.

That window is closing. The discrediting of Rouhani’s moderate, pragmatic approach has given Iran’s diehard anti-western conservatives and military chiefs their chance. If their candidate (no one has yet been selected) wins the presidency, it could scupper hopes of a fresh start with Tehran. Hossein Dehghan, a top Revolutionary Guard Corps commander and adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is a hot tip.

Much hinges region-wide on the character of the post-Rouhani era. Iran’s confrontation with Israel, waged through proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Gaza, may intensify if hardliners take charge. So, too, could the regional contest with the Arab Gulf states as Saudi Arabia debates whether to follow the UAE and Bahrain in making peace with Israel. Iran’s moderates hope an early offer of sanctions relief from Biden will turn the election their way.

This year may see another big Middle East moment: the political demise of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who faces bribery and fraud charges and whose governing coalition is tottering. Yet no matter who succeeds him, there may be further erosion of Palestinian hopes of an independent state as more Arab countries cut deals with Israel and each other.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping Illustration: Bela Jude


Xi Jinping China

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party by, among others, Mao Zedong.

China’s modern-day Mao, de facto president-for-life Xi Jinping, exercises possibly even greater personal power. Under his direction China has moved from “peaceful rise” to aggressive would-be hegemon. 2021 will see increasingly coordinated western push-back.

China’s attempts to bully middle-ranking countries such as Australia and Canada by taking hostages and blocking imports, its sneering contempt for declining post-colonial European powers such as the UK, and its new willingness to defy major competitors such as India and the US presages a tough year of deepening friction on a wide range of fronts.

Flashpoints include Beijing’s attacks on democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan; its military buildup, especially in the South China Sea and Himalayas; human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet; the global expansion of Chinese tech companies such as Huawei; western trade sanctions and protectionism; and strategic competition for resources and influence in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America – as well as in outer space.

The intense debate in Britain about engagement with China – specifically over Chinese investment in critical security infrastructure such as communications and nuclear power – will be mirrored across Europe, where Beijing is wooing disaffected EU members and non-EU Balkan countries such as Serbia.

Biden says he wants to cool things down. But he will not lift sanctions until the US economy is stronger and US-led coalitions are assembled to play Beijing at its own global game.


António Guterres United Nations

The rescheduled 2020 Olympics – the ultimate symbol and practical manifestation of one-world internationalism – will reach a climax in Tokyo in August, assuming the Games are not delayed again. The spirit of global cooperation will be needed more than ever in 2021 as the world struggles to recover from the pandemic. Leading the comeback fight is António Guterres, the UN secretary-general.

Wealthier countries may find their own ways to escape Covid, but it falls to Guterres and the UN’s agencies to try to ensure everyone else is eventually safe. A record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021, a 40% increase that the UN attributes almost entirely to Covid-19. The world must “stand with people in their darkest hour of need”, Guterres says – and wants $35bn to pay for it.

Unfair competition for effective, affordable vaccines may hinder that aim. The independent People’s Vaccine Alliance predicts people in up to 70 lower-income countries will lose out in 2021’s coming “vaccine race”. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that 40 million people are at increased risk of discrimination and rights abuses, including human trafficking and child recruitment – part of a Covid-created “coping crisis”. The number of refugees settled in safe countries is at a record low.

All this comes on top of existing challenges such as water shortages that will affect more than 3 billion people in 2021, half of them severely, as a result of rising demand and climate breakdown.

Six countries – Afghanistan, Yemen, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and South Sudan – face famine in 2021.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel Illustration: Bela Jude


Angela Merkel Germany

Federal elections in September will mark the political retirement of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005 and the first woman to hold the job. Her departure will be a watershed for Germany and Europe. The race to succeed her as leader of the Christian Democrats will climax this month. September’s elections could bring big changes. Attention will focus in particular on the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany.

The loss of Merkel as a steadying, unifying influence will be felt keenly within the EU, especially on touchstone issues such as eurozone alignment, Europe’s budget and Nato. France’s Macron champions a vision of a stronger, more integrated “global Europe” that fights for its values and interests. Merkel often applied a brake. As she bows out and French elections approach, Franco-German tensions may spill into the open.

Support for European far-right populist parties has appeared to slip of late but they will remain an important factor in 2021, not least in the unresolved debate over migration. In successfully defying the Brussels commission on rule of law and gender and media freedom issues, the illiberal Polish and Hungarian governments set a bad example that others may follow.

With a new US administration focused primarily on domestic problems, with China’s tanks metaphorically parked on its lawn, and with Russia playing the neighbour from hell, Europe faces a year of challenges that could further test its unity. Does it throw itself back into Washington’s arms, try to hold the ring between the US and China, or go it alone? Does it create a “two-speed” EU? These big questions could nevertheless be overshadowed by the extended battle against Covid and, to a lesser degree, fallout from the Brexit fiasco.


Vladimir Putin Russia

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin Illustration: Bela Jude

Vladimir Putin was born in St Petersburg, then Leningrad, on 7 October 1952, 35 years after the October Revolution that eventually produced the Soviet Union. This year marks 30 years since the USSR imploded. The former KGB spook has spent his political career since 1999 as prime minister and president, trying – and failing – to resurrect the Soviet empire. Putin may need a second October revolution to hold present-day Russia together.

He appears secure after a rigged constitutional referendum theoretically allowed him two more six-year presidential terms. But Putin looks tired and isolated. He has cut himself off during the pandemic. His popularity is falling. Oil revenue, Russia’s life-blood, has plunged. He and his allies face difficult parliamentary elections in September amid mounting economic problems and unrest in Russia’s far east.

The bungled attempt to poison Putin’s best-known challenger, Alexei Navalny, strengthened domestic opposition. Meanwhile, Putin’s efforts to reconquer Russia’s “near abroad” are unravelling. Belarus’s popular uprising refuses to be quelled. Anti-Moscow, pro-democracy sentiment is strong in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The recent Armenia-Azerbaijan war exposed the limits of Russian power. Syria is a quagmire he cannot escape.

After two decades of land-grabs, assassinations, rampant corruption and subversion, Putin has few international allies. Russia is under EU and US sanctions. Trump, always oddly deferential, is gone. Western countries mostly regard Putin with fear and loathing. Talk of a military alliance with China reflects his weakness. In short, he looks vulnerable. In October, Russia will send its first spacecraft to the moon for 45 years. Perhaps Putin should get on it.


Jair Bolsonaro Brazil

The UK will host the Cop26 UN climate talks in Glasgow in November, hoping to give fresh impetus to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. It will not be a moment too soon. Human beings continue to inflict extraordinary damage on the planet, UN chief António Guterres says. “Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes.” He wants all governments to declare a state of climate emergency in 2021.

At the forefront of humankind’s “suicidal war on nature” is Brazil’s rightwing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who epitomises climate change denial at its most destructive. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, a vital carbon store that slows global warming, is at its highest level for more than a decade – and has accelerated since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Such environmental hooliganism may get worse in 2021.

Yet there are encouraging signs. The UK will ask other countries to match or beat its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by 2030. The appointment of political heavyweight John Kerry as “climate tsar” suggests the US is fully back on board. In rejoining the Paris accord, Biden promises the US will achieve net zero emissions by 2050. China has set 2060 as its target and says emissions will peak before 2030. Others will take their cue.

But 2021 will nevertheless see a speeding up of the race against time that is the climate crisis. Attempts to “build back greener” post-pandemic will collide with vested economic interests. Holding politicians to their climate word, and shaming the likes of Bolsonaro, is perhaps 2021’s most urgent challenge.


Kim Jong-un North Korea

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un Illustration: Bela Jude

It will be exactly 10 years in December 2021 since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, as North Korea’s supreme leader. Trump’s vainglorious efforts to cut a deal with Kim to end his UN-proscribed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programmes flopped, but Biden lacks new ideas. A worrying question for 2021: will Kim resume nuclear testing?

Even bigger, additional challenges over nuclear proliferation will arise this year. Fears that Iran is trying to acquire an atomic bomb may grow, particularly in nuclear-armed Israel. The Saudis may seek parallel nuclear capability in response. Meanwhile, continuing border tensions between nuclear weapons states China and India, and between India and Pakistan, are cause for heightened concern.

Biden aims to extend the New Start strategic weapons limitation treaty with Moscow that expires in February. But neither Biden nor anyone else is offering to denuclearise in 2021.

Most UN member states have ratified a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons that comes into force on 22 January. It lacks teeth, but it’s a hopeful step.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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