The world in 2021 – how global politics will change this year

Donald Trump’s departure will alter the face of geopolitics. The climate crisis and Covid response will affect all nations – while others face very particular challenges. Observer correspondents examine the 12 months ahead

A potent mix of hope and fear accompanies the start of 2021 in most of the world. Scientists have created several vaccines for a disease that didn’t even have a name this time last year. But many countries, including the UK and the US, are still stumbling through the deadliest period of the pandemic.

The shadow of Covid will not begin to lift, even in richer countries, for months. Britain was the first to approve a vaccine and has secured extensive supplies, yet Boris Johnson’s suggestion that life might be returning to normal by Easter is widely seen as optimistic. Other countries, particularly in the south, face a long wait to get vaccines, and help paying for them. The rebuilding of economies shattered by Covid everywhere will be slow; even countries that managed to contain it have taken a hit, from Vietnam to New Zealand.

But when the immediate threat is over, the world will face other major challenges that in a normal year would have dominated the headlines. Perhaps most urgent – though not always seen as such by politicians – is the climate crisis. Wildfires and extreme weather have focused attention on the costs of a warming world, and the narrowing window to cut emissions and prevent catastrophic global heating.

In November, world leaders are due to meet in Glasgow for a key summit. As it was delayed for a year because of the pandemic, there is mounting pressure for them to agree significant new steps.

Greener growth is a priority for new US president Joe Biden, once he has met his first campaign promise to defeat Covid. His ability to influence this and other issues will be determined in no small part by special elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats on 5 January. Control of the Senate hinges on the results. Biden must also consider how to rebuild his country’s reputation abroad, after Donald Trump’s aggressive “America First” project saw him retreat from international obligations and attack multilateral institutions such as Nato. Ties with Beijing, which have deteriorated rapidly under Trump, are also likely to be a particular focus.

After moving quickly to contain coronavirus, China has returned to growth already, and a trade deal with the EU in late December is a reminder of how attractive its economy remains to global investors. But there is still resentment in many countries over China’s handling of the earliest days of the pandemic and an apparent reluctance to allow an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

The country’s communist leadership has also come under increased scrutiny over human rights abuses, from a sweeping security law used to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, to internment camps for Muslim minorities in far western Xinjiang province.

By the end of his term Trump had upended decades of policy, taking a hard line against Beijing on trade and diplomatic issues, including bolstering military and political support for Taiwan. Biden is expected to seek a less confrontational approach.

With Trump gone, 2021 will also see tests for other populist strongmen. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu will face his fourth general election in two years while corruption cases continue. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro heads into the third of a four-year term, but as pandemic payouts come to an end, his popularity could take a nosedive. Below, our correspondents around the world take a look in more detail at what 2021 may hold. Emma Graham-Harrison

United States: a return to reality?

Joe Biden has made tackling coronavirus his top priority.
Joe Biden has made tackling coronavirus his top priority. Photograph: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Joe Biden faces the most daunting, overflowing inbox of any new US president since the second world war when he takes office on 20 January.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 346,000 Americans. The economy is struggling with unemployment at 6.7% and thousands queueing at food banks. Demands for racial equity and justice are more urgent. Russia is suspected of the biggest ever cyber-attack on the US government. America is divided, its fragile democracy in need of repair. And the climate crisis cries out for leadership.

Biden, at 78 the oldest US president ever elected, has made it clear that taming Covid-19 is the No 1 priority. America, reeling from a historic failure of leadership by Donald Trump, has 4% of the world’s population but 19% of the world’s deaths and more than 100,000 people in hospital. Biden recently warned that the “darkest days” in the battle against the pandemic “are ahead of us, not behind us”.

The former vice-president has promised to sign an executive order on the day he is sworn in to require people to wear masks on buses and trains crossing state lines and in federal government buildings. He also aims to reopen most schools in his first 100 days. And he has set a target of 100 million vaccinations over the same period.

But among Biden’s challenges is to win over those fearful that the vaccine is unsafe, as well as conspiracy theorists determined to sow distrust in it. Indeed, America’s disinformation pandemic may prove even more contagious and stubborn than the coronavirus if a certain former president continues to tweet from the sidelines, and if rightwing media outlets continue to amplify him.

In this scenario, what began as “alternative facts” at the start of the Trump administration could develop into “alternative realities” under Biden, fuelling hyperpartisanship in Washington and rendering the country almost ungovernable.
David Smith

Europe: treading carefully

Angela Merkel’s departure will dominate German politics this year.
Angela Merkel’s departure will dominate German politics this year. Photograph: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

With Brexit done and dusted largely to the EU’s satisfaction, Covid vaccination under way and a more amicable – and predictable – US president in the White House, 2021 should by rights be an easier year for Europe.

But its own internal difficulties, along with the continuation of global geopolitical developments that long predate the crises of 2020, seem likely to make this year, too, a tricky one for the bloc to negotiate.

The divide between many western member states and the governments of Poland and Hungary continues to widen, with 2020’s row over Brussels’s attempts to tie the EU budget to respect for the rule of law laying bare deep-seated cultural differences on core European issues such as immigration and liberal values.

Meanwhile, Germany, along with France the EU’s economic and political powerhouse, risks being preoccupied for much of the coming year by the departure of Angela Merkel and the choice of her successor as chancellor, with elections due in September and possibly months of coalition talks thereafter.

The Netherlands, an increasingly influential EU player particularly following the UK’s departure, also has parliamentary elections in 2021. In both countries, the Eurosceptic far right – effectively sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic for much of 2020 – could play a significant role as economic crisis replaces health crisis. Neither Germany’s AfD or Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom look likely to end up in government – but they could well sway the policies of more mainstream rivals seeking to capture far-right votes, potentially influencing future dynamics in Brussels.

Looking abroad, relations with two increasingly prickly near-neighbours, Russia and Turkey, do not look set to get any easier either, with neither Vladimir Putin nor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looking to soften their anti-EU stance. And with a more integrated European foreign policy – despite much talk of “strategic European autonomy” – still some way off, the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China will force Europe to tread a delicate path between principle and self-interest.

Add to that the need – in the aftermath of a pandemic – to take unpopular steps to tackle the climate crisis; a disputed drive for a common European defence and security policy; and growing transatlantic tensions over the EU’s plans to curb the excesses of the US tech giants, and 2021 looks, for Europe, not much easier than 2020. Jon Henley

Africa: new voices

Ugandan presidential challenger Bobi Wine and his daughter Subi at his home in Kampala.
Ugandan presidential challenger Bobi Wine and his daughter Subi at his home in Kampala. Photograph: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images

From the very first weeks, 2021 in Africa is going to be a year of intense politics and noisy protests as new voices of the young and dissatisfied across the continent fight to be heard, new leaders seek to assert themselves and older ones try to hang on to power.

There are huge problems – the devastating impact of Covid on communities and economies, growing insecurity in many regions, and environmental crises – and big questions are being asked by hundreds of millions of young people about their futures.

Many analysts saw 2020 as a year when democracy suffered, with incumbents in countries from Tanzania to Guinea using a mixture of the security services, populist sloganeering and new laws to muzzle dissent. This year the same tactics may finally fail to silence vocal opposition groups – or may usher in a new period of repression.

Later this month, a presidential election in Uganda will pit a 76-year-old veteran politician against a 38-year-old former reggae singer. Most analysts expect Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, to win against the charismatic Bobi Wine, but, with dozens already dead after police shot opposition supporters and any number of tricks used to give the president a crushing advantage, there will be profound questions over the legitimacy of any victory.

Wine draws his support from the young and the urban – two of the fastest-growing constituencies everywhere in Africa – and represents a new generation of leaders calling for an end to endless elections won by ruling parties or leaders, corruption and patronage politics.

Later in the year, Ethiopia is likely to go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Here, in the continent’s second-most populous state, there is a different dynamic. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed represents that new generation of forward-looking leaders. The 44-year-old Nobel prize winner spearheaded the push to sideline the ageing rulers who had been in charge for 30 years and forced through reforms. But in November Abiy launched a bloody military campaign against the hardline remainder who resisted his efforts to remake the nation. Will the postponed parliamentary elections reinforce his reforming zeal? Or reinforce what critics say are his authoritarian tendencies? The coming year will tell us. Jason Burke

China: back in the game

People wearing face masks at a Beijing ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China in October.
People wearing face masks at a Beijing ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China in October. Photograph: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters

China starts the year on a social and economic rebound from the virus outbreak, but with drastically poorer international relationships, and a global community that is far less reluctant to act against it. Last year began badly, with Beijing’s attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak causing reputational damage which wasn’t fixed by later attempts to rebuild bridges with masks, PPE, and vaccines. The World Health Organization is preparing to send an investigative team to Wuhan early in 2021, urged by countries like Australia to be “robust” in its inquiries.

Mounting evidence suggests the government will continue with its authoritarian moves on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and its expansionist activities in border areas. Huge numbers of people are expected to leave Hong Kong for resettlement or asylum in the UK, Europe, Australia, and nearby Taiwan, where many have already fled. A dozen who were caught attempting to flee went on trial last month.

Regional neighbours will watch the continuing military buildup and threats to disputed islands in the South China Sea and to Taiwan. Further afield, there has been no resolution of diplomatic and trade disputes with Australia, the UK, Canada, and the US. Biden promises to remain tough on China, albeit without the unpredictable and publicly hostile diplomacy of Trump, but there is no sense of China backing down, even in the face of sanctions and international opprobrium.

Domestically, China has ambitious emissions goals to work on, and will set its agenda with the adoption of its 14th five-year plan in the spring. Culture-shaping cases will roll on, including a reckoning with China’s #MeToo movement, and the reining in of Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who dared to become powerful outside the party system. Helen Davidson

Israel: Bibi to the rescue?

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones at Israeli troops during a protest against Jewish settlements.
A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones at Israeli troops during a protest against Jewish settlements. Photograph: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Israel is set to hold its fourth general election in the space of two years as a protracted political crisis barrels into 2021.

Despite repeated attempts, parliamentarians have been unable to form stable governments, in large part due to the loathing, distrust, but also glorification of one man: Benjamin Netanyahu.

The 71-year-old prime minister, who has dominated Israeli politics since the mid-1990s, has managed to repeatedly block rivals from taking his seat.

Now, with Israel’s traditional opposition having largely been obliterated, Netanyahu faces what could be an even more perilous threat from a group of former allies who broadly share his nationalist, rightwing ideology.

Naftali Bennett, a far-right former leader in the Israeli settler movement who has worked in Netanyahu-led governments, heads the Yamina party and seeks to become the next prime minister. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s former protege, Gideon Saar, broke ranks last month to create the New Hope party.

Avigdor Lieberman, once a lieutenant of Netanyahu and infamous for his anti-Arab views, is also seeking to dethrone the Israeli leader, known locally as “King Bibi”.

What seems increasingly certain is that whoever leads Israel’s next government will continue to take a hard line on the continuing occupation. While a new US administration offers the prospect of renewed negotiations, few predict a significant change in the status quo.

Polls show Netanyahu’s Likud party could still emerge as the largest faction in parliament, and with the country of 9 million speeding ahead with mass vaccinations, the prime minister hopes by the time of the election in March he will be seen as the nation’s saviour.

However, his reputation could take a further dent in February, when witnesses are due to give testimony in his corruption trial. While Netanyahu denies the charges, he faces three separate cases, which include accusations of bribery and fraud. Oliver Holmes

Latin America: pivotal moments

Jair Bolsonaro has so far avoided domestic criticism of his handling of the Covid crisis.
Jair Bolsonaro has so far avoided domestic criticism of his handling of the Covid crisis. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Latin America’s most polarising ruler, the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, faces a crunch year in 2021 – the third of his four-year term – and will do so without the support of his most important foreign ally, Donald Trump.

The far-right renegade has so far managed to dodge responsibility for Brazil’s dire response to the Covid-19 epidemic, which has killed more than 195,000 Brazilians, while also shaking off a succession of scandals involving his family.

Polls show Bolsonaro still enjoys the approval of about 37% of the electorate – widely attributed to emergency coronavirus payments to tens of millions of citizens. But those payments cease in January, with many observers convinced that severe economic, political and social turbulence lies ahead, as public anger swells.

“The pandemic is genuinely coming to an end,” Bolsonaro claimed before Christmas, as the number of coronavirus infections and hospital admissions again soared. The president’s problems may only be beginning.

Venezuela’s humanitarian and economic crisis will also enter a new chapter in 2021, as Joe Biden enters the White House and turns away from Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, has resisted that two-year crusade and Biden is certain to seek new, less confrontational solutions for what advisers reportedly consider his main diplomatic challenge in the western hemisphere.

Quite what those solutions might be remains unclear – although negotiating with Hugo Chávez’s successor to secure free and fair elections appears to be the plan.

In the short term, the historic exodus of impoverished Venezuelan citizens – which has already robbed the South American country of more than 5 million people – will continue, as the coronavirus crisis pushes Venezuela deeper into hunger and deprivation. For now, Maduro seems firmly in control, his leadership apparently strengthened by the botched effort to unseat him. But in a country as fractured and volatile as Venezuela, perhaps not even he would want to predict where his year might end. Tom Phillips

India: Modi marches on

Women, including widows and relatives of farmers believed to have killed themselves over debt, protest against farm bills passed by India’s parliament, at Tikri border near Delhi.
Women, including widows and relatives of farmers believed to have killed themselves over debt, protest against farm bills passed by India’s parliament, at Tikri border near Delhi. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is going into 2021 without resolving what many are describing as his biggest political challenge yet: the farmers’ protests, in which thousands have spent weeks camping on roads around Delhi, demanding that new agricultural laws be repealed. Discussions between farmers and Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) are in deadlock at present, but they are nonetheless the first time that a civilian backlash has brought the government to the negotiating table.

Yet even with agricultural turmoil, Modi’s popularity rating remains untouchably high, consistently staying above 70%, paving the way for his government to continue the implementation of its Hindu nationalist agenda with increasing fervour in 2021, and to begin the campaign for a 2024 election victory.

Violence against Muslims, carried out by local hardline Hindu nationalist groups, continues to rise; just a few days before the new year, a mosque in the state of Madhya Pradesh was vandalised by a rightwing mob. With India’s main opposition party, Indian National Congress, perceived as weak, rudderless, and divided by infighting, there remains little to get in the way of Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda permanently reshaping India.

The pandemic allowed Modi’s government to tighten its authoritarian grip, in particular through the arrests and harassment of government critics and activists, and this crackdown on civil society is expected to continue, if not escalate, going into 2021.

Of the 154 journalists in India who were arrested, detained or interrogated in the past decade, 40% of these instances happened in 2020. Many of the hundreds of activists and journalists arrested in 2020 under the guise of draconian anti-terror laws are still languishing behind bars, denied bail.

However, the greatest immediate looming disaster for India this year is likely to be an economic one. India was the Asian economy worst affected by Covid-19, pushing the country into its first recession. Almost 50% of the country reported a drop in income and it is estimated that up to 400 million people could be pushed back into poverty. Hannah Ellis-Petersen

Russia: freezing out opposition

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny must choose between exile and jail if he returns to the country.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny must choose between exile and jail if he returns to the country. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP

This year will bring a standoff between Vladimir Putin and the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as the government seeks to keep Navalny out of the country by threatening him with years in prison should he return. Navalny has been in Europe since August recuperating from being poisoned by Russia’s FSB security service. Putin is likely to be keen to punish Navalny for embarrassing revelations about the FSB hit squad, including a taped confirmation from one of the agents obtained by Navalny himself. In the final days of 2020, Russia’s investigative committee accused the opposition politician of fraud, effectively giving him the choice of remaining in exile or returning to a prison sentence.

Online investigations have been one of the few cracks in Putin’s control over internal politics in Russia. Investigative reports from Proekt, a new online outlet, suggested that Putin had a secret child with a lover and had been secretly working from Sochi in a room built to resemble his Moscow office. Another outlet, iStories, claimed Putin’s former son-in-law had bought shares worth $380m for just $100 shortly after he married Putin’s daughter. Now the government is targeting those kinds of reports and the journalists behind them. In late December, the Duma quickly passed new laws that would let regulators block YouTube and other foreign social media and punish media who made “slanderous” comments, including accusations of major crimes like embezzlement.

The effects of global climate change wreaked havoc on Russia’s Siberian and Arctic regions last year, as rising temperatures sparked forest fires, caused crop failures, and even played a role in the largest diesel spill in Arctic history. Temperatures are rising more quickly in these regions than elsewhere on Earth and the potential for tragedy is clear. In June, the remote town of Verkhoyansk recorded temperatures of 38C, the highest ever recorded within the Arctic Circle.

Sea ice failed to re-form until late in the year in the Laptev Sea, where scientists believe that frozen methane deposits are being released that could speed further warming. In the same year, shipping through Russia’s Northern Sea Route, which knocks weeks off travel from northern Europe to Asia, hit record levels because of the lack of ice. The impact of climate change on this delicate region is no longer remote: it has become an urgent problem for Moscow and millions of Russians. Andrew Roth

Australia: feeling the heat

Firefighters try to contain a blaze in New South Wales last February.
Firefighters try to contain a blaze in New South Wales last February. Photograph: Sean Davey/EPA

Australia has a split personality, selling itself as a land of beaches, coral reefs and quirky marsupials while driving its major export industries of coal, liquid natural gas and iron ore. But that cognitive dissonance is starting to show. In 2021, Australia will have China and the climate crisis on its mind.

The country will have to reassess diplomatic relations with its biggest trading partner, Beijing, which has banned or laid tariffs on exports including coal, barley, wine, timber, beef and seafood. About 40% of Australia’s foreign trade is with China.

Tensions have become ever tighter as Australia blocked several Chinese business dealings and angered Beijing with a new defence pact with Japan. PM Scott Morrison’s call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, whether reasonable or not, further soured relations.

But what to do about coal? Australia sold A$13.7bn (£7.7bn) of the stuff to China in 2019, but now Beijing is saying no. Global investors are also saying no to the climate-warming fossil fuel.

Communities and wildlife are still recovering from the wildfires of late 2019 and early 2020 that roared after the country’s hottest and driest year on record.

Australia will come under further pressure domestically and internationally to bring in effective climate policies, especially a mid-century net-zero emissions target which the Conservative-Liberal coalition government has so far resisted.

Without clear signs of ambition, Australia risks carrying a reputation as a fossil-fuel exporter and international climate change pariah to the Glasgow climate talks.

Meanwhile the effects of climate heating continue to threaten the country. Will the Great Barrier Reef escape coral bleaching? Will Australia be burning again – literally or figuratively – as its diplomats head to Glasgow?
Graham Readfearn


Emma Graham-Harrison, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, David Smith, Helen Davidson, Jon Henley, Jason Burke, Andrew Roth, Oliver Holmes, Tom Phillips and Graham Readfearn

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