The first month of 2021 has been busy for world politics: a new U.S. President, the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccination and hope for global economic recovery; and protests across India, Russia, and Tunisia. However, that’s just the beginning. What else can we expect from international relations in the year ahead? Three of our editors highlight the top global issues to watch for this year.
1. The Geopolitics of Technology
Technological developments have always influenced international relations: think gunpowder, radar, nuclear weapons, and the Internet. But now, artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, blockchain, and data collection are impacting global politics and economics at an accelerated rate–and many of these impacts will come to a head in 2021.
Tech and telecom have become an essential part of the global race for economic and political power. Last year, India blocked dozens of Chinese apps claiming cybersecurity reasons; many countries banned Huawei from supplying 5G equipment; and the U.S. launched an ongoing tech battle with China.
AI is evolving quickly–not just for commercial projects but for military purposes, too. Without international regulation, the world could face another arms race as the U.S., China, Russia and others seek to use AI for defense and combat.
Governments have also begun investing more in space agencies and satellites. The European Commission considers space activities key to its “strategic autonomy,” while China is planning more than 20 space launches this year. Moreover, states are competing with the growing influence of private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Orbit.
Finally, we are also witnessing how tech companies can have a disproportionate say in domestic and international politics without much transparency or accountability. Earlier this year, platforms like Facebook and Twitter blocked former President Donald Trump for violating their policies. Censorship without explaining why could set a dangerous precedent, especially for authoritarian regimes.
2. The U.S.-EU-China Love-Hate Triangle
2021 promises to be a crucial year for relations between China and the West, and concerns with Beijing might strain the U.S.-EU relationship.
After transatlantic relations deteriorated under Donald Trump, President Joe Biden’s election raised hopes of renewed U.S.-EU cooperation. In light of increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Beijing, powerful disinformation campaigns, and a growing relative share of global GDP, Brussels and Washington have called for a transatlantic China strategy. But matching these calls with effective action will prove difficult.
First, both partners are dealing with a complex web of contradicting interests. While the West sees China as a systemic rival who engages in unfair trade practices and commits human rights violations, their economies are deeply intertwined. China is also a key partner in combating climate change.
Second, the EU and U.S. don’t share the same level of resolve. Biden announced he’ll take a hard stance against China, but the EU doesn’t see things so black-and-white. In June of last year, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs said, “We don’t have to choose [between the US and China].” This attitude disturbs U.S.-EU cooperation on China, as became apparent in December 2020: When the EU and China concluded a milestone agreement on investment, the U.S. quickly denounced the agreement and emphasized the wish for a common approach.
Fragmentation within the EU further complicates the bloc’s stance toward China. Last year, member states couldn’t agree on a joint position regarding telecommunications giant Huawei, with Germany refusing to ban the Chinese company from its networks.
In 2021 and beyond, China policy is guaranteed a top spot on the transatlantic agenda, and Beijing has gotten a head start in the new year. While the EU and the U.S. struggle with record numbers of COVID cases and faltering economies, China’s economy is on an upward trajectory, making a true transatlantic “decoupling” from China seem even more like a task of squaring the circle.
3. A Turning Point for Climate Policy?
2021 is already shaping up to be a crucial year for climate policy, as activists, countries, coalitions, and companies increasingly take part in the conversation.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference is coming up in November in the United Kingdom. This is a critical moment for countries to reevaluate their commitments to cutting carbon emissions, which, in previous years, fell short of the targets set at the Paris conference in 2015.
Just weeks into the Biden administration, the United States has begun to reverse course on climate policy, rejoining the Paris Agreement and halting construction on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. After four years of climate change denial, the leader of the West is now being watched closely to see how it will step up its climate game.
From Microsoft to Unilever and Morgan Stanley, we are also seeing companies make big, bold climate commitments. Green finance has started to shift the conversation for financial markets and big banks. Heavyweights like Deutsche Bank are starting to issue green bonds, significant as pollution through investment is not as directly visible as pollution through factories.
But the fact of the matter is also that many profit-oriented entities are losing because of the pandemic and are already looking for ways to make up for those losses as quickly as possible, come hell or “high water” (get it?!). Example: Norway just awarded 61 new oil and gas exploration rights to 30 oil companies, after restructuring the income stream to its national fund away from oil revenues only a few months prior. Economies will not necessarily relaunch sustainably after the pandemic, especially if the current discussions around digital technologies, smart and green cities, and more remain superficial.
Another aspect that remains to be tackled is inclusive climate action. The West, as with so many other global issues, likes to talk about themselves while mostly overlooking the parts of the Global South that stand to be hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.