Just days into the new year and 2021 ominously appears similar to 2020, a year that saw a historic deadly pandemic, deep economic recessions and calls for greater social justice sweep the world.
All of those crises are ongoing and join other threats posed by technology, climate change and specific countries, say risk analysts and crisis management experts. But possibly the greatest threat facing the United States and other countries this year is already two months old, experts say: the fallout from last November’s U.S. presidential election, and the subsequent deep public polarization and threats to faith in American democratic institutions.
The election results, which saw Joe Biden defeat incumbent Donald Trump, are particularly meaningful this week as people in the state of Georgia vote on Tuesday in a runoff election that will decide control of the U.S. Senate and Congress on Wednesday counts Electoral College votes. America’s divisions have worldwide implications, both in how countries view American leadership and values, and how Trump will treat other nations’ leaders this year once he leaves office, experts say.
“We will have vaccines, especially in the developed world and that is going to lead to a big rebound but politically speaking, the backdrop is god awful,” Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk analysis firm, said this week in a virtual news conference. “The United States today is the world’s largest economy and the most powerful country in the world … that is not changing. But it is also by far the most economically unequal and the most politically divided of all of the advanced industrial democracies, and that is a serious problem, particularly in an environment where we’re in a crisis.”
Since last year Trump has attacked U.S. election processes, such as states allowing voting to be done early and by mail. Despite numerous recounts and failed lawsuits, he has continued to reject the results, particularly in swing states that he won in 2016 but lost in 2020. Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions culminated this past weekend when The Washington Post published a recording of a phone call between Trump and Georgia’s secretary of state where the outgoing president sought help to reverse a free and fair election.
Some Republican members of Congress have said they will vote to protest Wednesday’s countring of electoral votes and Trump’s actions have sown mistrust of elections among his supporters, which in turn will impact Biden’s ability to govern, Bremmer says. Additionally, the ability of the U.S. government to be seen internationally as a representative democracy and not rigged is eroding significantly, Bremmer says, which already is affecting how American allies are behaving.
“There’s a reason why the Europeans decided that they will sign on to a new China trade deal, even after they knew that Biden had won the election, and that is because there is an enormous amount of hedging going on. Other countries look at the U.S. and say, ‘I’m not convinced that these guys are truly committed for the long haul or all that politically functional,’ even though they know we’re very powerful.”
Concern that Trump may someday return to the White House will cause some government leaders to try and curry favor with the man, said Brett Bruen, head of the Global Situation Room communications firm and a former U.S. diplomat and official in the Barack Obama administration. “Working with populist politicians, he (Trump) will go after both President Biden and foreign leaders viewed as insufficiently supportive — both politically and financially,” Bruen wrote in an email assessing this year’s top global risks. “On the latter score, his main goal will be unabashedly attempting to cash in on his presidency.”
Struggles With COVID-19
Another top global threat analysts see this year is how well countries are able to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a disease that has claimed nearly 2 million lives worldwide and forced countries to impose lockdowns that have shaken their economies. Analysts now see a so-called K-shaped recovery taking place in countries, where parts of populations and businesses quickly recover, while others continue to suffer.
“Rich people will recover more quickly than low-income minority communities, especially those in the service sector, who have the hardest path to recovery,” said Eurasia Group Chairman Cliff Kupchan. “Stimuluses and budgets will fall short of the mark. Especially biting will be the K curve in those countries with thin social safety nets, which above all else is emerging markets.”
How countries distribute vaccines may shake public confidence and threaten domestic stability, Kupchan said, potentially fueling populist movements to throw out incumbent government leaders. Additionally, some countries that already had large budget debts before the pandemic will have limited resources to spur an economic recovery, Kupchan said. Brazil, South Africa and Turkey are “the canaries in the coal mine here, but a lot of smaller countries such as Costa Rica, El Salvador and Zambia are going to need extraordinary support this year.”
The pandemic-spurred economic recessions have accelerated inequalities in the U.S. and other countries, Bremmer said, as knowledge-based industries are becoming primary economic drivers.
“Many other advanced industrial economies have a much more effective social safety net; the United States, with its animal spirits and individualism and political polarization, does not.”
Other global risks this year, according to analysts:
China: Having managed COVID-19 better than most countries, Beijing will try to continue exploiting its economic and health advantages in 2021, Bruen said. “Already, we are seeing signs that the Chinese economy will supplant the United States’ earlier than expected because of the events of the last year. The country … is now much more directly targeting its domestic opponents, including in Hong Kong. Abroad, China is becoming bolder and will more directly challenge countries where it has interests, which will inevitably lead to more serious military and security incidents.” Added Kupchan: tensions between Washington and Beijing will grow as the U.S. seeks to enlist allies in policies related to China ranging from vaccine diplomacy to climate technology.
Climate competition: As countries transition their economies to tackle the emissions causing climate change, a lack of international coordination will spur tensions over growing competition in “green” industries, Bremmer said. “Historically, when we talk about climate there’s a presumption that once we work on climate, it’s a Kumbaya moment, that everybody will start working together because it’s about one world, it’s one planet, and yet that is not where we see things going.”
Additional global risks analysts see include increasing cyber-threats, particularly from countries such as Russia; tensions between countries over the handling of personal data; how the U.S.- Iran conflicts play out; the fallout of continued low oil prices on Middle East stability; and where Europe will go once German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office this year.
More from U.S. News