Conflict and Leadership
More Government Needed: Top International Trends in 2021

The trend over the past few years has been towards the return of nationalism, protectionism and great-power rivalry based on power and geopolitical struggles. The pandemic only reinforces this trend, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

“A greater role for the state” is the leitmotif of the year 2021. Neither international institutions, nor corporations or non-governmental organisations became leading forces in the fight against the pandemic. It is from states that citizens expect effective measures of protection and guarantees against economic loss. States are bringing to the fight against the pandemic their characteristic spirit of national selfishness and the struggle for primacy. The trend over the past few years has been towards the return of nationalism, protectionism and great-power rivalry based on power and geopolitical struggles. The pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

There are five most noticeable trends in the coming year. First, with the exception of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the pandemic does not provoke an exacerbation of armed conflicts in the world as a whole. A relative truce remains in place in Donbass. In Syria, the centre of the political struggle has shifted from the battlefields to diplomatic offices. In Libya, hostilities have ceased and a truce has been established. There is no threat of aggravation of the situation around North Korea. Armed and political provocations continue: Turkish manoeuvres in the Mediterranean, the assassination of the chief Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the strange story with Navalny. But diplomacy is still coping with its main task - the prevention of big wars.

There is no reason to believe that the international conflicts or internal political crises of the year 2020 arose due to a pandemic.

The pandemic does not make states weaker. However, their unconvincing, inadequate response to this threat creates the impression of weakness among friends, enemies and, perhaps most importantly, their own citizens.

The second key trend will be the deterioration of the internal political crisis in the United States. Joseph Biden will begin his presidency, inheriting not only the coronavirus and its economic consequences, but also low legitimacy in the eyes of half of the population. He will enter the White House with no good prospect of pushing any of his lavish promises through the legislature and the judiciary, other than cosmetic ones, such as a return to the Paris Climate Agreement or the World Health Organisation.

In Russian-American relations we will see the usual things: a new surge of information warfare and political provocations against Russia, spearheaded by Ukraine, Poland, Georgia or other countries hoping to win the approval of the new American administration. They are simply accustomed to taking advantage of the Russian-American confrontation. Too many players in the world have relied on the confrontation between Moscow and Washington. The work of lifting relations out of the crisis requires a long-term planning horizon, which the American leadership does not currently have. 

The third trend will be the implementation of the Green Deal by Germany, which will result in a new economic and ecological landscape for the EU, with a dominant role for German business, which will tie up most of the production standards. This will add difficulties to German-Russian relations, which are based on mutual understanding in the field of traditional energy. The period of “special relations” between the two countries fell into oblivion -  the context has changed. Germany does not want to act as an “advocate” of Russia to the West, while Moscow no longer needs such services.

Conflict and Leadership
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Expert Opinions

Russia and Germany face a period of fundamental restructuring of relations based on their own interests. Berlin recalls Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “new eastern policy” as an example of a positive strategy for developing relations with Russia, but recent developments show that the current historicism of discussion about Russian-German relations needs revision.

The fourth international trend will be Turkey’s foreign policy activism. In November 2020, following the results of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Turkey was actively involved, a new status quo was formed in the region, the strategic link between Ankara and Baku was strengthened, Russia was challenged as the leading force in the Caucasus, and the prospects for exporting Middle Eastern-style instability through the Turkish proxy forces from Syria to Azerbaijan created difficult collisions in Turkish-Iranian relations.

Growing Turkish ambitions will create difficult dilemmas for Moscow in the near future. Now Turkey has the opportunity to enter the Caspian Sea and expand its activities and influence Central Asia. To the north, risks are increasing in the context of ties being built between Ankara and Kiev. 

Ukraine believes in the all-conquering power of Turkish drones and is thinking about using them in Donbass. The significantly-increased Ukrainian military budget this year allows for big spending and has pushed the country's political leadership to use military force. Strengthening the Turkish positions in Azerbaijan will also open up opportunities to expand Ankara’s presence in Georgia.

Finally, the fifth main trend will be the ubiquitous “infodemic”. The pandemic was firmly linked to the digitalisation of the citizens’ way of life. Information technologies have not only proven their social value, but also aroused a new wave of suspicion -  both from citizens and from states. The response to the threat was to tighten control over the spread of information.

Epidemics have always been accompanied by rumours: downplaying or exaggerating the danger, offering miraculous cures and accusing the authorities of fraud. In the pre-industrial era, these rumours spread in marketplaces; now they are spreading through the social media. Now and then the states consider these rumours a threat, and suppressing them is one of the most important anti-epidemic measures.

In 2021, we will see more initiatives to restrict freedom of expression in the Internet, more examples of government pressure on social media. In turn, social media will increasingly put pressure on users, prompting them to correct interpretations of events. Next year, we will probably witness how the strongest states will more and more energetically bring under control the information technology market and how, in turn, the largest players in the IT market will increase their influence on the weakest states.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.