Global Trends 2020

Geopolitical tensions

The west no longer leads the world. Over the last decade, America’s geopolitical clout has diminished while China has become a superpower. This fragmentation has transformed us from a unipolar to a multipolar world – and the shift has caused friction. The global atmosphere is thick with geopolitical tension. The future, previously assumed to be dominated by liberal capitalism, is less clear than ever before. Protectionism, populism and polarisation are on the rise, and tension is mounting as social, economic, environmental and political value systems are pressed into an uneasy compromise.

The breakdown of multilateralism is a key facet of these burgeoning tensions. The rise of the east has destabilised the position of western-born, global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, United Nations and World Bank. Plus, the removal of the US from the UN Human Rights Council and its move to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement undermine their legitimacy: under Trump, America is America first, global second.33 Meanwhile, Brexit sees Britain apparently break with its nearest neighbours, weakening multilateralism. The globalisation we saw from 1990-2010 has turned to divergence and nationalism.

The power of populist sentiment cannot be ignored. Tribalism is winning hearts and minds. If the narrative of previous centuries was that of the triumph of liberal capitalism in the west, where citizens were equipped to compete in a globalised free market, we are now in a more complex world where many western citizens demand governments protect them from globalisation.

The threat of global recession exacerbates international tensions. The International Monetary Fund categorises global economic activity as ‘weak’ and fraught with uncertainty – due, in part, to trade tensions.34 China appears to be emerging bruised from an ongoing trade war with the US.35 Moreover, as America withdraws from the Middle East, there are fears that Russia may exploit the resulting power vacuum36 and carve out a new role, not as a superpower, but as a global disruptor. Events in early 2020 in Iraq and Iran have muddied the waters further, risking the escalation of another conflict.

Economic prospects are further strained by increasing global debt and resource conflicts, sparking headlines whenever countries prioritise their economic prospects over sustainable use of resources. Trump’s decision to retreat from Obama’s Clean Power Plan,37 Bolsonaro’s insistence that the Amazon belongs to Brazil,38 and Scott Morrison’s continued defence of coal in the face of catastrophic bushfires in Australia are but a few of the high-profile examples of nationalist interests superseding environmental concerns.

These political and economic tensions occur against a backdrop of social and cultural divergence. Examine Hong Kong, Chile, India or Iran and we see the limits of rising liberal values, globally. The shape of globalism may be changing. We enter the 2020s with international bodies in decline and geopolitical tension increasing. The ideology of the nation state is increasingly significant, above economic prospects, international charters or even basic human rights.