Top ten foreign policy trends in 2020

Top ten trends that will occupy European foreign policymakers in 2020

Also available in

Listen to the authors in our podcast The World in 30 Minutes with Mark Leonard

To load the audio player provided by Soundcloud, click the button below. This means Soundcloud will receive technical data about your device or browser, as well as information about your visit on this page. Soundcloud may use cookies and may transfer your data to servers outside the EU, where the level of data protection may not be equivalent to that in the EU. For more information visit our privacy policy.

Load player


The coming of 2020 marks not just a new year, but a new decade. This random artefact of an arbitrary calendar system cries out for predictions of the events and trends that will shake the world in the 2020s. But, honestly, even the next year is something of a mystery – never mind the next decade. If you had told us in January 2010 that Kanye West would have turned to Jesus by 2020, we would have said: “sure – and a reality TV star will become president of the United States.” Our lack of clairvoyance has not meant that our annual predictions have always been inaccurate.

Indeed, despite suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous colleagues, we have become so impressed with our own powers of foresight and self-evaluation that we have decided to represent it graphically. In 2019, by staring only slightly cock-eyed at the facts, we eked out an accuracy score of 6.5 out of 10. This is a little below our past scores, but we feel confident that, in 2020, the world will improve its capacity to adhere to our predictions.

So, below we present our forecast of the top ten trends that will preoccupy European foreign policymakers in 2020 (plus one bonus trend). Come back next year to see us present an even more graphically impressive description of our failures.

Donald Trump is an unpopular president who faces a tight and very uncertain path to re-election. But, on balance, incumbents in US presidential elections have enormous advantages and generally win. Trump has opted for a pure electoral college play, focusing on his base in the states he won in 2016 and caring little for the majority of voters who live in the states he lost. As a result, his Democrat rival will run up votes in large cities and coastal states, but to little purpose. Trump will carry the electoral college but lose the popular vote by an even bigger margin than he did in 2016.

2. The EU decouples from US policy on the Middle East and north Africa

In 2019 Europeans finally began to believe that the US would leave the Middle East. For decades, Europeans have outsourced their Middle East policy to the US, even though they have far greater interests in the region. Europe thereby remained firmly tethered to US priorities on issues such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. But, as demonstrated by the spectacle of Russia and Turkey negotiating the fate of Syria and moving into Libya as the US remained passive, Europeans no longer have that option. In 2020 Europe will turn necessity into leverage by beginning to fashion its own policy on the region. This effort will lack US muscle but also US baggage. It will enable the European Union and its member states to finally use their economic strength and regional ties to fashion a policy on the Middle East and north Africa that is more focused on European interests.

3. The US neglects its alliance with Taiwan

As tensions mount between Taiwan and China following the January 2020 Taiwanese election, the Chinese will resort to their customary forms of military and diplomatic pressure to ensure that the new government in Taipei makes no further moves towards independence. Taiwan will expect symbolic and even actual shows of support from the Trump administration, but it will receive only vague statements of solidarity from the State Department that will be lost in a flurry of presidential tweets mocking Nancy Pelosi’s appearance. Taiwan will back off and another US alliance will rot from the inside.

4. Putin attends the G7 in the US

Three years ago, we predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would attend the 2017 G7 summit in Italy. That was premature, but the key to the prognostication business is not to learn from your mistakes. It is to keep repeating predictions until they become right. So, Trump will – with the backing of his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron – ask Putin to attend the 2020 summit in the US. This will herald Russia’s return to the committee that runs that world, albeit after it has ceased to actually run the world.

5. Zelensky moves ahead of Europe in resolving the Donbas conflict

Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has already proven more willing to make deals with Russia than most political analysts believed possible. He continues to walk a political tightrope, due to intense opposition within Ukraine to any compromises with Russia. Nonetheless, he will push ahead in ways that make EU leaders uncomfortable, forging compromises they don’t like and undermining the European consensus on Russia sanctions. European leaders will find themselves in the awkward position of pushing back against Ukraine’s efforts to make peace with its neighbour.

6. The European Green Deal becomes the new refugee crisis

Last year, Ursula von der Leyen made the European Green Deal a signature part of her agenda as the new European Commission president. In 2020 the climate-policy debate will deepen geographic and socioeconomic divisions within Europe, prompting an anti-environmental populist backlash. As many eastern European countries still depend heavily on coal for energy generation, they fear that the push for carbon neutrality is an underhanded form of protectionism. The European Green Deal could also create political rifts within almost every EU member state, much as France’s attempt to raise taxes on fuel in 2018 spurred the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement. These intra-European and national movements will make the deal the next “refugee crisis”, a singularly potent issue that divides Europe between east and west, and that mobilises populist forces within countries across the bloc.

7. Succession becomes a dominant theme in Russia, Turkey, and the US

Strongmen have had a good run in recent years. Brazil, China, Russia, Turkey, and even the US are governed by leaders with a high sense of self-importance and a low tolerance for dissent or criticism. Today’s strongmen all seek to centralise control through a cult of personality (with varying levels of success). Accordingly, august publications such as the Washington Post, the New Statesman, and the Financial Times see a new authoritarian age dawning. But 2020 will reveal that strongman regimes have a key weakness that goes well beyond their obvious toxic masculinity. Personalised regimes have little capacity to organise orderly successions – and even strongmen don’t live forever. In 2020 the resulting succession struggles and disorder, particularly in Russia and Turkey, will begin to erode the sense that leaders such as Putin are here to stay.

8. The China-US trade war spreads to areas such as financial services and information technology

Although the US and China reached a truce in their trade war in late 2019, this year will see the dispute affect new and, ultimately, more significant fronts. The current struggle over 5G technology heralds an economic cold war to come, as the two sides compete in other geopolitically significant sectors, particularly information technology and financial services. Both China and the US will seek to establish their technological and financial dominance with third parties, each seeking to use market power and political relationships to elbow its rival aside.

9. Data rules become the new GMOs in a global contest to set standards

Standards have become the key battleground of a new era of geo-economic competition. China, the EU, Russia, and the US have all sought to use their ability to establish global standards in areas such as health, privacy, and safety to promote national goals ranging from dominance of key industries to the export of values. In the past, the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was a key battleground that set the terms of agricultural trade. In 2020 data standards will fulfil a similar role, as leaders begin to understand that the struggle to export regulations on data processing, management, and protection will shape the global technology industry.

10. Protest movements become more disruptive

2019 was the year of the protest, as mass movements arose and often sustained themselves in places as diverse as Bolivia, France, Hong Kong, Iran, and Sudan. The movements had diverse origins and trajectories, but they all expressed general discontent with governing classes and the catalytic capacity of social media. In 2020 these movements will persist but will vary in effect according to the nature of the target government. In authoritarian countries such as China and Iran, governments will start to grasp how to use social media and other technologies to counter protests. As such, the demonstrations may rumble on but will achieve little social change. In more democratic or weaker states, these movements will force governments to compromise and – for better or worse – spark social change or even a change in leadership. Although effective protests movements may be most valuable in authoritarian states, they will become most common in democratic ones.

Bonus: The UK fails to complete a trade deal with the EU (but no one cares much)

As is often noted, the Brexit saga will continue far beyond the United Kingdom’s 31 January departure from the EU. The country is poised for another no-deal cliffhanger at the end of 2020, with nearly all the same potential consequences for the UK and EU economies as there were in previous rounds of negotiation. But, despite this similarity, the political heat will fade from the Brexit debate in the UK and the EU after 31 January. As politicians move on to issues such as who screwed up healthcare or failed to stem knife crime, EU-UK trade discussions will retreat to the world of technocrats. Although the EU and the UK will fail to reach a deal by the end of the year, hardly anyone who doesn’t work for the Financial Times will notice. Technocrats will quietly find a way to extend the negotiation, demonstrating the policy virtues of public apathy once again.

Check out all trends and predictions since 2016 with this interactive tool.​

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.