ECFR’s top reads of 2021

As the year draws to a close, ECFR presents a run-down of the ten most popular policy briefs and the ten most popular commentaries

For many people around the world, 2021 has been – like 2020 – one of the most challenging and pivotal years they have experienced. This is not only because of covid-19, but also for reasons including the crisis in Afghanistan, the storming of the US capitol, and a once-in-a-generation election in Germany. While all these topics interested our readers, our top read publications of the year paint a much more diverse picture.

One of these publications proved to be the most-read in ECFR’s history! That honour goes to authors Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev, who covered the changing nature of America’s power in the world as Joe Biden took office. Meanwhile, Gustav Gressel wrote four of the five most popular commentaries of the year, covering topics such as the events surrounding Russia’s military movements in eastern Europe.

But, to our continued delight, our readers’ interests are extremely varied and cover the entire globe. That is why, as ever, our researchers have worked diligently to keep you informed about global issues and address the greatest strategic challenges facing Europeans during this time – and why they will continue to do so.

As the year draws to a close, ECFR presents a run-down of the ten most popular policy briefs (long form) and the ten most popular commentaries (short form).

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Policy briefs

1. The crisis of American power: How Europeans see Biden’s America by Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard

This is the most-read policy brief in ECFR history (since we began to track readership numbers). The authors explore European views on America’s role in the world and its relationship with Europe.

2. The fall of the Afghan government and what it means for Europe by Andrew Lebovich, Andrew Small, Asli Aydintasbas, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Jana Puglierin, Jeremy Shapiro, Julien Barnes-Dacey, Kadri Liik, Susanne Baumann, Tara Varma

ECFR’s policy experts examine what the Taliban takeover means for countries and regions around the world: Europe, the United States, the Middle East, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and the Sahel.

3. Useful enemies: How the Turkey-UAE rivalry is remaking the Middle East by Asli Aydintasbas, Cinzia Bianco

An exploration of the relationship between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which are engaged in a decade-long feud that is reshuffling the geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa. Their rivalry plays out everywhere from the Horn of Africa to the eastern Mediterranean – in the halls of Washington and Brussels, the global media discourse, the energy industry, and, lately, ports and the high seas.

4. Europe’s invisible divides: How covid-19 is polarising European politics by Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard

The lived experience of the covid-19 pandemic split Europe just as the euro and refugee crises did, with the south and the east feeling much more badly affected than the north and the west.

5. Crisis of confidence: How Europeans see their place in the world by Jana Puglierin, Susi Dennison

Public faith in EU institutions has declined due to their handling of the covid-19 pandemic and vaccine procurement. However, the European project is not doomed, as citizens still believe in the need for greater cooperation – particularly in strengthening the European Union as a global actor.

6. The geopolitics of the European Green Deal by Guntram Wolff, Jean Pisani-Ferry, Jeremy Shapiro, Mark Leonard, Simone Tagliapietra

The European Green Deal will have profound geopolitical repercussions, some of which are likely to have an adverse impact on the EU’s partners. The EU should prepare to manage these repercussions in its relationships with important countries in its neighbourhood such as Russia and Algeria, and with global players such as the US, China, and Saudi Arabia.

7. China’s great game in the Middle East by Camille Lons, Degang Sun, Jonathan Fulton, Naser Al-Tamimi

China has significantly increased its economic, political, and – to a lesser extent – security footprint in the Middle East in the past decade, becoming the biggest trade partner and external investor for many countries in the region. Yet the country’s growing economic presence is likely to pull it into wider engagement with the region in ways that could significantly affect European interests.

8. Decade of patience: How China became a power in the Western Balkans by Vladimir Shopov

China has become the most prominent third actor in the Western Balkans. The country’s
activities are spread unevenly across the region, but they follow a common approach. As European and US ambivalence towards the Western Balkans persists, the region will be in increasing danger of falling into an endless spiral of competition between various foreign actors.

9. What Europeans think about the US-China Cold War by Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard

A majority of European citizens believe a new cold war with both China and Russia is under way – but they mostly do not think that their own country is involved. There is no European public consensus that the world of tomorrow will be one of growing competition between democracy and authoritarianism.

10. Beyond Merkelism: What Europeans expect of post-election Germany by Jana Puglierin, Piotr Buras

EU citizens view Germany as a trustworthy, pro-European power. But, to lead the EU effectively, Germany will need to tackle the two greatest threats it faces: a weakening of the rule of law in the EU, and the bloc’s failure to defend its interests in the world.


1. Gustav Gressel

Receiving his own category, Gustav Gressel must have broken some sort of record with four out of the top five most-read ECFR commentaries of the year. We sense a pattern in our readership’s interest…

Many European leaders do not seem to grasp the seriousness of this moment in the Ukrainian conflict. Unless the West makes a greater effort to counter Russian military coercion, there is no guarantee that Russia will stop with Ukraine.

Russia is mobilising its forces, but much more covertly than in the past. Moscow’s belief that the EU and US will not step in to protect Ukraine could lead it to take direct military action.

European governments have yet to learn a key lesson from the war in Ukraine. The alternative reality the Kremlin lives in is becoming increasingly dangerous.

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war holds important lessons for European defence. European governments should study it urgently.

2. After the withdrawal: China’s interests in Afghanistan by Janka Oertel and Andrew Small

ECFR’s Janka Oertel and Andrew Small discuss China’s attitude towards the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

3. Why America is facing off against the International Criminal Court by Anthony Dworkin

The US long ago took umbrage at the – unlikely – prospect that the ICC could prosecute Americans. The consequences of this stance are now revealing themselves.

4. Somalia’s election impasse: A crisis of state building by Matt Bryden, Theodore Murphy

The EU can unblock the so-called “electoral impasse” paralysing Somalia by rejecting the involvement of the outgoing president. But it must also set out a new framework to help the country move forward

5. The capture of Kabul: What the Taliban takeover will mean for Iran’s economy by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Iran was more economically dependent on Afghanistan than many people realise. The change of regime will impact on Tehran in four main ways.

6. What Germany’s new cyber security law means for Huawei, Europe, and NATO by Beryl Thomas

The German government’s 5G security plan tacitly allows Huawei to embed itself in domestic telecom networks – with great implications for Europe’s defence and security.

7. China’s new military base in Africa: What it means for Europe and America by Michaël Tanchum

A permanent Chinese military installation in Equatorial Guinea is the culmination of nearly a decade’s investment in Africa – and will not be the last of such bases on the continent’s Atlantic coast.

8. Why attempts to reset relations with Russia fail by Nicu Popescu

Offering ‘resets’ to Russia does not work. On the contrary, a more muscular approach to the country will yield results.

9. Foreign and defence policy in the German election by Ulrike Franke

The parties in Germany’s next coalition government could find it hard to bridge their differences on foreign and defence policy.

10. Nordic discomfort: How Denmark, Sweden, and Finland could harm the European project by Marlene Riedel

Too many Europeans are turning a blind eye to the domestic politics of Nordic states. But theirs is a trajectory that could affect the future of the EU.

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

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