The long year: Top foreign policy trends for 2021

Mark Leonard and Jeremy Shapiro predict ten bright and bold policy projections for the year to come

The long nineteenth century was, according to the late historian Eric Hobsbawm, so eventful that it took 125 years to complete (1789-1914). Among its many sins, 2020 has taken a similarly destructive approach to calendar constraints, with the virus and the US election frustratingly spilling over into what everyone had hoped would be a new beginning.

This lack of a clean break with 2020 complicates predictions for 2021 and wreaked havoc on our predictions for last year. In 2020 we managed – with our usual combination of cock-eyed optimism and blatant bias – to award ourselves 6 out of 10 points – only slightly worse than our usual performance. But we missed the coronavirus entirely, which is a little like correctly predicting the dinner menu on the Titanic but failing to mention the iceberg.

We remain undaunted (or unashamed, depending on your perspective). So, once again, we have defied the dictates of caution and wisdom, and provided our best ten best predictions for the key foreign policy trends in the short 2021. Of course, there might be more metaphorical icebergs out there that we have ignored (one of them might also be a literal iceberg). But we hope not, because 2020 has already been long enough.

Check out ECFR Annual Foreign Policy Trends since 2016.

Biden fails to usher in a period of bipartisan comity in Washington.

President Joe Biden has often touted his ability to work with the US Congress and predicted a new era of bipartisanship led by his unique ability to bring Democrats and Republicans together on the many challenges the United States faces. We admire the effort, but the awesome obstructionist potential of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rioters who attacked the US Capitol speak to a very different future.

The EU steps up its struggle with Poland and Hungary, and gains concessions on rule of law issues.

The long twilight struggle between Brussels on the one hand and Poland and Hungary on the other over democracy and the rule of law will intensify in 2021. But, with the new powers gained in the recent EU budget deal and the absence of an authoritarian enabler in the White House, the European Union will make some progress in applying sanctions and gaining concessions. This will not restore full democracy to Poland and Hungary, but it will draw a line in the sand and make an impression on other potential backsliders within the EU.

The US and Iran fail to return to the Iran deal or negotiate a successor agreement, but the effort continues.

In 2021 Europeans policymakers see an opportunity to return the US and Iran to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that then-president Donald Trump abruptly exited in 2018. Alas, domestic politics in both Iran and the US will complicate this effort in 2021, and there will be no quick return to the halcyon days of 2015. But non-proliferation negotiations with Iran are a permanent diplomatic employment programme, so the effort will continue into 2022 and beyond.

China tones down its ‘wolf warrior’ stance and begins a new charm offensive with Europe and America, focused on climate issues.

China has felt strong enough in the last couple of years to become extremely obnoxious on the international scene, loudly threatening countries ranging from Sweden to Australia for perceived slights. There has already been a backlash against this in much of the world. In 2021 China will get the message and mostly return to its more normal, unctuous mode of diplomacy, in which it mouths calming slogans, promises much, and delivers little. The leading edge of this effort will be on climate change, where China will speak piously about its efforts to save the planet at international forums, but still build a lot of coal plants at home.

Europe and North America experience a strong post-coronavirus economic recovery, but Russia, Africa, and Latin America lag far behind both in the recovery and in controlling the virus.

Aided by big stimulus packages and pent-up demand, Europe and North America will see strong growth as they gradually emerge from the long nightmare of the coronavirus. This surge in growth will not entirely restore them to pre-coronavirus levels of economic output and may look like a dead cat bounce. But, even if so, that bounce will make 2021 a statistically very impressive year. Meanwhile, Russia, Africa, and Latin America will fail both to control the virus and to share in the recovery, meaning 2021 will be a difficult year for them economically.

Europe’s push for strategic autonomy helps reconstruct a more balanced transatlantic relationship.

Europe’s push for strategic autonomy began in no small part because of American bullying over issues such as sanctions on Iran and transatlantic trade, which made Europeans distrust US intentions. But it may continue because, in the wake of a failed coronavirus response and domestic unrest in the US, fears of American weakness will make Europeans distrust American capacity. Europeans will, therefore, turn to strategic autonomy to make up for American incapacity. With a White House that is more concerned about European dependence than European autonomy, this will create an opportunity to construct a more balanced and equitable transatlantic alliance.

The EU, the US, and the UK all join, or apply to join, the CPTPP.

With the World Trade Organisation stalled, plurilateral trading arrangements are the wave of the future. China entered fray with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2020. Biden’s approach to China and to trade generally will be to seek greater cooperation with allies, so he will look to return to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that Barack Obama began and Trump abandoned. The EU and the United Kingdom will follow suit, or even lead the way.

Lukashenka stubbornly clings to power but loses most of his autonomy to Russia.

The Belarusian regime is on the brink of collapse – and apparently always will be. In 2021 protests will continue but President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will cling stubbornly to power by maintaining his hold over the security services and increasingly relying on assistance from Russia. This will greatly limit the autonomy from Russia that he has so prized over the course of his long reign, but that is the price he will have to pay.

The US-UK fail to conclude a trade deal, but continue to assert that they have a special relationship.

The Biden administration is not very interested in bilateral trade deals and does not see one with the UK as a priority on a very crowded agenda. The UK will go to the back of the queue and, even once the time for negotiation arrives, will face difficult demands on agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and even labour standards. Both sides, however, will continue to assert that the special relationship remains as vibrant as ever, despite the very clear evidence to the contrary.

COP26 produces lots of hot air but not much else.

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) that will take place in Glasgow in November 2021 will (ironically) produce of lot of hot air in the form of an agreement that includes many pious but non-binding commitments to combat climate change. It will conspicuously fail to create any binding targets for carbon emissions or establish an international price of carbon. Meanwhile, the real progress on combating climate change will come from technological developments; domestic regulatory efforts in the US, the EU, and possibly even China; and those powers’ efforts to export their regulations to the rest of the world through trade, financing, and development assistance deals.

Bonus: Trump gets his Twitter account back.

In 2021 tech companies will eventually bow to pressure and allow Trump back onto their social media platforms. In the process, they will find a more formalistic, objective, and hopefully legitimate process for restricting high-profile accounts, so that they no longer have to make such controversial decisions by themselves.

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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

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