Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and US President Donald Trump (right). Picture: REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and US President Donald Trump (right). Picture: REUTERS

London — As a new decade begins, the first century of the new millennium will already be a fifth over. The past 10 years have seen the world’s most powerful states increasingly at loggerheads, with rising political divisions in almost every country on Earth. The next may well see at least some of those trends produce a crisis, perhaps even a major turning point in global affairs.

While the past decade has arguably been defined largely by trends and series of events — the Arab Spring; the rise of Trump, Brexit and nationalism; growing strains between the West, Russia and China — the first decade of the century is remembered much more for its twin shocks of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash. The next decade may well see another financial shock of similar, perhaps even greater, magnitude — hitting a world in many ways much less prepared or co-ordinated to ride it out.

What is also becoming more likely, however, is another defining 9/11-type event of geopolitical violence, possibly involving nuclear force or some other form of mass destruction, perhaps even a devastating cyber-attack that kills large numbers through crippling critical national infrastructure such as water supplies or power plants. Like 9/11, that could come from a non-state actor — but it could also be an act of state-on-state violence at a time of growing international tension, potentially igniting a devastating wider conflict.

At the very least, politics looks set to become more idiosyncratic and unpredictable. In the short term, at least, populist forces — whether pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; or leftist, right-wing and environmental movements in the West — are unlikely to go away. Raised geopolitical tensions will also flow through into international business and markets — as the US-China trade war and headwinds faced by China’s Huawei already show.

So too will the growing strains between governments and the world’s largest tech firms — Google, Facebook, Amazon and others. That will be supercharged by technological change, perhaps in the form of electric vehicles and other robots that could throw millions out of work.

The early years of the coming decade look set to see a further escalation of many of the proxy confrontations that have driven the bloodiest wars of recent years

The 2020 US election will set much of the tone for the coming decade. An unexpected defeat for President Donald Trump might be seen as the beginning of the end for a new generation of democratic, often right-wing populists that also includes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

But what seems at least as likely for now is that even amid impeachment proceedings against him, whoever emerges from the fractured Democrat field will be unable to defeat the American president.

Unfettered

What a Trump second term might look like is even harder to predict than the first — the president would, in many senses, be more unfettered and more at home in a government system from which he has already dismissed most of those advisers such as former defence secretary Jim Mattis, previously seen to have constrained him. At the same time, however, his inability to run for a third term might simply leave him bored or looking for a legacy, whatever that might mean.

A Democrat victory could put the US in almost equally uncharted territory, particularly if the candidate were a left-wing challenger such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Even without that, like other left-of-centre parties around the world, the Democrats will continue to be divided between left-wing, environmentalist forces favoured by younger activists, and a more centrist, conservative track — a battle that will likely continue through the decade and beyond.

Closely watched

In Europe, the two elections setting the tone will be Germany’s federal elections between August and October 2021, and France’s presidential vote the following year. In both, the greatest question will be how well the far-right performs. As in the US, each election will also be closely watched for pointers on the future of the left and centre-left. Such parties performed unexpectedly well in 2019 in Spain, Portugal, Finland, Denmark and elsewhere — although catastrophically in Britain. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will also face a close race to keep her job in the second half of 2020.

Even bigger questions, however, linger over the world’s more autocratic states. By the end of the decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Xinping will be in their late 70s, facing greater competition from younger rivals. Both appear likely to become more authoritarian, but Xi looks set to face ever greater challenges in Hong Kong and perhaps elsewhere.

How that is handled could set the tone for much of the rest of the decade — already, China’s internment of more than 1-million ethnic Muslim Uighurs is attracting growing condemnation, and a highly public crackdown in Hong Kong would do so even more. Beijing clearly also still has ambitions to restore control over Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.

Both Moscow and Beijing look set to continue ramping up their sabre-rattling against neighbours and the West, potentially raising the prospect of new Cuban Missile Crisis-style standoffs that might lead to something worse.

Even without that, the early years of the coming decade look set to see a further escalation of many of the proxy confrontations that have driven the bloodiest wars of recent years, particularly Syria, Yemen and Ukraine.

Last week saw China, Russia and Iran announce joint naval drills in the Gulf and stepped-up US military action against Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. Moscow’s military intervention in Syria from 2015 took many in the West by surprise, and the coming decade could yet see Beijing too take a more assertive path overseas.

Whether the world is prepared for any of these trends remains a very open question. The first two decades of the century have proved rather different to what many expected. The next looks at least as unpredictable.

Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think-tank. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.

Reuters