The year 2020 was probably the most dreadful year for the world since the end of the Second World War. The Covid-19 pandemic created devastating havoc across the globe, killing nearly two million people and triggering the deepest worldwide economic recession in nearly a century.
The world also experienced a number of serious climate disasters like Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal, several catastrophic hurricanes and typhoons, severe floods in Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and South Sudan, forest fires in the US West Coast and South America, windstorms in Europe, and locust swarms in East Africa and South Asia.
The tragic combination of an unprecedented pandemic and calamitous natural disasters, as some had hoped for, wasn’t able to bring good sense to warring parties and didn’t result in halting armed conflicts around the world. The call of the UN Secretary-General in March 2020 for a global ceasefire to facilitate aid at the time of pandemic also mostly fell in deaf years.
The course of some of the conflicts, like in Afghanistan, Libya, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine, took occasional hopeful turns in 2020, but the long-term sustainability of these developments looks extremely doubtful. Moreover, in the last year, the world witnessed several dormant conflicts becoming active and violent again.
The revival of a border clash between China and India, a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the near-open war between the US and Iran made the matters worse and raised serious concerns about the peace and stability of the world.
The victory of Joe Biden in the US Presidential election and the arrival of vaccines against coronavirus in the final weeks of 2020 has brought new hopes for a better new year. In spite of mutating new Covid strains, the vaccine might be able to contain the pandemic in the coming months.
Biden administration has already declared that the US is going to rejoin the Paris Agreement, so the global alliance against climate change might take a new momentum. Some countries, particularly China, have already started to recover economically, and hopefully, the global economic growth might gain some impetus in 2021.
In spite of all these hopes of a revival of multilateralism and a restart of the economy, 2021 is still likely going to be a very challenging year. The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in different parts of the world and it has significantly increased vulnerability particularly among the migrant population.
The legacies of 2020 might accelerate mass hunger in some of the economically poor and politically unstable countries in the South in 2021.
Serious food and job crises and an increasing number of climate change-induced natural disasters can potentially also lead to political instability and democratic decline in many countries.
Besides the threats of famine and political instability, the international community also this year needs to remain watchful about four ongoing conflicts, which are at high risk of diffusing and infecting not only their respective neighbourhoods but also seriously affecting regional if not always global security architecture.
Four years ago, the world was anxious about North Korea’s nuclear tests and medium-range missile tests. Trump-era had brought Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table, but the diplomatic path has failed after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Kim is yet to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory and will be the first foreign policy challenge of the US President-elect.
North Korea has now more nuclear weapons and better delivery systems than what it had four years ago and it does not show any intent to negotiate with the US. There is a very big possibility that Kim might go for another nuclear or ICBM test at the beginning of Biden’s presidency to bring instability in East Asia. In all likelihood, North Korea will be back to be a global security concern in a big way in 2021.
The conflict over Kashmir was confined to a bilateral rivalry between India and Pakistan for more than seven decades. However, the dynamics of the conflict have changed dramatically after China’s active entry into the conflict in the summer of 2020.
When the summer months of 2021 will approach, the Kashmir conflict might flare-up again, and the world can’t take it easy as three nuclear-armed countries are involved.
The Trump administration’s deal with Taliban insurgents in February 2020 has set May 2021 for the US and Nato troop withdrawal from the country. In return, the Taliban has committed to not let Afghanistan be used by foreign terror groups and has agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government. Taliban’s talk with the Afghan government has not moved forward and they have already stepped up their attacks and assassination.
As it looks now, the complete US troop withdrawal is very less likely to take place by May 2021. If the US backtracks from its commitment, the Taliban might withdraw from the talk and the conflict in Afghanistan will escalate with it.
On the other hand, if the US completely withdraws its troops on stipulated time without a deal between the Taliban and the government, there is a very big possibility at this point that the present regime in Afghanistan will fall and the country will slide again to a terrible civil war.
The ongoing armed conflict in the Tigray region of the country has created a serious humanitarian crisis in the region. The Tigrayan leadership calls for prolonged resistance against federal forces, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refuses to negotiate.
The bitter Tigray conflict has wider fault-lines as it includes Eritrean refugees in Tigray and Tigrayan refugees in Sudan. Moreover, while Ethiopia is engaged in a civil war at home, it is also in a serious dispute with Egypt and Sudan over its construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile.
Though the world should be hopeful about 2021, there are many serious challenges, particularly these ready-to-explode conflicts out there for the international community and the new US administration to be aware of and be prepared for.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.