The World in 2021

🔮 10 headlines from the future

Good morning. Like you, we're not really sure what day it is right now, when we last changed our underwear or whether that Chrissie ham in the fridge is still good to eat.

But unlike this battler, we've spent this awkward time between Christmas and New Year’s w̶o̶r̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶h̶a̶r̶d̶ slightly boozed, making up things about the future.

So, this week, we offer our geopolitical predictions for 2021. tl;dr:

Enjoy! If you love reading International Intrigue, please tell a friend. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that here👇🏼


🌏 ASIA PACIFIC

1. What’s the opposite of trust? Anti-trust, but Alibaba, Facebook and Google aren’t laughing

2021 is the year of the bureaucrat! Doesn’t that sound pleasantly boring?

Sadly, quite the opposite. Controversy will reign as Google will be separated from its ads business, and Facebook from WhatsApp and Instagram. Google and Facebook will achieve the impossible by bringing Republicans and Democrats together.

And Alibaba? Who knows, but it's clear Jack Ma has upset the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This week, China's Central Bank announced it was separating Ant Financial from its parent company.

No one is bigger or more 'on the side of the people' than the CCP and our bet is that this one isn't over. Investors will flee and Alibaba will be bought by… let’s guess China Mobile by the end of the year.

Why it might not happen: There are a lot of problems with the anti-trust process, but if companies become too big for regulation, it might end in stalemate. Tech giants might manage to jam up the political process in the US, but we can’t see the CCP letting that happen in China.

2. Kim Jong Un survives coup attempt; executes 4 generals by hot air balloon

In terms of Covid-19 increased risk factors, it's hard to think of a world leader more at the centre of that Venn Diagram than Kim Jong Un:

North Korea took brutal measures to stop the virus. As a result, trade with China dropped 75%, factories operated at their lowest rate since the big man took power, and the price of imported staple foods increased 4x.

All that is a recipe for internal political struggle and it’s not hard to see how a member of the military with a healthy ego might think he (or she) can do better.

And execution by hot-air balloons? You laugh, but there have been crazier efforts.

Why it might not happen: Headlines like this have been written for 40 years without ever coming to fruition. The status quo seems to suit everyone, including China and the US right now.


🌍 MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA

3. Turkey slowly roasts in the fire of Middle Eastern politics

We’ll leave the controversy over why we’re still eating turkey for Christmas for another day. Instead, something a little less contentious: the tussle between those who back political Islam in the Middle East.

For decades, the Arab-Israeli issue had been front and centre in the region. This changed in 2020, after Israel’s friend requests to its neighbours were finally accepted, much to the chagrin of Palestine.

So 2021 will see new tensions unfold: increasing rivalry between a bolder Turkey under President Erdoğan, and the UAE. Turkey has been backing Islamist forces around the region, while the UAE believes political Islam is the real threat to peace and security.

Why it might not happen: other events demand more immediate attention like recovering oil prices, Iranian nuclear dramas, China’s growing influence and an eager US - you know, the usual.

4. Lagos the new San Francisco as African free trade agreement brings riches

Many African economies will grow significantly after a new regional free trade deal kicks in on January 1, 2021. A truly cross-continent trade deal has never existed in Africa and could provide huge and lasting benefits to the world’s poorest continent.

The African Continental Free Trade Area will cover 1.3 billion people across 55 countries, with a combined GDP of US$3.4 trillion. It’s meant to lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty and boost the income of 70 million others living on less than US$5.50/day.

Why it might not happen: political issues could see a patchy implementation. Like board games on family holidays, multilateral deals only work if everyone actually plays by the rules.


🌎 THE AMERICAS

5. Latin American elections prove hugely dramatic, but not the good, telenovela kind

Latin America’s series of elections in 2021 could destabilise the region. Countries going to the polls (including Ecuador, Peru, and Chile) face an uphill economic slog.

COVID worsened existing woes, ranging from inequality to insecurity. In 2020, economies shrunk by 8%, which means ~40 million more people are now living in poverty. This will fuel more frustration from the masses, which could see more polarisation, populism, and protests.

Why it might not happen: Latin America should pull through because it's resilient, still ranking as the third most democratic region (after Europe and North America), and having the highest percentage of female parliamentarians globally.

6. US nationalises Jim Carrey, citing Biden’s need to be in many places at once

We’re betting on the US having an international comeback through proactive diplomacy. Beyond the expected executive actions (e.g. re-joining the World Health Organisation, Paris climate deal and Human Rights Council), the US may strive for more ambitious goals.

These could include creating rules for emerging technologies (including AI) in global forums, working with Russia on limiting nuclear arms, and cooperating with Europe to take on big tech.

Why it might not happen: The country faces a tough road ahead fighting Covid-19 with vaccine rollout a mammoth task. President-elect Biden will likely face a Republican Senate that’s sceptical of his foreign policies.


🌍 EUROPE

7. Eurovision kicks out UK after Brexit but keeps Australia for some reason

After its Brexit divorce, the European Union will crack down on the bad behaviour of countries still in the clique. It’s no secret that the EU has been unhappy about Poland and Hungary’s poor democratic record.

Both countries are headed by populist and nationalist parties. They have overseen the erosion of independent media, undermining of judiciary, rise of white supremacy, and crackdown on LGBTI rights. Some in the EU want to hold Poland and Hungary accountable for their behaviour, especially after they recently blocked the EU's Covid-19 recovery fund.

Why it might not happen: While the EU might now have more resources to rein in its more recalcitrant members, its famously bureaucratic structure means nothing will happen quickly.

(Ed: We’re still waiting on a good explanation of why Australia is in Eurovision.)

8. As new Tsar of Russia, Putin demands inauguration ceremony on horseback

Having served as Russia’s president since 2012 (but really in power since 2000), Putin’s term is technically up in September 2021. But let’s be serious, he’s not going anywhere.

Russia recently voted in some changes to its constitution that extend presidential term limits. This means that Putin could be in power until 2036. Given there is no successor in sight (that we know of), we might see Russia take a leaf out of China’s playbook.

Why it might not happen: It won't be a cushy throne. Putin must navigate Russia’s ills including Covid-19 recovery, low oil prices (which buoys the Russian economy), and a sharper United States. Might he decide it’s not worth the trouble?


🌏 OCEANIA & ANTARCTICA

9. Antarctic marine-life point flippers at Chilean scientists for super-spreading Covid-19

In 2021, great power competition goes to the South Pole. Taking advantage of traditional Antarctic states’ absence during Covid-19, China and Russia will extend their reach across the continent.

Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, focused on preserving scientific research and guarding against nuclear proliferation. But loose enforcement means those keen on Antarctic resources (fisheries) and military advantages (dual-use satellites) will flex their muscles in 2021.

Why it might not happen: Antarctica isn’t number one on any country’s agenda. It’s expensive and difficult to maintain a presence there. Expected payoffs are longer-term benefits, so perhaps Antarctica gets put in the ‘too hard’ basket.

10. Australia has no choice but to eat Vegemite for breakfast, lunch and tea

Far from being happy little vegemites, Australians will feel the pinch of a worse than forecast economy. Let’s be bold: housing prices in Australia will crash.

Australia’s economy bounced back from Covid-19 due mostly to Covid-19 not really being a thing down-under. But with China turning the screws on the Australian Government by not buying coal, wine, and other goods, 2021 may be a very tough year.

About half of Australian household assets are in home prices - so what happens when the economy sputters, banks tighten lending, unemployment rises, and mortgages begin defaulting?

Why it might not happen: Let’s be honest, it probably won’t happen. The government will prop up the housing market like a pet store clerk in a Monty Python sketch. But a shiny Nobel Prize to the economist who first figures out what happens when the music of huge debt, low interest rates, low growth, and rising inflation, stops.


➕ Extra Intrigue: Other thoughts on 2021


📈 Off the Charts

We recapped 2020 last week, but we can’t shake our reflective moods. Here’s a few intriguing infographics we came across this year.

Brand value of countries

Media consumption

Top searches


🥅 Our 2021

🧶 One new hobby or skill we'll master:

Helen: Skiing a black run in the Colorado Rockies (sans ski patrol).
John: Getting red wine out of any carpet using only household items.

🤞🏽 One new year's resolution we'll attempt to keep:

Helen: To not overeat on the daily - an ongoing battle.
John: To write this newsletter, on time, each week.

🎥 One movie we can't wait for:

Helen: The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers (kind of jk, kind of not).
John: James Bond: No Time to Die (enough edging already).

🌎 First travel plans after the pandemic:

Helen: The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
John: the pub.


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See you in 2021!