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Between Conflict and Cooperation: The World in 2021

Jan. 8, 2021 | Tai Ming Cheung

Tai Ming Cheung portraitTai Ming Cheung is the director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and a Professor in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego

From the COVID-19 pandemic to spiraling geo-strategic competition and the continuing spread of strident domestic nationalism, the international system endured severe and overlapping challenges over the course of 2020. While the global order was battered and bruised by year’s end, it remains unbroken and resilient. A major question now is whether the existing core foundations and scaffolding of the international order, which have provided the conditions for a long run of peace, stability, and prosperity since the 1990s, are still sufficiently robust to withstand what promises to be even more testing days ahead.

Several key dynamics are worth exploring. First, is globalization still alive and well? National economies, cultures, and populations have grown increasingly interdependent over the past several decades, through cross-border trade in goods and services, technology, and flows of investment, people, and information. But key functional and regional components of the global economy were seriously affected in 2020. The airline industry, for example, was hit hard by COVID-19, and though the damage appears temporary, the pause in the free flow of people around the world has seen many countries and societies turning inward.

Of more consequential long-term impact are disruptions to global industrial and technology supply chains, as the United States and China engage in the opening rounds of technological decoupling, especially targeted against specific companies like Huawei, and sectors such as semi-conductors. Momentum towards a more significant split between the U.S. and Chinese technology regimes is picking up, and is likely to continue regardless of the change in administrations in Washington DC. While technological decoupling between the United States and China is likely to be partial rather than comprehensive, it could nonetheless lead to a significant and long-lasting reversal in the globalization process.

A second dynamic to watch is the changing balance and orientation of the global geo-strategic order as competition between its biggest powers ramps up. The post-World War II order, which the United States and its Western allies dominated, is facing a concerted challenge from China, which is flexing its economic, strategic, and technological might to reshape the normative and institutional arrangements of the global system. This is most obvious in the maritime domain with Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, but it is spreading into numerous other arenas such as cyber, technology standards, and space. With the United States and other Western countries pre-occupied by the COVID-19 pandemic, China saw an opportunity in 2020 to boost its international profile, but its overly assertive diplomatic efforts led to a strong backlash in many countries. Nonetheless, these tactical missteps are unlikely to derail China’s long-term strategic ascent.

The third big theme of 2020 and the year ahead is the role and influence of strident domestic nationalism on the international order. From the United Kingdom, to Brazil, Eastern Europe, and South Asia, populist nationalist parties and policies have been in the ascendancy. The United States dominated global headlines in 2020 and the start of 2021, as political and populist polarization erupted violently and further undermined its international status and influence. It will take considerable time and effort for the Biden administration to halt and reverse this diminishing of U.S. global stature and authority, which leaves a dangerous leadership vacuum. The pace of U.S. recovery will depend on whether the country can address the increasingly toxic and destructive dynamics embedded in the country’s political system and move towards a more accommodative and cooperative stance. The United States has successfully risen to the challenge in the past, but the structural obstacles today are formidable. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global catastrophic event that should be a wake-up call to the global community. So far, public health and political responses have been underwhelming, with governments blaming and competing with each other, and international institutions lacking in leadership and responses. Ensuring an equitable global recovery, and addressing other challenges such as the risk of nuclear conflict, large-scale climate crises, and the global economic downturn, depends on an international community willing to work together towards global solutions.

At this critical moment, rigorous scholarship and practical policy engagement matter more than ever. In 2021, IGCC will continue in our commitment to policy relevant research and engagement on issues ranging from great power competition, global catastrophic risks, economic development, and nuclear policy, to migration, global health, and the environment. The international system is under strain as never before. The opportunity now is to strengthen the conditions that allow for shared peace, stability, and prosperity—in 2021 and beyond.