25 July 2019

The Ten Most Important Geopolitical Events of the 21st Century

The first two decades of the 21stcentury have been marked by a series of dramatic events, some of which had been foreseen, but many of which came as major surprises.  These dramatic events of the past 20 years were both causes and effects of the underlying trends that have driven world affairs during this period.  At the beginning of this century, the United States was still in the midst of its unipolar moment, the period in time between the end of the Cold War and the rise of China during which the US enjoyed a singularly dominant position in the world.  As the 21stcentury has progressed, we have seen a shift in power from the developed world, of which the United States is the dominant power, to the emerging world, of which China is the leading power.  Likewise, we have seen power shift to the Pacific and Asian regions and away from the Atlantic and the West.  These changes have ushered in a period of greater instability and uncertainty, a period in which we currently live.

To understand how we have arrived at this point in our history, let’s look back at the ten most influential and important events around the world so far in the 21stcentury, in the order in which they occurred:

  • 9/11: Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in September 2001 remain the singularly-most-shocking event of the century so far.  Not only did these attacks claim thousands of lives and cost the US billions of dollars, but it resulted in the world’s dominant power becoming embroiled in quagmires in the Middle East and Central Asia that proved to be great distractions for the superpower.  Moreover, 9/11 highlighted two key themes that have dominated the 21stcentury, the volatility and unrest caused by colonial era borders and the proliferation of failed states in the world’s poorest regions.
  • China Joins the WTO: When China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001, few appreciated just how much this would transform the global economy.  Not only did this give China improved access to key export markets, but it utterly transformed entire industries as China quickly became the center of global manufacturing.  Today, China produces more cars than the United States, Japan and Germany combined and eleven times more steel than the US.  China’s WTO membership not only set the stage for the prolongation of its economic miracle, but for its trade war with the US that is raging today.
  • Global Financial Crisis: The global financial crisis that began in late 2007 ushered in the greatest economic crisis faced by the world since the Second World War.  For developed economies, this crisis proved to be a key moment as it led to deep recessions in most developed economies, with some of these economies still dealing with the impact of this crisis a decade later. For emerging markets, while many experienced severe downturns, this crisis proved to be an opportunity for them to play a much greater role in generating global economic growth, particularly with regards to Asian emerging markets.
  • The Rise of Social Media: Social media first emerged in the United States in the mid-1990s, but it was not until the later 2000s and early 2010s that social media really took off around the world. This has led to two major trends that have dramatically shaped the world in recent years.  One involves the ease of communication and coordination brought by social media, something that has played a major role in political protests and other such events.  The other is the challenge of “fake news” or the spread of false information by social media, a development that has influenced many recent elections.
  • The Arab Spring: Beginning in late 2010 in Tunisia, a wave of anti-government protests swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, bringing down long-ruling leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and leading to long-running civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Libya.  Unfortunately, the Arab Spring did little to bring more stability to that region, with the conflicts in each of the three aforementioned countries continuing to this day.  For some, the failure of the Arab Spring was confirmation that democracy would struggle to thrive in the Middle East and North Africa, and that the diverse populations of the region would struggle to live together.
  • Falling Birth Rates: A trend rather than an event, the decline in birth rates around the world over the first two decades of this century is a development that will have a profound impact on our future.  In countries where birth rates were already very low at the beginning of the century, they have largely remained low.  Moreover, some countries that had higher birth rates 20 years ago have seen their birth rates plummet in recent years,  This has led to worsening labor shortages in many of the world’s leading economies in North America, Europe and Asia, but nevertheless, resistance to immigration from regions with higher birth rates remains strong.
  • Climate Change Awareness: Over the past 20 years, more of the world has become aware of the fact that the global climate is changing at an accelerating pace.  In fact, each of the world’s nine hottest years over the past 140 years have occurred during the 21stcentury, with the five hottest years on record taking place over the past five years alone.  Moreover, weather changes, including powerful storms and devastating droughts, have been frequent occurrences so far this century.  This awareness has spurred governments, businesses and individuals to take action to slow climate change, but resistance remains strong in some areas of the world.
  • Migration Crises: In recent years, a series of migration crises have focused the world’s attention on that fact that, while population growth is slowing in many areas, in some of the world’s poorest regions, populations continue to expand.  Among the migration crises of the 21stcentury have been the Mediterranean crisis that saw more than two million people arrive in southern Europe between 2015 and today, the Rohingya crisis that led to nearly 800,000 people fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, and the current migration crisis along the United States’ southern border.  In some countries today, migration is now the leading issue for voters.
  • Brexit: The United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union was not the shock that some people make it out to be (polls had suggested that it was a strong possibility), and the UK was also an uneasy fit in a continental-European-dominated organization. Nevertheless, the process of withdrawing the UK from the EU has proven to be a convoluted mess and this could damage trans-channel ties for a long time to come.  Furthermore, the UK has been the bridge linking North America and Europe, so Brexit could have major long term ramifications for the already-fraying Trans-Atlantic relationship.
  • Donald Trump: If you had told someone in the United States in the year 2000 that Donald Trump would be the US president, you would have been labeled as crazy.  Instead, Trump rose a wave of protectionist and isolationist sentiment to win 2016’s presidential election in the US.  Much like the protectionist and isolationist politicians that were highly influential in the US in the 19thand early 20thcenturies, President Trump has focused his efforts on rebalancing the US’ foreign relationships and reducing fixed US commitments abroad.  Moreover, many of his policies are being imitated by populist politicians in other areas of the world.

An important question when looking back on the ten most important geopolitical events of the first two decades of the 21stcentury is whether or not they were predictable.  Some of these important geopolitical events and developments clearly were predictable.  For example, falling birth rates and the impact of climate change, together with their impacts, clearly were predictable, and warnings were being issued in the years before of the 21stcentury.  On the other hand, many of these important geopolitical events of the past 20 years were outright shocking when viewing them from the perspective of the late 20thcentury.  These include the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the election of Donald Trump as the president of the US.  Altogether, one could look at the trends that were emerging in the world before the 21stcentury and predict that some major changes were likely, but the nature of some of these changes would have been quite surprising indeed.

Even more important than looking back at the events of the past 20 years is to try and determine what we can learn from these events in order to predict how the world will change over the next 20 years.  From a political standpoint, it is likely that many of the dramatic changes that we have witnessed in recent years will continue to influence politics in the coming years, including the new challenges facing the democratic form of government as well as the evolving threats faced by more autocratic governments around the world.  In terms of the economy, the past 20 years has seen the rise of new opportunities and threats, some of which will remain in place in the coming decades, while other factors are certain to emerge that will either provide a boost for the global economy, or prove to be a risk to many leading economies.  Two factors that have always played a major role in the state of global geopolitics, demographics and the environment, could play an even greater role over the next two decades as population growth slows further and as the effects of climate change become more noticeable.  Taken together, it is certain that when the list of the most important geopolitical events and developments to take place between the years 2020 and 2040 is written, there will be some that we can foresee today, and some that will come as a major shock.