30 December 2019

The Ten Leading Geopolitical Risks of 2020

For any observer of international affairs and issues related to global security, it is easy to feel as if political and security risk levels are rising to dangerously high levels.  All around the world, tensions are rising, whether they are internal tensions or tensions between individual countries, and these tensions are threatening to usher in a period of major political upheaval.

There are many reasons why geopolitical risk levels are on the rise.  For example, the recent change in direction in the United States, some of which pre-date the Trump Administration, have shaken up the global order that had developed in the decades following the Second World War, leaving the position and the policies of the world’s pre-eminent power significantly changed, something that has sowed confusion among other global actors.  Meanwhile, the fact that tensions between the world’s most powerful countries are on the rise raises the threat of a conflict between major powers, something that has largely been avoided in recent decades.  

For many countries, changes in economics, communications and the environment are leading to much higher levels of internal unrest, making it impossible for many countries to achieve or maintain the level of stability needed to improve living standards and internal stability.  At the same time, too many countries have failed to achieve the levels of economic growth and development that they had hoped for, or counted on, leaving those countries’ publics disillusioned with their position in the world.  All of these factors have combined to raise geopolitical tensions to their highest level in a long time.

Before looking at the ten leading geopolitical risks for 2020, it is interesting to look back at what we considered to be the ten leading geopolitical risks for 2019.  These were:

  • The Threat of a US-Chinese Cold War (this appears to be coming closer to reality as the two leading powers remain at odds over many issues)
  • Russia and Ukraine (A re-ignition of this conflict did not occur, but tensions remain high along the front line eastern Ukraine and the Crimea)
  • The Ambitions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (These two countries remained mired in the civil war in Yemen while continuing to be at odds with Iran)
  • The Brexit Mess (This proved to be highly destabilizing for both the United Kingdom and the European Union and remains unresolved)
  • More Migration Crises (The US-Mexican border was the focal point of migration crises in 2019, but others persisted as well)
  • Afghanistan’s Never-Ending Conflict (2019 was one of the deadliest years in Afghanistan’s long-running internal conflict)
  • Latin American Political Divisions (No region saw a greater increase in geopolitical risk than Latin America in 2019)
  • Much to be Resolved in Syria (The conflict in Syria continued to drag in outside powers such as Russia, Turkey and the US)
  • Venezuela’s Collapse (President Nicolas Maduro managed to hang on to power, despite losing more internal and external support)
  • Rising Climate-Related Risk (Climate change continued to gain greater attention and could spark future conflicts)

For the most part, our predictions of the largest geopolitical risks in 2019 were accurate, with a couple of exceptions.  Looking back, a few events would have merited inclusion, including the unrest in Hong Kong, India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status (Kashmir is a regular flashpoint on our lists from previous years) as well as the second wave of the Arab Spring that has erupted across the Middle East and North Africa.  Nevertheless, we largely covered the leading geopolitical risks of the past year, and anyhow, limiting this list to just ten risks is always going to be difficult given the uncertainty of our times.

So, what have we decided merited inclusion on our list of the ten leading geopolitical risks for 2020?  Here are the ten risks that we find deserve to be included on this year’s list based on their chances of happening and the global impact they would have should they come to fruition:

  • The Distracting US President Election: It has been a long time (if ever) that a presidential election in the United States (or any other country) will have such an impact on global security and stability.  Furthermore, this election is sure to distract the US government and public from events happening outside of its border, potentially leading rival powers to use this distraction for their benefit.  Finally, a disputed result is a possibility, one that could widen political divisions in the US.
  • Popular Unrest: It is possible that the waves of popular anger and unrest that we have seen in recent months in many different parts of the world are just the beginning of an extended period of protest and unrest.  With issues such as wealth inequality, immigration, corruption and climate change moving to the fore, public anger and internal divisions could widen in many countries across the world, divisions that could spark widespread anger.
  • China and Hong Kong: With pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong set to continue into 2020, Beijing will be forced to make a decision on whether or not to intervene with force to bring these protests to an end.  At the moment, the Chinese government does not have a clear way out of this dilemma, as an intervention would severely damage Hong Kong’s economy, but taking no action could result in these protests spreading to China itself.
  • A Gulf Conflict: The threat of a new conflict in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf will remain very high in 2020 as internal tensions rise in Iran amid that country’s economic troubles.  With the US presidential election looming, Saudi Arabia may decide that next year is its best chance to deal a major blow to Iran, while the conflicts in Yemen and Syria will continue to divide the Gulf’s leading powers.  As always, the Gulf will remain one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
  • Cyber Warfare: From the spread of mis-information to the carrying out of cyber-attacks on a country’s electrical grid, cyber warfare is quickly emerging as the most volatile front in the struggle for geopolitical power.  In 2020, the United States presidential election will clearly be the focus of much cyber mischief, while many countries will move to dramatically enhance their ability to carry out, and defend against, cyber-attacks.
  • India-Pakistan: The border area between India and Pakistan, including the line of control in Kashmir, remains one of, if not the, most dangerous flashpoints in the world.  With India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status earlier this year, and with both countries experiencing serious economic difficulties, the potential for a conflict between these two nuclear-armed states has risen substantially and the threat of a war between the two sides will persist throughout the coming year.
  • More Difficulties for Western Democracy: 2019 was a challenging year for democracy in the West on many fronts, from the worsening fragmentation of politics in many countries to the spread of right-wing and left-wing populism.  Although there will be much fewer elections in the West in 2020 than in 2019, the factors that have weakened Western democracy in recent years will remain in place, and we could see a number of governments collapse in the coming year.
  • The Technological Arms Race: The battle for technological supremacy between the United States and China in fields such as artificial intelligence and 5G communications will continue to intensify, threatening to divide the world into technological blocks.  Meanwhile, other states will find themselves left by the wayside by the US and China unless they commit to massive technological investments themselves.
  • Latin American Divisions: Ideological divisions in Latin American have widened dramatically over the past couple of years, both within countries and among the leading powers in the region.  In 2020, a hard-right government will be in power in Brazil, while countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela will be led by hard-left leaders.  The potential for internal and external unrest in this region will likely rise in the coming year as a result.
  • Protectionism and Isolationism: 2020 is likely to see support for protectionist and isolationist policies continuing to rise in many parts of the world as the backlash against globalization, immigration and shifting wealth distribution gains momentum.  This threatens to lead to even more trade disputes in the coming years and will weaken international institutions and alliances, some of which have been pivotal in preventing great power conflicts in recent decades.

A look at this list of the ten leading geopolitical risks for 2020 reveals much about the geopolitical situation in the world today.  It shows that, given the fact that popular anger is so high today, the level of geopolitical tension in the world is unlikely to fall in the coming year, and may rise much further.  

Of the global relationships in 2020, none will be more important than that between the United States and China, as these two countries not only possess far more power than any other countries, but they are also finding themselves in competition with one another in a wide variety of fields.  Meanwhile, regional disputes will also persist in many areas of the world and may yet escalate should the US remain distracted by internal divisions and its growing rivalry with China.  In fact, the potential for a conflict involving two or more major powers is now dangerously high, with flashpoints such as Syria, the Arctic and the South China Sea now involving two or more major powers.  

Not only will these tensions impact global security and stability, but they could also have a major impact on the global economy, as the US-Chinese trade war has demonstrated.  Should geopolitical tensions escalate further in 2020, business and investor confidence will decline even more than it already has in recent months, adding to the downwards pressure on the global economy.  Unfortunately, as we prepare to enter the new year, it appears that little can, or will, be down to reduce geopolitical risks levels around the world and the potential for major conflicts to erupt in one or more locations remains a distinct possibility.