5 International political trends to look out for in 2020

5 International political trends to look out for in 2020

By Sander Mulder

Last year, we tried to map out the biggest political trends for 2019. Since geopolitics is a complex phenomena, many of the trends we described are still relevant, while they simultaneously lead to new developments as well. The big disruptions caused by new international power balances, uses of technology and natural disasters will determine the coming decade to a large extent. We can never fully predict what will happen, but based on the developments of the past year, here are a few trends to look out for in 2020. 

  1. The United States’ changing presence on the world stage

The attack on Iranian general Soleimani has sparked international outrage. With Iran’s presence in the region militarily challenged by the United States, it is difficult to predict how the conflict will work out. With his 2020 re-election in the back of his mind, president Trump is eminent on conveying the message of a strong leader. Hindered by a Democrat-controlled Congress, the White House sees the international stage as the best opportunity to score some badly needed policy wins. Besides the escalating conflict with Iran, the Trump presidency recently put the WTO appeals court in trouble by vetoing their final judges, deployed 3500 new troops to the Middle East and continued the long-lasting trade conflict with China. Trump’s unpredictable behaviour poses an uncertainty to ‘the art of diplomacy’, a development that will take some to time to recover from, even if the Democrats take over the White House in 2021.

  1. Unrest in South-East Asia

Even though North Korea has not lived up to their threat of a ‘Holiday Gift’ for the United States, few analysts would say that the relations between North Korea and the West have progressed in 2019.  Even though a new summit is in the planning, the provocations of North Korea may destabilize the balance of power in the region even more, reinforce the US army presence in East-Asia and demonstrate Beijing’s lack of influence regarding this matter. At the same time, China continues to struggle with the internal backlash to their reactions in Hong Kong and their treatment of the Uyghur minority. The Tokyo Olympic games in the summer might ease the tensions in the region for a little bit, providing the opportunity for countries such as North and South Korea to engage in the soft politics of sport diplomacy as was shown by their joint participation at the Pyeongchang Games of 2018.   

  1. Political opportunities and challenges of the EU

The core foundations of the EU have been challenged multiple times during the past few years, most notably with the Brexit-vote that (probably) will come into force in February this year. The new European Commission, led by Ursula von Leyen, has set out an ambitious agenda, focussing on core issues such as climate change and technological innovation. Even though the European Parlement is increasingly characterized by the rising popularity of Eurosceptical nationalist parties and, as a result, reflects the growing divisions of their respective national parliaments, the time might come that the EU takes on a leading role in these pressing issues. With the United Kingdom leaving the EU-stage and political voting blocs changing, it will be an interesting year to see how new European legislation is made. The intention of the conservative and green party in Austria to work together in a new government provides proof to the idea that cooperation in Europe is still possible, how difficult it may sometimes seem. 

  1. Escalating violence in the MENA-region

All the actors in the MENA-region are connected through the many local conflicts, leading to a further escalation of the already instable situation. The civil war in Syria does not seem to reach a conclusion in its near future, partly due to the proxy support for militants by Russia and the US. Even though the US’ sudden withdrawal and the threat that posed to their Kurdish allies, they continue to seek influence in the region. Simultaneously, Iran and Saudi-Arabia, both plagued by internal division and economic challenges, will continue their proxy disputes in Yemen, Bahrein and many more countries. Besides, non-state (terrorist) actors still claim large territories in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, resorting themselves to suicide bombings and violent attacks. In the meantime, social networks have provided new tools for citizens to vent their political frustrations. Fuelled by the attack on Iranian general Soleimani, it is difficult to predict how this escalation will end. 

  1. Russia’s international standoff with NATO and the US

Last year, NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary. However, since the creating in 1949, there have not been more turbulent times than this. Diplomatic spats, multiple proxy wars, the rise of non-state terrorist groups, as well as strategic political and political tensions will last between Russia and the U.S., particularly regarding the growing frustration over president’s Trump handling of Ukrainian aid. In Moscow, meanwhile, the Backdoor policy in Eastern Europe, more specifically Ukraine and Syria, is more important. Sanctions enacted on Russia from the US and the European Union will continue to stay in place. Depending upon what investigations tell the international community about Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Washington might even ramp up the political and financial pressure on Russia.

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