Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, January 25, 2021

What We're Watching in 2021

                                                               USA Today

Last week, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman discussed which global issues they have their eye on in 2021. Below is a lightly editied version of that conversation.  

Brad Nelson: Well, we made it. 2021 is here. Before we get too far into this relatively new year, I thought we'd take a quick look ahead. What do you have your eye on this year? What are you following? Any predictions for 2021?

Yohanes Sulaiman: First, let me just focus on one thing that the world will be watching for sure: Biden. 2021 will be a difficult year for Biden. There are very high expectations for Biden both domestically and internationally to overturn many of Trump's policies. I won't delve into America’s domestic affairs, but let me list several international issues that Biden will face. At some point soon, he will have to focus on re-engaging with international institutions (e.g. Paris Accord, WHO); reembracing Europe; reassuring Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, India, and Taiwan that he will be as accommodative to them as Trump was; dealing with North Korea; the Iran nuclear deal; handling Erdogan and Putin; troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia; the repercussions of Pompeo's declaration that China committed genocide; the trade war with China; and figuring out where and how Southeast Asia and Australia fits in his policy. And that's off the top of my head. 

BN: I'm also watching the incoming Biden administration, especially on domestic matters. How will he deal with the GOP? How will he handle the leftists in his party? What's his approach to domestic extremists and terrorists? Which signature domestic policies will Biden look to push first?

And on Biden foreign policy, as you mentioned, there is much to monitor. The big issue, of course, is Biden's strategy toward China. Will he hang tough? Go soft? Try to find a middle ground with Xi? Second, I'll be tracking Biden's proposed effort to place alliances at the center of US foreign policy. Will this boost US foreign policy, as establishment thinkers and academics have argued over the last four years? Or will it turn out to be a bust?

Additionally, I'm closely watching North Korea. Reports indicate that North Korea might be readying a submarine-launched missile test fairly soon. No surprise, given Kim's propensity to turn up the pressure on new governments in rival/enemy powers. But Kim's in a particularly tricky situation. There are conflicting accounts on how much Covid has ravaged North Korea. North Korea's economy has shrunk even further as the country self-isolates for fear of the virus entering from China and South Korea. Kim is apparently frustrated and angry with the US, ticked off that his summit diplomacy with Trump didn't yield more tangible benefits for him. And Kim knows that Biden is highly unlikely to give Kim even a fraction of the time and attention that Trump gave him. So, with all of that in mind, is Kim in an especially sour mood, ready to lash out? If so, how does Biden respond? How do the major regional players, like South Korea, Japan, and China, react?

YS: Domestically, if Biden stays in the center, that would strengthen his position. I think a lot of people are tired of the hyper-partisanship of the last four years, and if Biden manages to work together with the moderate GOP, he can cruise to reelection in 2024. I don't think Trump will remain influential in the next four years despite all the din, unless the Democrats want to make him a martyr. If I were Biden, I would pardon Trump, showing him and the rest of the US that I was the better man and smothering the crazies on the right. Of course, it won't be popular among the left, but that basically would end Trump. What would be more despicable for him than to be pardoned by the person he derides? If he refuses the pardon, he would be entangled with all the legal fights for the rest of his life. If he accepts the pardon, then it would be a total humiliation and would end his status as a martyr.

If Biden listens to the far left, however, then I could see him getting shellacked both in the midterms in 2022 and then in 2024. 

Covid will be around for one or two more years. It is interesting how the politicization of Covid all over the world essentially makes it very difficult to control the epidemic. Many people don't trust that vaccines will work thanks to a daily dose of politicized discussion on the efficacy of the vaccine. The impact of Covid internationally may not be as big as we thought, aside from intensifying competition between the US and China. And I doubt that Biden will suddenly try to appease China—that would look terrible optically. 

BN: I think Biden should wait before even considering to offer a pardon to Trump. Let's see if Trump is in legal trouble federally. If Trump is, then Biden should consider a pardon, though I'm not sure he should go ahead with one. Of course, Biden would get serious push-back from the far left in his party. And any federal pardon won't absolve Trump from any state crimes, and New York state is coming after him. That said, I'm fully in support of the thrust of your point. There's no need to act vengefully with respect to Trump; instead, focus on healing from the Trump years and uniting the country. I do think Biden gets that. The unity angle is Biden's is not only his mantra but an integral part of his political persona. Biden admitted that Trump wrote him a "generous" note (but didn't want to reveal the note's content's until speaking with Trump), which was nice to hear, and Biden's inaugural address emphasized similar themes in both tone and substance. 

I'm glad you mentioned Covid. That's the other major issue I'm watching in 2021. Given the case load and death toll, Covid has almost become a US rather than a global virus. So what Biden's does on Covid is important. The US health care system has been stretched to its limits. Thousands of Americans are still getting sick and dying every day, and countless Americans are worried about getting sick. At the same time, many Americans are tired of being cooped up and having their way of life impacted—even those who fully understand the severity of the virus, not just the MAGA contingent. If Biden can work out the kinks in the vaccine distribution, get more money into the hands of Americans, offer businesses, especially small businesses, vital support, 2021 will be a better year—for the US and for US partners and allies. 

Because Covid isn't solely an American thing, it'll also be useful to observe how the rest of the world copes with the pandemic. Europe is having major trouble at the moment, as are Mexico, India, and Brazil, among others. Many of the world's developing countries might not even gain access to a vaccine for another year or two. The global powers, the WHO, and other interested parties have to work to ensure that as many people as people, as fast as possible, no matter where they live, get access to a vaccine and state-of-the-art medicines and therapeutics to help sick people recover effectively and in a timely manner. That's the only way the world can quickly put Covid in its collective rearview mirror.   

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