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Eurasia Group: The Biggest Global Risks For 2021

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our next guest is thinking about the long-term trends that will shape the news in 2021. Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group. It's a political risk consultancy. That means they advise companies about world events that may affect their businesses. His annual list of risks for the new year is out today.

IAN BREMMER: Especially in a world that feels so politicized, this is our attempt to just share with the public in the U.S. and around the world where we think the world's heading.

INSKEEP: Now, it's not easy to predict the specific events of any coming year. Think of the start of 2020. Experts knew a pandemic was possible, but did not know it was arriving right then or how serious it would be. What Bremmer focuses on is longer trends, including some that the pandemic accelerated in 2020.

BREMMER: I mean, the pandemic made it so much easier to pit left versus right, Republican versus Democrat, Trump supporters versus Never Trumpers - because of how difficult it was going to be to even hold the election. The level of mistrust between the United States and China, that grew a great deal. It accelerated in this period of, let's face it, the most daunting crisis that we've experienced in our lifetime.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about what you see in the year ahead, or perhaps I should say years ahead. One of the first things in this new year that's a major news event is that Joe Biden becomes president January 20. What could possibly go wrong?

BREMMER: (Laughter) Well, when you think about 2021, of course, you know, coronavirus is going to dominate the news continually. But the United States today is not only the most powerful country in the world, but it's also the most politically divided and economically unequal of all of the world's wealthy democracies. And President-elect Biden will take office in that environment. He will be seen as illegitimate by almost half of the country.

INSKEEP: I want to interrogate that a little bit and see if it's really new. I'm just thinking back that there were some people who thought Trump wasn't really the president because he'd been helped by Russia. That wasn't true. He was elected by Americans, even though he did receive Russian assistance. There were people who thought Obama wasn't president because they believed false conspiracy theories about his birthplace. People believed that Bush wasn't president because they thought that he'd been put there by the Supreme Court. Is this really at a new level than what it was before?

BREMMER: Well, two points, Steve - the first is you put your finger on something that is unique to the United States. I mean, you look at the United Kingdom or France or Germany or Japan or Canada, none of those countries have elections where after the election, half of the population questions the legitimacy of the leader. And the United States, the most powerful country, that has been happening, and it's been growing. But also, clearly, it is getting a lot worse. Big difference between 2016 and 2020 - a lot of people said, not my president. Hillary Clinton didn't. Hillary Clinton said, actually, Trump won.

INSKEEP: This is an administration that intends to tackle climate, rejoin the Paris climate accord and take further steps at home and abroad. What risks do you see as the world tackles climate change in some fashion?

BREMMER: I think the biggest difference between Biden and Trump and even Biden and Biden as vice president is going to be this extraordinary focus on climate, not just rejoining Paris, but really putting resource and regulations towards a post-carbon energy environment. I think what's interesting about that - a lot of people that focus on climate think of how this is something that brings the world together. This is something that makes us all recognize this small planet that we're on. In reality, the Chinese are - have been increasingly dominating all of the post-carbon energy sources, whether it's nuclear or solar or wind or electric vehicles and supply chain and infrastructure. And when the United States suddenly starts paying big attention to that, the U.S. is going to want to dominate that space. So it actually creates a lot more competition.

INSKEEP: Is the change in U.S. administrations likely to reduce or change U.S. tensions with China?

BREMMER: I don't think so. I think it will normalize to a degree. There'll be, you know, a breath that is taken, an effort to reset. But anti-China sentiment is one of the few areas where there is broad agreement across the aisle in the United States. And it involves a lot of things. Certainly, Biden will be more focused on human rights issues like the Uighurs, like Hong Kong than Trump was. Technology will be a big issue between the two, as it has been. The Americans will work more closely in trying to coordinate this policy on China with our allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Europeans and Canada, where Trump was more unilateral.

And then you have not only the climate fight that we were talking about, but also vaccine nationalism, where the Chinese are just going to have a lot more vaccines to export around the world to poorer countries that will want to be more aligned to them. And the Americans will be taking longer on that front. And the vaccines that we have the greatest access to are ones that don't work as well in developing countries that don't have the infrastructure for them.

INSKEEP: You know, we had a writer on our air at the very end of the year who was saying we should keep in mind that 2021 could be as bad as 2020, could be even worse. Who knows? You need to be mentally prepared for that. But with that in mind, how do you feel about 2021?

BREMMER: We're going to see an economic rebound, and that's a really big deal. When you've gone through hell and, you know, you've got these vaccines that are vastly more effective and faster than any epidemiologist was expecting back in 2020, that's very positive. But let's understand that the economy is not fixed for so many people. The inequality is growing. And so, absolutely, I worry that even as the overall global economy is going to look so much better in 2021 than it did in 2020, I'm not sure it's going to feel that great for a lot of people around the world. And I'm also thinking that the political tensions underlying all of this are actually getting worse. So it's a really mixed picture for 2021.

INSKEEP: Ian Bremmer is president and founder of the Eurasia Group, which is a political risk consultancy.

Thanks so much.

BREMMER: Always a pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: His group has put out its report on the top risks for 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF KODOMO'S "CONCEPT 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.