Dec 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The risks and opportunities of 2021 are a mirror image

Illustration of a cursor with a halo looking into a mirror, the reflection is a cursor with devil horns and tail.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new report — first seen by Axios — lays out what could go wrong in the worlds of geopolitics, business and technology in the coming year, as well as what could go right.

The big picture: Viewed side by side, many of the risks and opportunities of 2021 present a mirror image, where different decisions in the same part of the world can lead to positive outcomes — or another year of catastrophe.

What's happening: Robert Manning and Mathew Burrows of the Atlantic Council cite the dangers of an extended COVID-19 pandemic, the stifling of the Biden presidency, and a new debt-driven global financial crisis as the top risks for next year, in a report to be published later today.

  • They also list what they see as the top opportunities of the coming year, led by a reborn World Trade Organization, a revived and updated multilateralism, and a turnaround of the worsening U.S.-Russia relationship.
  • "It's tempting to say that in 2021 there's nowhere to go but up," they write. "But there will be further unanticipated shocks and no shortage of risks."

Between the lines: Every incoming presidential administration faces what Manning calls the "tyranny of the inbox" — the overflow of crises and opportunities that demand the White House's attention. And Biden's inbox is already overflowing.

  • Still, what struck me about the report is how many of the risks could be flipped into opportunities — and vice versa — depending on the moves the administration makes.
  • Much of it comes back to the pandemic. If Biden's team can quickly curtail the spread of COVID-19 and kick-start the economy, it takes pressure off the possibility of a new global financial crisis, which in turn would help increase the chance of "rejuvenating rules-based global trade," as Manning and Burrows write.
  • If the White House can effectively resurrect multilateralism, it will reduce the fallout from any confrontations with Russia and China.

Of note: One of the risks Manning and Burrows cite is arguably already underway, even if it is under the radar: the worst global food crisis in decades.

The bottom line: The new administration has its work cut out for it.

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