The Top 10 Global Security Risks and Opportunities in 2021

The Top 10 Global Security Risks and Opportunities in 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has brought focus to the persistent threat of ever-mutating viruses. The rapidity of vaccine development is the product of artificial intelligence, big data, and accumulated research. This combination of advanced technologies has allowed bioscience to move with unprecedented speed to combat new viruses.

Probability: medium.

8. The Worst Food Crisis in Decades Ravages the World

The United Nations has warned that the world is on the brink of its worst food crisis in at least fifty years. The pandemic has disrupted global food supply chains. And with more people falling into extreme poverty as a result of the economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus, rising food prices could not come at a worse time. The UN forecasts that more people will die of coronavirus-related malnutrition and its associated diseases than from the coronavirus. That doesn’t account for the toll on those who survive. After all, childhood malnutrition has lifelong health and mental repercussions. The World Food Program believes Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso may already be suffering famine conditions. Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Lebanon, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe are not far away from it. Even in advanced economies, the poor are suffering from higher food prices at a time of high unemployment. In the United States, more than one in five households are now food insecure.

Probability: already here.

9. The Expansion of the Global Middle Class Comes to an End

Perhaps the world’s top achievement over the past three decades was the rise of millions out of extreme poverty and the growth of a global middle class. This may be jeopardized unless there is a strong recovery from the coronavirus crisis in 2021 and beyond. Experts believe that for the first time in half a century, the middle class has started to shrink—potentially by fifty-two million people in Latin America alone. At the same time, the World Bank predicts that by the end of 2021 up to 150 million additional people will fall into extreme poverty, defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day. Lower than expected economic growth next year would increase that figure. Historically, the erosion of the middle class correlates with political instability, democratic backsliding, and greater conflict.

Probability: high.

10. Neo-Ottoman Turkey Goes More Rogue

Increasingly authoritarian, Islamist, and expansionist, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has intervened militarily or has troops in Somalia, Qatar, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the Balkans. Ankara has been confronting Russia in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan while attacking U.S.-allied Kurds that are fighting the Islamic State. It is deploying the Russian S-400 air-defense system, which poses a threat to NATO and has prompted U.S. sanctions. And it has conducted naval provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean, contravening the Law of the Sea Treaty and threatening Cyprus. Many Arab states see Turkey as a threat, while Erdogan is also provoking France over its handling of recent terror attacks. Ankara’s multi-front military assertiveness could spark more conflict and force a reckoning within NATO, which counts Turkey as a member.

Probability: high



Exiting the worst year in recent memory, with a new administration taking office, one with an ambitious agenda to put the pieces back together after the assault by Trump’s wrecking balls and the worst pandemic in a century, it seems appropriate to examine the flip side of risks: opportunities. The miraculous vaccines offering light at the end of the tunnel are yet another reason to consider new possibilities.

1. The World Trade Organization Experiences a Rebirth

The World Trade Organization (WTO) faces an uncertain future with global trade rules and systems for settling disputes at risk. Absent strong institutional leadership and a new consensus driven by U.S.-EU cooperation, the WTO could unravel, fragmenting global trade, fostering more protectionism, and leaving trade largely governed by differing regional arrangements and the power and size of respective economies. Amid a protracted coronavirus pandemic, that would contribute to slower economic growth, if not recession. Rejuvenating global rules-based trade would be an important achievement, but it will require three steps to be taken in 2021: choosing a new WTO director-general; picking judges for the organization’s dispute-settlement mechanism, which has ceased to function as Trump has refused to appoint new judges; and framing both moves in the context of major institutional reform supported by a coalition of allies (the United States, EU, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea). Like-minded partners could reach consensus on common positions and push back against China’s predatory industrial policies.

Probability: high.

2. Multilateralism Gets Updated for the Twenty-First Century

Biden promised in his campaign to revive America’s multilateralist policies. An easy first move would be for Biden to rejoin all the international agencies and agreements that Trump withdrew from, including the World Health Organization, UN Human Rights Council, and Paris climate accord. But there’s also an opportunity for renewing U.S. leadership in a reformed UN system. To begin with, the U.S. absence in the global body under Trump left a vacuum that China has been filling. Even more important, however, a reinvigorated U.S. presence that mobilizes Europe and other pro-multilateralist members could update the United Nations for the twenty-first century. When it comes to addressing governance deficits in space, autonomous weaponry, and new forms of dual-use biotechnology and geoengineering, there are few international agreements setting standards and regulations. Instead of waiting until the inevitable catastrophe happens in these domains, the Biden administration could get ahead of coming crises by creating conditions where emerging technologies can be a force for universal good.

Probability: high.

3. The United States and Russia Pursue a Relationship Built on Mutual Interests

Vladimir Putin is in bad shape, with coronavirus afflicting Russia and the country’s “near abroad” in turmoil. For example, Alyaksandr Lukashenka under siege in Belarus, a pro-EU president in charge in Moldova, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict forced the deployment of permanent Russian peace-keeping troops. Back home, $40-$50 oil is undermining the Russian economy. As a result, Putin may be seeking a more stable relationship with the United States and Europe. Rebuilding that relationship could include establishing an architecture of mutual restraint—starting with the negotiated extension of the New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty, involving an agreement on missiles and a nuclear-stability framework that brings in China. It could also include some progress toward a peace deal in Ukraine. Relations could stabilize into a cool, business-like relationship that provides Moscow with some options beyond dependence on China.

Probability: medium to high.

4. The New Sunni Arab-Israeli Alignment Expands and Deepens

The recent flurry of agreements to normalize ties between Israel and many Sunni Arab states may be the only low-hanging fruit that Trump has bestowed on Biden. The Saudis appear to have postponed an opening to Israel after a U.S.-brokered, not-so-secret meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They likely see such an opening as a card to play in resetting ties with the next U.S. administration, knowing Biden’s critical perspective on Saudi human-rights violations and the war in Yemen. The next step for Washington would be to facilitate a regional free-trade agreement and investment treaty among Sunni states and Israel. Biden may have to guard against Saudi pressure for harsher U.S. measures against Iran, including not rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement.

Probability: high.

5. The United States Leads an Expanded Trans-Pacific Partnership 

The Bush and Obama administrations launched the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a pillar of US strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region in order to shape twenty-first-century rules of trade in the world’s most dynamic economic region. The logic was that by creating an accord with high standards for labor, environmental, and e-commerce rules among 40 percent of the world’s economy, the United States and its partners could compel China to eventually abide by those rules. Instead, Trump withdrew from the TPP, making the United States the outlier. Japan went ahead with the other eleven members and launched a scaled-down version of the accord, which Tokyo structured to facilitate a U.S. re-entry. Meanwhile, a second Asia-Pacific accord—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China and has narrower standards—was finalized in November. Rejoining the TPP would be an important way for the United States to recapture the regional economic space it has vacated, restore U.S. credibility, and bolster American leadership on economic rule-making. Biden has expressed interest in returning to the TPP but has also voiced concerns about elements of it. If he were to push for rejoining the agreement, then he would need to make the case for doing so to his own party and to those Republicans who may not want to see him succeed. Any political reservations notwithstanding, having a seat at the negotiating table again would allow the United States to press for a review of the accord.

Probability: low to medium.

6. The United States and Its Allies Build New International Structures for Digital Governance 

Data and algorithms are the drivers of the twenty-first-century economy. Yet the internet is beginning to fragment into three digital regimes—led by the European Union, the United States, and China amid a trend toward “internet sovereignty.” Avoiding the balkanization of the internet will be a key challenge for the Biden administration. The good news is that the United States is well-positioned to lead efforts to forge global standards for the free flow of data and a 5G infrastructure to enhance it. The Trans-Pacific Partnership included the first effort to generate global standards for unhampered e-commerce. These rules were further strengthened in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the U.S.-Japan digital trade accord of September 2019. Biden could build a coalition of the United States, EU, Japan, Australia, and others to encourage the WTO to embrace free cross-border flows of data with no duties and no data-localization rules for e-commerce since current talks on digital standards have stalemated. In addition, the United States should spearhead efforts by the public and private sectors to develop and scale-up Open Radio Access Networks (O-RAN), a software-based approach to 5G that is interoperable with all hardware and could leapfrog offerings from China’s Huawei. There are two international private-sector coalitions working on O-RAN with Japan and the European Union, and the private sector could accelerate commercial deployment of the technology.