Eurasia Group | Top Geopolitical Risks in 2020: Coronavirus Update

Top Geopolitical Risks in 2020: Coronavirus Update

21 March 2020
Top Risks for 2020: Coronavirus Edition
Coronavirus hasn't just overturned daily life as we know it; it's also upended global politics. I've been working on figuring out what coronavirus means for geopolitics beyond the immediate crisis that we're in. As such, I've revisited our Top Risks 2020 that we published back in January and have updated them (the first time in our history we've ever done that) with the potential impact that the coronavirus will have on each of them. Here we go:

1. Rigged!: Who governs the US?

Back in January, we were worried about the legitimacy of upcoming elections given the fallout of the most politicized impeachment process in history, the near certainty of foreign interference, and presidential candidates themselves fanning conspiracy theory flames. It was a potent mix of factors that guaranteed roughly half the country would feel like elections were “stolen” from them if their preferred candidate didn't win. All that continues to be true … and now coronavirus opens up a brand-new avenue for political recriminations and mudslinging, all while complicating the physical act of going to the polls. The US has never attempted a country-wide mail-in vote or national e-voting, and in a political environment as polarized as this one, even the slightest hiccup will provide plenty of fodder for folks to denounce any election result they don't like.

Verdict: Coronavirus increases this risk.

2. The Great Decoupling

Back in January, we flagged that as bad as the tech war between the US and China had the potential to become, there was worse yet to go as this split between China and the US would spill into other economic areas. Coronavirus has sped up that timeline considerably; manufacturing and services sectors have already been forced to begin reorganizing supply chains and staff given their exposure to China. Those moves, for the time being, are temporary, but the longer the current global health crisis holds, the more businesses will be forced to consider making these moves permanent, deepening the divide between the US and China.

Verdict: Coronavirus SIGNIFICANTLY increases this risk.

3. US/China

Relatedly—we made the point a few months ago as the economic tussle between the US and China intensified, the fight between the world's two only economic superpowers would transform into a broader fight of influence and values as well, coupled with national security elements as well. This, too, has been accelerated by the coronavirus, which US President Donald Trump and members of his party have begun referring to as the “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus." China, meanwhile, has been pushing the story that the coronavirus was bioengineered in a US army lab. Both countries have leaders who very much care how their response to coronavirus is being viewed by both domestic and international audiences—laying the blame on one another doesn't help them contain the virus in any way, but it does help them deflect the political fallout. That means much more US-China turbulence going forward.

Verdict: Coronavirus SIGNIFICANTLY increases this risk.

4. MNCs not to the rescue

Relations between the private and public sector have rarely been easy. But as the world's problems began to mount and governments struggled to keep up, people began looking to multinational corporations (MNCs) to help address many of the issues that were plaguing the societies in which these multinationals operated and extracted profit. Before coronavirus, we expected 2020 to be a year when these MNCs would face calls for more action on social issues like climate change and the battle against poverty, all while they struggled to satisfy shareholders in a slowing global economic environment. That slowing global economy remains a massive challenge for them given coronavirus and new supply chain worries, but for the time being governments have other worries aside from holding MNCs to account; what's more, the challenges coronavirus brings offers opportunities for tech companies and pharmaceuticals to step up and help people live their lives as normally as possible during these trying times. Call it a wash.

Verdict: Coronavirus neither increases nor decreases this risk significantly.

5. India gets Modi-fied

We were significantly unnerved about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's turn to Hindu nationalism when we wrote our original report back in January, a political orientation which had significant ramifications for Indian society as well as the country's progress toward economic reforms. We continue to be worried about that … but so far India has managed to handle the coronavirus outbreak quite well. There are no guarantees that will be the case going forward, especially as the country is three times as crowded as China in terms of population density and has nowhere near the same kind of health and political response capacity as China. And if a coronavirus outbreak rips through India, it could push the country toward yet-more social upheaval. Not good.

Verdict: Coronavirus increases this risk.

6. Geopolitical Europe

Before coronavirus hit, the EU—under new leadership with the recent arrival of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—was gearing up to take a more assertive approach to both its relationship with China and the US. That would become apparent through increased tech regulation, stricter enforcement/utilization of trade rules and tariffs, and even increased military cooperation among the European bloc's remaining member states. Obviously, the arrival of coronavirus on European shores has now fundamentally changed that orientation—rather than battling the US and China in the geopolitical sphere, Brussels is now focused on battling coronavirus at home. If it does that successfully, it may well turn its sights back onto the US and China; if it doesn't, Europe may have bigger problems on its hands, especially if it is forced to try to salvage the bloc's battered economy with monetary policy options that are quickly dwindling.

Verdict: Coronavirus neither increases nor decreases this risk significantly.

7. Politics vs. economics of climate change

Climate change has unalterably begun moving from the political fringes into the political mainstream; 2020 was the year that climate action momentum would force a clash between activists, governments, and businesses. And while climate change still represents the greatest physical and existential threat the world faces, the immediacy with which the issue was being treated has been supplanted by the near-term crisis of coronavirus. That's good news for the climate change fight that was coming in 2020; that's worse news for the climate change fight overall that still needs to be had down the line.

Verdict: Coronavirus SIGNIFICANTLY decreases this risk (for now).

8. Shia crescendo

Misguided US policy towards Shia-led countries in the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Syria) was pushing the region toward instability, we warned back in January. But despite the rhetoric, neither the US nor Iran wanted a genuine military confrontation (the Soleimani assassination not withstanding). Now both the US and Iran are struggling to deal with their own domestic outbreaks of the coronavirus, meaning that both sides have even less incentive to go to war with one another. At the same time though, a significant coronavirus outbreak in Iraq and Syria could deal real blows to two countries struggling to pick up the pieces and stabilize themselves, which US policy wasn't helping them do in the first place.

Verdict: While coronavirus decreases the risks of U.S. policy toward Iran, it increases them in Syria and Iraq.

9. Discontent in Latin America

Latin America was in political crisis even before coronavirus, with a newly created middle class demanding better public services and less corruption from their leaders and not getting them. As of this writing, Latin America has yet to be hit as hard from coronavirus as Asia and Europe, but that may be just a matter of time. Combined with the recent collapse of oil prices following Russia and Saudi Arabia's decision to enter an oil-price war, leaders of oil-producing countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico need to brace for some difficult weeks ahead; so too the rest of Latin America, whose health system and underlying infrastructure will be tested like never before in the coming weeks and months … all while a population already on edge watches on.

Verdict: Coronavirus SIGNIFICANTLY increases this risk.

10. Turkey

As with Latin America, Turkey has yet to be hit as hard by coronavirus as other countries in the world. But there are no guarantees that will last, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan already has an established track record of acting erratically when he feels the political and economic pressure bearing down on him. That pressure was already mounting given high-profile defections from his ruling AK Party, a softening Turkish economy and costly military adventurism in Syria that has seriously strained Turkey's relations with both Russia and the European Union. Add in the impending strain of coronavirus, and it's possible Erdogan lashes out in new and even more unpredictable ways as he struggles to maintain both power and popularity.

Verdict: Coronavirus increases this risk.


All this, and we're still in the early days of the coronavirus changing life as we know it. We will keep tracking developments, helping make sense of what coronavirus means for both politics and markets going forward.

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Eurasia Group Founder and President Ian Bremmer.
Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. He is also the president and founder of GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company dedicated to helping a broad, global audience make sense of today's leaderless world.