The new year will likely be plagued by unresolved legacies of the old: COVID-19, economic downturns, erratic U.S. policies and destructive wars that diplomacy did not stop. Crisis Group’s President Robert Malley lists the Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2021.
If there were a contest for the 2020 event with the most far-reaching implications for global peace and security, the field would be crowded.
From the coronavirus pandemic to climate change’s growing impact, the Trump administration’s scorched-earth policies after Joe Biden’s election, the Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, it has been an eventful year. In 2021, the world will be dealing with the aftermath and sifting through the debris.
Start with COVID-19 and its long tail. When the pandemic first broke out, many – myself included – feared that it would have immediate, potentially devastating consequences in developing countries, especially those facing deadly conflict. Although several low-income countries were hit badly, many were not; diplomatic activity, international mediation, peacekeeping missions, and financial support to vulnerable populations suffered, but it’s questionable whether COVID-19 dramatically affected the trajectory of major wars, be they in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere.
Longer-term ramifications are a different matter. The pandemic has precipitated a global economic crisis without precedent since World War II, with an additional 150 million people being driven below the extreme poverty line. Although income levels do not directly correlate with conflict, violence is more likely during periods of economic volatility.
In Sudan, Lebanon, and Venezuela, to mention but a few examples, one can expect the number of unemployed to grow, real incomes to collapse, governments to face mounting difficulties paying security forces, and the general population to increasingly rely on state support at a time when states are least equipped to provide it. The lines separating economic dissatisfaction from social unrest, and social unrest from outbreaks of violence, are thin. Nor are the U.S., Europe, or other donors likely to devote the requisite amount of high-level, continuous attention or resources on regional conflicts far away as they confront economic, social, and political havoc at home.
Next is climate change – hardly a novel phenomenon but an accelerating one with an increasingly discernible impact on conflict. It’s true that the causal chain is circuitous, with political responses to extreme weather patterns often playing a greater part than the patterns themselves. Still, with more frequent heat waves and extreme precipitation, many governments are harder-pressed to deal with food insecurity, water scarcity, migration, and competition for resources. This is the first year that a transnational risk has made it onto our top conflicts list, as climate-related violence stretches from the Sahel to Nigeria and Central America.
Meanwhile, the U.S. – polarised, distrustful of its institutions, heavily armed, riven by deep social and racial rifts, and led by a recklessly divisive president – came closer to an unmanageable political crisis than at any time in its modern history. While the country was spared the worst, President Donald Trump has spent his final weeks in office challenging the election’s legitimacy and therefore his successor’s, seemingly intent on dealing President-elect Biden the weakest possible hand to deal with the messy situation he will inherit.
Turning political spite into diplomatic art form, booby-trapping the field for the man who will replace him, Trump imposed an array of sanctions on Iran with the barely concealed objective of hindering Biden’s efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear deal. He extended U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in an unbecoming exchange for Morocco’s decision to normalise relations with Israel. And he ordered a series of last-minute U.S. military drawdowns from Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. By acting precipitously, without coordination or consultation with key local stakeholders, he managed to give a bad name to potentially sensible policies. There is every reason to encourage better relations between Arab states and Israel; there is none to do so in a manner oblivious to international law. There is every reason to end America’s endless entanglement in foreign wars; there is none to do so in a manner that diminishes the incoming president’s hand and constricts his room to maneuver.
Biden’s election brought hope leavened with realism. Some of the damage wrought by his predecessor can be undone with relative ease. But the new team may find the impression of an erratic, unpredictable, untrustworthy giant harder to erase. By bullying traditional allies and ripping up international accords, Trump thought he was projecting power but was in reality exhibiting unreliability. To the extent Biden intends to negotiate anew with Iran and maybe North Korea, encourage compromise in Yemen or Venezuela, or revert to a less partisan role in the Middle East, he will be hobbled by memories of the man who came before him and forecasts of what might come next – especially if power only endures as long as the next U.S. electoral cycle.
The last of 2020’s legacies may be the most ominous. The final months of the year grievously injured that favorite adage of diplomats and peacemakers – that there is no military solution to political conflict. Tell that to Armenians, forced in the face of superior Azerbaijani firepower to relinquish land they had held for a quarter century; to Ethiopia’s Tigrayans, whose leadership promised prolonged resistance against advancing federal troops only to see those forces ensconced in the regional capital of Mekelle within days. Tell that, for that matter, to the Rohingya forced to flee Myanmar in 2017; to Palestinians, who have remained refugees or under occupation since the 1967 Arab defeat; or to the Sahrawi people whose aspirations to self-determination have been snuffed out by Moroccan troops and a transactional U.S. president, to mention only a handful of recent conflicts seemingly resolved by force.
It has long been a core belief among peacemakers that, absent more equitable political solutions, military gains tend to prove brittle. Just as Azerbaijanis never forgot the humiliation of the early 1990s, so too will Armenians strive to erase the indignity of 2020. If their grievances are unaddressed, many Tigrayans will resist what they might perceive as alien rule. Israel will not know genuine safety so long as Palestinians live under its occupation. But that core belief is under assault and getting harder to cling to.
Many around the globe experienced the past year as an annus horribilis, eagerly awaiting its conclusion. But as the list of conflicts to watch that follows suggests, its long shadow will endure. 2020 may be a year to forget, but 2021 will likely, and unhappily, keep reminding us of it.