Challenges of an unsettled world

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By Dr. Maleeha Lodhi

Looking at the year ahead, several trends can be identified that will shape the international landscape. Some are new while many carry over from previous years and are expected to be reinforced. Several annual reports or surveys published at this time of the year by international organizations, Think Tanks and others, forecast trends or risks that will pose challenges and have to be navigated by countries and leaders.
The most obvious is the Covid-19 pandemic. Having entered the third year, the virus will continue to pose a threat to nations and people. Hopes in the previous year that vaccination would help to defeat the virus were dashed as a new variant, omicron, emerged to drive another surge of cases, first in the West, and then spreading beyond. This will continue to be a major preoccupation of countries across the world. Governments will have to persist in dealing with the multifaceted fallout of this health crisis especially its economic repercussions.
The 2022 Annual Global Risks Report published by the World Economic Forum says that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic will pose a critical threat. In an insightful assessment it notes that “Vaccine inequality and a resultant uneven economic recovery risk compounding social fractures and geopolitical tension.” It goes further to warn that “The resulting global divergence will create tensions— within and across borders— that risk worsening the pandemic’s cascading impacts and complicating the coordination needed to tackle common challenges including strengthening climate action, enhancing digital safety, restoring livelihoods and societal cohesion.”

What has already been painfully apparent in the past two years of the pandemic is that the international solidarity needed to deal with this crisis has been largely absent. Despite declaratory commitments by the world’s big powers to work multilaterally, the reality has been different with competition rather than collaboration being the overarching dynamic. The lesson that has gone unlearnt is that no one is protected unless everyone is protected.
Yet global cooperation is missing. This is also highlighted by most reports. “The world is in desperate need of a coordinated response” to the pandemic says the Eurasia Group’s Top Risks 2022 report, but there is little prospect of this because global leadership is lacking. In a similar vein, the annual strategic survey by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies identifies “the cooperation gap in various key areas” as a top trend which is already evident not just in the response to the pandemic but in other important areas too.

Another trend on which there is agreement relates to technology which will continue to advance but big tech companies, already under fire for their unregulated practices, will face more critical scrutiny. The Economist ‘World Ahead 2022’ report calls it a Techlash. The WEF report’s survey finds “technological risks— such as “digital inequality” and “cybersecurity failure”— to be critical short and medium-term threats to the world.” Eurasia Group’s report points to a different dimension. Calling it a ‘technopolar world’ it asserts that “today states are facing a new form of competition from technology companies” which “exercise a form of sovereignty over an entirely new dimension of geopolitics: digital space.” And weak governance in this digital space will have deleterious consequences on society. Even so the digital world that now rules our lives will continue to influence the way people work, communicate, entertain themselves and shop.

The geopolitical trend or risk that will continue to dominate this year is the ongoing competition between the US and China. Despite engagement late last year between leaders of the two countries there has been no significant easing of tensions between the global powers. Their confrontation may take a more perilous turn especially over Taiwan. Only last week the Chinese Ambassador in the US in an interview with NPR warned that the two countries could get into a military conflict over Taiwan. Nevertheless, assessments vary about the course of their relations in 2022. US-China relations won’t reach crisis levels this year is the forecast of the Eurasia Group. Others are less sanguine especially as the risk of miscalculation looms large in the standoff in the South China sea.
Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine also figure in several forecasts. The Washington-based Atlantic Council places at relatively high risk the probability of Russian escalation in response to “US betrayal on NATO expansion.” The Eurasia report describes relations between the US and Russia as being on “a knife-edge” with the possibility of an international crisis being precipitated.
The picture that emerges for the year ahead is one of rising political and economic pressures and geopolitical tensions that will continue to keep the world in an unsettled and unstable state. With countries struggling to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic, supply chain disruptions and inflation, publics across the world will expect their leaders to effectively manage these problems. The outlook then for 2022 remains troubled especially with international cooperation remaining elusive.

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)