Predicting world affairs is a dicey business. If over-confident, it can supply a false sense of certainty about events affected by countless variables. If too broad, it can end up merely stating the obvious. If too glib, it can appear to reduce its subjects to a sort of parlour game. Yet done with a dose of humility and a reasonable balance between being specific and allowing for the unexpected, it can be a useful exercise: a means of testing one’s assumptions and analyses, and a framework for thinking about upcoming events.
That (I hope) is the spirit in which at the start of both 2020 and 2021 I published 10 questions about the year ahead in world affairs, with predictions for each, and in which I returned to these at the end of both years (here and here) to assess their accuracy. By grading each prediction on a scale of zero to three, my scores were 18 and 19 respectively out of a possible 30. And it is the spirit in which I am now repeating the exercise for 2022. So here, for the third year in a row, are my 10 crucial questions about the world in the year ahead and how I predict each to play out.
For more on the world in 2022, read my colleague Emily Tamkin’s predictions here. And tune in to our end-of-year episode of the World Review podcast, in which we discuss the key moments of the past year and some of our predictions for the coming one.
1. Will vaccinations in low-income countries catch up?
As 2022 begins, two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, almost half of the world has not yet received any vaccination – overwhelmingly in its poorest countries. In 30 countries the vaccination rate is under 10 per cent. The UN-backed COVAX initiative had a target of distributing some two billion doses in 2021, yet as the year ends the figure is just 811 million. The UK’s former prime minister, Gordon Brown, rightly calls this “one of the greatest public policy failures of our time”. Will the coming year see this righted?
Prediction: The vast majority of the world will have been vaccinated by the end of 2022, but the gap between rich countries (after multiple waves of boosters and amid the roll-out of antiviral drugs) and poor ones (where logistical bottlenecks could hamper distribution even when vaccines are delivered) will be larger. Expect at least one more breakout variant (“sigma”?) from one of the many under-vaccinated corners of the world.
2. Will Russia invade Ukraine?
At the time of writing, more than 100,000 Russian troops are massing on the border of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin is demanding a de facto two-tier Europe in which central and eastern states are treated as part of a Russian sphere of influence. Fearful that Ukraine is slipping away from Russia’s reach and aware that tight gas supplies give the country more leverage in the current winter period than usual, could Russia’s president move to seize the eastern regions of a country he deems a mere Western puppet?
Prediction: Putin will struggle to back down from his warlike language and actions but knows the damage a protracted war could do to his domestic standing. That points to a substantive military move to drive a permanent wedge between Ukraine’s eastern regions (the Donbas and possibly a land-bridge to the Russian-occupied Crimea) and the rest of the country but most likely through some form of hybrid warfare rather than a conventional, full-scale invasion.
3. Will the threats to US democracy grow?
Joe Biden enters 2022 with darkening clouds over his domestic agenda. Build Back Better, the landmark investment package intended to green the US economy and heal some of the societal divides that contributed to Trumpism, is foundering on Democratic divisions. Trumpites are consolidating their grip on the Republican Party and on electoral processes in crucial swing states. The midterms in November could be a foretaste of an unprecedentedly ugly presidential election in 2024 in which American democracy will be at real risk.
Prediction: Build Back Better will pass but in a highly diluted form, the Democrats will lose the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate in the midterms and the Republicans will deepen their indulgence of unconstitutional political methods. The US will end the year with Democrats in full-on panic mode over Donald Trump or a Trump-like candidate winning the 2024 election – by fair means or foul.
4. Will we see an unprecedented surge in famines?
The rich world’s own Covid-19 traumas have obscured the degree to which humanitarian crises are mounting in parts of the Global South. World hunger had fallen steadily from 1990, reaching a low in 2014, then rising again. The pandemic greatly accelerated this process, wiping out years of progress in the 1990s and 2000s. The World Food Programme puts the number of people on the brink of famine at 45 million in 2021, up from 27 million in 2019. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put the number in need of humanitarian assistance at 274 million, up from 168 million in 2019.
Prediction: Horrific famine in at least one country will alert the rich world to the crisis, as was the case in Ethiopia in 1983-85. This may be Ethiopia (in the grips of civil war) or Yemen, but most concerning is Afghanistan – where the International Rescue Committee predicts near universal poverty (97 per cent) by mid-2022. The West’s particular responsibility for the situation there might prompt more action than would otherwise be likely, but Global North states consumed with their own pandemic problems will still be far too slow to act.
5. Will China’s leadership achieve a year of stability?
Covid-19 infections in China are at their highest since March 2020. That, along with president Xi Jinping’s crackdown on technology giants, strains on the energy sector as it moves to reduce coal use, and the slowdown of its vast, debt-laden property sector, has seen the World Bank cut the country’s GDP growth forecast to 5.1 per cent, the lowest since 1990 (apart from the exceptional year of 2020). Demographics, too, are biting: 2022 could see China’s death rate exceed its birth rate for the first time since the Mao era. The working-age population is shrinking. The Chinese Communist Party’s “common prosperity” agenda – which aims to rein in excesses of inequality and debt – is proving a fiendishly tricky balancing act.
Prediction: Domestically, 2022 will be the most difficult year for the CCP since at least 2008 and possibly 1989. It will avoid a Lehman Brothers-style collapse in the housing market. But even a gradual slowdown in this sector, combined with the other strains, will mean lower growth than the level to which China’s middle class has become accustomed. All of which will not go unnoticed as the backdrop to the party’s 20th congress in October, at which Xi will implicitly confirm that he will serve an unprecedented third term as president.
6. Who will win the battle of strongmen vs liberal democracy?
The coming year will bring elections in several countries in which the institutions and norms of liberal democracy have been abused in recent years: Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines and potentially Turkey, where an election is due in 2023 but could be brought forward by economic crisis. In all four countries strongmen incumbents face either a newly competitive opposition (Hungary, Brazil, Turkey) or term limits (the Philippines). In all four there are questions over whether those men will accept the democratic process.
Prediction: At least one major international strongman – most likely, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – will attempt to “do a Trump” and defy the legitimate electoral result through widespread manipulation and/or violent insurrection. He will probably not succeed but, in a country with weaker liberal institutions than the US, will get farther than the American prototype and in turn inspire US Republicans looking to 2024.
7. Will it be a good year for Macronism?
No EU leader begins 2022 with more at stake than Emmanuel Macron. In April he will attempt a feat that no French president has managed since 2002: re-election. With at least three competitive challengers (Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour on the far-right and Valérie Pécresse on the moderate right) and many imponderables (the pandemic, consolidation on the far-right, wider European affairs) it is hard to say what will happen.
Meanwhile Macronism in the EU has a window of opportunity. France holds the EU’s rotating presidency for the first half of the year and in Olaf Scholz and Mario Draghi, Macron has favourable partners in Berlin and Rome. He plans to use the presidency to push for greater euro-zone integration and more European “strategic autonomy” in defence and foreign affairs. The year could bring anything from his expulsion from the Élysée to re-election and a Macroniste transformation of the union.
Prediction: The most likely outcome of the election is a narrow Macron win that returns the president to office with his authority dented. At a European level, there will be incremental achievements – but more in the field of fiscal policy, where he is working with the grain of wider shifts, than on defence and security policy, where the union remains more intractably divided.
8. Will the Iran nuclear deal be resurrected?
Following the election of the hardline Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president in June, attempts have stalled to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal struck in 2015 and crippled in 2018 when Trump withdrew the US. Tehran is now producing 60 per cent enriched uranium, a major departure from the 4 per cent enrichment allowed by the deal for civilian energy and medical uses, and by some estimates the country is within one month from breakout, or the point at which it has enough sufficiently enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Raisi’s government is demanding upfront sanctions relief, which the Biden administration fears would appear to reward it for moving towards breakout. Meanwhile Israel has been performing military drills for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Prediction: The deal will survive in some extremely limited form but will not be resurrected – especially if the chances of a Republican US president from 2025 appear to grow. That will increase tensions between the US and Iran at least to the level they reached following Trump’s drone strike that killed the senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. Hostilities between Israel, along with some of the Sunni states of the Middle East, and Iran will intensify.
9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?
Every year crises or disasters occur that are not on the calendar yet rise to the top of the global news agenda. Recently, disproportionately many of them have been products of international interdependence (“connectivity wars”, Mark Leonard calls them in his book The Age of Unpeace). That fact allows us to highlight some of the known unknowns that could become major stories.
Prediction: Three potentially global crises of connectivity worry me especially as 2022 looms. The first is the possibility of a vaccine-resistant “monster” variant of Covid-19 that forces societies already at economic and societal breaking point into new lockdowns. The second is that of a cyberattack, by a state or non-state actor, that cripples crucial institutions and networks and has the potential to spread, pandemic-like, across the international system. The third is a climate shock (heat, cold, drought, storms) that affects more than one region, for example by collapsing food or energy supply chains. As concerns individual countries and regions in 2022, I am particularly concerned by the situations in Libya, the Sahel region, the Balkans and Afghanistan.
10. Where will the unexpected good news occur?
Where the bad news is often, though not always, sudden and dramatic, the good news of a given year often takes place far from the television cameras and the rankings of social media trends. Yet these items can be even more significant than the doom-laden stories that make the headlines. Here too, it is worth contemplating the “known unknowns”.
Prediction: The year 2022 could see the creation and roll-out of new Covid-19 vaccines that cover all possible variants of the virus, as well as cheap antiviral drugs. The vast resources pumped into this research – and mRNA technology in particular – could produce other breakthroughs, like the ground-breaking Malaria vaccines pioneered in 2021. Meanwhile the coming year will see the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s minimum corporate tax rule adopted in national legislation ahead of implementation in 2023 – when it is expected to raise an additional $150bn for states worldwide. And while liberal democracy likely faces a difficult year, it is also possible that one or more of Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be successfully ousted in 2022.