The 2021 geopolitical reading list

2020 has been a year like no other. What started with the targeted killing of Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani by an American armed drone only became more tumultuous with the outbreak of a global pandemic, the unprecedented normalisation of relations between Israel and a significant portion of the Arab world, and a polarising and contested US Presidential election, which saw Donald Trump become the first one-term US President since George H W Bush was ousted by Bill Clinton. This year, we at Encyclopedia Geopolitica have compiled a bumper list of books to help you understand the trends and forces that have driven the turbulent events of this year and will precipitate whatever awaits us in 2021. This list need not be read from beginning to end. It has been put together as an intellectual buffet table, please feel free to scroll to the sections which best match your interests.

Disclosure: Purchases made using the links in this article earn referral payments for Encyclopedia Geopolitica. As an independent publication, our writers are volunteers from within the professional geopolitical intelligence community, and referrals like this support our ability to create future content by funding server time and domain fees.

As this list contains a staggering 331 books, it is worth considering Amazon’s Kindle “Unlimited” programme as a more cost-effective way to get through the reading list. Encyclopedia Geopolitica readers have access to a 30-day free trial for Kindle Unlimited, allowing them to sample over 1 million ebooks and thousands of audiobooks.

Team Favourites

While our annual reading list is divided into geographical and thematic sections (see below), the analyst team at Encyclopedia Geopolitica have also put forward a collection of their personal recommendations to start the list.

Lewis Tallon – Co-Editor and EMEA Analyst

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History – Philip Bobbitt

Book cover for Philip Bobbit's 'The Sheild of Achilles'

“One of the most intellectually challenging and stimulating books I’ve read this year, Bobbitt’s chef-d’œuvre is certainly the most thought-provoking. In it, Bobbitt redefines and redraws recent history into an epic struggle between the forces of communism, fascism and parliamentarianism through the 1914-1990 “Long War” between the three competing systems. Bobbitt uses this lens to recraft our view of states through their evolution into nation-states, and onwards into a post-Long War next stage: the Market State. Written in the days prior to 9/11, but published shortly afterwards, Bobbitt argued that nation-states would struggle to sufficiently protect citizens against the modern market of threats, and that a leaner, more privatised, less governed Market State would be more survivable in this environment. Bobbitt doesn’t necessarily argue in favour of the Market State, but instead views it as a grim reality facing 21st Century society.

Through the lens provided by this book, geopolitical analysts are likely to better understand events such as Brexit, Trump and various other populism-driven events around the world, and how they potentially represent the swan-song of the nation-state. While the recent electoral defeat of Trump may make such populism feel like a receding threat – despite the conditions that gave rise to his 2016 election remaining very much intact – Bobbitt’s prescient view of the future assures us that such an understanding must be kept relevant and current.”

New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era – Mary Kaldor

Book cover for Mary Kaldor's 'New and Old Wars'

“In keeping with the recommendation of The Shield of Achilles, Kaldor’s New and Old Wars furthers many of Bobbitt’s arguments about the trajectory of the history of nation-states. In it, Kaldor argues that the Old Wars of mass-mobilisation and state-on-state violence have receded to be replaced by the complex insurgencies, civil wars and “low intensity conflicts” (a term Kaldor uses with derision) that we have become so familiar with in the last decade. In this work, she examines the phenomena of New Wars through the lens of the Balkans conflicts and, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq. In it, Kaldor argues that the international response to these conflicts have failed precisely because their causes have been misunderstood. Kaldor examines horrors such as ethnic cleansing and brutal battlefield crimes not as a symptom of these wars, but as a core component, and argues that international interventions will fail so long as this point is unaddressed.

2021 is sadly unlikely to experience a major sea change in the ocean of global conflicts, with the Sahel, Arabian peninsula, the Levant and numerous other theatres remaining highly active asymmetric conflict zones. Kaldor’s work is a critical window into these conflicts, and is highly recommended for analysts seeking to better understand them.”

Simon Schofield – Co-Editor and Terrorism and WMD Analyst

The Dragons and the Snakes: How the West Learned to Fight the Rest – David Kilcullen

Book cover for David Kilcullen's 'The Dragons and the Snakes'

“David Kilcullen is one of the foremost scholars of war and international relations of our era, having crafted the strategy of disaggregation, which was used to shape modern counterterrorism strategy against al Qaeda and ISIS since 9/11. (Bonus read – for more information read my article on this here)

In his latest masterpiece, the geopolitical maestro examines the twin problems of dragons and snakes. The snakes are the manifold non-state actors that have risen to prominence since the end of the Cold War, including organised crime, armed insurgents and terrorists. These groups have thrived despite great pressure applied by the most powerful actors on Earth. Kilcullen uses Darwinian theory to argue that natural selection has led to the most talented fighters rising to the top, along with the most effective strategies.

Further, Kilcullen’s discussion of dragons examines the reappearance of great power competition, with states such as China, Iran, and Russia emerging to challenge the hegemony of the United States. Fascinatingly, one of Kilcullen’s central arguments is that the dragons and the snakes are not two unrelated problems which have arisen, they are deeply interconnected and learn from one another’s successes and failures, resulting in extremely resilient and remarkably adaptive adversaries. This is a must-read for anybody trying to understand not only the forces that drive geopolitical developments, but also the thinking of the most influential Western strategists.”  

Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia – Dan Kaszeta

Book cover for Dan Kaszeta's 'Toxic'

“From the 2013 sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which killed at least 281 people, to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a novichok nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury in 2018, the last decade has seen nerve agents discussed in significant detail.

These agents are used to make a point. They produce extremely grisly and unpleasant symptoms which lead to a distressing and painful death. Their psychological and political impact is profound and they are often deployed to inflict devastation on the morale of political opponents and strike fear into the hearts of those who bear witness to them.

2020 has seen the issue raise its head again, with prominent Russia opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and it since transpires that one of his water bottles appears to have been spiked with a novichok agent. As such, it is vital for those who choose to observe world politics to understand how these agents work and where they came from in order to appreciate the impacts they have and the ways in which they can and have been used. Kaszeta’s insightful and well-written history should be considered the authoritative account on this issue.”

Alexander Stafford – Maritime and Asia Pacific Analyst

Has China Won? – Kishore Mahbubanhi

Book cover for Kishore Mahbubani's 'Has China Won'

“Competition between the US and China surely will be the defining strategic narrative of the next several decades. In Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Supremacy Kishore Mahbubani, a diplomat and academic of great experience, gives us a high-level strategic analysis of the world’s two leading powers and their relationship, where they could be heading and the tensions that exist in the relationship. He is critical and complimentary of both the US and China and analyses their strengths and weaknesses with a penetrating insight clearly borne of a deep understanding. After laying out what he sees as each country’s greatest strategic mistakes in dealing with the other, the author takes on the big themes he sees as shaping the relationship, from China’s appetite for expansionism to the enduring notion of American virtue and exceptionalism.

One criticism that can be leveled at Mahbubani’s analysis is that he seems more cutting when discussing the US’ weaknesses and a little too ready to omit or skim over some of China’s problems, favouring a more complimentary narrative to CCP rule than many will agree with (these people should probably pay attention to chapter 7). However, that is perhaps where the true value of the book lies. Cutting as Mahbubani’s criticisms of the US may be they are difficult to refute, and Has China Won? will be an uncomfortable and thought-provoking read for dragon-slayers and panda-huggers alike.”

John Fee – International Security Analyst

The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump – Patrick Porter

Book cover of Patrick Porter's 'the False Promise of Liberal Order'

“With American leadership undergoing unprecedented stress from the fallout of the latest presidential election, geopolitical observers are endlessly deliberating on the future of American foreign policy and the international order as we know it. Patrick Porter’s book becomes a must-read for anyone interested in this prevailing issue. The False Promise of Liberal order illuminates a widespread defective conviction about the nature of American foreign policy and the perceived roots of Trump’s emergence and appeal. The book describes how a vast Atlantic security class, along with its prominent adherents such as Joe Biden, have publicly sought to depict the forty-fifth president as an aberration. Who came to power on account of the ill-gotten gains made by illiberal domestic forces—shifting blame far from the liberal order that they urgently seek to resuscitate. Porter’s book seeks to expose the flaws of this spurious outlook, by shedding light upon the ruthless, non-consensual, world-ordering activities that have given rise to untold costly deficits. In these turbulent times, we would be wise to heed the significance of Porter’s work—a widespread romanticised conviction about the nature of the liberal order is leading many of us astray to truly understanding the driving forces behind the novel challenges that we are facing in the world today.”

Eamon Driscoll – Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States Analyst

Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry – Laurence Broers

Book cover for Laurence Broers's 'Armenia and Azerbaijan'

“In this year, which has seen fierce fighting between these two former Soviet republics where ancient enmities have been unleashed, Broers offers an excellent analysis of the situation on the ground and how both the Armenians and Azeris have reached this point, staring at each other in the disputed Karabakh region. Unlike other “frozen conflict” regions of the former USSR, Karabakh heats up with regularity.”

Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan – Erika Fatland

Book cover of Erika Fatland's 'Sovietistan'

“Central Asia is among the most sought-after regions of the world, but among the most unknown. And when seeking to learn and understand a region, sometimes an eye on the ground is the way to develop the best sense of reality. The countries in this region are young and inherently full of optimism and hope, but still suffering the effects of a century of Russian domination. Fatland offers the insights and anecdotes essential to cultivating the awareness of where this region has come, and where it may be going.”

Ayyub Ibrahim – Human Rights and International Development Analyst

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa – Howard W. French

Book cover for Howard W. French's 'China's Second Continent'

“The struggle for political and economic influence between the United States and China in Africa is one key area of geopolitical tension that is often overlooked by those hoping to better understand the rivalry between these two giants. Africa, which possessed 11 out of the 25 fastest growing economies in the world in 2019, has become the fastest urbanizing region in the world, largely thanks to China, while, simultaneously, U.S.-Africa trade has declined. The inroads of Chinese firms, who comprise the majority of foreign firms responsible for building ports, roads, and railroads in Africa, has extended beyond strictly economics as a growing Chinese population in Africa increasingly become permanent residents in African countries; a cultural link that further strengthens China’s ability to exert soft power within the continent. A reading of French’s work is a must for anyone seeking to better understand how China’s upper hand in Africa today may very well translate into an unfading success story of Chinese foreign policy over American foreign policy.” 

Anthony Clay – Maritime and North American Affairs Analyst 

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World – Vincent Bevins

Book cover for Vincent Bevin's 'the Jakarta Method'

“History is written by the winners, and as such a lot of history can be hidden, lost, and forgotten about as that generation’s survivors die out. In this book, Bevins covers a period largely ignored in western textbooks, and shows a brutal anti-communist purge in Indonesia as the blue print for the US’s secretive campaign through Latin America, and a cadre of CIA officers that were present for both. I have studied a lot of mid 20th Century LATAM political violence, but South East Asian targeted killings moving to the New World was something that was surprising, enlightening, and shocking that such atrocities could be actively supported by countries that were ostensibly pushing for “freedom.””    

Edwin Tran – Geopolitics and Levantine Affairs Analyst

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East – Eugene Rogan

Book cover for Eugene Rogan's 'the Fall of the Ottomans'

“To understand the present, one must understand the past. As Russia and Turkey have begun to ramp up their geopolitical presence, this facet of history is especially salient. Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East is an informative read that outlines the multifaceted factors that went into the Ottoman Empire’s entrance into the First World War. Rogan’s work is incredibly detailed, vividly written, and captivating. It highlights battlefields across the globe, giving the history a holistic dimension. Most importantly, it highlights the political fears and aspirations of the Ottoman and Russian empires, points that remain salient to the present day.”

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Book cover for Steve Coll's 'Ghost Wars'

“Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 is an immensely detailed work. Covering the relatively modern developments of Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, Ghost Wars highlights the sheer complexity and myriad of moving parts involved. Steve Coll’s book reveals that there were no easy answers, no simple solutions, and no clear paths in the fight against terrorism and against Bin Laden. Although the events in the book are nearly two decades old, the scars of September 11 and the Afghan War remain salient today, and Steve Coll’s work is a stark reminder of how little has been achieved since these events began.”

Ananay Agarwal – South Asian Affairs Analyst

The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age – James Crabtree

Book cover for James Crabtree's 'the Billionaire Raj'

“A crisp chronicle of India’s recent economic development told through anecdotes and interviews with some of India’s richest. Written in 2018, this book takes a deep dive into the industrialization and resulting wealth inequality happening in India. The author, who is a journalist for The Financial Times, interviews some of India’s mightiest, most noteworthy, and most flamboyant billionaires, discussing how they made their wealth, how they are spending it, and how some of them lost it all when the (usually political) winds turned against them. The author regularly draws comparisons between the current situation in India and the famed Gilded Age in the USA and wonders out loud how India’s own current Gilded Age will play out into the future. He also talks about the change in status quo brought about by the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP in India. One cannot help but think deeply about the future of India after having read the book. All in all, it is a solid read for any student of Political Economy, Political Science or in general any person interested in Indian Affairs.”

John Scott – Transnational Crime and Terrorism, and EMEA Analyst

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East – Kim Ghattas

Book cover for Kim Ghattas's 'Black Wave'

“Even hardened, intelligent western analysts with years of experience can still find the Middle East’s nexus of cultures, politics, economies, sects, and competing interests difficult to approach, let alone explain to others. Much of that is down to the manner in which Middle Eastern affairs are taught at western institutions, where a wealth of complex information is unloaded rapidly, sometimes without narrative or any human touch. Kim Ghattas is indeed a scholar, but she is also a world-renowned journalist and reporter, having woven human stories of the Middle East for twenty years across the region itself. It is undoubtedly this background that has empowered her to write such an accessible, insightful and relatable history of one of the world’s most intimidating geopolitical dynamics, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

This arresting history opens on the eve of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, a seismic event in modern history. From there, it covers in parallel the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies across Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, and their rivals in the Arabian Peninsula, Israel and the West, as well as within the Shia strongholds themselves. Ghattas tackles the Iranian and Saudi clerical establishments, the colossal Iran-Iraq War, the three US-led invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the religious politics of Pakistan, the IRGC, and the rise of Hizballah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and Islamic State, all by telling the stories of people who witnessed them. It is not an academic piece, nor does it try to be, but it does provide a completely engaging walkthrough of one of the Middle East’s most critical characteristics.

For anyone simply interested in the region outside of work, Black Wave is a gripping and painstakingly researched introduction to the Sunni-Shia cold war. Even for experienced political and security analysts, the book is a valuable companion. And for newcomers, it is irreplaceable.”

The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement – Haroro J Ingram, Craig Whiteside, Charlie Winter

Book cover for Haroro J. Ingram, Craig Whiteside and Charlie Winter's 'the ISIS reader'

” “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.”

So said General Michael Nagata, a distinguished US special operations commander, who was assigned by President Obama in 2014 to train and assist Syrian rebels in battling the so-called Islamic State (IS). These words echo eerily through decades of Western military interventions abroad, and apply just as powerfully today. They also provide the perfect opener to a new volume of primary IS sources, compiled and analysed by a group of three experts in the field, The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement.

General Nagata’s words perhaps speak to a key weakness in Western intelligence, both among its professional practitioners and among the growing industry of public and private sector analysts and scholars. There is simply not enough active and thorough engagement with primary sources. This, at least, is the professional opinion of two of this impressive new volume’s three co-editors: Craig Whiteside, a National Security Affairs lecturer at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and Haroro J. Ingram, a Senior Research Fellow at George Washington Unviersity’s Program on Extremism. Whiteside has emphasised how crucial it is to expose military officers, many of whom are his own students, to such materials for the first time, while Ingram, perhaps more alarmingly, has warned how his own pupils’ reluctance to engage in jihadist primary source materials comes from a fear of actually being radicalised.

The editors’ focus is on drawing causal logics between the group’s written and spoken narratives, and its physical actions. Each chronological chapter, from 1994 to 2019, places the movement’s output in a clear and detailed historical cont andext, and the texts themselves are methodically interrogated by the three editors. Importantly, the group’s strategic and rocky theological claims, which of course horrify the vast majority of Muslims the world over, are critically explored using caveats and counter-arguments. The frequent factual errors are put right.

Nevertheless, the analysis is kept separate to the subject matters themselves, to create an atmosphere one would feel in the presence of a highly dangerous museum exhibit. The item is preserved as it was found, securely behind reinforced glass and at a safe distance, but shown beside a plaque that discredits the item’s very purpose. This approach preserves the historical importance of the texts, which ultimately serves the editors’ purpose of creating a mechanism of combating the movement itself.

The ISIS Reader is a crucial book in the professional analyst’s collection. It is accessible to a degree, but for the more casual reader it would perhaps need accompaniment by broader histories. Nevertheless, it marks an encouraging early step in the wider publication of expertly and carefully handled collections of primary sources.”

Charlie Song – Global Security Affairs Analyst

The Fighters: Americans in Combat – CJ Chivers

Book cover for C.J. Chivers's 'the Fighters'

“Chivers, a Pulitzer Prize winning combat correspondent’s second book focuses on the rank and file accounts of the Global War on Terror. News coverage of conflicts from the Gulf War to now have focused intently on Generals and other policy makers. Chivers’ book focuses on those who actually prosecuted the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the six members of the military he profiles: a Navy fighter pilot, Army Special Forces Sergeant, a reconnaissance/attack helicopter pilot to varying degrees of depth. His coverage of the pilots run several chapters, delving into their lives both on and off duty; because of this it feels as some of the other profiles are long interludes before going back to the subjects he is most familiar with. However, Chivers still does an excellent job of going deep into each of his profiles and does provide insight into the struggle, confusion and often times, the futility in fighting the War on Terror.”

Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution – Tim Kane

Book cover for Tim Kane's 'Bleeding Talent'

“Tim Kane, an economist and former US Air Force officer highlights that the majority of CEOs have some sort of military experience that he believes has provided them useful skills in the corporate world. So then, if the military is so good at producing talent why is it that it’s so bad at retaining them? He cites studies as well as a survey he conducted with graduates and alumni of the military academies of the US and interprets that data to show that the military is hemorrhaging the very people it has gone to great efforts to vet, train and field. He points to the rigid personnel management structure that the military must adhere to by Congressional mandate as one source, but points to the antiquated, top-down management structure that the military continues to cling to since World War II. He brings this into focus with his perspective on why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were mishandled: that in a situation that required agile, entrepreneurial, outside the box thinkers to lead complex situations with many different stakeholders, the military had leaders who were careerist, check the box leaders who were tapped simply because they were next in line. He goes beyond criticism and commentary and goes on to offer the classical economic solution of eschewing top-down command of personnel management but allowing a marketplace that cuts across all branches. He posits that there should be no reason that an Army intelligence officer can not field a billet in the Air Force if he meets qualifications, or allowing commanders to offer incentives be it monetary, duty station to entice officers to positions or units that are not so desirable. An interesting premise, but one that has yet to be accepted since the writing of his book. “

Thematic Reading

Geopolitical Trends and the Future

As we all know, there is no static model which can account for modern geopolitical trends. Interests converge and diverge; alliances shift, bend, and break; political figures come and go; new ideologies take hold and old ones fade, and events take place out of the blue, completely unforecasted. There are a number of works, however, which try to grapple with which macro-forces shape and govern world politics, and how surprise events can be anticipated.


Coronavirus is a word many of us had never heard of and few of us had ever used prior to 2020, but none of us will ever forget. The global pandemic has been the single most important event of 2020 and will shape not only the next year, but likely the next decade and beyond of geopolitics. With the pressing need to manage the day-to-day of keeping businesses running, preventing healthcare services from being overwhelmed, and balancing competing demands around keeping people safe, whilst keeping the economy open, many actors have been unable to consider the long-view. However, there is accessible scholarship out there that will help analysts get to grips with the Covid-19 outbreak and its political implications.


The nature and form of warfare continues to transform and expand. The military technology available to great powers such as the USA has forced state and non-state actors alike to explore sub-threshold methods of projecting power and pursuing their political objectives. What has been termed hybrid, full-spectrum, non-linear, or, simply, political warfare is increasingly becoming the norm and it is vital for analysts to understand the concepts involved and the tools available to actors practising this kind of warfare in order to recognise it as it occurs. Hybrid warfare consists of using methods such as cyber operations, deception, dis/misinformation, diplomacy, lawfare, and economics to advance political goals and undermine those of hostile or rival powers. From Russian social media operations pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories online, to Turkish threats to flood Europe with refugees, to Chinese attempts to monopolise the use of rare earth elements, this new form of warfare operates at the fringes of normal political activity, and capitalises on the democratisation of the information environment, taking advantage of reduced public trust in Government and mainstream media outlets. Hybrid warfare can also be deployed alongside conventional operations, as witnessed during the annexation of the Crimea and subsequent Russo-Ukrainian conflict in the Donbass, on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in the recent flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This is a broad, nebulous, and still-developing concept and, as such, the following list of recommended reading is far from exhaustive, but it will provide a solid foundation:

Non-state Actors

Non-state actors continue to increase their power, influence, and impact on global affairs.

Despite the ISIL caliphate’s territorial destruction and the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group remains organisationally in tact and active under the leadership of new leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Al Qaeda is resurgent and has been emboldened by the Doha Agreement which will see Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan. The Taliban looks set to reclaim its position as the dominant force in Afghan political affairs.

International organised criminal syndicates will continue to drive developments across the world from Mexican drug cartels, to Romanian human trafficking rings, to Russian arms dealers. These groups operate transnationally and have a major impact on the global security environment, from the streets of London to the Cape Flats of South Africa.

As well as organised crime and terrorism, private military companies (PMCs), commonly referred to as mercenaries are playing an increasing role. Russia’s Wagner Group is a major combatant in the ongoing Libya civil war, the UAE has deployed a contingent of Colombian mercenaries to fight for its interests in Yemen, and of course the Pentagon spends more than half of its defense budget on military contractors. The use of these signals a return to a new normal, away from state monopolies of armed force and back towards the historical trend of these actors wielding significant power.  

New Technologies

Whilst all eyes, especially in recent months, have been on the race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19 and put it through the various necessary safety trials, there are other major technological advancements which are fundamentally transforming the way in which international politics and warfare are conducted.

Deep fake technology is advancing to the point where it is often difficult to distinguish fact from fiction online. Videos can now be convincingly faked to put words in the mouths of celebrities and politicians, which has major implications, not only for the potency of informational warfare, but also creating an information environment in which even online pranks could spark political crises or financial panics.

Genetic editing technology is on the one hand fraught with ethical and philosophical problems, but on the other has the potential to revolutionise agriculture, cure disease, and endow mankind with physical powers heretofore the province of science fiction. The approaches that different states take to this field will have far-reaching consequences, not only for geopolitics, but also for what it means to be human.

Whilst mankind has been waging war since the first cave man picked up a heavy rock, what is new is that people are now going to war alongside robots. From unmanned drones providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and carrying out missile strikes; to big data AI algorithms assisting with targeting decisions, to missile batteries that can track incoming rockets in civilian areas and calculate the trajectory required to intercept. Technologically-assisted warfare will allow soldiers and warfighters across the full spectrum of armed conflict, to make better-informed decisions, better ensure their own and others’ safety, and more easily distinguish between combatants and civilians in theatres where this distinction is increasingly unclear.

People and the Planet

Whilst powers pursue their political agendas for and against one another, the environment itself is transforming as a result of climate change, an issue which is increasingly a priority for voters, and also for decisionmakers. It is a reality that must be taken account of, that as policies are being made and implemented, the very ground beneath our feet and the air we breath is changing. With more populations than ever choosing to live litorally – that is, by the coast, we have never been more at the mercy of the whims of the oceans. Floods, water conflicts, desalination challenges, desertification, and worsening air quality are but a small number of the environmental issues which have geopolitical causes and consequences.

Further, the human race itself is experiencing demographic change. Many developed countries in the West and elsewhere find their societies ageing, which has major implications for their workforces, immigration policies, and economic futures. Conversely other countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East find themselves with populations which have exploded and have huge numbers of young people whom they need to educate and provide with future opportunities. Over half of Egypt’s population are under 24; 43% of Afghanistan are under 15, and over half of Niger’s population are under 15. These factors matter greatly and have numerous implications for those analysing future political and economic trends.

These twin threads converge on new forms of conflict, which we are already beginning to see, precipitating increasingly heated competition for space, energy and critical resources like food and water.

Social Unrest and Protest

Domestic politics continues to be polarised, with movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, and the Gilet Jaunes dominating headlines and eliciting fervent opposition and outspoken support from different corners of society. In addition, throughout 2020 international politics has shifted, with Western nations feeling the dearth of leadership that has followed Donald Trump’s policies of withdrawal from operational theatres and burden-sharing with international partners. The politics of identity and division will define many of the events of 2021 as they have shaped those of 2020. Concurrent with this is the rise of populist, authoritarian strongmen of different political wings, who have stepped forward with radical agendas, including vowing to kill 100,000 drug dealers in the Philippines, tightening immigration laws to prevent the ‘scum of humanity’ from coming to Brazil, and threats from Poland and Hungary to  veto the European Union budget over plans to link funding to the rule of law.

A strong appreciation for the politics of identity on the left and the right is necessary to fully understand many of the transnational movements that have brought people in their millions to the streets of major cities on every continent and how and why organised, networked protests are bringing about social and political change .


Regional Reading

Europe & Russia

Many issues in Europe remain as they were last year. Populist strongmen remain in power, having been swept in by waves of voters concerned about preserving their cultural identity and opposing the growth of outsider cultures, Islam in particular. The continent is riven with politically polarising movements, including local branches of Black Lives Matter who took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd in the USA. As well as BLM, we saw a continued, albeit more muted presence of Extinction Rebellion protests and anti-establishment demonstrations protesting Government policies, especially with respect to coronavirus lockdowns among others. In addition, whilst at a lower tempo compared to previous years, there has been a continued drip of Islamist terrorist incidents, including a stabbing attack in Streatham, London, by a man who had recently been released from prison for disseminating terrorist material; the murder of two gay men in Dresden by a knife-wielding assailant who would eventually be identified as a Syrian asylum seeker; the dramatic armed raid in Vienna in which a man who had tried to join ISIL in Syria opened fire with an assault rifle, killing 4 and wounded more than 20 and, most prolifically, the beheading of Samuel Paty just outside Paris at the hands of a Russian of Chechen origins who was offended by the teacher’s use of caricatures of Mohammed during a lesson on secularism. These were complemented also by an uptick in extreme right wing (XRW) attacks, including a shooting in Zagreb by a man angered by the number of Serbs in Croatia and a massacre in Hanau, Germany, wherein a man who had expressed hatred for non-Germans opened fire on two shisha bars, killing at least 9 as well his mother and then himself.

Understanding Islamist and XRW ideologies, as well as the ongoing conflicts inside Europe between Islam and Western culture will be even more vital in 2021 than in 2020, as Turkish President Erdogan seeks to use the ongoing Islamic frustration with French laicité seularism as a fulcrum to gain leverage against French President Macron.

The issue of Britain’s departure from the European Union remains to be resolved, with the transition period ending 31st December 2020. At the time of writing there is no agreed deal that will govern relations between the EU and the newly-independent UK, and the default position will be the ‘no deal’ scenario that has been cause for concern for the last four years. One way or another, 2021 will be the year that this matter finally moves on and the continent will discover what problems translate from the theoretical to reality once the final details crystallise. At present the biggest geopolitical issue is likely to be the situation between the UK and Ireland and the status and treatment of Northern Ireland. President-Elect Biden has made clear that a trade deal between the USA and the UK is incompatible with a departure from the EU which does not uphold the Good Friday Agreement.

From this, the UK hopes to have much greater freedom of manoeuvre and latitude to craft and execute its own foreign and trade policy. Among the UK’s options are to become a deregulated trade hub which competes directly with the EU, attempt to pivot from one trading and political bloc to another, perhaps the Commonwealth or an anglospheric partnership between the far-flung UK, Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, sometimes referred to as CANZUK; or to maintain its broad alignment with and commitment to the values espoused by the EU.

As well as the UK needing to set out what kind of country it intends to be outside the EU, the EU will itself continue to grapple with the question of what kind of Union it intends to be without Britain and in which direction the project needs and wants to travel. As well as the issue of the UK’s relationship, the EU has other internal issues with which to contend, at present chief among them the Hungarian and Polish threats to veto the budget due to measures linking funding to the maintenance of the rule of law. Leaders like Viktor Orbán and Andrzej Duda pose a distinct challenge to the EU, as they do not agree with the model of pooled sovereignty or the project to build a pan-European polity, economy, and culture. Such leaders have strongly heterodox positions on issues such as gay rights, immigration, and nationalism. They enjoy strong support among their particular bases, but attract scathing criticism from those citizens who align more with the Brussels model than their own, while simultaneously being highly dependent on the EU budget at a national level. These divisions, along with separatist causes such as those in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Catalonia, northern Italy, and beyond, will continue to strain both domestic politics throughout Europe and also the structures of the EU itself.

Russia is also still seeking to reestablish its role as a major player, not only on the world stage, but across Europe and in its own backyard. The Baltic states remain concerned and Sweden has increased its defence spending by 40% in response to increasing Russian aggression. Having secured an amendment to the Russian Constitution in July, President Putin could now theoretically remain in power until 2036- , although he would be 83 years old by then. Russia’s Government setup is fragile because it is built around Putin as an individual, and were he to step down or be remove, it is unclear how it would function. There is also no obvious successor. Despite all of this, the fact that measures have been passed to ensure ex-Presidents are immune to prosecution, and amid rumours resurfacing around Putin’s health, analysts would do well to read up and do some scenario planning on what Russia might look like without Putin.

Belarus, often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, has been shaken by public anger and protests against incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is increasingly having to become a vassal of Moscow in order to cling to power. The momentum has shifted and it will seem that Lukashenko’s place in the Presidential Palace is secured for now, but 2021 is likely to see further developments.

Armed conflict on the fringes of Europe broke out between perennial rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, sparking six weeks of intense fighting between the warring sides, fuelled by external actors, most notably Turkey which intervened on the side of Baku. A ceasefire was brokered between the warring parties by the Russians, who have deployed a 2,000 strong peace-keeping detachment to enforce the terms. This area will continue to be a geopolitical fault-line which has the potential to flare up again next year.

Externally, Russia’s foreign policy continues to be aggressive and expeditionary. The war in the Donbass rages on – with the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) acting as fronts for what have been confirmed by Western analysts to be Russian regular troops waging war against Kiev. Enemies and rivals, both foreign and domestic still live in the expectation that attempts will be made on their lives, as with Zelimkhan Kangoshvili, who was shot dead in a park in Berlin in 2019, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who fell sick on a plane after drinking water tainted with a novichok nerve agent. NATO has flagged its concerns in a report about Moscow’s ‘military buildup’. Russia continues to conduct informational warfare across the continent, from disinformation campaigns targeting the Netherlands to muddy the waters about Russian culpability for the shooting down of MH17, to encouraging divisive secessionist and border revisionist movements in the Balkans, to broader strategic disinformation undermining Western efforts to produce a coronavirus vaccine.

Middle East and North Africa

Our 2020 Reading List noted that “unpredictable military operations” may be likely in the MENA region in the coming year. Three days into the New Year, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) leader Major General Qassem Soleimani, and his Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) comrade Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a US drone strike shortly after the former had arrived at Baghdad International Airport. This operation has had a devastating impact on the effectiveness of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which conducts the Corps’s external operations to export the Islamic Revolution, although it is unlikely to have had a major impact on the direction of policy and strategy. With the election of President Biden to head the USA’s executive branch, we are likely to see President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy rolled back in return for engagement from Tehran to either revive President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise renegotiate a similar deal trading nuclear restraint for sanctions relief.

Iran will continue its strategies to build and maintain a landbridge through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon to ensure supply lines between the regime and Hezbollah; to build Shi’a identities which look to Ayatollah Khamenei for leadership and protection; to build and maintain armed Shi’a militias to ensure a supply of manpower for further interventions, and to capitalise on the Western troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The War in Syria continues, but the prospects of President Assad leaving power, by force or of his own volition appear distant. Assad and his proxies and patrons are largely in the process of finalising their victory and consolidating power. A semi-autonomous enclave still exists in the area of northern Syria which the Kurds call Rojava, held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, although it is under attack by Turkey and its foreign legion comprising Islamist militants. Whether this results in Assad retaking control of the area, allowing Turkey to operate its ‘buffer zone’ to frustrate Kurdish attempts at building government institutions, or comes to an accommodation with Rojava in the mould of Saddam Hussein’s truce with the Iraqi Kurds in return for semi-autonomy, remains to be seen. Hezbollah has largely returned to Lebanon, replaced by Iran’s Liwa Fatemiyoun, composed largely of Afghan Hazaras and the Liwa Zainabiyoun, composed of Pakistan Shi’a fighters. Russia’s involvement has been scaled back as the President’s position now appears all but assured.

Iraq is buffeted by economic problems and the World Bank and United Nations have warned that the poverty rate could double to 40% amid high youth unemployment, low oil prices, and the coronavirus outbreak. Following the resignation in November 2019 of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, new Prime Minister (and former National Intelligence Service Director) Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn in in May and vowed to lead a Government that would solve problems and not allow Iraq to be used as a battlefield for other countries. Despite being a Shi’a, he is an Iraqi nationalist that does not support Iran’s attempts at stoking sectarian violence, and has maintained a close friendship with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Consequently, his appointment was opposed by Iran and their proxies in Iraq, and Kataib Hezollah, a constituent militia of the PMF, accused al-Kadhimi of being responsible for the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Lebanon, already stricken with a smorgasbord of problems, is reeling from the massive explosion in Beirut, caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate confiscated from a Russian vessel some 6 years ago. This calamity precipitated the mass resignation of the Government and has both fuelled and exacerbated the countries issues, which now includes a crashing currency and rising unemployment, social unrest and the potential for a return to armed conflict.

One of the biggest developments, which will be arguably be the driving force behind 2021’s events is the normalisation of ties between Israel and numerous states in the Arab/Islamic World, including the UAE, Oman, Sudan, and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, whilst stopping short in joining in normalisation, has toned down its rhetoric, and received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an official visit, and allowed flights from the UAE to fly to Israel through Saudi airspace. This development begins the process of crystallising the new fault lines in the Middle East, which centre around a conflict between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and its new allies on side, and Iran, Qatar, Turkey and their assorted proxies on the other. Whilst already recommended above by John Scott, Kim Ghatta’s Black Wave is an absolute must-read on this issue. In addition Israel continues with its assertive counterterrorism and targeted killings programmes, as demonstrated by the audacious assassination of Iranian chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the streets of Tehran, using a remote-controlled machine gun.

The Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen to counter the coup orchestrated by the Houthis has become a six-year war, which has claimed nearly 250,000 lives. Along with fleeing Iranians and Syrians, Yemenis make up a large number of refugees spilling into countries across the region and beyond, which is having a deep impact on domestic and foreign politics. Heavy pressure is being exerted on Joe Biden to ask him to end this conflict and alleviate the humanitarian disaster.

Turkey has embarked on a neo-Ottoman project, fusing a powerful revanchist nationalism that seeks revenge on the Treaty of Lausanne on behalf of Turkic peoples with a Nasserist ambition to be seen as the leading Sunni power and a staunch support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This has led to major friction between Ankara, Athens, Paris, Nicosia, and even Cairo, as Turkey has laid claim to great swathes of the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey stood firmly alongside Qatar after it faced exclusion from the Gulf Cooperation Council over its financing of the Brotherhood, even at the risk of souring relations with major Islamic powers such as Saudi Arabia

Libya’s civil war became a proxy conflict for a host of competing interests, with Turkey in particular backing the official Government of National Accord, within which the Muslim Brotherhood is heavily represented. Against the GNA stood the LNA – the Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a US citizen, who is explicitly supported by the UAE, and less overtly by the Russians through Wagner Group, Egypt and France. Turkey’s intervention effectively blunted Haftar’s seemingly inexorable advance, and a permanent ceasefire was signed in October, with a requirement for all foreign fighters to withdraw from Libya within three months and a joint police force to patrol disputed areas. As of the time of writing, peace talks have not yet produced an interim government and this issue will loom large in 2021.

The Sahel is the site of a Western intervention against Islamist forces, which has been granted relatively light media coverage given the other major events of the year. Another coup in Mali has contributed to instability in the region, whether the new government is able to bring order remains to be seen. The long frozen conflict in Western Sahara, between the Kingdom of Morocco and the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), led by the Polisario Front has thawed, now that SADR President Brahim Ghali announced the end of the 29-year ceasefire. This may well lead to further armed conflict between the two, and also spark intensified political rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, who recognises the Sahrawi’s rights to self-determination.

The human rights situation in Egypt has declined markedly, with Amnesty International condemning what they describe as an ‘execution spree’, possibly in response to a failed breakout attempt from Cairo’s Tora prison, and potentially also in the knowledge that a President Biden will be far less tolerant of political repression than President Trump has been.


After a 2019 in which the Middle East took centre stage as it is oft wont, Asia has well and truly stolen the spotlight this year, with the outbreak of an internationally pandemic virus, the likes of which have not been seen since the Spanish Flu a century ago, emanating from the Chinese city of Wuhan. As well as being ground zero for the outbreak, Asia is also the home of some of the most prominent examples of epidemiological excellence, such as South Korea and Singapore. The pandemic may yet signal a tipping point in China’s relationship with the rest of the world, with many nations calling for investigations to establish the Chinese Communist Party’s degree of culpability for the outbreak.

China’s well-documented strategy of aggressive political and soft power expansion and influence cultivated, coupled with sub-threshold applications of hard power has led to increased tensions, in the South China Sea, along the Indian border, and with Australia, among others. The UK has taken the decision to exclude Huawei from the future of its 5G project and there is an ongoing debate about China’s involvement in the British nuclear industry. The programme of infrastructure projects aimed at fostering affection for Beijing, enabling two-way trade between China, Central Asia, and Europe, known as the Belt and Road Initiative continues apace, with the 5th Belt and Road Summit, conspicuously held in Hong Kong, attended by over 6,000 people from over 80 countries showcasing 20 major projects.

India has had a particularly difficult time managing the coronavirus outbreak, registering over 9.5m cases and over 138,000 deaths, whilst some critics accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using the crisis as an excuse to further centralise and consolidate executive power. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and these pressures have pushed Indian technology companies to innovate, debuting robots such as the ground-breaking Mitra to assist with healthcare, which both compensates for medical personnel shortages and helps reduce transmission between patients, nurses, and doctors. India has been involved in a number of conflicts, including violent border disputes with China around Ladakh, and an escalation with Pakistan in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.

Pakistan was rocked by numerous terror attacks, including two bombings in Quetta, a bombing in Karachi and a mass shooting on the Pakistani Stock Exchange located in the city, and a bombing of a school in Peshawar. The ongoing low-intensity conflict in Balochistan between armed Baloch separatists and the Pakistani State, largely the paramilitary Frontier Corps has escalated. The Balochistan Republic Army (BRA), Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Republican Guard (BRG) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) joined forces in late 2019 under the banner of a singular organisation, known as Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), which translates into English as Baloch National Freedom Movement. This small regional conflict is taking place in a strategically significant location, as key parts of the Belt and Road Initiative pass through Baloch territories, most saliently the Chinese deep-water port project at Gwadar. As China’s closest ally, Beijing will be supporting Islamabad in its endeavours to quell the insurgency. Understanding of this conflict will be vital to understanding developments in the region this year.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will mean that 2021 will involve a scramble for interests and influence in the country among the various neighbouring powers, notably India, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Russia. The Doha Agreement struck between the USA and the Taliban is already being violated by Mullah Akhunzada, who is maintaining close ties with al Qaeda groups, despite claiming that there are no foreign fighters in the country. Given that members of the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban, were involved in the Waziristan Accords struck with Pakistan, and used it as leverage to continue Islamist expansion in the area, it is a safe assumption that the Taliban will do the same in Afghanistan and will press to take Kabul.

A recent survey uncovered a ‘motherlode’ of lithium in the country, which will also be a resource that these powers will vie for. For their parts, India will pursue a strategy that limits Pakistani and Chinese influence in the country and opposes the Taliban so far as is possible, although they will face major obstacles in this. Pakistan will support the Taliban’s efforts to retake control of the country and reconstitute the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as it was named when they were in charge 1996-2001; support China; limit Indian ambitions, and secure a ‘safe space’ for terrorist proxies to train. Iran will seek to carve out a sphere of influence among Persian-speaking and Shi’a areas, particularly around Herat and in the Hazarajat. This will enable them to secure economic interests in Western Afghanistan; establish a security buffer zone; maintain a supply line of manpower for their Liwa Fatemiyoun proxy force, and build influence among radical Taliban splinter groups to create a lever for Tehran to manipulate events. Russia, having been driven out of Afghanistan when it was the Soviet Union by the Mujahedeen has now found itself in a strange marriage of convenience with the Taliban, even offering bounties for each American soldier killed by the terrorist group. Their main interests include building a sphere of influence to the north, especially among Tajik populations to create a security buffer in order to disrupt Caucasian terrorism directed towards Moscow; oppose Western interests and undo their legacy; establish themselves as regional power-brokers, and to secure economic interests. China, well aware of Afghanistan’s reputation as the ‘graveyward of empires’ will seek limited engagement with the country, including a classic ‘hedging’ strategy to woo both the Taliban and Kabul government, primarily seeking to secure economic interests such as trade infrastructure projects that offer access to wider markets, and access to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Further, China will seek to support Kabul in managing Uighur terrorism directed towards China, emanating largely from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan region, most notably al Qaeda affiliate the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP).

Asia was shocked by the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe due to ongoing health concerns. His replacement, Yoshihide Suga, will have big shoes to fill in a Japan that has come to expect much of their leaders in light of the example set by Abe, who pioneered his own brand of centre-right nationalism including the beginning of Japan’s reestablishment as a military power and Abenomics, his trademark policies of quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus, and economic restructuring to address the long-term problems of zombie corporations in Japan. However, there is an opportunity for Japan in Abe’s retirement, and that is a potential warming of relations with South Korea.

Moon Jae-In’s liberal Democratic Party won a crushing victory in South Korea’s 2020 legislative elections, seizing an unprecedented 180/300 seats. Despite previously being unpopular due to the economic slowdown and political scandals, he has won plaudits for his Government’s effective response to the coronavirus outbreak. Moon’s reshaping of domestic and foreign policy institutions has sent shockwaves through the political establishment and is also shaping the emergence of new centre-right movements emphasising values-based identity rather than ethnonationalism and anti-Japan historiography. Meanwhile, north of the border, rumours abound about President Kim Jong Un’s death, although to date these have been proven false. Further rumours have swirled around Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, with reports initially claiming that she was taking on greater responsibilities in the corridors of power in Pyongyang, following her elevation to the Supreme People’s Assembly and appointment to the Politburo. However, other reports from the Hermit Kingdom suggest there are tensions between the President and his sister, with some indications that Kim Yo Jong was removed from the Politburo in April, before being restored and in October further speculation that she had not been seen in public for over a month and that she may have been replaced by the President’s pop-star ex-girlfriend (falsely reported as being executed in 2013) Hyon Song Wol. North Korea continues its nuclear enrichment and missile programmes and following his election victory, there have been calls for Joe Biden to make an agreement with Pyongyang which curbs these.

Thailand has experience major protests throughout 2020 in response to the Constitutional Court decision to dissolve the FFP, a politically liberal party which represents younger Thai values, championing abortion rights, educational reform, labour rights, and military reform including ending conscription. These protests have continued and in November demonstrators march to a royal guards’ barracks to demand that the military hand over some powers back to the civilian government. These protests have been met with force by Government forces and this issue will continue into 2021.

Indonesia has gone into recession for the first time in 22 years and has also experienced major protests sparked in particular by the Government’s ‘Job Creation Law’ which unions have attacked as an erosion of workers’ rights. Amnesty International claims that during these protests it has identified no fewer than 43 separate incidents of police brutality against demonstrators. This issue will also continue into 2021.

Myanmar’s 2020 election returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Party with a majority. Whilst these elections, only the second such since a half-century of dictatorship, were welcomed as a stepping stone towards democracy, disappointment was expressed by foreign governments (including the UK) that the Rohingya Muslim minority was disenfranchised. This group is not only still politically persecuted, but also at great risk of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Government was ordered by the International Court of Justice in January 2020 to cease the commission of genocidal acts, and in November the UN General Assembly voting overwhelmingly to support a draft resolution expressing “grave concern” about the situation of the Rohingya and various legal proceedings against the Government will progress in 2021.

Sub Saharan Africa

The project to build a currency and economic union in West Africa is still struggling amid tensions between the anglosphere and the francosphere within the former colonies and accusations the France is attempting to maintain imperial influence in the region (read further in our article here).

The al Qaeda affiliate broadly known as Boko Haram and its much larger splinter group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) continue their jihad, most recently with a massacre of 110 farmers in Koshebe northeast Nigeria, in addition to major attacks in Gubio and Boma, among other. This insurgency has now killed 20,000 and left over 7 million in need of humanitarian assistance. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), headquartered out of N’Djamena, Chad is tasked with fighting the jihadists, comprising troops and civilian support from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Scepticism continues to be raised about their effectiveness and in April 2020 Chad’s President Idris Deby, perhaps mindful of the upcoming 2021 elections, voiced frustrations that his country was being asked to shoulder a disproportionate burden in the campaign and announced that Chad’s contingent of the MJTF will now be confined to fighting Boko Haram within their own borders.

In Côte d’Ivoire, rulings that two critics of President Alassane Ouattara were not eligible to run for election led to violent protests and an official boycott by the opposition, leading to a turnout of just over half, returning Mr Ouattara with 95% of the vote. This has led to demands by the opposition for a change in government in order to hold free and fair elections. Elections in Burkina Faso took place despite instability, which meant that voter registration could not take place in 17% of the country, voting did not take place in 926 polling stations, disenfranchising nearly 600,000 voters, and nearly half of MPs felt they could not campaign in their own constituencies due to security concerns. The result returned a second term for incumbent President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, but his PMP party was not able to win a majority of seats in the legislature, which is elected under proportional representation.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ruling coalition that was cobbled together to help address the country’s problems has now become a source of further instability, as the fragile alliance shows signs of collapse. Being the Head of Government without a parliamentary majority has been challenging for President Félix Tshisekedi. In Uganda, the detention by security officials of Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, and Patrick Amuriat Oboi, preventing them from attending campaign attempts has led to violence in the run up to elections in January 2021. The incumbent President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986, before 70% of Ugandans today were born, and has set police and military to suppress protests of those dissatisfied with him.

The majority of the world’s cobalt, a mineral vital for battery technologies, is mined in Africa, with a copper belt around the DRC that produces 55% of the world’s supply. This issue is becoming increasingly prominent in debates in the West as they look to electric technologies as a way of addressing climate change and reducing emissions. These mines are fraught with modern slavery and child labour, throwing up ethical issues that present challenges for those looking to pursue greener agendas.

Sudan, whilst still battling a number of issues, has agreed peace deals with five rebel groups and has normalised ties with Israel, but South Sudan remains stricken with instability and violence, with a UN panel accusing the Government of refusing humanitarian agencies access to conflict zones and not offering full transparency on how oil revenues are being spent. Unrest continues in Angola, sparked by an aggressive Government response to popular protests and the death in custody of Dr Silvio Dala, who died in contested circumstances after being arrested for not wearing a mask.

In South Africa, veteran ANC official Ace Magashule, an arrest warrant has been issued for corruption involving a $15m government contract to find and remove asbestos. A vote of no confidence against President Cyril Ramaphosa has been postponed until 2021, with his political fate hanging in the balance, amid a weakening economy, rampant corruption allegations, and even electricity cuts.

Lesotho’s Prime Minister Tom Thabane was forced to resign after being embroiled in a scandal involving the murder of his ex-wife Lipolelo Thabane, who was shot dead in 2017. He and his current wife Maesiah Thabane are currently facing trial for their alleged role in the murder, which has rocked the country and invited South African interest and concern in the future of the Kingdom.

Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), aimed at addressing nine major issues including ethnic antagonism, corruption, and devolution with a view to amending the Constitution, continues to be contentious and may yet lead the governing coalition to fracture. Ethiopia is on the verge of civil war between the Government and groups in Tigray in the north of the country, who held local elections in defiance of President Abiy’s decision to postpone polls due to the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally the killing of popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa have laid bare the grievances of the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, which argues it has been excluded from power. Oromo protests have led to heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces.

Elections in Tanzania in October were heavily criticised by opposition groups, who allege that President John Magufuli was returned to power in a rigged election, with claims of ballot fraud made, as well as calls for protests and fresh elections.

Locusts are swarming in record numbers, inflicting crop damage of Biblical proportions across the Horn of Africa, intensifying humanitarian crises and political instability across the region.

An Islamist insurgency continue in Mozambique, with the local Islamic State affiliate using a football round to behead more than 50 people in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, the latest in a number of brutal terrorist atrocities carried out. The Mozambique Government has asked for international assistance as its own troops need specialised counterinsurgency training, and have also been accused of human rights abuses during operations to curb militant activity. Al-Shabaab the well-known al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia remains a threat, after an American CIA agent was killed during an operation against a suspected bomb maker. The group is so strong that it was recently reported to be able to raise larger revenues than the Mogadishu Government, and has carried out small arms attacks and suicide bombings against Government and civilian targets. Mogadishu has also expelled the Kenyan ambassador after accusing Nairobi of meddling in local elections in the province of Jubaland in southern Somalia.

The Americas

Following a bitterly contested and highly divisive election, President Trump has authorised his Administration to begin the transition process to hand over power to Joe Biden, although some legal cases relating to the election remain outstanding at the time of writing. Joe Biden has set out his vision for future foreign policy, which includes withdrawing most military forces, but adhering to a ‘counterterrorism plus’ model of light footprint intelligence and special operations capability. Biden has also pledged to re-engage with the international community and close the distance President Trump put between America and Europe, NATO, the United Nations and other allies and institutions, most notably rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and either resurrecting the Iranian JCPOA nuclear deal or negotiating a new agreement along similar lines.

The death of George Floyd after being arrested sparked outraged protests, not only across the country, but throughout the developed world, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place on several continents and including violent clashes with law enforcement and the felling of statues such as that as the late businessman, philanthropist and slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, UK. Protests and political violence have also taken place at rallies for the far-right, such as the Proud Boy demonstration in Portland, organised in support of President Trump. Whatever continued social unrest and political polarisation takes place in 2021, it will both shape and be shaped by the policies of the Biden Administration, and inevitably have wider geopolitical repercussions throughout the world.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro continues to be a divisive and polarising figure. His decision to hand out monthly coronavirus stipends of $120 has seen his approval ratings soar, making him a hero in the ‘sertão’ hinterland in the North Eastern Region, where he was once hated, but candidates he supported were largely defeated in recent local elections, where voters rejected both left wing politicians and those supported by Bolsonaro on the further right in favour of more moderate centrist and centre-right candidates. Concerns are building globally over the situation in the Amazon rainforest with deforestation hitting a 12-year high, which is having an impact on Brazil’s international reputation.

Mexico continues to struggle against the power of the drugs cartels, with a mass grave of over 100 bodies discovered in El Salto, a stronghold for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The group also issued a public video showcasing their firepower, portraying large numbers of armed men with bulletproof vests stood beside armoured vehicles with military-style paintjobs. Despite these and other shocking incidences of cartel violence, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has pledged to stick to his non-confrontational approach, reiterating his stance that previous ‘war on drugs’ strategies adopted by his predecessors had failed to curb violence. Mexico’s economy is in its worst slump for 80 years and the security situation is deteriorating, with murder rates having increased and a brazen attempt by the CJNG to assassinate Mexico City’s police chief. Despite this, AMLO has proposed a constitutionally questionable referendum on his presidency half way through his term, to coincide with legislative elections next year.

Four years on from the landmark peace deal signed between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country still grapples with violence. Other armed groups have moved into areas where the FARC has stood down and have threatened and killed one another as well as human rights defenders. Chief among these groups are the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist left-wing militia, with whom the Government has refused to negotiate until they release all hostages they are currently holding and promise to cease further attacks and kidnappings. As well as fighting for political power and to air grievances about the Bogotá Government’s policies, these groups fight for control of coca fields, which provide the primary ingredient for cocaine.

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro’s legitimacy to rule has been in dispute since 2019, with most Western powers, including the US and EU recognising Juan Guaidó, and many Eastern powers, including Russia and China, recognising Maduro. As support for Guaidó has waned, Maduro has begun to solidify his power-base, and an operation codenamed Gideon, carried out by Venezuelan dissidents and an American private military corporation called Silvercorp USA failed to remove him. There is one organ of the Venezuelan state still controlled by Guaidó, the National Assembly, but it is likely that upcoming elections on 6th December will see Maduro’s supporters seize control of this too, indeed Maduro’s own son will be running as a candidate in that election. The humanitarian and economic situations remain dire and violence remains rife, with someone being murdered roughly every half an hour on average.


2020 has proven to be a challenging yet exciting year for Encyclopedia Geopolitica, which celebrated its 4th birthday earlier this month. We would like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to our highly-involved readership, who have followed up each of our articles with excellent discussions on platforms such as FacebookTwitter and Reddit. As the site’s editors, Simon Schofield and Lewis Tallon would also like to extend a special thanks to our hardworking analyst team, without whom this would not be possible.

We suspect that 2021 will be an equally exciting year in the world of geopolitics, and we hope to be able to continue bringing you insightful and informative articles on those niche and under-examined geopolitical developments that we have tried to accurately capture this year.

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Encyclopedia Geopolitica is a collaborative effort to bring you thoughtful insights on world affairs. Our contributors include Military officers, Geopolitical Intelligence analysts, Corporate Security professionals, Government officials, Academics and Journalists from around the globe. Topics cover diplomatic and foreign affairs, military developments, international relations, terrorism, armed conflict, espionage and the broader elements of statecraft.

Picture credit: John Fee