Commentary: It is certain that 2021 will be anything but boring in geopolitical terms. The new year is opening with some very alarming scenarios.
Herman Khan (1922-1983) is universally considered the father of ‘futurology’, the – inevitably inexact – branch of political science which aspires to draw future scenarios and make forecasts on the evolution or involution of global geopolitical games.
Khan was a mathematician, an expert in the theory of simulation games, and in 1962 he became famous for an essay entitled ‘Thinking the unthinkable‘, in which he analyzed the possible consequences of a US-USSR thermonuclear conflict.
The book had a wide scientific and media resonance and earned Khan the label of ‘Dr. Strangelove’, not least because Stanley Kubrik confessed to having been inspired by him and his book to create the main character of his famous movie.
Although Khan became famous for his prediction theories, at the end of his career, in 1980, during a conference at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, he dampened the enthusiasm of his fervent admirers with the following sentence: ‘It is impossible to predict, especially about the future…’.
While it is true that those who want to make predictions about future scenarios should bear Herman Khan’s theories in mind, it is equally true that his 1980 statement should be considered when analyzing “what is to come”.
This ironic precaution must guide and orient us in the analysis of the nearest future, 2021, a future marked by the pandemic and its social and economic consequences and by suggestive and decisive variables and implications at world level.
The new year is opening with some very alarming scenarios.
In Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused not only a health disaster, but also an economic disaster whose consequences will be felt for years, if not decades.
In the United Kingdom, as the last deadline to avoid a ‘no deal Brexit’ is approaching probably in vain, a new strain of the pandemic virus has emerged, apparently more infectious than the one circulating in the rest of the world.
This scientific finding has led to a travel ban from England to all European countries and to many countries in the rest of the world.
On the eve of its exit from Europe, Great Britain is practically under a total embargo, as evidenced by the very long queues of lorries blocked on both sides of the Channel.
It is not known whether this tragic and unexpected epidemic development, with its immediate and severe economic consequences (total lockdown and closed borders) will induce the British negotiators to seek in extremis an agreement with the European Union. What is certain is that the latest discussions on fishing rights in the Channel and in the North Sea, which the Brits believe should lead to a total ban on European fishing vessels in those waters, do not facilitate a constructive approach to the search for a solution that can avoid a “no deal Brexit”, although it is clear to everybody that a failure to reach an agreement would cause damage on both sides of the Channel.
The UK economy is currently weakened by the pandemic consequences, but it is undeniable that the future impact of Brexit on the UK’s global stability could be severe.
It is not just a matter of clear repercussions on the economy (skyrocketing prices due to the new inevitable tariffs and duties; collapse of property values and of employment levels, etc.), but also of possible upheavals on the internal level: Ulster and the Republic of Ireland are determined to keep open what is destined to become the only land border between Europe and Great Britain.
The border closure, as a result of Brexit, is seen as a disaster by all Irish, Catholic and Protestant people.
The open border has revived Ulster’s economy, after years of depression and civil conflict, and has helped the Republic of Ireland emerge from the 2000s crisis.
Although, in theory, Irish Catholics and Protestants are still ‘enemies’ on religious grounds, they are united in trying to make Great Britain understand that Ulster and Ireland are determined to keep the border open now that religious hatred has subsided and the Protestant Unionists’ ties with the British motherland are being undermined by Brexit.
Scotland is also showing significant signs of restlessness.
In the referendum on Europe, the Scots voted massively for the ‘remain’ option and they seem unwilling to bear the brunt of leaving Europe.
Soon after the referendum, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: ‘We Scots are very angry because we have always opposed Brexit. Anger and sadness must give us even more strength to win independence. And it will happen, you will see. It is only a matter of time…”.
Next May a general election will be held in Scotland and in recent days Prime Minister Sturgeon has reiterated that if her party, the Scottish National Party, wins the elections, “it will be with the promise that the Scots will be able to vote in a referendum on independence”.
To reaffirm her distance from Great Britain, which is already putting hurdles in the way of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who work permanently in Great Britain, the Scottish Prime Minister has written an open letter to the European citizens living in Scotland in which she invites them not to leave Scotland: “Scotland is your home, you are welcome here, we want you to stay … you are our friends, family and neighbors … we will help you to assert your rights”.
Clear words that seem to be harbinger of a political storm for Great Britain, which in the year to come shall face not only the damage caused by the pandemic, but also the economic repercussions of a no-deal Brexit and the political ones coming from Scotland and Ireland.
A situation that could result in calling into question the essence and integrity of a no longer ‘United’ ‘Kingdom’ and the existential philosophy of a stubbornly insular people, educated also by popular sayings such as: ‘Storm on Channel – Continent isolated’.
In 2021, however, the Continent’s “isolation” could cost Her Majesty’s subjects very dearly.
On the other shore of the Atlantic, Biden’s Presidency will certainly lead to a decisive reversal of Trump’s isolationist policies which, however, did not prevent the outgoing President from achieving one of the most significant successes in American foreign policy in recent years: Israel’s rapprochement with the Arab world, planned and achieved by Donald Trump with the active support of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman.
This is probably the heaviest legacy left to Joe Biden by Donald Trump.
A legacy with which the new U.S. Administration shall carefully come to terms if it wants to resume the role of great power that Obama’s disengagement and Clinton’s and Kerry’s mistakes had made it lose in the Middle East.
Even though the top item on the agenda of Joe Biden’s new White House is the redefinition of relations with China, after Trump – being content with rebalancing trade with China with tariffs and duties – has in fact left the field open to China in Africa and the Far East, the relationship with Saudi Arabia must necessarily be redefined if the United States wants to play a significant role in the Middle East’s equilibria (and imbalances…).
From Saudi Arabia we learn that the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election is causing concern in court circles.
King Salman Bin Abdelaziz is well aware of the hostility of the Democratic Congressmen towards the Saudi Kingdom and the unscrupulous activism of Crown Prince Bin Salman, who has been explicitly accused of being the instigator of the assassination of the dissident journalist, Jamal Kashoggi, murdered inside the premises of the Saudi embassy in Turkey on October 2, 2018.
Many Democratic Congressmen and Senators are putting pressure on the Congress to support the enactment of ‘ad personam‘ sanctions against significant members of the Crown Prince’s entourage.
Furthermore, there is the sensitive issue of the fate of the former Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Najef, and his close associate Saad Al Jabri, who have both fled to the United States to avoid arrest on corruption charges.
The charges are related to a series of “suspicious” contracts with American companies signed by Bin Najef at the suggestion of Al Jabri.
The latter was a collaborator of CIA, which is currently covering and keeping him in a secret location in Virginia.
The Saudis are well aware that the CIA protects its collaborators to the bitter end and will therefore exert all its influence on the new Administration to prevent their extradition to Saudi Arabia.
Although Joe Biden was very harsh on the Saudi Kingdom during the election campaign, Saudi Arabia recalls that, as Obama’s Vice-President, he had never shown any hostility towards the most powerful State in the Persian Gulf.
According to reliable diplomatic sources, King Salman is very attentive to the U.S. new approach towards Saudi Arabia to the point that, in order to keep the dialogue with the United States open, he would even be willing to sacrifice the Crown Prince if he were to be an obstacle to the start of a constructive dialogue with the new American Administration.
It is no secret that the King has not been at all pleased with Mohammed Bin Salman’s activism towards Israel and his commitment to encouraging the opening of diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain, the Emirates and Sudan.
Clearly a downsizing of the Crown Prince could not fail to have negative or paralyzing effects on the new course of Arab-Israeli relations – a new course at which also the new Biden Administration is looking favorably.
As we can see, the dossiers that Trump is bequeathing to his successor are not simple. I will analyze the other dossiers in another article.
What is certain is that, even considering Herman Khan’s “forecasting” caution, the year to come will be anything but boring in geopolitical terms.
Giancarlo Elia Valori