After the plague year that started this decade, 2021 got off to a menacing start with the ransacking of the US Capitol by insurrectionists incited by outgoing President Donald Trump. Since then, dangerous new variants of the coronavirus have contributed to an ever-rising COVID-19 death toll, complicating the long-awaited economic reopening and recovery in many countries – including those that were the first to roll out vaccines.

While US President Joe Biden’s inauguration signaled a return of US global leadership on climate change and many other issues, whether “America is back” remains a matter of intense debate. The Biden administration hit the ground running with large legislative victories.

Yet, in its eagerness to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the administration misread the situation on the ground so thoroughly that only a hasty, chaotic, and ignominious retreat became possible.

The United States has justified its abandonment of Afghanistan by citing the need to focus on larger issues such as China. And Sino-American antagonism has indeed deepened on almost every front, including nuclear arms. While China continued to keep the coronavirus largely contained within its borders, it also continued to block inquiries into the pandemic’s origins.

It has escalated its crackdown in Hong Kong, persisted in its brutal treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups, threatened Taiwan, and intensified its “wolf warrior” rhetoric abroad.

In navigating these new geopolitical dynamics, the European Union’s efforts to assume a true global leadership role have remained focused on achieving and promoting its climate agenda. Following the announcement of the European Green Deal in December 2019, the EU has now rolled out its Fit for 55 reform package to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030. As always, success will depend on the complicated politics within and between member states (particularly the coal-dependent “illiberal” regimes in Hungary and Poland). While Germany adjusts to the post-Angela Merkel era, France will hold a presidential election in April 2022, and the EU more broadly will continue to grapple with the still-new politics of Brexit and older, recurrent issues such as immigration.

Political, social, and economic conditions elsewhere have reinforced a widespread sense of systemic uncertainty. The COP26 conference left plenty of doubt about the world’s ability to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and the erosion of democracy remains a paramount concern. The military junta has re-seized power in Myanmar, rioting and discord have rocked South Africa, and instability, war, and starvation have returned to the Horn of Africa. Populist nationalism continues to prevail in major emerging economies such as Brazil and India, where the true COVID-19 death toll is estimated to be orders of magnitude higher than the official figures.

Even if the pandemic were to end miraculously tomorrow, the world would have only just begun to confront the new systemic challenges posed by renewed nationalism, rising debt levels, cyber warfare, and technologies such as artificial intelligence and genetic editing.  Major document releases such as

the Pandora Papers and the Facebook Papers confirm that not everyone is abiding by the same rules – or even playing the same game.

Governments have met this decade’s social, biological, and climate threats with the exhortation to “build back better.” But sloganeering will offer little respite. Throughout history, plagues have often compelled reconsideration of fundamental principles and spurred the emergence of new institutional arrangements. In seeking to understand what might follow from this dark period, the first task is to admit this possibility.

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