Amid the severest public health emergency the world has seen in a century running rampant for the second year in a row and set to impact the third, the practice of politics and statecraft, by any means, never missed a beat. At its very outset, 2021 saw the unprecedented spectre of a violent insurrection in the very heart of the world's most powerful democracy, heralding a spate of crisis and conflict across all continents that seems to spill into 2022, if not longer.
As the New Year begins, let us take a tour of seven political/geopolitical hotspots that seem certain to figure in the headlines across the coming months, amid Covid. As the Kingston Trio once sang: "What nature doesn't do to us will be done by our fellow man" ('Merry Little Minuet')
The relief that followed Joe Biden's triumph over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential polls was dissipated by the January 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol. While the resulting outrage could have eclipsed the political career of anyone, Trump not only emerged unscathed through another unprecedented impeachment, but continues to hold a stranglehold over the Republican Party.
With Biden floundering amid the Covid catastrophe, and his key legislative agenda torpedoed by his own party's holdouts, and the rightward drift of the Supreme Court, the coming midterm elections - which impinge on how the rest of his Presidency - will pan out, makes sure US remains top in the news.
Relations between Russia and Ukraine have not been the best ever since the Soviet Union's collapse, but nose-dived since 2014 since Ukraine's Euromaidan protests, the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, and the Russian takeover of Crimea as well as support to two border regions flouting Kyiv's authority. While tensions have simmered since then, trouble broke out in early 2021 in wake of a massive NATO exercise on virtually the Russian border. Since then, there have been reports of Russian troop concentrations on the border, with Western powers alleging Moscow's plans to invade Ukraine.
While most European countries and the US threaten crippling sanctions over any "invasion" of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to warn that inducting the neighbouring country into NATO would be a "red line" for his country, which has historically been wary of adversaries close to its borders. There are attempts to cool down the situation - the recent call between Biden and Putin - but the crisis seems set to fester.
The Middle East
There has hardly been any time since the end of the Second World War that the Middle East has not figured in the headlines, and rarely for the right reason. Even now, in the wake of leadership changes in Israel and Iran, a subdued IS presence, a drawdown in the Syrian conflict, and the general stagnation, the region is far from stable with the promise of the Arab Spring having long dissipated.
The crisis in Lebanon where people are straitened circumstances and credibility of political leadership is at the lowest, the political turmoil in Tunisia - the epicentre of the Arab Spring and regarded as one of the brightest prospects for the region, the Israel-Palestine issue - where violent clashes are never far- off, and above all, the Iranian nuclear deal and the ongoing negotiations of reviving it, will ensure world attention is not far from the region.
The biggest country in South America, Brazil borders nine of the continent's 11 other sovereign nations, plays a key role in regional and global affairs, and with its (severely threatened) Amazon rainforest ("lungs of the world"), contributes to the world's environmental health. Given all this, its politics can impinge on the continent, the hemisphere and the world.
With Presidential elections due in October 2022, populist incumbent Jair Bolsanaro, whose victory in 2018 was among the consequences of the backlash against globalisation, had a tumultuous term and attracted much flak over his handling of the Covid crisis and the economy, is vying for re-election, However, with his popularity ratings currently at his lowest, and a packed field, including popular predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is back in the fray after being absolved of corruption charges, the coming electoral contest will gain keen interest once the configurations are confirmed.
Among the handful of nations to see military upstage civilian governments in 2021, but the only one in Asia, Myanmar's military coup and the consequent bloody crackdown on protests will ensure that the Southeast Asian nation keeps figuring in the news, situated as it is in the Indo-Pacific area which is the focus for influence between neighbours India, China as well as on a wider level, between Beijing and the US and its allies/aligned powers, including India.
Afghanistan was among the biggest geopolitical developments of 2021 as its foreign (chiefly US)-backed government steadily lost ground and ultimately crumbled without a fight to the Taliban militia despite two decades of Western financial and military support.
The beleaguered country will remain in the focus amid its mounting humanitarian crisis, the rollback of its social progress, the contest between Taliban and the IS' local offshoot, and the apprehension of its domestic developments affecting the already far from stable Pakistan, India's Kashmir, and the Central Asian nations.
Germany has already seen a transition from centre-right to a centre-left government, but it is the April Presidential election in France, the other key archstone of the European Union, that will see impinge on the future course of the continent - beset as it is with political and economic divisions between members, the "Russian threat" and the challenge of illegal immigration, as well as global politics.
President Emmanuel Macron is yet to formally announce that he will seek a second term though he is widely expected to, while long-time aspirant Marine Le Pen of the far right has already announced she will contest despite her 2012 and 2017 losses, and some more right and far-right candidates have thrown their hat in the ring. The outcome will be keenly watched to see how the political winds are blowing.
There may be other hotspots, but there are also three issues which dominated politics almost everywhere in 2021 and loom large this year too - our relationship with our planet, our technology, and with our political leaders.