This article contains a global risk calendar in which scheduled events for 2020 are assessed for their risk of political violence, civil unrest, terrorism, crime and travel disruption. The calendar is then followed by a consideration of global issues in a number of categories, all of which are expected to have an effect upon global security and travel.
Risks to travellers: conventional conflicts, insurgency
Since the election of President Trump, international politics has been remarkable for its divergence away from what may be considered to be normal diplomatic processes and relations. This is likely to continue into 2020, when Trump will push his populist agenda further, in a long-running effort to distract domestic attention from his possible impeachment trial. This agenda will result in the continuing retreat of American diplomatic and military influence away from global trouble spots, allowing large powers such as China and Russia to continue to develop their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. At the same time, a secondary tier of nations will feel increasingly at liberty to do the same in their respective neighbourhoods, such as Turkey in Syria or Iran in Iraq. As a result of this fragmentary trend, global stability will become increasingly impacted by the relationships between a larger number of smaller states.
The lack of interest by Chinese and Russian regimes in human rights and other recognised legal norms will exclude any military interventions based on human rights requirements, but will allow covert support for any regime likely to prove useful to its backers. This has been ongoing for some years in Syria, where President Assad’s government has now almost completely retaken rebel territory with implicit support from Russia, a development that has turned Putin into an important broker in Middle Eastern politics.
In an environment where global military intervention is less of an obligation on populist-orientated leaders, organisations like NATO (damaged by the tensions between North America and Europe) and the EU (facing political and economic problems without the presence of the UK and with growing membership of Eastern European nations) will find themselves increasingly irrelevant. In this environment, long-running tensions between India and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Russia and Ukraine are more likely to break out into conventional conflict. The eventual completion of the Aegis Ashore missile defence system in Poland in 2020 will certainly guarantee the security of Eastern European nations, but it cannot guarantee that NATO will be able to shape the geopolitical environment of the following decade without strong leadership from the United States and full engagement from its members.
At a domestic political level, independence movements are likely to gain some more momentum as populism and nationalism continue to be easy routes to election victories for cynical politicians. In the wake of the successful Bougainville independence referendum in November 2019, the population of New Caledonia will feel confident to vote once again for independence from France, having narrowly rejected this in November 2018. Following Brexit (now scheduled for January 2020), Scottish nationalists will push for another independence referendum, much more likely to be successful a second time around. Beyond 2020, this will encourage a return to political chaos in Northern Ireland, and potentially a referendum on either independence or reunion with the Republic of Ireland.
Risks to travellers: civil unrest, crime
All global tensions are expected to be underscored by economic insecurity. Some think-tanks have spent 2019 warning of a global recession in mid- to late-2020, when governments operating in their own interests and trade disputes between major financial blocs will lead to the second major global crash of the century. While fears are less pronounced than they were six months ago, many feel that a recession has only been delayed rather than averted. Even if recession can be avoided, then slower-than-usual growth is still likely. A large reduction in US manufacturing over 2019, and a slow-down in its service-industry growth levels have led leading US economists to predict a slowing of US GDP growth to under 2% in 2020. US business confidence has already started to be eroded by the trade war and by pessimistic predictions, with companies reducing their foreign investment in preparation for a difficult period.
The United States will resume trade talks with China in August. If these talks do not increase confidence in international markets, then ongoing commercial tensions will push up travel costs in the short term by killing the demand for international travel, and by potentially impacting oil prices. In the mid-term, a failure to reach conciliation in Shanghai will lead to global economic decline, with a longer-term impact on political security across the world, particularly in major oil-producing areas such as the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela.
Global leaders who are unprepared for economic insecurity will face the problems of increasing unemployment and declining public investment, and are more likely to turn to domestic populist policies in order to secure re-election, with the inevitable result that middle-income countries will experience higher levels of civil unrest than in more recent years.
Risks to travellers: terrorist attacks, transport disruption, civil unrest
Terrorist trends reflect a changing environment for international jihadism. Islamic State may have largely been defeated in the Middle East, but its influence has grown dramatically in the Sahel throughout 2019. Groups such as Ansaroul Islam, JNIM and ISGS (effectively franchises of Islamic State and Al Qaeda), will find themselves engaged in full-scale conventional conflict with G5 Sahel military units, or with new deployments from the French-led Op BARKHANE. Islamist attacks in Burkina Faso have increased so much in 2019 that encroachments into Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo or Benin are more likely in 2020.
Western nations will continue to present targets for well-planned and well-co-ordinated Islamist attacks, as well as violence from “lone-wolf” terrorists. However, terrorism in the West may yet take a new direction, as society begins to come to terms with issues relating to climate change. An increasingly engaged, flexible and deployable population of young co-ordinated environmental activists is more likely to tackle unengaged Western political elites with violence that may amount to terrorism, and may at least dwarf that conducted by the Gilets Jaunes in France. At the same time, growing right-wing populism by disenfranchised groups more focussed on employment issues than on wider environmental concerns will lead to violent civil unrest on European streets between two politically engaged but very different social groups.
Risks to travellers: natural hazards, transport disruption, crime
At a more existential level, the damaging effects of climate change upon global travel will persist. Californian wildfires and Australian bushfires will continue to traumatise the respective domestic travel environments as higher global temperatures disrupt weather patterns. Ongoing issues that are less likely to hit headlines in the West will be the failure of agricultural processes in Africa caused by climate change: droughts and famine have hit South Sudan and Zimbabwe in 2019, and much of southern and eastern Africa can be expected to be at risk of similar problems. Torrential rains in DR Congo, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, have destroyed crops and ruined communities, again, something that will be replicated in 2020. In such an environment, where essential resources are scarce, people will turn to crime; once state security resources are overwhelmed, self-defence militancy will offer more security to local communities than the state, and widespread insecurity will be inevitable.
In November 2020, a major UN climate change conference will be held in Glasgow, with more than 30,000 expected attendees, the largest climate summit since Paris 2015. The treaties agreed in Paris have already been broken by global influencers, including the United States, so conferences of this nature are not expected to have any long-term impact. Ultimately, the continuing industrial growth of China and India will see no lasting agreements and no change to policies relating to carbon emissions and climate change. Without the leadership of countries such as the United States and China, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of the natural environment. Wider political blocs such as the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations may increase their involvement and take a lead on the issue. A fresh regime in the White House might have a dramatic impact on the global political dynamic over climate change.
Risks to travellers: transport disruption, crime, terrorism
At least three major global events will be held in 2020, all of which create possible targets for terrorism, and potential flashpoints for diplomatic breakdown.
The World Expo, held in Dubai, will present an attractive target to Islamist terrorists. Terrorism in the UAE has not manifested itself in any major attacks, but the occasional arrest of individuals with connections to groups such as Al Qaeda is a useful reminder that the country’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen make it vulnerable. Its close diplomatic alignment to the United States (it has supported the US mission in Afghanistan) increases the risk that this major event, expected to attract many global visitors, will be targeted.
The 2020 UEFA Championship will, for the first time, be held across a range of European cities rather than in a single host nation. Although this will allow for a greater spread of burden-sharing and income from travellers and tourists, it will put greater pressure on national intelligence and counter-terrorist departments to co-operate with their European allies to prevent major attacks against vulnerable targets. Although the risks to travellers in most European countries are low, cities such as Baku and St Petersburg will cause problems for fans who are unprepared for a tighter security environment, or for problematic bureaucracy over entry and visas. Travellers to Russia and Azerbaijan will need to arrange visas in advance, while the status of British travellers in EU countries is still unclear in a post-Brexit environment.
The Olympic Games, due to be held in Japan, are very likely to be safe and efficiently managed. The 2019 Rugby World Cup demonstrated that Japanese bureaucracy and infrastructure can process, accommodate and manage large numbers of fans from a spectrum of nations and cultures with security and efficiency. However, the recent ban by the World Anti-Doping Agency of the Russian flag and national anthem will increase diplomatic tensions. As Russian athletes will seek to find other nations to represent, the Kremlin may try to find ways to distract global attention from Japan and seek to prove its virility in some other way, which could be anything from ICBM testing to fresh operations in Ukraine or the Caucasus.
Risks to travellers: crime, transport disruption
As global internet use is predicted to reach 5 million by the end of 2020, the global risk of cybercrime, particularly from hackers and specialist cybercriminals in Russia, will continue to be a concern for international businesses and institutions.
The Sovereign Internet Bill, passed by the Russian legislature in summer 2019, now grants Moscow much greater control over Russians’ access to the internet, isolating users from the global online community in much the same way that the Chinese government does. This will make it easier for Moscow to limit the ability of Russian hackers to target Russian companies and infrastructure. However, at the same time, it will encourage hackers to target foreign institutions instead, with the implicit and unofficial support of the Kremlin.
The US presidential election is very likely to be targeted by hackers with the backing of the Russian government, seeking to spread instability throughout the campaign, in much the same way that the 2016 election campaign was affected by the hijacking of social media and the deliberate spread of misinformation. The ease and cost-effectiveness with which Russian cyber assets could manipulate US electoral systems and social media platforms has been a lesson to other states, and it is likely that other regimes, such as those in Tehran and Beijing, will now seek to copy Russian tactics to spread disruption in their own spheres of influence. This is likely to benefit the Trump re-election campaign, as strategic opponents of the US will view the continuation of his tenure as a helping factor in the disruption of global diplomatic norms.