The 2020s mark a return to Cold War levels of geopolitical risk


The new year began with a dark shadow as major wars continue in Europe and the Middle East. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, there are more active armed conflicts involving sovereign states than at any time since World War II. But perhaps surprisingly, even with additional tensions in the South China Sea, the Geopolitical Risk (GPR) Index rates the 2020s as in the middle of the pack when compared to previous decades.

This chart shows the GPR Historical Index for the 20th and 21st centuries. Four periods were exceptionally risky: the World Wars, the late 1940s to early 1950s including the culmination of the Chinese Civil War (1949) and the Korean War (1950–52), and the early years of the war on terror (2001–2004). Three periods emerge as exceptionally “safe,” at least according to the GPR Index: 1900–1913, the interwar period (1920–33), and the 1990s, especially if one accepts the argument that the 1990s actually began with the end of the Soviet Union (December 1991) and ended with the 9/11 attacks (2001).

Compared to the 1990s—the high point of the Pax Americana, when the United States was the preeminent economic and military power—the 21st century has looked increasingly chaotic. The riskiest period of the 2020s so far bears a strong resemblance to October 1973, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and Arab oil embargo. But the 2020s, in comparison to other decades, fall into the same average as the early decades of the Cold War—lamentable and tragic, perhaps, but not unusual.

This PIIE Chart is adapted from Cullen S. Hendrix’s blog, Is geopolitical risk getting worse?

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