The Year Ahead: Ten Issues and One Wild Card
by Mel Gurtov
2024 is likely to be filled with more than the usual challenges to planetary safety and survival. Here’s a look at 10 issues and a wild card that suggest what’s ahead internationally that is worth our attention.
1. It will be another year of record temperatures and accompanying environmental stresses: more droughts, hurricanes, floods, species and coral reef losses. Antarctica’s ice loss will be particularly remarkable. The agreements reached at the COP28 conference on climate change will be cited again and again, but probably not in celebration of widespread compliance. In the US, climate litigation will be on the upswing. Among the most interesting cases will be those in Oregon, Hawaii, and California in which young people—following on a favorable court decision in Montana—are suing to protect the health of future generations from environmental damage.
2. Major wars in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine will continue throughout the year, with international support for Ukraine and Israel trending down. Expect the Ukraine war to feature more Ukrainian attacks inside Russia and some spillover of Russian attacks into NATO (Poland) countries. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza will become unmanageable as Israel’s occupation tightens. Israel may be convulsed by renewed conflict between the far right and liberals over judicial independence. Its war with Hezbollah may not be containable, leading either to Israeli military action in Lebanon or to conflict with Iran—or both. There may be calls in the US to attack Iran, not just in support of Israel but also to create regime change and end Iran’s nuclear program.
3. Failed and failing states may increase under the weight of coups, civil wars, climate change, and deteriorating economic conditions that include high food insecurity. Africa has many such stories: Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Somalia. But Africa is not alone; Haiti, Myanmar, and Pakistan also stand out. These signs of collapsing authority will put enormous pressure to provide aid on the UN and other international and nongovernmental organizations—aid that will be increasingly hard to come by.
4. The debt crisis for the poorest countries will intensify, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where every country is deeply in debt to China and has no foreseeable way out.
5. China will mainly be looking inward, not outward, as its economy gets deeper into trouble. Internal security will have top priority for Xi Jinping as he doubles down on party, military, and social discipline. Repression may intensify as the party-state seeks to thwart rising social dissatisfaction.
6. China-US relations may improve marginally as high-level diplomacy normalizes, especially military-to-military communication. But improvement depends on stabilization of the Taiwan situation following upcoming elections, and a cooling down of tensions in the South China Sea. Neither of those possibilities is likely if a pro-independence candidate wins in Taiwan and if the Philippines and China cannot resolve their competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
7. The nuclear issue in North Korea will again raise alarms as Pyongyang carries out more long-range missile tests. Another North Korean underground nuclear test is also possible. The chances of a resumption of US-North Korea diplomacy seem remote.
8. Illiberal populism, a.k.a strong-arm autocracy, is likely to strengthen in so-called democracies such as Modi’s India, Orban’s Hungary, and Erdogan’s Turkey. Expect anti-democratic leaders in China, Russia, and elsewhere to continue their disinformation efforts aimed at supporting far-right politicians and denigrating liberals. Worse yet, centrist parties in Europe will seek to pacify the far right to maintain their ruling coalitions.
9. Cyberhacking and other threats to governmental and personal security will increase. Chinese hacking of US targets, for instance, has changed from economic sabotage to acquire corporate secrets, to attacks on critical infrastructure such as utilities and transport systems, experts say. The hacking issue seems destined to become a top matter for US-China discussions.
10. Immigration will continue to challenge liberal governments and give fuel to far-right politicians and extremist groups. The tendency everywhere will be to limit immigration by narrowing amnesty and residency rules.
Finally, the wild card: the US elections. A Trump victory would mean a turnabout from international involvement to domestic upheaval as Trump seeks retribution against his enemies. His politics of revenge will have global consequences.
It would portend a dramatic decline in democratic governance and liberal values, a significant withdrawal of the US from alliances and international organizations, pressure on Ukraine to give in to Russian occupation of its land, a major reduction in US foreign aid and other international programs, termination of US commitments on climate change, and a significant uptick in US-China tensions (especially over Taiwan). Authoritarian leaders and politicians around the world will cite the US retreat from democracy as a model and act accordingly.
Even a Biden win, if not accompanied by Democratic control of the House or Senate, would spell trouble for US international commitments, starting with Ukraine and climate change.
Sorry to be so pessimistic, but facts and trends are inescapable. It would be nice to live in peaceful, harmonious times, but we don’t.