LOOKING ahead to what can be expected in 2024, the world will continue to be in an unsettled state with geopolitical tensions escalating and driving volatility in global markets.

The international landscape has fragmented even more by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and the US-China confrontation. Strong headwinds unleashed by multiple crises and unmet challenges make the future outlook a troubled one. Adding to uncertainty is a record number of elections next year in countries across the world including the US.

The shift to a more multipolar world will gather increasing momentum but with multilateral institutions under persisting stress. Global power shifts will continue while middle powers will play a growing role in shaping geopolitics.

Unpredictability will remain an overarching reality among key geopolitical trends, risks and challenges in 2024. The Economist’s ‘World Ahead 2024’ report predicts “multipolar disorder” due to conflicts and intensifying geopolitical rivalries. For sure, the number of cascading crises raging in the world today will keep it unstable and unsteady.

Control Risks, the London-based risk consultancy firm, believes the coming year will witness “a high-water mark in crisis complexity and disruptiveness”, which could create a “risk management overload”. Others, including the World Economic Forum, point to the onset of the “age of polycrisis”.

The most significant strategic dynamic in the year ahead will be the course of relations between the US and China. Although both global powers see the danger of unmanaged confrontation and have sought in recent months to stabilise ties, their differences on issues ranging from Taiwan to trade and technology curbs — as well as their clash of geopolitical interests — will expose relations to continuing turbulence.

Washington’s policy of containing China, reaffirmed in the Biden administration’s national security strategy, and assertive pushback by China, will keep relations on a tense track. Tech decoupling will accelerate, military competition will escalate and Taiwan will remain a dangerous flashpoint.

Control Risks, however, sees relations entering a “holding pattern” as both countries deal with pressing domestic challenges — presidential elections in the US and economic problems in China. Conflict is ruled out in most assessments by international think tanks and investment advisory companies such as Black Rock. But countries across the world still worry about an accidental clash in the fraught Asia-Pacific region — the strategic theatre of the US-China stand-off.

While challenges will be formidable in the year ahead, global leadership will be in short supply.

East-West tensions will intensify in 2024 with the war in Ukraine continuing but settling perhaps into a stalemate. Lack of serious efforts to find a negotiated end to the war means that a protracted conflict will continue to strain East-West relations, with obvious fallout on the global economy and supply chains.

Global attention, however, has been diverted from Ukraine to Israel’s war on Gaza. The conflict has driven the Middle East into the vortex of violence and instability and what some Arab experts describe as a “generation-defining moment” for the Middle East.

On the back-burner for decades, the Palestinian issue has shot to the top of the international agenda. It also underlined that the US policy of normalising relations between Arab states and Israel by ignoring Palestine was deeply flawed and unsustainable, with the Abraham Accords strategy now upended by the war. 2024 will challenge and test the ability of Arab governments and major powers to establish lasting peace and security in the region by finding a just solution to the Palestinian issue and pressing Israel to return to a two-state solution.

In this polarised and fractured international landscape, middle powers will acquire more importance in influencing geopolitics in 2024. The US-China stand-off has offered opportunities and leeway to countries to increase their leverage by playing off that rivalry and pursuing an ‘independent’ path.

Moreover, structural changes and dispersal of power in the international system — the very currency of power having changed — has created an enabling environment for middle power diplomatic activism and for them to wield influence. As these trends continue, they will create more space for middle powers to strengthen their bargaining power. This will oblige the two global superpowers to spend more diplomatic capital in engaging middle power countries.

Most international risk assessments consider scores of elections due next year to have significant regional and international implications. Over four billion people are expected to cast their ballot in more than six dozen elections across the world.

None is more consequential than the US presidential election. If former president Donald Trump returns to power this would have far-reaching consequences for the world. As he will likely pursue the same unilateralist, disruptive foreign policy that characterised his past administration this will negatively impact relations with China, war in Ukraine, ties with alliance partners and US commitments on climate change among other areas.

A key question in 2024 will be whether the trend witnessed in recent years of democratic regression will persist or come to a halt. Democratic backsliding has been pervasive as many democracies across the world face challenges from polarisation, intolerance, and toxic politics. They have also witnessed an erosion of civil liberties and media freedom and suppression of dissent. This is happening against a backdrop of economic stress and rising, unmet public expectations.

The global trend of democratic erosion has been recorded by many international organisations. For example, the latest edition of the Global State of Democracy report by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found a record number of democracies in decline. It calculated that over two-thirds of the global population now live in backsliding democracies, authoritarian or hybrid regimes.

How to respond to the disruptive effects and new vulnerabilities created by advance technology — often dubbed as weapons of mass disruption — will continue to be a challenge in the coming year. A digitalised world faces vexing issues of cybersecurity as threats rise across the world.

Data theft and fraud, cyberattacks and breaches of critical systems, electricity networks and financial markets are all part of rising risks. Artificial intelligence, especially its military uses, also presents many dangers. Despite this there is no international effort aimed at managing or mitigating the destabilising effects of new technologies.

Challenges there will be aplenty in 2024, but in a world where both global leadership and solidarity will be in short supply.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2023

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