Geopolitical risks in 2024: A new fragmented world

More than thirty years ago, tens of thousands of East Germans, with the utmost effort, broke through the Berlin Wall which represented not only a physical barrier between two countries, but constituted the demolition of an ideological wall that divided the world into two orders, two ways of life, two views of the past and the future. With the disappearance of the wall, many believed that the divisions had also disappeared, as well as that the world had reached the “end of history”, as the famous American political thinker Francis Fukuyama called the then victory of the Western political order over the Eastern one. Thirty-four years later, Fukuyama’s “end of history” disappeared into the sea of historical idealism which, like many times in history, fell victim to the basic postulate of international relations – the competition of great powers and their allies.

While the optimism of the early 1990s was reflected in a single, equal future for all, today we live in a world with a surplus of “futures” where every power, be it global or regional, tends to shape the future according to its own discretion, even at the cost of destabilizing stability and peace in the world.

And yet there is no doubt on the opinions, no matter how disastrous the year 2023 was, that the year 2024 will be a year of conflict and division, a year of fragmentation, a year of even greater crisis. However, in moments of general destruction in Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, sectarian conflicts in Africa, and political turbulence in Europe and the United States of America, there are bright spots in international relations that give us mild optimism: China and the US are trying to dialogue alleviates tensions in relations, while the stability of growing economies such as Mexico, India, Indonesia strive to strengthen their institutions in a democratic spirit and the rule of law. What do we have to keep in mind when we talk about global risks and threats?

1 – The internal divisions of the United States and its view of the world
Even though the US maintains its position as the greatest economic and military power in the world, the American society and political parties have never been more divided. American divisions extend not only to the key foreign policy issues of the present, primarily related to Russian aggression against Ukraine, but also to the very issues that represent the core of its foreign policy – isolation or internationalization of the US’s role in the world.

Entering the election year in the US, it is absolutely clear that American voters are not satisfied with the state of their own political system, with never lower trust in institutions such as the Congress, the Supreme Court or the institution of the President. The most likely candidates for the presidency in 2024 are again Donald Trump, who should overcome all the legal problems he has, and Joseph Biden. The victory of one or another candidate in the elections will reduce the legitimacy of the very institution of the president in the eyes of all the voters. Taught by the experience of the events after the last elections, the administration of President Biden will do everything to hold the elections in accordance with democratic principles, but there is also no doubt that there is a foreign interest that wishes to drag the US into problems that would lead to destabilization and further confrontation.

However, the election will not only affect the state of American society, but will also affect how the US views the world, and how the world views the US. Depending on the outcome of the election, the US foreign policy elite will have to go through a long process of searching for answers about what is the future role of Washington DC in further shaping the world in which it still holds primacy.

The Republican Party, which in the previous twenty years commenced, but never ended, two traumatic wars – in Afghanistan and Iraq, is increasingly becoming a spokesperson for the policy of isolation and withdrawal of the USA from the world stage. After the tragic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led by the Republican administration of President Bush Jr., within the Republican Party there was a weariness towards foreign interventions, and the voting body increasingly recognized in Trump a new promoter of the policy of protecting the interests of US citizens instead of the interests of the citizens of the world. In the struggle to find new foreign policy answers within the Republican Party, US allies anxiously await the outcome of the November elections. If it is taken into account that the foreign policy champions within the Republican Party have different views on the role of Washington DC in the world, it is an open question whether, or to what extent, a possible change of administration in the White House will limit the role of the USA in the global security challenges.

2 – China – between economic slowdown and global ambitions
The People’s Republic of China enters the year 2024 with less optimism, and an increasing reluctance to implement the necessary economic and political reforms. Despite the constant media sensationalism that the US and China are on the verge of conflict, these two leading world powers maintain a dialogue on all strategic issues while acknowledging their mutual rivalry. China continues a seemingly ambivalent foreign policy, using all possible cracks created by the decisions of other actors to promote and advance its own interests. China uses its neutral attitude towards the war in Ukraine to buy the cheapest possible raw materials from the Russian Federation, and in parallel exporting dual-use products back. In the Middle East, China strategically balances support for Iran with deepening relations with Saudi Arabia, all with the aim of projecting its own interests and securing the necessary raw materials for its economy. However, the economy represents a key challenge for China in 2024, and thus for the entire world. The lower external demand for Chinese products will have an impact on Chinese exports, while the decreasing demand for real estate will cause additional problems for the Chinese economy. In addition to the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has a longer-term systemic problem – and that is the resistance to reforms of the economic and political system. Instead of greater stimulation of economic growth and living standards through consumption, Beijing gives an overemphasized priority to national security issues. The assumption is that during 2024, Chinawill not enter into foreign policy adventures, but will watch with discomfort the American military exercises in the immediate vicinity of the Chinese coast, as well as the deepening of cooperation between its client Pyongyang and Moscow.

3 – Middle East – Global Challenges
The Middle East continues to play the role of one of the riskier areas of the world in which competing powers project their power and interests through various armed groups, non-state and state actors. Despite the optimism of the US administration at the beginning of 2023, the Middle East has become one of the burning regions again after the surprise terrorist attack by Hamas on civilians in Israel in October 2023.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas represents one of the key challenges for the foreign policy of several countries in the world, including primarily the US. The spiral of death and destruction initiated by Hamas terror has not only led to the exodus and deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza following the launch of a military operation and the use of excessive force by the Israel Defense Forces, but has also jeopardized progress in the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. Israel’s strategic position, as well as the traditional support that Jerusalem enjoys from Washington DC, represents a major security challenge considering the traditionally hostile environment in which Israel has been operating since its inception. Pressured by war on its southern borders, and growing threats to the north by Hezbollah, a militant entity from Lebanon, Israel faces major security and political dilemmas that could lead to a general war in the Middle East. The challenges that Israel faces are being exploited by Iran, Israel’s decades-long enemy, to further project its power in the region and threaten the security architecture on which the military and political power of Israel, and immediately the US, rests. Iran’s support for Hezbollah, as well as the Houthis in Yemen, is nothing more than an attempt to find an ideal balance between the need for destabilization and the need to use its local players as a bargaining chip in the great Middle Eastern game. In the same way that Hezbollah and the Houthis have become regional instruments of Iran, Iran is increasingly becoming a mediator of Russian interests in the region.

4 – Ukrainian crisis – on the road to a frozen conflict
The second year of the conflict in Ukraine brings both conflicting parties to a stalemate and a frozen conflict that absolutely will not suit Ukraine and the Western allies, but will permanently damage both the military and economic potential of the Russian Federation. After two years of fighting and seizing part of Ukrainian territory, Moscow will try to strengthen its defensive positions. Thanks, among other things, to the weapons obtained from Iran and North Korea, they will continue their operations during 2024. The position of Ukraine and Zelenskyi is objectively difficult: internal problems as well as the unpreparedness of the West for new challenges lead to a variable supply of modern combat systems to the Ukrainian army. The political crisis within the country between President Zelensky, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Zaluzhny and Mayor of Kyiv Klitschko are only part of the challenges Ukraine will face this year.

The war fatigue of the West, caused by the economic crisis, inadequate military-industrial capacities in the EU, as well as political opposition on the part of Republicans in the US Congress, will create a new reality for Ukrainian decision-makers who will be more ready for riskier moves against Russian forces, with the aim of provoking a disproportionate response from military forces of the Russian Federation, and thus directly involving NATO forces into the conflict. We have witnessed that at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the then Secretary of Defense of the US, Robert Gates, warned his European allies about uneven and insufficient investment in the modernization of their defense capacities, which was ignored by the allies. We still remember the warnings that came from the US during Trump’s mandate and the message that the USA will not expose itself to additional costs or sacrifices in defense of a sleeping EU, which evidently did not have an adequate assessment on the possible biggest conflict on European soil since the Second World War. Today, the EU finds itself on the periphery of the war, missiles and drones are falling on NATO countries (Romania, Poland, Croatia), and possible Ukrainian attacks on civilian and military targets deep inside the Russian Federation, as well as attacks on the energy and food infrastructure of the Russian Federation, will not only provoke the massive response of the military forces of the Russian Federation will also lead to a global disruption in the energy and food market.

Exactly one year ago, the RAND Corporation, one of the key US think-tanks, published a conclusion that it is in the best interest of the West to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible in order to minimize casualties, economic damage or the possibility of a greater escalation. As things stand, looking at the mutual activities in the first weeks of January, the year 2024 does not give us hope that the conflict will end.

5 – Cybersecurity and the challenges of asymmetric warfare
Cybersecurity is increasingly becoming a key challenge for large corporations and governments. With the growth of international tensions and competition between powers, cyber-attacks are also growing in scope and sophistication. The role of artificial intelligence, as well as the increasingly rapid development of technologies, enable increasingly advanced attacks on the critical infrastructure of states, as well as on the personal data of both officials and citizens. The US Department of Defense recently released its National Cybersecurity Strategy for the defense of US “national industry” and “critical infrastructure”. It is important to bear in mind that the stated strategy recognizes the Russian Federation, North Korea, Iran and China as key actors in cyber warfare, thus proving that the future of warfare is not only in missiles and drones, but also in computers and that it is necessary for states to invest in sophisticated software, as well as in the training of experts in cyber security, who will succeed in recognizing and neutralizing threats on the networks.

6 – Artificial intelligence – a new reality with old aims
Despite the fact that artificial intelligence, as a new technology, is still in the initial stages of development, the speed of development of this technology, as well as the importance it possesses, will lead to the fact that, in the near future, artificial intelligence will be a crucial “resource” in the security and economic fields.

One of the fields of competition of great powers, as part of the race for dominance over artificial intelligence, will be the very production and supply of specialized chips that will enable faster and more efficient processing of huge amounts of data and information, which are of key importance in creating what we consider artificial intelligence today. The pace of chip development and production will be in the hands of the US and Taiwan, to the detriment of China, which is still lagging behind in terms of production capacity.

During 2024, we will witness additional regulatory fragmentation in the field of artificial intelligence. The European Union, the US and China will adopt separate regulatory frameworks in this area, and each will limit, improve and regulate this area according to their own interests and needs. Bearing in mind that data is the key fuel for the advancement of artificial intelligence, high-quality and extensive data will represent a new value in the international market, which is why some countries, primarily China and the USA, are already limiting the type of data that can be exported to other jurisdictions.

But why does artificial intelligence pose a risk in 2024? In the age of fake news, asymmetric warfare and social networks, artificial intelligence is becoming a new weapon for mass manipulation of citizens. In a world where foreign powers try to influence the electoral will of citizens through manipulation and thus threaten the very foundations of democracy, artificial intelligence can serve as an effective instrument for inciting divisions in society, causing political chaos and presenting lies as the ultimate truth. It is very likely that the crises of the future will find their culprits in artificial intelligence.

Each of the mentioned challenges, risks, and threats to the security of humanity can only be seen if the whole global picture is viewed from the right distance. The same applies to the security and economic challenges of Serbia in 2024. No matter how big, important and crucial we seem in the global geopolitical arena, it is difficult to spot us on the map. The problems faced by Serbia and the region are not among the most important challenges of humanity, but bearing in mind that this is the space we live in, it is necessary to do everything in order not to find ourselves in the hands of foreign interests, misled by false stories about traditional relations from which we have never gained anything good. Finally, Serbia is not in a position to influence world trends, but there is no doubt that world trends will influence Serbia in 2024.

Dragan Šutanovac

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