America and the world could look glaringly different by January 1, 2025, depending on the outcome of a momentous crush of conflicts, pivotal global elections and geopolitical forces that will create critical moments in the year ahead.
A fateful White House race will again put democracy on the line in the United States. And Donald Trump is far from the only far-right populist having a resurgence; the movement is on the march in Europe as well. Wars in Ukraine and Gaza are at risk of sparking far wider reverberations, while economic and political stability is threatened by massive migration flows, fears of recession and the broadening impacts of climate change. On most issues, overpowered, democratic governments are struggling to show their voters they have the answers.
The world doesn’t change just because a calendar flips from one year to the next. But given the confluence of events we know that will happen this year — as well as all the unknowns, the Olympian year of 2024 could mark a watershed in the history of the 21st century.
The most foreseeable global shock of 2024 would be the election of Trump, who would become only the second US president to win a non-consecutive term. The ex-president is already openly telling us that he intends to subject US democracy and the American-led global order to its greatest test.
The Republican front-runner vows to use the authority of the presidency to wreak “retribution” on his enemies and gut bureaucracy to make the government an instrument of his personal power. Comparisons to Nazis are overblown at this point, but Trump’s rhetoric – including his labeling of political opponents as “vermin” and warnings that immigrants will pollute the blood of America – do recall 1930s demagoguery and augur potentially America’s most extreme presidency. Abroad, Trump is signaling he’d ditch Ukraine to cozy up to autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his hostility to alliances could even endanger NATO.
Time is running out for Republican primary candidates to topple Trump. Unless there’s an upset in the next few weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former president will be more in control of the GOP than when he left Washington in disgrace in January 2021. The country has never faced an election like it – with the likely challenger, an ex-president facing 91 criminal charges across four criminal cases, including for alleged crimes against democracy, being prosecuted by a special counsel in his successor’s administration. If Trump prevails, it will be one of the most stunning, and ominous, comebacks in political history.
If it’s against Trump, the final political campaign of President Joe Biden’s political career – which began when Richard Nixon was in the White House – will be the next battle of his self-described fight to save America’s soul. Biden’s team is assuring skittish Democrats that if Trump heads the GOP ticket, voters will show up for the president to thwart an extremist takeover. But the 81-year-old is beset by skepticism that he has the stamina and acuity to serve a full second term. High prices soured voters on his economic record despite inflation’s retreat. New global conflicts and challenges to US power weaken Biden’s claims to be a master of foreign policy. The president’s coalition may also be fraying, among young and minority voters especially. And unlike 2020, he will be judged on his own record more than Trump’s. And third-party candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. could claim a share of the anti-Trump vote in some states.
Yet Biden has been repeatedly underestimated by his own side and his opponents. Democrats believe that the GOP’s assault on abortion rights will again be a major driver of turnout. Will the suburban moderates alienated by Trump be there for Biden yet again?
If political, economic and global events shake out in his favor, the president could navigate a tight race to reelection. But Trump attracts millions of voters disillusioned with their economic security who consider him a bulwark against social and racial change while identifying with his searing indictment of “elites” in politics, the law, the media and other institutions. If voters chose Trump, they will have picked a candidate who plotted to overturn an election and who promises to take an even sharper hatchet to democracy next time.
What happens in November could change America for good and send massive shockwaves around the world.
After years of plunging popularity following hard-right decisions by the conservative majority, including overturning the federal constitutional right to an abortion, the court is being dragged ever deeper into politics. Justices will likely face the nightmare scenario of ruling on divisive issues including recent moves by Colorado and Maine to make Trump ineligible for the ballot because of the 14th Amendment’s ban on “insurrectionists.”
The court may also be called upon to adjudicate Trump’s claims that all his actions — even his attempts to thwart the result of the 2020 election — were covered by presidential immunity. Given the country’s estrangement, and Trump’s refusal to accept election results, it would be no surprise to see the court embroiled in this year’s vote in November.
America’s deepening struggle to govern itself will be highlighted as soon as this month, in a major showdown over immigration policy, sending assistance to Ukraine and Israel, and the basic function of funding federal operations. The drama could shut down the government and constrain the country’s ability to wield power and influence on the global stage.
A tiny Republican House majority hostage to pro-Trump extremists, which is bent on impeaching Biden and enacting massive spending cuts despite lacking a functioning mandate, will surely radicalize even further in the election year. New House Speaker Mike Johnson’s grip on power is already tenuous since he’s locked in the same governing-versus-politics dilemma that felled his predecessor Kevin McCarthy. Such is the tumult – and disgust with incumbents – that it’s quite possible that the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate could flip in opposite directions this fall.
Will this be the year the West abandons Ukraine and rewards Putin for barbarism underscored by new air assaults on civilians in recent days?
Biden’s vow that the US will stick with Ukraine for “as long as it takes” has never seemed shakier. Republicans are blocking his $60 billion pledge for new military aid that Ukraine badly needs after its long-planned offensive got bogged down in bloody First World War-style combat by attrition. Putin’s allies in Europe like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are meanwhile seeking to cut the European Union’s lifeline to Kyiv. President Volodymyr Zelensky is adamant that Ukraine will fight on, but if the West turns away, he may face a choice between negotiating with Putin with a weak hand and prolonging a conflict that will bleed his country dry.
Putin thinks he can outwait the West to secure a victory that would send devastating signals about how America treats its friends. Such an outcome would reward an autocrat’s aggression against a sovereign democracy and would mean a staggering defeat of NATO and a new era of insecurity in Europe.
Can the Biden administration stop the war in Gaza from spiraling into a regional conflagration? And will Israel destroy Hamas before completely shredding its own reputation abroad amid the carnage of Palestinian civilians? And how long can scandal-plagued Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government survive given that he promised Israelis security before one of Israel’s darkest days unfolded on his watch?
These questions come at a fraught moment in the conflict triggered by the Hamas terror attacks in Israel in October. Extreme tensions are rising from the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea and across the region, with US troops and ships in the firing line as Iranian proxy groups in Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon seek to pressure Israel and US power. While Biden has held Israel tight since the attacks, the Netanyahu government appears to be ignoring his calls for a lowering of intensity in its Gaza operations and is vowing to fight on for months. US and Israeli interests appear to be diverging quickly as the conflict causes serious political consequences for Biden back home, with young and progressive voters, especially, and Arab Americans in swing-state Michigan faulting his leadership.
Hundreds of millions of people outside the US will go to the polls this year. But paradoxically, elections across the globe could less demonstrate democracy’s robust health than its increasing peril. In January, presidential elections in Taiwan could stir new cross-Straits tensions with China. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to coast to reelection and bolster power increasingly being used to fray the world’s largest democracy. But his Hindu nationalism isn’t stopping the US from courting him as a bulwark against China. And Russia’s elections are a charade, but Putin would use a rubber stamp victory to further entrench his power despite massive military losses in Ukraine.
Elections to the European parliament offer an opening to far-right, populist, anti-immigration parties in France, Germany, Belgium and elsewhere. Their success could be an omen for Trump, whose populist rise was predicted by Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016. Britons, however, could use an election likely this year to reject chaotic right-wing leadership and turn back to the Labour Party after 14 years in the wilderness. This would signal that incumbents everywhere are at risk — another sobering warning for Biden.
The opposition also scents power in South Africa, where the scandal-plagued incumbent African National Congress is at risk of losing a general election for the first time since Nelson Mandela rose to power. In Mexico, a glass-ceiling moment is likely since both major candidates in June’s presidential poll are women.
2024 will deepen a new global alignment. The US and its allies are facing a loose but increasingly coordinated front of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which all have distinct interests but share the common goal of eroding US power. Various permutations of this affiliation shaped the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East and a race is underway between the West and its adversaries for influence with “global south” developing nations as China especially seeks to thwart the rules and customs of the long-established US-led global order. These shifting geopolitical plates mean every global crisis now becomes a test of US credibility and Biden’s strength — just as Republicans seek to portray him as a weak and doddering leader ahead of the 2024 election.
Undocumented migration flows are assailing almost every major developed nation. From the record influxes at the southern US border to Britain’s abortive plan to deport to Rwanda migrants who crossed the English Channel in small boats, immigration stirs a toxic political brew. But fierce ideological divides on both sides of the Atlantic mean effective reforms to tackle undocumented migration, overwhelmed border facilities and an abused asylum system are essentially impossible. Badly needed global efforts to combat the causes of mass exoduses – like climate change, wars, failed states, political extremism and economic blight – are beyond the limited bandwidth of weak governments. And a worsening situation plays into the hands of extremists like Trump and far-right leaders in Europe like recent Dutch election victor Geert Wilders, who demagogue immigration and outsiders and make political solutions even more elusive.
Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed, at a minimum, to stop dangerous tensions from getting worse in their California summit in November. But multiple pressures tear at the world’s most critical diplomatic relationship every day. China regards US efforts to balance its superpower ascent as encirclement and an illegitimate bid to subvert its rightful destiny. Hair-raising near encounters involving US and allied forces and Chinese ships and planes in the South and East China Seas could erupt into a major crisis at any time. A Chinese insistence that democratic Taiwan should be brought under mainland control poses one of the great risks of a major new war. And China will be a huge issue in the US election, narrowing Biden’s room for maneuver while Xi is under great pressure at home and has never hesitated to play an aggressive, nationalist card for political effect.
Understanding AI is just the first step
Governments will intensify efforts this year to grapple with the social, economic, employment and security implications of artificial intelligence breakthroughs as more companies, global militaries and non-state belligerent groups test how they could use the head-spinning new technologies. Breakthroughs are accelerating in a way many top officials barely understand, hampering the prospects for regulation. But the alternative is to leave the industry and its destabilizing impact on society in the hands of developers and moguls who unleashed untamed social media on the world without thinking through the consequences.
US stocks went on an unlikely tear last year as inflation cooled and job creation remained hot in a US economy performing more strongly than the rest of the world. If the Federal Reserve can pull off a soft landing in easing its tough interest rate medicine, Biden’s reelection prospects could soar. China is hoping for a rebound after a tough year and could also help lift global growth. But if Trump wins in November and sticks by his plan to slap a 10% tariff plan on all imports, a trade war will likely erupt that pulverizes the global free commerce system and ultimately leaves consumers far worse off.
If trends hold, the world is in for another year of huge floods, massive wildfires, monster storms and drought. But as the evidence of climate change becomes ever more dangerously apparent, the political will in many countries is diminishing to meet already established emissions targets as the cost to consumers becomes clear and political opportunists see an assault on liberal green policies as a winner.