As the problematic year 2023 storms towards its conclusion, carrying with it a flood of alarmist analyses in the international discourse with regards to the global and regional security situation, it would seem imperative to seek to specify the security risks facing us as we enter into the new year of mounting threats and unknown territories.

So where to begin an outline of parameters? Perhaps with the US, of course realizing that all – or at least most – parameters are connected.

Quo vadis US?

Currently, there exists a remarkable co-existence, at least in this part of the world, between on the one hand convictions on the indispensability of a functioning US to minimum global stability and essential Western resilience to mounting geo-political and ideological challenges from rising authoritarian powers, on the other hand grave concerns over symptoms of polarization and dysfunctionality in the US society and polity; a paradox of sorts.

2024 is the new election year, an election and the preceding process described by many as enormously consequential, in view of the degree of poisonous polarization between and within parties and real risks of damage to American democracy emerging, if so with grave, existential consequences for the coherence of the transatlantic community and US global leadership. At the current moment it appears likely that the presidential contenders will – again – be the 81 year old incumbent, Joe Biden, accompanied by a Kamala Harris still struggling with weak popularity, and, in the other corner, Donald Trump, in spite of a host of trials on a number of accounts, civil and criminal,  but with a remarkably comfortable lead, so far, within the GOP before upcoming primaries.

And not only does Donald Trump register this comfortable lead, according to recent polls in critically important swing states, he is also quite able to defeat his antagonist-cum-competitor Joe Biden in five out of six such states. Things can of course change during a long electoral campaign, but the way things now look, one year ahead of the elections, a revanchist return to the White House of Mr Trump is a distinct possibility, or risk, in spite of the political and legal turmoil ahead, a prospect met with dismay and alarm in the Western World in view of potential global implications, and apparently with positive anticipation in Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere. And already now the influence of the Trump/MAGA factor is illustrated by vicious GOP infighting over the choice of House speaker and threats both to continued support for the Ukrainian war effort and to the survival of the federal budget.

All this means that even well before the crucial – existential – choice between Trump and Biden – if this indeed remains the choice – the US as political system and as democracy faces unprecedented risks of dysfunctionality, rendering orderly and rational decision-making increasingly difficult. The US system is entering unchartered territory. Stakes are huge, for the US, for the West, and beyond. And only one thing seems certain: if Donald Trump were, in spite of everything (including his legal hurdles and likely support base reactions to these hurdles), to prevail in the presidentials, the US will have entered into a period of serious social and institutional instability, and global security will have entered a period from bad to worse.

But the alternative, for now, is an 81-year-old contender, currently dealing with existential international crises.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis (i.e., Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine)

Russia’s war of aggression against neighboring Ukraine as from February 24 last year, now having shaken world peace and stability for a full 20 months or more, represents a crisis that at the point of writing has arrived at a point of “inflection”, as Biden once famously put it. Whereas in the political rhetoric of the US and other Western states so far the only option remains a rather vague notion of “Ukraine must win, Ukraine must prevail”, also as a means to maintain Western unity and commitments to maintain and, to the extent possible, increase the level of political, economic and military support, the month of November displays a trend of hesitation. Even at the level of Ukraine’s supreme commander Valerij Zaluznyj opinions are expressed, also internationally, to the effect that with the Ukrainian summer counter-offensive having stalled (or so it seems) the war is facing both winter conditions and a state of stalemate, as a drawn-out war of attrition, giving rise to some raising the hitherto taboo, peace talks, in spite of everything, even the dirty word “compromise”, in view of bleak prospects and the enormous suffering of the Ukrainian people, and rising fatigue on the part of its armed forces.

It would seem, therefore, that the US and other NATO countries are now facing an enormously demanding challenge: whether to seek to up the ante and further increase military reinforcements to Ukraine during the next year, hoping to keep alive the “Ukraine must win” option while still avoiding the situation escalating into “the third world war” with direct military conflict between US/NATO and Russia, but transcending the hitherto level of limiting arms supplies to what is sufficient to prevent Russia from “winning” but still insufficient to allowing Ukraine to “win”. Or whether to seek maintained unity within the West, within Europe and in the transatlantic sphere, in a more cautious line of action, with a more open mind to outcomes other than a full Ukrainian victory, largely depending on where the US is headed. And to what extent countries of the “Global South”, notably the enlarged BRICS group of countries, are ready and able to follow a US/Western lead in responses to the Russian aggression. And to what extent European NATO and EU countries, and the organizations as actor, remain able and willing to do their part, even as the role of the US remains in doubt as its electoral process shakes stability in the country.

The Israel-Gaza crisis – and risks of regional spread

And then, sine October 7, world security has become burdened, and further complicated and dramatized, by the eruption of a security explosion over Gaza, and with it over the long dormant, but always brewing, Israel-Palestine conflict.

Inevitably, this new/old nightmare rather suddenly diverted world focus from much necessary world attention to the Ukraine crisis and all its inbuilt uncertainties and dilemmas. Presumably to the delight and relief of Vladimir Putin.

In view of the unique brutality of the initial Hamas October 7 attack, and the uniquely devastating Israeli response aimed at eliminating once and for all the threat from and existence of Hamas in the Gaza strip, with unprecedented civilian casualties and enormous destruction from aerial bombardments and a ground troop incursion, developments late in 2023 in this sensitive and fragile part of the Middle East have taken on global security implications, in various ways, notably the way the Biden administration chose to support wholeheartedly the Israel cause of defense-cum-retaliation, even if recommending restraint to the enraged Israeli war cabinet and IDF.

At the time of writing, towards the end of 2023, huge, unanswered, questions pertain to both the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza as such – what about saving the 200 plus hostages and what about limiting civilian Palestinian suffering to something internationally tolerable while focusing totally on the aim of militarily eliminating Hamas, and what is the end game foreseen, if any? – and to the risk of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon (with its estimated 150 000 missiles) opening a second front against IDF, over and above the present level of pointed skirmishing in the border area, and to whether and to what extent the situation in the West Bank core area risks total, spiraling Palestinian-Israeli escalation. The existential nature of these currently unanswerable questions, in conjunction with the various implications of the deep US involvement on the side of the controversial Netanyahu war cabinet – highly objectionable in the Arab and Muslim worlds – enhances probability both that this crisis will be enduring, permanently threatening proliferation, and that necessitated US military involvement – for deterrence against proliferation – will deepen security tension in the broader region and thus combine or connect with the Ukraine crisis.

For the US, engulfed in bitter domestic infighting, 2024 will without any doubt be a year of hard choices over all the difficult consequences of the action-reaction process following October 7. For the US and the West as a whole, including NATO, the EU and individual European states, the hardest issues will relate to both how to deal simultaneously (and successfully) with the Ukraine and Israel-Palestine crises, and how to translate the urgency of the present crisis into a longer-term political “solution” to the seemingly permanent, and insoluble, crisis, no longer possible to “freeze” or “contain”. Can, one might dare ask, the US now, at long last, persuade the Israeli leadership, regardless of the Netanyahu factor, to finally respect serious US demands for the realization of a “two states solution” based on the Oslo accord? If such a route requires a central government ordering 300 000 settlers to pack up and leave the West Bank, is any Israeli government ready and able to handle such a confrontation?

The other threats and challenges

Highlighting the US, Ukraine/Russia and then also the recent Israel-Hamas eruption is selective, the list of causes for concern is obviously much, much broader than that, as concerns worries for next year as well as longer-term. Notably, for the US and its foreign and security policy, there remains no escape – for all the worries about Ukraine and Israel – from confronting, or resisting, China over Taiwan, i  e, the long announced “pivot to South-East Asia”, including a number of reinforcements and alliance strengthening steps to face both a forward-leaning China and a fast-nuclearizing North Korea.

And then there is the sad and alarming fact that in today’s disorderly world, devoid of a functioning UN Security Council and generally of functioning mechanisms for multilateral peacekeeping, peacebuilding and peacemaking, the number of active conflicts globally has now risen to 55, compared to 33 a decade ago, these lasting longer and re-erupting more easily and quickly than earlier (quoting “A world at war – what is behind the global explosion of violent conflict” by Emma Beals and Peter Salisbury, Foreign Affairs, Oct 2023), with very few recent examples of negotiated multilateral settlements to armed conflicts, if any. In a context of enhanced tension between the main national players, combined with weakened multilateral institutions and overall trends to re-armaments or even a renewed arms race – nowadays without functioning forums for arms control talks, is appears unavoidable that this proliferation of armed conflicts will serve as accelerators of further tension, globally and regionally.

Yes, then there is obviously also, on top of everything else, the megatrends of global concern as factors of potential conflict and, as the case may be, cooperation: climate change, migration on the part of the currently some 110 million that according to the UNHCR have now been forcibly displaced, and new pandemic waves.

All this may be summed up as a sober and sobering reminder of the challenges mounting as we look ahead into a demanding next year.

As regards Sweden, facing a process of strengthening national defense and adapting to the requirements of NATO membership, assuming Turkish and Hungarian parliamentary decisions sooner rather than later, the big step now involves facing the challenges, as exemplified above, as part of an alliance, meaning enhanced security under specified security guarantees but also enhanced exposure to security challenges, “out of area”.

Buckle up for 2024.

The author is ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of RSAWS.