Reviewing earlier situations may sometimes be a useful way to visualize what lies ahead. It is interesting to listen again to the discussion of the international and European situation in July 2019, as it appeared in a debate between ambassador Michael Sahlin and the undersigned at the Almedalen yearly Arena debates on the Gotland island –  still available on YouTube.

Southern dimension in 2019 and the problems of continuity then and now

Many eyes were on the critical situation in the Southern dimension of European security. This after a series of crises that erupted from 9/11, the Arab Uprisings from 2010 to the Migration Crisis 2015.

In terms of continuity of Western policies, it was of particular importance to follow the process towards the American elections in 2020. Donald Trump and Joe Biden were in the early stages of preparing their campaigns.

In Europe a new EU(ropean) leadership was on its way into office with Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde at the helm of the European Commission and the European Central Bank, respectively.

There were serious questions concerning the continuity of American policies which started to become come up already during the Obama presidency and issue of the red lines in Syria. The issue of supporting or not supporting the Syrian Kurds in the fight against IS through the presence of US special forces in northern Syria was an issue of major importance for the American security establishment. It was equally important for the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his plans to intervene militarily on Syrian territory. And the erratic Trump posture created uncertainties about the American position.

Getting the European member states’ act together, was a less dramatic but still important problem, notably in Libya. On the level below von der Leyen, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell was gearing up to take over the role as EU High Representative from his Italian predecessor, Federica Mogherini. A seasoned EU politician and diplomat with background as President of the European Parliament, Borrell introduced the language of power into the EU external vocabulary, while at the same time stressing the importance of establishing sustainable partnerships with countries south of the Mediterranean. In this context, the problem of continuity was less visible and the appointment or Borrell was widely perceived as reassuring.

The outlook for the period 2023-24

In 2023, it does, in some respects look as if the West is back to 2019, with many of the same problems. It is primarily the Southern dimension with reference to organised crime, including drugs trafficking and terrorism, which has led the Swedish security police to recently elevate the national threat level to four out of five.

In terms of terrorism and what has been achieved in this domain since 2019, one is at this point reminded of the satire produced by Tom Lehrer in 1993, with reference to Germany and Hitler:

“We taught them a lesson in 1918

And they’ve hardly bothered us since then.”

And on top of the problems of 2019 come the additional burden of a Russian full-scale war against Ukraine, the aftermath of a devastating pandemic which could happen again and even more pronounced effects of climate change not only in the south, but also in the north.

Serious problems of continuity lie head

Again, serious problems of continuity lie ahead. Elections are on their way in the coming 12-14 months, not only in the United States but on the European level and in member states. This naturally makes politicians focus on their political future, making it more difficult to maintain focus on the big picture. As an example, a senior member of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, recently relinquished his leading role in the European Commission to seek victory in the upcoming national elections in the Netherlands.

So, the question of continuity in what –  after all –  has been a tremendous mobilisation of political will both in the transatlantic relationship and in Europe is very much there to consider during the coming year.

Both NATO members through the Strategic Concept, and the EU member states through their Strategic Compass, have come together on agreed overall joint assessments of the geopolitical threat facing members of these vital organisations.

The question is to what extent and at what time new leaderships will be able and willing to provide continuity in the valiant effort to win the war in Ukraine, and to fight terrorism, while countering climate change, supporting humanitarian efforts in many regions of the world, countering a coalition against the West in the Global South. At the same time, Europe will have to improve its resilience, strengthen deterrence against military aggression and fight a hybrid war.

The economic outlook makes the future look even more difficult

And all of this in the context of an economic situation, which on September 15, 2023 was described in the following way by the World Bank:

“As central banks across the world simultaneously hike interest rates in response to inflation, the world may be edging toward a global recession in 2023 and a string of financial crises in emerging market and developing economies that would do them lasting harm. Central banks around the world have been raising interest rates this year with a degree of synchronicity not seen over the past five decades—a trend that is likely to continue well into next year –. Yet the currently expected trajectory of interest-rate increases, and other policy actions may not be sufficient to bring global inflation back down to levels seen before the pandemic.”

Crisis management requires huge economic resources as can be seen in states like Germany, which has set aside €100 billion to develop its defence. An economic recession will further put burdens on taxpayers which could undermine support for massive investments into national security. If on top of that domestic policy battles lead to more support for populist policies, the risks facing continuity are further increased.

It is vital once again to see the big picture

It is vital, therefore, once again to see the big picture, as was discussed in 2019, but on top of that to try to foresee upcoming crises and wars in a way, which was only done to a limited extent in 2019. Those who did follow the evolution of Russian aggressive policies from the early 2000s argued in the coming years that Russian aggression was predictable and could have been countered much earlier.

Will similar arguments be repeated in the coming years with reference to China, Iran, and/or other actors in the international system?

The author is former ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences
The text is earlier published by Consilio International.