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The World This Year
The US: The Year of Living Dangerously?

  Amit Gupta
Dr Amit Gupta is an international security and economics analyst based in the USA

2024 will be a critical year for the US foreign policy establishment as it has to withdraw from a potentially dangerous case of imperial overreach. 

The Biden Administration continues to push a lost cause in Ukraine, it has to deal with a potentially dangerous situation with China over Taiwan, and in the Middle East, it is facing flashpoints from the Red Sea to Iran to Gaza to the Israel-Lebanon border. Alongside these immediate problems, US policymakers remain wary of North Korean actions, particularly in the missile realm. Further, some hawkish Republican politicians would like to see the US military deployed in Mexico to take on that country’s drug lords. 

There is a danger as well as a significant policy problem that the US will face from global conflicts in 2023.  The danger is that one of these crises will escalate into a large-scale conflict that will pull Washington into a long war with no real political gain. The policy problem is, that the US will once again get diverted from its primary foreign and defence policy objective of containing China, which Washington now views as a long-term threat to its global interests.  

As Kishore Mahbubani has pointed out, the US has three major strategic challenges - the Middle East, Russia, and China—but it can only tackle one of these at any given time. Both Bush Jr and Obama wanted to focus on China but were repeatedly dragged back into the Middle East. Trump could focus on China because the Abraham Accords allowed the US to put the region on the back burner and the American president, despite considerable domestic pressure, refused to escalate tensions with Russia. He was, therefore, able to take a tougher stand against the Chinese by raising tariffs on their exports to the US.  

Biden, however, is in a difficult situation since he now faces crises in all three areas and has no imaginative ideas on how to reshape these relationships. 

Russia, by all accounts, is winning the war in Ukraine. Kyiv has suffered over 400,000 casualties, and the country’s pre-war population of 44 million has shrunk to 35 million—a figure it was supposed to reach in 2050 due to demographic decline. The West has already given USD 200 billion to Ukraine to fight this war. Despite the negative evidence, Biden and his European allies want to continue funding a lost cause.  

At the same time, however, the Russian economy is far from collapsing while Ukraine is in dire straits despite the USD 200 billion infusion of weapons and cash by the Western alliance. A smart move on Washington’s part would be to push Kyiv towards peace talks with Moscow but, in an American election year, that would be seen as capitulation with potentially disastrous electoral consequences. Thus, the Biden Administration is doubling down on its support for Ukraine. What may work in the administration’s favour, however, is that the US Congress has no appetite left to fund Ukraine, especially since there is a pressing need to assist Israel.  

The Middle East is more problematic because Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis have opened up multiple fronts. The Biden administration is having a difficult time dealing with these perceived threats. It is not finding enough partners to be in a coalition against the Houthis with the Arab states, except Bahrain, showing little or no interest. The US and its Western allies, moreover, cannot afford a land war against the Houthis because this would be a lengthy and costly engagement and ultimately futile.  

In the case of Hamas and Israel, the Biden Administration has lost international credibility, as seen by the UN resolution that called for a ceasefire despite American and Israeli opposition to it. Further, while the administration is parroting the idea of a two-state solution, it has no concrete ideas on how to implement it or, more importantly, how to get Israel to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in the US, there is considerable opposition to the pro-Israel policy of the administration, especially among millennials and Generation Z, who do not get their news and information from America’s mainstream media because they see these as puppets of the government in Washington.  

So, what is the likely outcome of these three crises for the Biden team? On Russia, the administration will have to explain Ukraine’s loss in the war, which will be difficult to do since the Western media essentially painted the picture of a victorious Ukraine and an incompetent Russia. This will portray the Biden administration as weak on foreign policy issues.

The Middle East is more damaging. Unless the Biden team can convince Israel to agree to a ceasefire, they will see a further diminishing of the US’s international stature and soft power.  

On China, the Biden-Xi meeting helped lower tensions between the two countries, but the Chinese did not get the assurance they wanted about the US supporting reunification. Observers, therefore, fear a naval conflagration between the US and Chinese navies in the East of South China Seas—something no one in South East or East Asia wants.  

Lastly, all this is going to be very expensive. The US defence budget is already at approximately USD 860 billion, while the Veterans Administration budget—pensions and medical care for veterans—has reached USD 325 billion, totalling over USD 1.1 trillion. Add to this the supplemental increases in the budget due to possible assistance to Ukraine and Israel and the costs of military actions in the Middle East, and the budget may increase by another USD150 billion. Where will this money come from?

A smart policy move would be to reduce tariffs on China and explicitly state that the US still recognizes the One-China policy and peaceful reunification. Further, Biden should push back on those wanting to expand the conflict in the Middle East by waging a war with Iran. 

It should also use its good offices to broker talks between Palestine and Israel. As for Russia, removing Zelensky would open the door for constructive talks between Kyiv and Moscow. If at least some of this does not happen, 2024 will go down in the history books as the year of living dangerously. 

About the author
Dr Amit Gupta is an international security and economics analyst based in the USA.

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