If there is a pendulum that regulates world affairs, it is important to know which way it may be swinging in the year that is about to start.
Seen from one angle, the pendulum looks like swinging towards uncertainty. In 2024, many countries with major roles in international affairs are facing dicey elections.
The United States looks set for what could be the most difficult election season in its history. Will President Joe Biden, with his physical and mental fitness questioned by some, be able to run the final mile to his party's nomination? Or will his Democrat Party be forced to rally around Kamala Harris at the last moment and out of desperation?
The Republicans face an even less predictable prospect.
Although Donald Trump continues to cast a large shadow on the whole process, a shadow is just a shadow after all. The alternative savior, Ron DeSantis, seems to be fading away, while Nikki Haley, a dark horse just a few weeks ago, is beginning to emerge as a serious pretender.
Even then, and regardless of who would win the keys to the White House next November, the United States will be on pilot mode for much of 2024 and thus, unable to take the tough decisions that only a well-settled administration could take.
The United Kingdom is also facing what is seen as the most difficult general elections it has experienced at least since the Suez Crisis of 1956. The Conservative Party seems to be in letdown mode, while the Labour Party appears unable to seize the opportunity to make a big comeback. The prospect of a hung parliament, with Labour forced to depend on the Scottish National Party (SNP) to form a government, signals a period of uncertainty as far as strategic decisions are concerned.
In the European Union, the Netherlands is already without a stable government and is likely to remain so for months, while coalition-building goes on. In Germany, the EU's big beast in economic terms, the shaky coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz could unravel at any moment, while the right-wing Alternative for Germany waits to emerge as the arbiter of a divided political scene.
Even France now seems to be heading for a period of instability as President Emmanuel Macron's shaky coalition begins to crumble, while his government is unable to secure a majority in the parliament. The prospect of dissolution of parliament and snap elections is hanging above the scene like the Damocles' sword of the myth.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin seems set to easily sail to victory on his bid for a new presidential term. But even there, the elections are likely to lead to a major reshuffle of the ruling elite, including the top brass and the inner circle of household oligarchs. After all, the thinly disguised failure in Ukraine must be blamed on someone, someone other than good old Volodia.
The only major power to appear stable at the moment is the People's Republic of China. But there too, President Xi Jinping appears more focused on managing economic slowdown and the purge of the party than being dragged into international problems that promise nothing but trouble.
The pendulum is also swinging more sharply towards conflict, instability and state failures. In 2023, the list of "ungoverned" countries was limited to Syria, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and, according to some, Afghanistan. In 2024 Sudan, caught in a war between rival military factions, is certain to join the category, while Myanmar, with areas controlled by Karen rebels expanding, is heading in the same direction.
If you hope that the pendulum will swing towards peace, think again. In Ukraine, both sides, that is to say Russia and NATO, appear in a zugzwang that keeps them in conflict for the foreseeable future.
The Gaza war is set to continue in 2024. Even after Israel achieves its military objectives, that is to say dismantling Hamas' military machine and freeing Israeli hostages, within weeks the gargantuan task of building a new status quo is certain to take much longer.
In the meantime, the Gaza war has already ricocheted to North Yemen, still under Houthi control, and parts of Lebanon, under Hezbollah's total control. Fighting involving Iranian-controlled militias in Syria and Iraq with US-backed elements is also likely to get wider dimensions.
There are indications that both Russia and Turkey are also preparing for military action on a grander scale to secure the chunks of Syria under their control.
For its part, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to face a sharp swing of the pendulum towards uncertainty in both domestic and foreign policy areas.
Another case of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction concerns the United Nations and diplomacy in general. The UN Security Council is likely to remain inoperative for the foreseeable future, while the Secretary-General, having tripped over the Gaza war, has lost much of his authority as arbiter of international conflicts.
At the end of the COP28 in Dubai earlier this month, there was much talk about multilateralism making a big comeback. But that may be nothing but wishful thinking. The coming year looks likely to see a further decline in multilateralism and an increase in bilateral efforts to deal with economic and security problems.
In some cases, lone-ranger policymaking is finding more advocates.
Hungary under Viktor Orbán, for example, is defying the EU by hosting a Chinese manufacturer of electric cars to compete with EU producers. Despite an agreement to coordinate immigration policy, EU members are developing divergent strategies likely to lead to diplomatic clashes in 2024.
A broader and potentially more important pendulum swing in 2024 would be away from the mushy consensus formed during the golden days of globalism.
Almost everywhere, we are already witnessing a return to the narrowest concept of national interests. Fear of dependence on potentially hostile or unstable powers has forced many countries, especially in the EU, to lean towards economic nationalism and discard the "comparative advantage" argument.
France, for example, has just unveiled a plan for self-sufficiency in a number of areas, notably pharmaceuticals, microchips and batteries for electrical vehicles. In a more folkloric move away from globalization, France has just revived growing a number of plants used in textile industry.
Finally, the pendulum looks likely to swing in favor of small- and/or medium-sized nations capable of adopting non-ideological and effective policies in the interest of their people. After all, no nation is small or medium as such; it's the leadership that makes a country small or great.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.