2024 is a perfect storm which could redefine the global geopolitical landscape – for good or bad.
What makes this year fundamentally different is the vast number of potentially pivotal occurrences taking place in this short period. For us to navigate the myriad of hurdles we face in a way that leaves us relatively unchanged this time next year would be extraordinary. Far more likely is that this pivotal year changes our global trajectory.
It’s a year of huge potential…and risk.
The analysis to come is a starting point. It is, by its nature, a generic perspective. The specifics of how it plays out for any particular organisation will be different depending on industry sector and footprint. Instead, the following provides a framework in which to think and build strategic options.
What leaps out when you consider the plethora of new year studies conducted by prestigious organisations – from McKinsey to the World Economic Forum, Eurasia Group and the International Rescue Committee – is the lack of significant overlap among the challenges they identify as key.
In the midst of this complexity, organisations must distinguish between noise and signal - the determining events that will move the needle for their business.
Imagine the world order as a grand structure. Its stability and character rest upon foundational elements – the bedrock shaping the lines of the global building. Resting and relying on this are the systems, akin to electricity and plumbing, that contribute to the functionality of the entire structure. And finally, the localized constructions – the rooms within our global building. These circumscribed events principally impact immediate spaces but collectively contribute to the overall experience.
So, how does this apply to the geopolitics of 2024?
In 2024, five foundational pillars echo worldwide, influencing the order’s overall integrity in both positive and negative ways and they will resonate at a business level to varying degrees. Whether they are pivotal however, depends on the specifics of your organisation.
1) Technological change: On the positive side, there will be massive tech innovations playing out such as Generative AI (which has the potential to boost productivity more than did the industrial revolution), renewables and biotech. Negative shadows however will be cast by the easy spread of disinformation, propaganda and cyber warfare.
2) Climate change and the energy transition: While the negative consequences of climate change are incontrovertible, some regions will realise upsides through improved agricultural output or the opening of new transport corridors. Similarly, while the process of energy transition will be uncomfortable for many nations, with it comes a wider distribution of natural resources (ie: critical minerals) than was the case with hydrocarbons, so leading to a similarly wider spread of geopolitical leverage and less power to one (troubled) region (the Middle East).
3) Demographics: The aging and shrinking populations in the West and parts of Asia (eg: China, Japan and South Korea) stand in stark contrast to the demographic dividends unfolding in Africa. Arm in arm will come the transfer of economic weight west to east.
4) Economic uncertainty and instability: The aftershocks of the post-COVID era ripple through slow growth in China, stagnation in Germany, inflation challenges worldwide, and the uncertain trajectory of a soft landing in the United States. Global economic growth will waver in the absence of a champion on which others can hook their economies.
5) Changing societal expectations and mores: The significant lifestyle changes that the early years of COVID wrought provided a boost to the otherwise slow liberalizing and opening trends in social attitudes in many countries. The only institutions that populations appear to trust (according to the Edelman Trust Barometer) are corporates. The consequences for many of this expanding inclusiveness will be positive. But others will struggle. And expectations for business to play a more central role in society will continue to rise, straining tensions between stakeholders and shareholders with both down and upside risk.
The Global Systems
Building on the five foundational elements, four global systems will dictate the ebb and flow of geopolitical currents:
1) The US Election: The November 5 election will be the single biggest factor influencing every major policy decision, foreign or domestic, in the US this year. It will also impact the foreign policy of other nations, allies and adversaries alike, seeking to take advantage of American distraction, to influence, or to build resilience in the event of a Trump presidency.
While it is too early to prognosticate, another Trump-Biden battle is not a foregone conclusion. The race is far more volatile than the polling suggests, leading to greater uncertainty and disruption domestically and internationally.
2) US-China relations: For the US, China is perceived as an existential threat to its global leadership. To China, the US is explicitly holding it back. Meanwhile, for Europe, China is merely a challenge to be managed.
The ideological, economic, and technological battles between the US and China extend beyond their borders, playing out in a China-Russia-Iran nexus that is challenging the Western one. Proxy battles will be to the fore in 2024. It is far from clear that the west is winning the fight for the hearts and minds of those nations in-between.
3) Russia-Ukraine war: The conflict will continue through 2024, with no real path to negotiations yet in sight. Russia and President Putin feel that time is on their side and they are waiting Ukraine out. They are right. In the absence of continued Western support Ukraine is unlikely to be able to hold the line for long.
4) Middle East crisis: While a wider war has not yet broken out, there are lots of small fires. Five key actors hold the stage. First, Israel: only it can define when enough is enough, and President Netanyahu has no incentive to do so quickly as it might bring his political career to an end. Second, Iran: they are using their proxies (such as the houthis, hezbollah and hamas) to destabilize Israel and the US. But it’s not in their interest to escalate too far. Unfortunately, actor three, the proxies themselves, have their own interests which could cause them to go further than Iran would like, bringing them and others into a war. Fourth, are the Saudis, led by MBS, who prioritises economic growth and regional and global leadership for his country. He wants to move on. And finally, fifth, the United States: it is the only country to have any leverage over Israel, but again it’s election year and that trumps everything.
Key for 2024 is who governs Gaza once the fighting stops; no one appears to want to be holding the baby when the music falls silent. Meanwhile, Iran is steadily edging closer to becoming a nuclear weapons state which would lead to other regional powers (such as the Saudis) doing similarly. Thus, a second success milestone this year would be Iran staying on the right side of that line.
Shifting to localized dynamics, depending on where you are located, the rooms and spaces within our global building matter.
Elections are playing out worldwide. Around 50% of the world is set to cast their votes in 2024, shaping the political landscape in countries from Indonesia and India to Bangladesh, Taiwan, the UK, EU, and potentially Ukraine.
In other countries, civil strife and humanitarian disasters continue to plague civil society from Sudan and South Sudan, to Myanmar and Ethiopia.
Driven by El Nino in the first half of the year, severe climate events add localized challenges to the global agenda.
And there are stirrings from North Korea which might try to take advantage of US distraction. Potential disruptions pose a threat to its neighbours and beyond, adding an unpredictable element to the global equation.
Conclusion: Navigating the Waves of 2024
In closing, 2024 stands as a pivotal year, a moment where the gathering of crises could redefine our global trajectory. There are four key take homes for anyone leading their organisation through this period.
1. Even as we might be able to manage one or two crises, it is their confluence that the world’s governing systems might not be able to handle. Much like waves, the interactions between these contextual factors and events matter. Cumulatively, they could create a tsunami, or, if they dampen one another out, merely ripples hitting our shores.
2. This is not a dire prediction. The various elements and events could come together to leave the world in a better place than it is today. All we know is it’s likely to be different.
3. Not all of these foundational elements or events are going to move the needle for everyone. For some, the impact may be positive and for others negative. You can’t deal, as I have here, with risk generically. It is sector and footprint-specific. Leaders need to develop the methodology to distinguish between the signals and the noise for their businesses.
4. To be successful in this context you need to develop the capability to manage, not avoid, critical risk. Therein lies resilience.
Developing a sustainable strategy to manage 2024 means building the capacity to interrogate the context and to bring in different perspectives. These will be the cornerstones of success.