I haven’t posted a piece for Frankly Fukuyama in a few weeks because I was involved in an accident at the end of November that put me out of commission for a few weeks, but I’m hopefully now on the mend. There are a lot of issues out there I’ve been meaning to discuss—for example, expanding on my observations about the impact of scale economies, and the return of Schedule F—but I want to talk about the state of global democracy in 2023 and as we look ahead to 2024. I discussed this issue recently with American Purpose fellow editorial board member Larry Diamond on my Frankly Fukuyama YouTube channel (be sure to subscribe!) which you can see here:
A year ago I felt reasonably confident that events were moving in the right direction. The Ukrainians had just liberated much of Kharkiv Oblast and the city of Kherson, and were preparing to move further south. At home, the 2022 midterms had seen election deniers lose in virtually every swing state race, while the Democrats avoided a massive loss of House seats as would normally happen in their first midterm election. We were finally free of the pandemic, and though inflation had returned, the U.S. economy was doing better than one might have expected.
Today, things don’t seem nearly as pretty. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive stalled over the summer as Russian lines in southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts turned out to be much harder to crack than many expected. Most critically, an important part of the Republican Party turned against further aid to Ukraine while European assistance was hobbled by the Hungarian veto. Putin’s strategy of simply outlasting the West in this struggle appeared to be working.
Then, on October 7 came Hamas' horrific attack on Israel, which exposed grave Israeli internal weaknesses but also exposed the broad anti-Israeli sentiments that existed within the global left. The latter included a dismaying number of young people in the United States. While Ukraine was unique in the moral clarity it presented for most Americans, the conflict in Gaza was much more ambiguous as the Israelis began to use what often seemed like indiscriminate force in attempting to destroy Hamas. Gaza has turned into a liability for Joe Biden among Muslim voters in swing states like Michigan, and has generally undercut sympathy for the United States in the global south. The conflict, moreover, is likely to continue indefinitely as there is no clear path to an Israeli “victory.”
But the most serious negative development of 2023 by far was the return of Donald Trump, and the very real prospect that he might win next year’s presidential election.
There have been a plethora of articles in the past couple of months expanding on what a second Trump term would look like, including a comprehensive series in The Atlantic and a number of similar pieces in the New York Times. The bottom line of all of this is that a second term is going to be much, much worse than the first term in terms of its likely effects on American institutions and global order. Bob Kagan wrote a widely read article arguing that Trump was openly promising and could well deliver a dictatorship. His actions in the first term were limited by his reliance on mainstream Republican advisors and his own ignorance of how government worked. A second term by contrast would be enabled by a new cadre of loyalists, recruited under initiatives like the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, whose primary qualification will be their loyalty to Trump. The former President himself has been laser focused on exacting revenge for perceived wrongs like the 91 felony counts that have been lodged against him. He has become much more open about the authoritarian measures he’d like to take, such as shooting looters dead with no due process, or using the Justice Department as a personal weapon. He understands that the only way he can avoid accountability for acts like January 6 is to be re-elected, and a huge number of Republican voters are prepared to help him in this regard.
This threat would not be nearly as serious had Joe Biden been a stronger candidate, but the President’s popularity has cratered over the past year despite a surprisingly strong economy and solid legislative record in his first two years. These losses have been particularly worrisome among Black and Hispanic voters, but also among young people generally. A lot of ink has been spilled explaining this disjunction; suffice it to say that it is way too late for the Democrats to come up with an alternative candidate and that they will have to live with the President’s liabilities.
What is frustrating about the current situation is that many American voters see the coming contest as a normal one over policies and personalities. They do not see the issue as one of the survival of fundamental institutions in the United States, like the rule of law. The election is further complicated by the strange effort of No Labels to run third party candidates in key states, a move that is almost certain to draw off more Biden than Trump voters.
Foreign and domestic policy have become completely fused. Support for Ukraine has become a red-blue issue, while polarization over the Palestinian cause has reached back into many U.S. campuses and exposed hypocrisies over freedom of speech and antisemitism. The United States remains the world’s most important country with regard to the health of global democracy, and the outcome of this year's presidential election will have huge impacts on liberal democracy elsewhere in the world. It is possible to imagine wildly divergent scenarios given the outcome of that contest: on the one hand, U.S. withdrawal from NATO, a weakening of deterrence in East Asia, and new Russian threats to Europe; on the other, a stunning rejection of populism and a re-assertion of U.S. power and prestige around the world.
The former prospect has led many supporters of liberal democracy to despair about the direction the world will take in 2025. There are, however, a number of reasons for hope.
There has been significant pushback against populism in other parts of the world. By far the most important development was the election of a liberal coalition under Donald Tusk in Poland, which put an end to the creeping authoritarianism of the rightwing Law and Justice Party. This has isolated Hungary within the EU and has fortified solidarity on behalf of Ukraine. While there are populists waiting in the wings all over Europe, the behavior of Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party shows that they are capable of evolving into more mainstream conservative ones.
While the momentum has shifted in Ukraine, there are still reasons why a Russian victory is far from inevitable. Russia has suffered grievous losses of men and equipment while making marginal gains in places like Avdiivka, and its economy is slowly feeling the consequences of sanctions and war production. Aid to Ukraine is not a dead letter: there is still a deal to be made between Biden and the Republicans. Tightening up controls at the U.S. southern border is something the President should do regardless of its being tied to foreign policy, and a compromise here may shake loose money for foreign assistance. A compromise bill would likely pass the Senate in early 2024; the big question is whether House Majority Leader Mike Johnson would be willing to work with Democrats to get it passed in the House.
One of the most important long-term developments that became plainly evident is the slowing of the Chinese economy, which has been far outpaced by its U.S. rival this past year. China is bowing to some basic laws of economics: not just the middle-income trap that means slower growth going forward, but the fact that tight state control leads to lower growth and falling productivity. Chinese growth has been heavily dependent on massive investment in housing and real estate; the resulting debt load is cratering the rest of the economy. Xi Jinping is demonstrating what we seem to have forgotten, namely, that communism doesn’t work as an economic model. The Belt and Road Initiative has mired countries from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Argentina in a sea of debt, throwing into question its utility as a means of projecting Chinese influence.
Finally, the U.S. economy looks like it is headed for a soft landing, in which the Fed gets control of inflation, interest rates start coming down, and no recession occurs. Current presidential poll numbers may be a lagging indicator; if gas prices fall and employment stays strong over the coming months, people may feel better about their personal situations. At the moment, people responding to polls have very low information about today’s Donald Trump, other than vague memories of his presidency before the pandemic. While the indictments against him have solidified his support among Republican voters, this may change once trials start and more information comes out about his behavior on and before January 6. Enough swing voters may be swayed by an actual conviction to make a difference in the election outcome, if Trump’s lawyers don’t succeed in delaying the trials beyond the election.
It is a cliché to talk about the new year as one of big decisions and uncertainties. But this will be true in spades for 2024, which in addition to the United States will see contests in India, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Georgia, Pakistan, Venezuela, and a host of other countries. In addition, we will continue to watch two bloody wars continue to play out, both of which may spark a variety of escalations and further military conflicts. I, for one, don’t want to make any predictions for what the world will look like a year from now.
Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
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