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Inflection Points January 6, 2024

Inside the Biden administration’s thinking for 2024

By Frederick Kempe

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which the coming year will determine what set of countries, values, and forces shapes the global future.

Never in recent memory have so many significant events unfolded simultaneously: wars in Europe and the Middle East, simmering US-China tensions, accelerating technological competition (not just over artificial intelligence), and a jam-packed global electoral calendar with a particularly divisive and decisive US presidential election in November.

Capturing the generational stakes in 2024 requires going beyond the annual exercise of listing and assessing top risks in the year ahead. Instead, senior officials in the Biden administration, who I spoke with in the final days of 2023, are connecting the dots among the challenges, knowing they will have to manage them all to navigate the year successfully.

Administration officials, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, break down the issues into roughly five categories. What makes managing the coming year so complex is that none of these issues can be easily separated from the other—and none can be neglected without paying a heavy price. Here’s my understanding of how administration officials are thinking about these challenges.

Read the below, and you might share my view that the historic moment calls for even more ambitious thinking and action. Without that, either adversaries or chaos could define the future. Listening to senior administration officials who are grappling with this unruly world, however, provides more insight into how they perceive limits to their actions.

1. Russia and Ukraine

In the view of these officials, Ukraine needs to regain battlefield momentum in the third year of Russia’s full-scale war against it by better sustaining and focusing its military resources on the south, the Black Sea, and Crimea. Officials I spoke with believe that Ukraine is unlikely to win its war in 2024, so in the meantime it must avoid losing while making some real gains. Above all, it must transform the Moscow-held Crimean Peninsula from a Russian strategic asset into a vulnerability. To help achieve that, Kyiv should expand its recent gains in the Black Sea and make one concerted military effort in the south, while holding and defending its north and east. This level of success requires continued and sustained US and European financial and military support, without which Ukraine’s options will become purely defensive.

2. China and East Asia

According to Biden administration officials, the United States must try to further stabilize its relationship with China, following gains made over the past year, while continuing to build stronger ties with all US regional partners. One senior official referred to the effort as “holding serve.” To do so, the United States at the same time will need to navigate a series of dangers, with North Korea testing an intercontinental ballistic missile in the week ahead of Christmas, with next week’s Taiwan elections potentially stirring a Chinese reaction, and with the always-present possibility of a “nonlinear” event in the South China Sea (such as the sinking of a ship or testing of disputed boundaries) and the potential blowback.

3. Israel, Gaza, and the wider Middle East

At a minimum, Washington must avoid an escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict that would more deeply draw in the United States or Iran—and that itself won’t be easy, as shown by the tensions in the Red Sea this week, which included the US Navy sinking the vessels of Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Tehran deploying a warship to the area. But beyond that minimum, Biden administration officials want to return Israel and Saudi Arabia to the normalization path that was abandoned after Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attacks. To achieve this outcome, Israel would need to accept a formula for a future Palestinian state that would defuse the current crisis. For Israel to accept that, it would have to realize that its long-term sustainability as a state depends as much on reaching lasting peace and normalization with its moderate Arab neighbors as it does on eradicating Hamas. One Biden administration official sees 2024 as “a ticking clock to run this normalization play.” The closer a US election comes, the less flexible Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might become, especially if the Israeli side anticipates a victory by Donald Trump.

4. The technology race

The Biden administration is confident that the United States can win the artificial-intelligence race (given dramatic advances in 2023) in a manner that protects US jobs and values, while working with global partners to establish common regulatory standards for the technology. Where Biden administration officials remain more worried, and thus will apply greater efforts in 2024, is in addressing what they consider China’s lead in clean technologies, ranging from electric vehicles to solar energy to advanced batteries—and control of the critical minerals to keep it all going. US officials believe that the country has made progress in addressing this gap through the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures, but that the United States remains far from closing it.

5. Electoral challenges

There is hardly a conversation Biden administration officials have with their international partners that doesn’t include some sort of handicapping of the 2024 US elections and the impact they will have on a full range of global issues. Adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to wait out 2024 in the hope that US support for Ukraine will continue to flag. Many European countries worry about a Trump victory, given his skepticism about NATO and criticisms of European partners more generally. Most countries’ diplomats will find themselves jockeying to meet with whoever might be most influential in a Republican administration while maintaining the closest ties possible to the Biden crowd.

I’ve been one of those who have argued that the administration isn’t acting boldly enough or with sufficient vision, given the historic stakes of these challenges, or quickly enough, given that Joe Biden could be a one-term president. These officials argue that, in contrast to the period after World War II and even the Cold War, several factors that previously allowed the United States to dictate events are no longer present.

At the end of World War II, for example, the United States had half the world’s gross domestic product, its two major adversaries were in ruins (as was much of Europe), the Global South wasn’t the political force it is now, and global industrialization favored the United States.

“Give me that hand to play with, and I can make some money at the poker table,” one senior US official told me.

With the hand the United States has now, the official argued, it’s possible to manage 2024 successfully and to shape positively what Biden frequently calls a historic inflection point. “To make it work,” the official said, “we have to fight like hell for every inch. We can still win with some cunning, some luck, and some elbow grease.”

The challenges range from accessing reliable sources of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to keeping Red Sea shipping lanes open, and from leveraging World Bank lending to support the Global South to working with Congress to avoid Ukrainian defeat.

The bottom line: 2024 could be one of the most consequential years—for the United States, its allies, their interests, and global rules and institutions—since the end of World War II. It’s possible to prevail, but only with a recognition of the importance of this year, new and more innovative forms of coordination with partners and allies, heightened focus on execution and outcomes, and a single-minded effort that rises to the generational stakes.

I can’t escape thinking, however, that the United States still needs more of the post-World War II ambition that shaped the decades the followed, even while recognizing that world’s increasing complexities require an entirely new set of skills, approaches, and consistency of purpose.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.


#1 ‘I want to live’: Russians defect to Ukraine by calling army hotline
Christopher Miller | FINANCIAL TIMES

For a fascinating look at a successful Ukrainian information campaign, read this Financial Times feature on the “I want to live” hotline used by Ukraine to corral Russian defectors.

Christopher Miller reports that since Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (GUR) set up the call system in September 2022, some 220 Russian soldiers have given themselves up through the hotline, with more than one thousand cases pending.

“Both Ukraine and Russia have employed information campaigns, or what [Vitaliy Matvienko, spokesperson for GUR’s department for prisoners of war,] called ‘psyops,’ meaning psychological operations,” wrote Miller. “They target the other side with leaflets dropped from the air, mass text messages, radio and television ads, and even shouting from trench to trench.”

Commenting on the high number of defections, Matvienko says, “The Russian army is essentially a Soviet army. As you know, in the Soviet army, the price of a soldier’s life was zero.” Read more →

#2 Opinion: Can the spread of war be stopped?

Going into a year already laden with conflict, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius calls for a different approach to preventing war.

“At the dawn of 2024, we should recognize that violence is ravaging our planet and the mechanisms to prevent it are failing badly,” Ignatius writes. United Nations “peacekeeping resolutions are routinely vetoed by combatants or their protectors; ‘deterrence’ doesn’t deter Russia, Hamas, or the Houthis. The ‘rules-based order’ that President Biden proclaims has become a slogan rather than a fact.”

To fix this, Ignatius writes, “We need new rules at the United Nations to stop wars and a new framework for crisis management with allies and adversaries.” Read more →

#3 Elections to Watch in 2024
Allison Meakem | FOREIGN POLICY

Allison Meakem of Foreign Policy calls 2024 the biggest global election year in history. Read her guide to gain a better understanding of what is on the ballot.

This coming year “will see a global battle between democracy and autocracy play out literally, at the polls,” Meakem writes. “And not just in the United States, which will hold its first presidential election since a deadly right-wing insurrection sought to block Biden from taking office three years ago: Seven of the world’s ten most populous countries are expected to vote on national leadership this year.” Read more →

#4 The ‘CEO’ of Hamas Who Found the Money to Attack Israel
Rory Jones, Benoit Faucon, Ian Talley, and Abeer Ayyoub | WALL STREET JOURNAL

This compelling investigation uncovers the life of Zaher Jabarin, the fifty-five-year-old militant who oversees the financial empire that funds Hamas’s operations against Israel.

“Jabarin has built relationships with people close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Israeli security officials say helped Hamas procure weapons and funding,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Jabarin has helped maintain Hamas’s relationship in Lebanon with Iranian proxy Hezbollah, working with money changers there, according to US officials who have tracked the financial flows.”

Most importantly, though, Jabarin manages Hamas’s financial relationship with its main benefactor, Iran, and “handles how Tehran gets cash to the Gaza Strip.”

Uzi Shaya, a former Israeli security official, told the WSJ, “Jabarin is the CEO of Hamas.” Read more →

#5 The Pentagon Is Trying to Rebuild the Arsenal of Democracy

Ahead of US involvement in World War II and in the face of heightening German and Japanese aggression, former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in one of his famous fireside chats, “We must have more ships, more guns, more plans—more of everything. We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

Now, Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch asks if the United States can once again successfully mobilize for a world war.

In this must-read investigation, Foreign Policy comes to an alarming conclusion: “The United States can only prod and pray—the Pentagon’s own soon-to-be-released industrial strategy indicates that defense companies wouldn’t be able to respond fast enough for the US military to fight a modern war.” Read more →

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Image: U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks to media before departing from the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, Wisconsin, U.S., December 20, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis