A World in Turmoil, a Cloudy Crystal Ball for 2024

Breakfast with Bwana

By Anil Madan

As we roll into the new year, the world remains in turmoil. There are ongoing wars, conflicts, trouble spots. The list is long, so without being exhaustive, here are some of the bigger ones, and in no particular order: the ongoing war in Ukraine; Iran’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons capability and proxy wars in the Middle East while frustrated and enraged Iranian women yearn for freedom; North Korea’s ongoing threats to unleash nuclear weapons on South Korea, Japan and the US; the ongoing clamor for urgent responses to deal with climate change, while the world continues to burn fossil fuels with abandon; China’s ongoing expansion of its footprint in the South China Sea, its ongoing threats to get on with reunifying Taiwan and the Mainland.

“For years, China has outmaneuvered the US, in the South China Sea part of the Pacific theater and it is not too much to say that China controls the area with impunity. Again, no surprises here. For decades, the US has watched China accumulate billions of dollars in trade surpluses and use that revenue to build a formidable presence in what it considers its backwaters. For centuries the cry was “Brittania rules the waves!” and certainly, after Brittania faltered, America rode its own wave for a long time. Why should we expect less from China?”

And in 2023, the list was augmented as new troubles arose. The most obvious one is the Israel-Hamas war and the ongoing devastation that Israel is wreaking on Gaza. 2023 also saw changes in Britain’s Premiership, and with a general election in 2024, the prospects for Mr Sunak to hold on to his office appear dim. Russia too has a presidential election looming. There is little doubt that Putin will maneuver his way to an easy victory, and as if to put an exclamation point on the idea that he will brook no dissent, Putin has sent Alexei Navalny off to a harsh prison in Siberia.

Here at home in America, we have seen a near total breakdown of the system of government as the Republican majority with potential control of the House of Representatives more closely represents warring tribal factions than a party attempting rational and reasonable governance of the nation’s affairs.

And as the 2024 US presidential election heads into its extended campaigning mode, Donald Trump remains far and away, the leading choice among Republicans. Despite his role in the insurrection of January 6, 2021, when at his urging, a mob stormed the US Capitol as Congress was in joint session to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, and despite pending criminal charges without precedent in American history, Republicans have not made him a pariah as they well should have.

India too has a major election coming in 2024 but Prime Minister Modi’s BJP seems well entrenched that no upset is expected.

There are ongoing wars and coups in Africa and Latin America, even threats by Venezuela’s dictator president that he will annex Guyana and its newly discovered oil riches. There is the Chinese threat to the Philippines, and the ongoing threats from Iran and Hezbollah against Israel.

We have the exciting and perhaps daunting and even awe-inspiring advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what it portends. There are, of course, some who project that AI is a potential threat to mankind and civil society.

The push to eliminate gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles has spurred production of electric vehicles and batteries. This too is exciting, but not everything will come up roses.

Finally, in my selective list of crises around the world, let us make a catchall category that includes oppressed women (from Iran to Afghanistan and beyond, almost no country is exempt), those who face hunger, poverty, homelessness, discrimination based on race, color, creed, cast, handicap, sexual orientation, or in other words, just because they are different from those who wield power. Add to that the surge of immigrants and refugees that keep pouring into Europe, Australia, and the US, are another crisis that show no let up.

The more things change…

How to make sense of all this and predict what might be? Let me put on my imaginary Nostradamus hat and reflect.

Starting with that last category, it is easy to predict that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It has been the nature of man to overpower, oppress, subdue, debase, and dehumanize fellow beings from time immemorial. Why should it stop? The good news is that at least in America, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, there is a recognition that we have a problem. I can predict somewhat timidly that we will make incremental progress. But the learning curve for the rest of the world is steep. On the other hand, I see no letup in the flow of refugees and immigrants. But as European countries and America strain to keep up with the press of humanity seeking refuge, it is likely that anti-immigrant policies will get harsher.

Again, taking things in no particular order, I think there is a good chance that Donald Trump will indeed be convicted of attempting, by unlawful means, to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. No, I do not believe that he will ever be sent to jail. My Nostra-guess is that he will be sentenced to home confinement. Whether this includes golf privileges remains to be seen. I have for long believed that Trump would not be the nominee of the Republican Party for the presidency this time around.

As we get closer to the caucuses and primaries, he has not gone away. But it is highly unlikely that an American court will rule that he is immune from prosecution for blatantly illegal and fraudulent attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Nor do I think that an American court will ever say that his statements were protected by the free speech clause. It would be a novel twist to say that there is a privilege to tell lies. I hearken back to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court who wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic…”

A few months after Putin’s devastating invasion of Ukraine, I predicted that if the war were a long slog, Ukraine would face the reality that without working infrastructure providing heat, water, sanitation, transportation, and electricity, and a population fragmented by so many who had to flee to other countries, attrition would simply take too big a toll. Surprisingly, Ukraine has held up admirably. This is the result of three factors: (i) Ukrainian will and tenacity, (ii) unwavering support from the US and EU/NATO countries, and (iii) Russian lack of will and tenacity and a general reluctance to fight for the man who cried “FIRE!!” in the crowded Baltic theater.

Sadly, EU/NATO countries see their resolve faltering. And in the US, that dysfunctional Republican Right-Wing mob that controls the House of Representatives, is content to use US aid to Ukraine as a bargaining chip to get it wants on the US domestic policy front. These developments lead me to the thought that the attrition will be too much to bear for both sides and a less than satisfactory ceasefire will be agreed with Russia retaining a good chunk of Ukrainian territory.

China outmaneuvers the US

In not so welcome predictions, I think China will indeed go after Taiwan in short order. There have been many reports of late that the conventional arsenals of NATO countries, including the US, have been severely depleted as weapons systems, tanks, trucks, and ammunition, become obsolete. A report recently released after Presidents Xi and Biden met in San Francisco in November, states that President Xi told President Biden that China intends to take control of Taiwan and to rule the island nation. This is nothing new. China’s intentions in that respect have been publicly stated for long. But having the Chinese President communicate the notion that this is a closed subject and there is no room for discussion, is not too surprising either.

For years, China has outmaneuvered the US, in the South China Sea part of the Pacific theater and it is not too much to say that China controls the area with impunity. Again, no surprises here. For decades, the US has watched China accumulate billions of dollars in trade surpluses and use that revenue to build a formidable presence in what it considers its backwaters. For centuries the cry was “Brittania rules the waves!” and certainly, after Brittania faltered, America rode its own wave for a long time. Why should we expect less from China?

Of course, I am not predicting that China and the US will get involved in a direct war. Taking control of Taiwan has two components for China. First, there is the obvious atavistic need to assert sovereignty no matter how insignificant the defecting populace might be in relation to the Chinese on the Mainland. But it is precisely the success of the defectors that rankles. President Xi has in a sense tied his manhood and his prowess to recapturing the renegade islanders. Second, there is the obvious strategic value of Taiwan’s semiconductor production to the world, not just China, but to the US, Japan, South Korea, Britain, Europe, Australia, Canada, and even India. There have been rumblings that the Taiwanese will destroy their semiconductor production facilities if the Chinese Communists invade the island. But if that happens, the loss will be for the entire world. And China will survive. Whether the rest can replace lost production fast enough remains to be seen. My Nostradamus hat doesn’t predict semiconductor manufacturing with any reliability. Eventually, China will restore any lost capacity, but western countries too will have to become more self-reliant in this respect.

The US for long will remain a formidable power

These thoughts lead to another prediction associated with the dwindling supplies of Western arms. The US remains, and for long will remain, a formidable power so China will not engage directly. However, China can withstand the deprivation of semiconductor chips for a few years much better than the US and other Western nations. So, expect to see more scrambling from the US and Europe to build semiconductor production facilities and indeed, more arms production. There will be a surge in western military budgets and arms manufacture. Expect more stimulus and inflation. This added production will lead to the usual phenomenon of excess production being sold to Middle East and African countries This time around, the nations in the Pacific—the Philippines, Australia, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, etc., will be big purchasers. Expect a boom for European and American weapons makers.

Why won’t China engage directly with the US? Well, basically, President Xi is not stupid. China still has a massive trade surplus with the US and that allows it to accumulate US dollars with which it can buy US assets, develop its own weapons, control systems, and provide financial assistance around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative. It is not in the interest of either nation to disrupt the flow of trade. Doing so would inflict a tough blow on its own economy. So, we should expect increments in China’s rise, and we should be accustomed to that by now. The US government is too dysfunctional to respond. The Republicans won’t let Biden respond in any way that shows he is an effective president, and Trump promises, if elected, to engage in more of the kind of nonsensical zero-sum trade policies and tariffs he touted during his first term.

The Israel-Hamas war is easy enough to predict in one sense. Israel has shown little regard for the opinions of others, including the US and Britain which have been its staunch supporters. The urge to destroy Hamas no matter how much pain is inflicted on the Gazan population is fed not only by the existential imperative that Israel faces, but there is the component of sending a clear message to Iran and Hezbollah that Israeli retaliation knows no bounds. This is not a prediction, but I see the danger of Iran’s unleashing a low-yield nuclear device akin to a tactical nuclear weapon, increasing greatly. Whether that is done directly—unlikely, since the Ayatollahs are cowards at heart, content to bully women—or through proxies, the dangers of escalation are severe. Iran is in the delicate position of provoking Israel, but not too much. In the past, it has had the tacit support of the major Arab countries. I see a further isolation of Iran on that score, but Iran’s oil trade will be buttressed by China, India, and Russia.

This will all lead to a new Middle East. Ultimately, the biggest weapon the Saudis have is control over the price of oil. It is not mere happenstance that the price of oil continues to sink and deprive Iran and Russia of much needed revenue to continue their belligerence. Expect the price of oil to drop more before it spikes in the future.

More frequent severe weather around the world

At some point soon, we will see America’s highways clogged with electric cars stalled from drained batteries as an evacuation is ordered in Florida due to an impending hurricane, or as people flee in blizzard conditions in the northeast or upper Midwest. This will cool the ardor for EVs and calls for more investments in battery technology and charging stations will divert resources to those ends. The result will be that spending for mitigation of and adaptation to the effects of more and more frequent severe weather around the world, will not keep up with the need.

We have seen massive precipitation—record rainfall and flooding around the globe, the latest in Australia. Expect more of these events. 2024 is likely to be the year in which the world realizes that given current policies, spending on climate change initiatives, and ongoing fossil fuel consumption, even if what is being proposed is the right path, what we are doing is not working. There will be a new direction in our efforts to deal with climate change, more money dedicated to mitigation and adaptation.

The promise of AI is immense. As we get more used to the positive and beneficial aspects of these new technologies, some of the fear will subside. Machines are not going to take over the world. If they did, they would soon come to the conclusion that the only reason for their “existence” is to serve the interests of humans, to make life easier, more pleasant and more efficient. If there are no humans in charge, why would machines need to exist? What interest would they have in taking control? They are not like the Chinese Communist Party with some atavistic predisposition to dominate a population that they do not need and one that is insignificant in comparison to their own country’s 1.4 billion people. Nor would machines prepare in advance to ensure that they have prepared to take control of the power grid and ensure that if humans are no longer running power plants, there will be adequate power available to keep them going.

In a sense, robots and EVs have something in common. They need power to keep going and if the network to do that doesn’t exist, they become useless. And they have no reason to keep going unless someone wants them to provide a service. Why would a machine need service from another machine?

My final prediction—and you may say it is wishful thinking—is that Donald Trump will never again be President of the United States.

With that, I wish you all a very happy and prosperous new year and I hope you get a charge out of it.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 29 December 2023

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