“Things can only get better” felt like the anthem for the 1990s. Released in 1993, four years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the song was the perfect soundtrack for a decade in which apartheid ended, democracy came to eastern Europe, peace came to Northern Ireland and the Oslo accords promised an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In the 1990s, the spirit of the age favoured peacemakers, democrats and internationalists. Today, it is nationalists, warmongers and conspiracy theorists who have the wind in their sails.
There is a growing danger that Russia will gain the initiative in its war with Ukraine over the coming year. In the Middle East, the tentative optimism fostered by the Abraham peace accords between Israel and several Arab states has been shattered by the Hamas attacks and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. A wider Middle Eastern war currently looks more plausible than a reinvigorated peace process.
In the US, Joe Biden’s presidency is in deep trouble. Donald Trump is now the favourite in the betting markets to win the presidency in 2024. Recent polls show him comfortably ahead in most of the swing states that will decide the election.
All of these malign developments contribute to a darkening global political mood. They also feed on each other directly.
The Gaza war has forced the US to divert time and resources away from Ukraine. In some cases, there is direct competition for munitions. Ukraine has been desperately short of shells and now is competing with Israel for scarce supplies. Air defence systems are also needed by both Ukraine and Israel.
The west’s already weak ability to rally global support for Ukraine is further damaged by anger in the “Global South” about US support for Israel. Efforts to press the argument that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine will now be met with renewed charges of double standards.
These developments came at a time when the Ukrainian war effort was already faltering. The Kyiv government’s counteroffensive has largely failed.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, has angrily dismissed the idea that the war is turning into a stalemate. But predictions of a stalemate could actually prove over-optimistic. Russia has turned itself into a war economy and will probably have a growing edge in armaments and troop numbers next year. Russian forces are likely to hammer Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, once again, over the coming months.
A battered Ukraine remains heavily dependent on the west for armaments and financial support. But Kyiv’s western backers have failed to ramp up their weapons production to match the Russian war machine. Meanwhile, continued funding for Ukraine has got stuck in the US Congress as Trump-supporting Republicans turn against the war.
Vladimir Putin has even more reason to keep fighting hard over the next year, given the growing prospect that Donald Trump will return to the White House and abandon Ukraine to its fate.
A Trump victory has become more likely because of the Gaza conflict. Biden needs young voters, progressives and Arab-Americans to turn out and vote for him. But many are furious about his administration’s support for Israel. If progressives stay at home or vote for fringe candidates, the election could tip towards Trump.
Of course, it would be absurd if pro-Palestinian sentiment indirectly put Trump back into the White House. The former president is once again threatening to ban Muslims from entering the US. But history abounds with absurdities.
The intense global spotlight on Israel and Gaza may also be providing cover for other human rights abuses to take place. In recent weeks, mass deportations and forced transfers of people have either taken place or been announced in Pakistan, Sudan and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Other urgent problems are also in danger of being left to fester. Climate change looks ever more ominous. But the COP28 summit that will begin later this month in Dubai will now take place with world leaders distracted by Gaza.
With America overstretched overseas and unstable at home, China may sniff an opportunity. There are currently some tentative signs of rapprochement between Beijing and Washington. But the big picture remains that China is intent on displacing the US as the dominant power in the Pacific, and perhaps the world.
The main focus of Xi Jinping’s ambitions is Taiwan. Analysts in Washington believe that he has told the Chinese military to be ready to invade the island by 2027. In an effort to deter China, Biden has repeatedly pledged to defend Taiwan. But, with America distracted and divided, Xi may see an opportunity to increase the pressure on the island over the coming year. That would add a security crisis in east Asia to the ones gripping Europe and the Middle East.
In retrospect, it seems appropriate that “Things can only get better” was put out by a band called D:Ream. Thirty years after the song’s release, the dream is definitely over.
It is too fatalistic to say that we are now in an era when things can only get worse. But it is simple realism to understand that the strongest trends in world affairs are malign and gathering momentum.