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America’s year of living dangerously

Apr 03,2024 - Last updated at Apr 03,2024


NEW YORK — More than six dozen countries will hold elections this year, but none will be more consequential than the one scheduled for November in the United States. After all, what happens in the US invariably has outsize impact, given America’s economic, military and diplomatic power and influence. Countries in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific count on the US to guarantee their security, a guarantee they have not had reason to question for three-quarters of a century.

Moreover, unlike most presidential elections in American history, this is one in which the differences between the two likely major party candidates far outweigh their similarities. Much the same can be said about which of the two parties wins control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

What makes the coming year so fraught for America and the rest of the world, though, is the reality that American democracy faces multiple hurdles. Indeed, the near future consists of three distinct phases, each with its own challenges and dangers.

The first phase is already under way and will continue through election day, November 5. The problem is already in plain sight: with politics taking priority over policy, it has become nearly impossible to enact important legislation. Military aid to Ukraine has been put on hold because the Republican-controlled House, following the lead of Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, refuses to approve it. Two years of successfully resisting Russian aggression in Europe have been put at risk.

House Republicans also refuse to pass legislation that would improve security at the country’s southern border, in this case because Trump apparently believes that the influx of migrants weakens public support for President Joe Biden. The political dynamics could make it impossible for the US to maintain, much less expand, immigration policies that have done so much to contribute to the country’s economic success.

The second distinct set of challenges will follow Election Day. The peaceful transfer of power — a hallmark of the American system — can no longer be assumed. The 75-day window between election and inauguration could well become the most perilous phase of a dangerous year. The violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, occurred during this interval.

The accurate counting and verification of ballots, which is carried out first at the state and then at the national level, will be imperative. As most readers will know, US presidents are not elected on the basis of the national popular vote. Each of the 50 states tallies the votes cast there, and in all but two whoever receives the most votes garners all of the state’s electoral votes (equal to the size of its congressional delegation). For example, California, the most populous state, has 54 electoral votes, while six low-population states (and the District of Columbia) get three each. A candidate must have 270 Electoral College votes to win.

As we saw in 2020, though, it is possible that the results will be challenged. Legislation passed in late 2022 and signed into law by Biden makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to do so. Such challenges would be considered in a joint session of Congress (most likely on January 6, 2025) presided over by the sitting vice president, Kamala Harris.

In addition, there is the potential for political violence. It is most likely that the outcome will be decided by tens of thousands of votes (out of more than 150 million cast) in a handful of states. A close and contested result could well lead to civil disorder, especially if the process results in Biden’s reelection and a loss for Trump.

What is all but certain is that a country distracted and divided over the results of the election will lack the focus and unity to act in the world. America’s adversaries could be tempted to take advantage and press to achieve long-sought objectives.

The third and final challenge will begin early next year on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2025. If Biden is reelected, much will depend on whether his election is accepted by Trump’s supporters and on which party controls the Senate and the House. One can imagine a scenario in which little changes: Republican congressmen refuse to work across party lines to pass needed legislation.

A different sort of test faces America and the world if Trump regains the presidency. Trump has voiced scepticism of America’s membership in NATO and even encouraged Russia to attack NATO members that do not spend enough on defence. He has threatened to levy 60 per cent tariffs on Chinese imports while reportedly questioning whether the US should defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. He continues to show a penchant for autocrats and a disdain for America’s democratic allies.

Yes, the US has a system of checks and balances, but presidents enjoy great latitude when it comes to hiring and firing personnel and setting the policy agenda, especially if their party controls both chambers of Congress. If Republicans gain control of the executive and legislative branches, both the post-World War II international order and American democracy itself could come under enormous pressure.

Only Americans get to vote in November, but the rest of the world will feel the effects. As a result, America’s year of living dangerously could easily become everyone’s.


Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a senior counselor at Centerview Partners and the author of “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens” (Penguin Press, 2023) and the weekly newsletter Home & Away. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.


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