January 12, 2024

CNAS Responds: High Stakes in National Security for 2024

Foreign policy and national security are top of mind for many Americans in 2024. The looming election and mounting threats set the stage for a high-stakes year, intensifying the urgency to decipher the unfolding landscape.

Today, leading experts from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) provide their insights on the coming year and speak to rising challenges including artificial intelligence, great power competition, the Israel-Hamas conflict, the Russia-Ukraine war, and more.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, please contact Alexa Whaley at [email protected].

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:

As 2024 begins, U.S. policymakers face their most challenging international environment in at least two decades. Russia stands to reap the benefits of any Western exhaustion with supporting Ukraine. Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel, the Gaza war, and attacks by Iranian proxies threaten to spark wider violence across the Middle East. Furthermore, China wishes to absorb Taiwan and project influence everywhere, North Korea remains a weapons test away from crisis, Iran is just weeks from a nuclear breakout, and Venezuelan leaders talk openly about annexing their neighbor's territory. And this “parade of horribles” reflects only the crises we can identify – add to them one or two more that, while impossible to identify now, will no doubt appear sometime in 2024.

The growing Russia-China-Iran-North Korea axis wishes to reshape the world in ways directly contrary to the values and interests we hold dear. Through a combination of military moves and threats, diplomatic engagements, and economic influence, these countries wish to enlarge the space available for statist autocracy and make the world less hospitable for democratic capitalism. As a result, the stakes are high, the need for U.S. and allied action significant, and the alternatives to our global leadership deeply unattractive.

American leaders need to set priorities. Support for Ukraine and Israel should continue. So too should the many moves to enhance the U.S. position in Asia and balance against rising Chinese power. These efforts will be difficult during a tumultuous election year. They are also necessary. Actions taken today are shaping the world in which we will live tomorrow.

The good news is that the United States and its partners have everything necessary to prevail in this contest of interests and ideals. It requires only the political will and cohesion to muster them in common cause. That's no easy task in a political year like 2024, but it is a vital one.

Paul Scharre, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies:

With wars underway in Europe and the Middle East, the Biden administration’s challenge will be to support America’s partners while avoiding directly entangling the United States. The administration has been wisely restrained in responding to Russia’s invasion, supplying Ukraine with the necessary arms to defend itself while avoiding some of the more dangerous proposals pushed by hawks at the start of the war that would have risked direct U.S. involvement. The Biden administration will need to similarly manage the difficult task of supporting Israel, while keeping the United States distanced from the war. With the United States striking back at Iranian proxies and Hezbollah and Israel trading fire across the Lebanese border, the Administration must be careful not to allow the United States to get drawn into a wider regional conflict.

As election season heats up, it will be a reminder of just how low foreign policy is on the agenda for most Americans. The American people are tired of wars and foreign entanglements. Yet America remains indispensable around the world, not just in Europe and the Middle East but perhaps most critically in Asia, where American power and diplomacy are needed to counter a rising China. National security policymakers will need to navigate these twin realities—the necessity of American involvement overseas and the pull of isolationism at home—to craft policies that advance America’s interests while avoiding overcommitment. Already, Republican opposition to supporting Ukraine is jeopardizing further U.S. aid. Nearly half of Republicans think the United States is giving too much aid to Ukraine. The calamitous outcome of the Afghanistan withdrawal is a reminder of what happens when U.S. policymakers pursue an agenda that is too ambitious for what the American people are willing to support. Eventually, they’ll elect a President who will simply pull the plug. American engagement is needed in the world; for that engagement to succeed, it must be sustainable.

Carrie Cordero, General Counsel and Robert M Gates Senior Fellow:

2024 will stress test whether the rule of law and institutional protections applied since the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol will hold, or whether a toxic concoction of political divisiveness, a fractured domestic information environment, and an increasing domestic threat landscape will give way to political violence.

The last U.S. presidential election did not result in a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, inflammatory political rhetoric combined with a legal strategy to alter the election outcome, the existence of domestic violent extremist groups willing to engage and lead other citizens in violence, and insufficient law enforcement preparedness resulted in deaths, injuries, and a delay of the election certification. Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice has prosecuted hundreds of individuals for participation in the attack on the U.S. Capitol from charges ranging from trespass to seditious conspiracy. The Special Counsel has charged the former president with conspiracy to defraud the United States, among other charges, in connection with an effort to change the outcome of the 2020 election. The District Attorney for Fulton County, Georgia, has charged numerous individuals in connection with election interference efforts. Each of these cases has strengths and weaknesses; and the outcome of the pending cases is anything but certain.

Against this backdrop of unresolved legal accountability for the events of the past election looms the coming presidential election. The 2024 presidential campaign takes place in an environment of persistent domestic threats against public officials of all political parties and at all levels: local, state and federal, elected officials, judges, civil servants and even volunteers; Republicans and Democrats. This increasing atmosphere of political violence manifests through swatting incidents, online harassment, and threats of physical harm. In large part, the proper functioning of the 2024 U.S. election will depend on the ability of the campaigns and election itself to proceed in an environment free of violence. The 2022 midterm election cycle was able to proceed relatively peacefully. This year, the freedom and safety with which candidates can campaign, election administrators can do their jobs, court personnel can handle the ongoing election related cases, and voters can vote may provide the strongest indicator as to whether U.S. democracy will emerge from the stress test in good shape.

Vivek Chilukuri, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program:

In 2024, the global conversation around artificial intelligence (AI) will shift from broad speculation about risks to the nitty gritty of governance. In the United States, AI governance will mature even as legislation from Congress remains highly unlikely in an election year. Federal agencies will primarily drive AI governance as they meet a thicket of deadlines from the Biden administration’s AI Executive Order. For example, the Order directs agencies to develop best practices for AI safety and security, issue guidelines for responsible AI use in areas like law enforcement, health care, and education, and require companies developing the most advanced AI models to share their safety measures and red-team test results.

We can also expect states to fill the void of federal AI laws, just as we’ve seen with privacy policy. At least twelve states have already passed laws to ensure AI developers comply with minimal rules and standards governing AI, and three have laws protecting citizens from algorithmic discrimination. At the same time, AI copyright cases will continue to wind their way through federal courts, with far-reaching consequences for the future training, application, and profitability of advanced AI models.

Abroad, other nations will continue to set the pace for AI governance—allowing U.S. policymakers to learn from successes and missteps, but also risking U.S. leadership in shaping global AI standards. The EU AI Act still has a few procedural hurdles to clear, but this year should see the EU’s first prohibitions against AI applications that pose “unacceptable risks” take effect, such as social scoring and untargeted scraping of facial images. China, which already has three AI regulations governing algorithmic recommendations, synthetic content, and generative AI, could also expedite its policy process and announce a more comprehensive AI Law.

The efforts underway will help bring the lofty AI debates of 2023 down to earth this year, as governments and industry grapple with the more humdrum realities of regulation, reporting, and implementation.

Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:

The recent restoration of military-to-military communications between the United States and China could portend calmer overall relations between the two nations in the year ahead. Beijing’s decision to resume military talks may indeed reflect its desire to avoid any crisis with the United States during the U.S. presidential election campaign season. Still, Taiwan will remain a major source of friction between Washington and Beijing, and this Saturday’s election in Taiwan adds a layer of uncertainty to the situation. Additionally, brewing tensions between China and United States’ treaty ally, the Philippines, over a small Philippines’ outpost in the South China Sea could also throw a spanner in the works, especially if there is an incident involving loss of life due to Chinese maritime aggression.

The Biden administration is likely to continue building on progress made in nurturing alliances and partnerships throughout the Indo-Pacific region last year, a critical element of establishing deterrence in the region. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will soon visit the White House again—this time for a state-level visit. The Biden administration will further continue to prioritize relations with India, despite facing one of the biggest challenges to bilateral ties in the last decade with the uncovering of an Indian plot to assassinate a Sikh activist in the United States. The Biden administration’s continued commitment to building closer defense and security ties with India demonstrates the importance President Biden attaches to India’s role in stabilizing and securing the Indo-Pacific.

The recent large-scale terrorist attack in Tehran conducted by the Afghanistan-based Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will shake up that region in unexpected ways and lead to more concerted efforts in Washington to prevent a similar attack by the Sunni extremist group against western targets. The attack highlights the perils of ignoring Afghanistan and the witch’s brew of terrorist groups operating there. The Taliban fights ISKP, but their support for other terrorist groups and atrocious treatment of women and girls fosters a supportive eco-system for extremist ideologies and terrorism to thrive. The Biden administration must step up its game in Afghanistan and develop a strategy with like-minded partners that both heads off the terrorist threat and blunts extremist ideologies, many of which are fostered by the Taliban leadership itself.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program:

The Transatlantic community should buckle up for 2024, as it is bound to be a turbulent year. Ukraine will remain on the defensive for much of the year, with its ability to sustain its defensive lines hinging critically on the will of the West—and especially the United States—to sustain its economic and military support. Russian President Putin is riding confidently into the new year, and because he likely sees 2024 as pivotal, he will increase pressure not just on the frontlines in Ukraine but on our democratic societies. Getting former President Trump elected may very well top his New Year’s resolutions. The Allies have an opportunity to make the 75th NATO Summit in Washington a truly historic one, but so far, there is little to suggest that it will be remarkable.

Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East will continue to polarize publics and electorates, paving the way for far-right parties and leaders to gain traction. Even if a far-right wave in Europe is unlikely, the uptick in support for these parties will re-shape political agendas and impede the effective functioning of European institutions at a time that Europe can ill afford it. And although the Transatlantic alliance is stronger now than ever, so too is the cooperation between Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. 2024 may well be remembered as the year that this axis of upheaval fully coalesced, bringing with it the turmoil and conflict that would entail.  

There is plenty of potential that 2024 could outperform this gloomy forecast. In fact, the most critical factors shaping the transatlantic trajectory in 2024 are decisions that Americans and Europeans will themselves make. Will we sustain aid to and support for Ukraine? And who will we elect to office? A series of the right decisions could lead 2024 to turn out alright, and actually set the stage for a more promising 2025.

Emily Kilcrease, Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:

Economic security themes will be top of mind for policymakers in 2024, with concerns about China and Russia dominating the conversation. If the administration is serious about addressing national security risks associated with outbound investment, expect to see final regulations for its proposal to regulate U.S. investments in China in the critical chips, AI, and quantum sectors. These same sectors will be central to export control work in 2024, including the question of whether to impose new controls on Chinese companies’ access to U.S. cloud computing services.

The trade agenda is likely to wither away in 2024. Having failed to secure agreement on the trade pillar of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework at the November APEC Summit, the United States missed a critical moment to finalize the deal in advance of the U.S. presidential elections. Further progress looks unlikely. Instead, expect trade debates in 2024 to focus less on affirmative initiatives with partners and allies and more on defending U.S. economic interests from China. A recent report from the the House Select Committee on the CCP set the scene, with far-reaching recommendations on revoking China's privileges under the World Trade Organization. At the same time, the Biden administration may finally finish its review of the 301 tariffs imposed under the Trump administration, and policymakers are considering whether tariffs can address rising concerns over China’s growing market share in electric vehicles and legacy chips. These debates over tariffs will heat up in 2024, though whether anything will be implemented remains uncertain.

On the Russia front, work will continue apace to tighten sanctions and export controls, while addressing stubborn concerns over evasion. Western electronics continue to find their way onto the battlefield in Ukraine, despite purportedly strict export control regimes to prevent this. In addition to continued enforcement efforts, the sanctioning countries may need to take a hard look at whether western suppliers are doing enough to ensure that their products are not aiding the Russian military machine.

Katherine Kuzminski, Deputy Director of Studies and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program:

The Department of Defense and the military services invested significant resources and attention to process improvements for military recruitment over the last two years, which now promise to pay dividends and turn the tide on the military recruitment crisis in 2024. New approaches to training, selecting, and incentivizing uniformed recruiters have the potential to increase recruiter effectiveness. Strategies mobilizing current service members, such as the Air Force’s We Are All Recruiters (WEAR) program, align incentives across the force and encourage those currently serving to communicate the value of service to their hometown communities. Programs aiding potential recruits to meet military standards, such as the Army’s Future Soldier Prep Course, provide pipelines of new candidates who previously would have been disqualified from service. Reimagined recruiting campaigns based on updated market research make the case for military service for a new generation. DoD and military department examinations of and experiments with the ways in which standards can evolve without affecting the quality of initial recruits, such as modernized body composition standards, relaxed tattoo policies, and increased age limits, expand their access to individuals who have a propensity to serve.

However, even as the military services reap the benefits of their years of effort in 2024, it will also be important that they maintain momentum. Moreover, it will be vital that they are supported by a whole-of-government effort to elevate military service as a compelling option for American youth. In order to counter misperceptions of military service, leadership from the White House and bipartisan coalitions in Congress and across statehouses will be a necessary to bridge the civil-military divide and introduce the next generation to the calling of military service.

Jonathan Lord, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program:

In 2024, the ongoing Israel-Hamas War will continue to reverberate throughout the Middle East, and America’s Middle East policy. As the United States approaches a very consequential presidential election this November, the Biden administration will attempt to write a positive third act to this dark chapter of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Biden believes a pathway to a two-state solution must follow the ongoing war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu categorically does not. While disparate visions between Biden and Bibi likely mean a permanent peace agreement is not forthcoming, pressing policy questions in need of more immediate answers this year persist.

Arguably more important than debating “the day after,” there continues to be no discernible plan for “the day in between.” A credible and professional military force is needed to provide security, services, and increased aid to Gazans for the foreseeable future—as it will take considerable time to clear the rubble, unexploded ordnance, and to rebuild homes and communities destroyed in the conflict. Unless President Biden can wrangle Israel, Palestinians, regional Arab, and international partners and allies into hammering out a costly, but critically-necessary interim mechanism to stabilize the lives of two million displaced and vulnerable Palestinians, the conditions in Gaza will deteriorate further, making a durable cessation of hostilities ephemeral, and conditions for lasting peace elusive. But absent U.S. leadership and presence on the ground, will any other nation step into the breach? Likely not, and thus far, no administration official has dared suggest U.S. forces play such a central role in yet another Middle East conflict.

Opening up the aperture to the broader region, Iran’s proxies and partners have opportunistically used the Israel-Hamas War to drive the Middle East into a state of chaos. While the Biden administration has addressed the threats posed by militias in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen in isolation, and with remedies of varying levels of military aggression, seemingly absent is a coherent policy that meaningfully holds accountable or implicates the source of all this mayhem: Iran. If President Biden cannot articulate a plan of action to more directly and aggressively confront Iran for its role in enabling these regional agents of terror in the Middle East soon, expect to hear about it on the campaign trail and on the debate stage this fall.

In 2024, we should also expect to see the ominous continuation of the Iranian regime’s effort to expand its military capabilities and its economic resilience by forging stronger ties with Russia, China, and North Korea. It is here that the Biden administration should seek opportunities to further animate and utilize America’s own partnerships and alliances in each theater of operation where this developing axis poses greater threats. While President Biden drew some linkages to the array of threats posed to the United States and its allies when arguing for a defense budget supplemental bill this past October, he should consider a revamped National Defense Strategy that more explicitly links the threats posed by revisionist powers and addresses them head-on.

Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program:

The greatest challenge for the U.S. Department of Defense in 2024 is managing the iron triangle, or the tradeoffs among resources, force structure, and readiness, for current and future threats. The Biden administration enters its final year with two ongoing conflicts—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza Conflict—which have required U.S. military aid, additional force deployments, and senior leader attention. At the same time, China’s revisionism, growing conventional and nuclear arsenal, and stated intent to unify with Taiwan, poses a long-term challenge to regional security and the U.S.-led international order. Ensuring that the United States can respond to ongoing simultaneous challenges while still preserving the resources and readiness and develop the right force structure to meet future threats is a tall order.

There are initial signs that the out-of-cycle deployments to Europe and the Middle East intended to deter adversaries and reassure allies and partners are eroding readiness, leaving forces less prepared for the future fights they may face. Additionally, the U.S. defense industrial base (DIB) has already felt the squeeze as it has scrambled to re-arm Ukraine and Israel with 155mm rounds and air defense missiles. DIB deficiencies have heightened the tension between producing more of what is currently needed and the long-range munitions that may be required in a potential future conflict with China. The resourcing challenge is even more stark when the stockpile depth required for protracted conflict is considered. Beyond the traditional DIB, the Pentagon continues to struggle to tap into commercial industry and non-traditional defense companies, and identify how to leverage existing authorities to more rapidly field at scale emerging technologies.

A key test of whether the Pentagon can really move fast is the Replicator initiative, the Deputy of Secretary of Defense’s plan to acquire thousands of attritable drones in two years to counter China. But Replicator raises broader questions about priorities for future force structure. Should the United States optimize its force and produce high numbers of low-cost attritable drones? Or is this big bet merely extrapolating a lesson learned from Ukraine and applying it erroneously to future operating environments, like the Indo-Pacific? Forthcoming CNAS defense program research sheds light on how drones have been employed in Ukraine and how they could impact a future U.S.-China war over Taiwan.

The bill for the long overdue modernization of American nuclear forces is also coming at the same time that the Pentagon is attempting to upgrade its conventional forces. This further complicates the competition for resources as the Department considers the conventional-nuclear force mix that meets the changing strategic balance and considers how to simultaneously deter two nuclear armed great powers and manage escalation in the context of a conventional war.

The U.S. Department of Defense has tough choices to make in 2024. It will need to make the right decisions within the delicate balance of the iron triangle about how to deter threats in the present without under preparing for the demands of future warfare. At the same time, the Pentagon needs to figure out how to strengthen its industrial base and more quickly acquire new technologies. Managing risk over time is perhaps the greatest challenge for any administration and only time will tell whether the Biden administration will get it right in 2024.

All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Alexa Whaley at awhaley@cnas.org.