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Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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. 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, Nov. 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 Mr. Trump apparently believes that the influx of migrants weakens public support for President Joe Biden. The political dynamics could make it impossible for the U.S. 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 Jan. 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 we saw in 2020, though, it is possible that the results will be challenged. Legislation passed in late 2022 and signed into law by Mr. 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 Jan. 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 Mr. Biden’s re-election and a loss for Mr. 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, Jan. 20, 2025. If Mr. Biden is re-elected, much will depend on whether his election is accepted by Mr. 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 Mr. Trump regains the presidency. Mr. Trump has voiced skepticism 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 U.S. should defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. He continues to show a penchant for autocrats and a disdain for America’s democratic allies.

Yes, the U.S. has a system of checks and balances, but presidents enjoy great latitude when it comes to hiring and firing staff 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-Second World War 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.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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