Will 2023 Be More Peaceful Than 2022?
This year saw Russia invade Ukraine, China’s Xi Jinping secure a third term, and Iranians take to the streets. What will 2023 look like?
Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! The holidays are almost here and not a moment too soon. I am ready for a break.
Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! The holidays are almost here and not a moment too soon. I am ready for a break.
Since this is our last column of the year, I thought this would be a good opportunity to look back on the big events of 2022 and forward to the trends likely to shape 2023.
Does that work for you?
Emma Ashford: Merry Christmas, Matt. That sounds great. I will say this for 2022: Unlike last year, this year my family’s Christmas presents aren’t snarled in some overseas supply chain or run aground on a tanker in the Suez Canal.
It’s been a year of slow but steady recovery from all the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Are we ready to finally declare the pandemic over, do you think?
MK: In the developed world outside of China, I would say the answer is yes. In fact, I couldn’t help but look back on our predictions in our 2021 year-end column, and I have to say that we did pretty well.
I predicted a return to a new post-COVID-19 normal and a deepening U.S.-China Cold War. You forecasted a 50-50 chance of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, so you were at least half right.
EA: Let’s put a pin in the question of China and COVID-19, since I suspect that will be one of the big stories of 2023. But while it gives me no pleasure to be right, I think our predictions that 2022 would be the year of the revenge of power politics were pretty accurate. From Ukraine to East Asia, great powers and small powers are back to competing and even fighting each other directly.
The war in Ukraine was obviously the biggest geopolitical story of 2022. And I think the scope and scale of the war—and the Western reaction to it—surprised almost everyone. It’s hard to remember at this point, but the initial Russian invasion involved a quarter of a million men and almost succeeded in driving all the way to Kyiv and toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. They were only stopped by a combination of Western intelligence-sharing, Ukrainian nerve, and—to be frank—Moscow’s own massive military incompetence.
MK: I have to say, I wasn’t too surprised by a big Russian invasion backstopped by nuclear threats. (I had been writing about this threat for some time.) But, like everyone else, I was shocked at the Russian military’s poor performance and the Ukrainians’ incredible resistance.
For me, however, the big story was the Western reaction. For example, I did not have Sweden and Finland applying to join NATO or Germany promising to massively increase defense spending on my bingo card for 2022.
EA: The Western reaction has been pretty stunning and was, in many ways, the result of that surprisingly poor performance. I think most policymakers—like most of us—expected that Russia would quickly triumph in Ukraine and that we’d be dealing with a Ukrainian puppet state and a triumphant, revisionist Russia. Instead, Russian failures early in the war gave policymakers scope for economic statecraft and the time and space to arm Ukraine.
But that unexpected outcome of the war’s early stages is also the reason some of the Western responses overstepped in their attempts to punish Russia: Much of the turmoil in energy markets in mid-2022, for example, was the result of a largely unnecessary reshuffling of oil from Europe to other states, which did nothing to actually punish Russia. Many of the other big trends we saw in 2022 were direct results of either the war itself or the West’s reaction to it, such as ongoing risks created by extremely high food and fuel prices globally.
One final comment here though; I don’t want to give European policymakers too much credit. You’re right that Germany promised to increase defense spending, but since the early shock of the invasion has worn off, the United States and its European allies have, in many ways, reverted to the norm: Washington picks up the military tab while European states argue about how best to build defense capabilities.
MK: European allies are not a homogenous block, of course, and some are doing better than others. The other surprise for me in 2022 was that the Biden administration and many of its allies came around on the China threat.
In the past, many experts thought a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was essentially impossible in the modern world. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine forced people to realize that major war is still possible. For example, NATO’s new strategic concept highlighted China for the first time.
EA: That’s certainly true. It’s one thing to see “great-power competition” written in a national security strategy; it’s quite another to see the largest war on the European continent in decades. As I argued this year, we’re likely to look back on 2022 as one of those historical pivot points where a chapter in a history book begins or ends: The unipolar moment—the post-Cold War period—is over, and something else is beginning.
MK: Yes, I agree. The post-Cold War dream of incorporating Russia and China as responsible stakeholders in a rules-based system is dead for now. In hindsight, historians might date this new period to Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 or Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, but for most, this new Cold War only became obvious with Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine in February.
Like in the old Cold War, we are seeing trade follow politics. The free world is decoupling from Russia and has started a more deliberate selective decoupling from China. U.S. President Joe Biden put in place an unprecedented semiconductor ban, and even Germany is talking about reducing trade dependency with China.
I am not sure if we are at our 2023 predictions part of the column yet, but I predict we will see the world increasingly fragment economically, with trade and investment patterns following geopolitical alignments.
EA: Yeah, but German politicians are talking out of both sides of their mouths on this one. Wasn’t it just a few weeks back that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to Beijing to meet with Xi and took a whole bunch of German business leaders with him as part of the delegation? The German economy is hugely dependent on inputs from China; I don’t think it’s going to be decoupling in practice any time soon. And much of the global south is not on board with these changes. Economics will be the great-power battleground of the next few years, but I am not at all sure that the decoupling you envisage will come to pass.
Before we shift into 2023, I just want to mention one other big story from last year. If not for Ukraine, I suspect the biggest geopolitical story would have been the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi’s historic reelection to a third term as general secretary of the party. It’s a moment that really seems to cement the notion that China will be moving in a new, more assertive direction on foreign policy, even if it faces notable headwinds.
MK: Yes. This one didn’t come as a surprise to most China watchers, but it is still notable. Xi has solidified his role as the most powerful Chinese dictator since Mao Zedong, and as isolated dictators often do, he is weakening China with ill-considered policies, like previously pursuing zero-COVID and refusing to import effective Western vaccines.
Where do you see this and other big trends playing out in 2023?
EA: That’s the biggest headwind on China for sure! Widespread protests over China’s draconian zero-COVID policies eventually prompted leaders to abandon these policies in favor of what appears to be a free-for-all approach. That might not be such a big deal in many countries. Heck, I had COVID-19 myself a few weeks back, and it was unpleasant but not life-threatening. But China’s vaccination rates remain horrifically low, particularly among the most vulnerable segments of society, such as older adults. It’s possible that as we enter 2023, the Chinese government will face a rising death toll and further societal unrest as a result.
Other big trends from 2022 will continue to play out in the coming year. Europe’s energy crisis is worsening; it’s entirely expected, but now that winter is getting colder, energy prices are spiking, forcing many folks across Europe to make tough choices about their budgets. And inflation and the impacts of the war in Ukraine on food and fuel are also having budgetary impacts on developing states globally, with the potential to kick-start a round of sovereign debt crises. Ghana is already seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout.
If you haven’t already seen it, the Council on Foreign Relations—of which we’re both members—has a wonderful visualizer showing some of the most important trends for 2023: Chinese military dominance, global food prices, etc. And my colleagues Robert Manning and Mathew Burrows have published their annual global risks assessment, which also includes food insecurity and developing countries’ debt levels. What are you watching in particular?
MK: I am watching a trend that started in 2022 but that I hope continues into the new year: pro-freedom protests against autocratic regimes. In Iran, China, and elsewhere, people took to the streets to stand up to dictators. It is unlikely to fully materialize in 2023, but I would be thrilled if this were the start of a “Fourth Democratic Wave.”
On Ukraine, my prediction is that the war will continue through 2023 and possibly 2024 and 2025. There were moments this year when many experts thought there would be a quick resolution to the conflict. Would Putin take Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in a couple of days? Would Ukraine’s counteroffensive cause Russian forces to collapse? Now, I think it is becoming apparent that this war will be with us for years, and that is why it is so important for Western governments to abandon the short-term mentality and adopt a long-haul strategy for Ukraine’s future.
EA: You are probably right that this war will continue. Nonetheless, I think there’s some chance—perhaps 25 percent—that policymakers will push for at least a cease-fire in 2023. The costs of the war are spiraling out of control for pretty much everyone: the Russians, the Europeans, the Americans, and certainly the Ukrainians. Public attitudes across Europe are trending toward a push for settlement of the conflict, and even here in the United States, 47 percent of Americans now want the Biden administration to look for ways to end the war. The path of least resistance is probably that the war will continue, but it’s possible that pressure will grow.
It’s also worth noting that there are elections in several European countries coming in the first half of the year (Estonia, Finland, the Czech Republic) and at the end of the year (Poland and Spain).
And on a more cynical note, the protest movements you note also have some of their roots in the economic malaise caused by the war in Ukraine. I worry about Iran. In addition to mass protests—which have already been violently suppressed in some cases—the nuclear deal is dead, and the United States and Iran are increasingly on a collision course.
MK: In Iran, I fear that the international effort to keep Tehran from the bomb will have obviously failed sometime in 2023. Negotiations are not going anywhere. Biden threatens that military force is on the table, but many policymakers suspect a bluff. Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance. The White House said Iran’s “breakout period”—the time it would take to be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium should it choose to do so—is only a few weeks. It will shrink down to essentially zero in 2023. I don’t think Iran will test a nuclear weapon in 2023, and it will take time to put a deliverable warhead on a ballistic missile, but I think we will look back at 2023 as the year in which a nuclear-armed Iran became inevitable.
EA: The failure of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. Even if it is partially responsible for the current domestic unrest in Iran, it has not prevented the regime from reaching the nuclear threshold. Iran is fast heading toward becoming the next North Korea: isolated, yes, but also a nuclear-armed and dangerous nation.
I’m afraid it doesn’t look like 2023 is going to be much more peaceful than this year was. But we’re certainly in a different era. Next year will also mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, something that now seems distant and from a different period of history. The United States may be making new mistakes in foreign policy, but at least it isn’t regularly toppling regimes anymore.
MK: Well, if it does, I predict that you and I will be back here to debate it in 2023. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Emma.
EA: And to you too, Matt. Here’s to hoping for a happier and more peaceful 2023!
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford
Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig
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