What’s Going to Be in Biden’s Inbox in 2023

Russia, Ukraine, China, and nukes: Here are the biggest foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S. next year.

By , , , , and
U.S. President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the American Rescue Plan in the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the American Rescue Plan in the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the American Rescue Plan in the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 2. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The year began with Russia’s sword of Damocles hanging over Ukraine as almost 200,000 troops massed at the country’s border. In late February, it came crashing down as Russian forces poured into Ukraine, only to be swiftly rebuffed. Since then, the war has charted a course that few could have predicted, while shockwaves on food and energy markets have been felt around the world. 

The conflict monopolized much of the Biden administration’s attention throughout the year. While the long-awaited national security strategy, released in October, made it clear that the White House sees Russia as an immediate threat to the international system, it fears that China may soon have the capabilities to remake the world order entirely. Beijing was the target of one of the administration’s most consequential moves of the year as the little-known Bureau of Industry and Security slapped a wide-ranging ban on the export of semiconductors to China, a move that is certain to have ripple effects into the coming year. 

Afghanistan, the biggest foreign-policy challenge—or catastrophe—of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first year in office got little mention in the national security strategy. But while the administration may be keen to move on, the chaotic nature of the withdrawal is likely to rear its head again in the coming year as Republicans take the gavel in the House of Representatives, promising more Benghazi-style hearings into the messy end of the United States’ longest war.

The year began with Russia’s sword of Damocles hanging over Ukraine as almost 200,000 troops massed at the country’s border. In late February, it came crashing down as Russian forces poured into Ukraine, only to be swiftly rebuffed. Since then, the war has charted a course that few could have predicted, while shockwaves on food and energy markets have been felt around the world. 

The conflict monopolized much of the Biden administration’s attention throughout the year. While the long-awaited national security strategy, released in October, made it clear that the White House sees Russia as an immediate threat to the international system, it fears that China may soon have the capabilities to remake the world order entirely. Beijing was the target of one of the administration’s most consequential moves of the year as the little-known Bureau of Industry and Security slapped a wide-ranging ban on the export of semiconductors to China, a move that is certain to have ripple effects into the coming year. 

Afghanistan, the biggest foreign-policy challenge—or catastrophe—of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first year in office got little mention in the national security strategy. But while the administration may be keen to move on, the chaotic nature of the withdrawal is likely to rear its head again in the coming year as Republicans take the gavel in the House of Representatives, promising more Benghazi-style hearings into the messy end of the United States’ longest war.

Lurking in the background is the ever-present challenge of nuclear proliferation as efforts to return Iran to the nuclear deal have stalled; the Pentagon has sounded the alarm about Beijing’s expanding nuclear arsenal; South Korea has warned that its rogue northern neighbor is preparing for another nuclear test; and Moscow has postponed talks over New START, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia.  

As we round the corner to 2023, here’s a look at the biggest foreign-policy challenges facing Biden in the year ahead. 


The Dogs of War

As the biggest provider of military aid to Ukraine, the principal task for the Biden administration will be to maintain a steady supply of arms enabling Kyiv to keep up the fight while also balancing its own commitments to U.S. readiness and increased scrutiny from congressional Republicans. 

For now, prospects for peace look slim as Russian troops entrench their positions in the Donbas. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in December that the war “might be a long process.” For their part, Ukrainian officials have vowed to fight on until the country is restored to its pre-2014 borders, including Crimea, which would likely be a bloody and difficult battle. And there’s the rub. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has defined the U.S. goal as helping Ukraine to oust Russia from territories seized since the invasion began in February, which notably would exclude the Crimean Peninsula. Nevertheless, if openings for meaningful talks do emerge next year, expect the United States to play a significant role. 

There’s more to worry about. Biden has to maintain the unity seen thus far between the United States and its partners in Europe and beyond to keep the pressure on Moscow and to ensure that Kyiv’s military and humanitarian needs are met. Europe supports Ukraine, but gas and food prices get a vote, too, as do likely recessions. All have been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion.


The Chips Are Down

Biden took the semiconductor rivalry with China up a notch this year with curbs on exports that threaten to set back Chinese efforts to compete in cutting-edge technologies by several years. While the export controls were effective, at least in the short term, two open questions remained: how China might retaliate, and to what degree U.S. allies are on board. The first of those questions has partially been answered, with Beijing filing a complaint against the semiconductor curbs at the World Trade Organization. As for allies, the Netherlands and Japan—two countries critical to the global semiconductor supply chain—have been in talks with the Biden administration, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying he was hopeful of “broad alignment” on semiconductor issues. 

There are other players. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, which accounts for 92 percent of the world’s most advanced chips, is investing in U.S. manufacturing capacity. But that $40 billion investment won’t even crank up until 2024, and in the meantime, China is reportedly preparing a $143 billion package of its own. 

There are more cracks to come. Washington’s efforts to decouple from China’s technology industry have already prompted pressure to escalate further, and the focus is back on some familiar targets. The Federal Communications Commission has already banned the import of telecommunications equipment from Huawei. Calls to ban TikTok from lawmakers and security officials have also gained momentum. Talks between the Biden administration and TikTok to restrict the U.S. data the app can collect are still in progress. With more than 100 million U.S. users, the app’s immense popularity means a potential ban would have domestic implications as well. 


The Nukes of Hazard 

The past year was a grim one for the arms control world. Biden’s efforts to salvage nuclear talks with Iran have run aground; North Korea is stubbornly making advances in its nuclear weapons program; and the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia has an uncertain future. And 2023 isn’t likely to bring good news. 

On Iran, both U.S. and Iranian negotiators have conceded that talks are all but over. Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, said in late autumn that Iran was only weeks away from having enough fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon. He also accused Iran of torpedoing new proposed deals that all the other guarantors of the deal supported. 

On North Korea, U.S. and South Korean officials just expect Pyongyang’s seventh nuclear test as a matter of when, not if. Meanwhile, it’s honing its ballistic missile program. By December 2022, North Korea had launched a record-shattering 63 ballistic missile tests, far outpacing its previous annual record of 25. Expect to see more joint U.S.-South Korea military drills next year and efforts to condemn North Korea’s nuclear weapons program at the United Nations. But given the toxic state of Washington’s relations with two other major U.N. powers, Russia and China, diplomats aren’t holding out much hope for those efforts to go that far.

Meanwhile, even as U.S.-Russia relations plunge, both countries appear willing to keep in place the seminal nuclear arms control treaty limiting the number of strategic nuclear weapons each country has, known as New START. Both sides were expected to restart working-level discussions on the treaty in Cairo, Egypt, in late November, but the talks were postponed. Both sides were tight-lipped about why. If the working-level talks restart in 2023, it stands as one sign that Washington and Moscow can keep an arms control regime alive, despite the dismal state of relations over Ukraine. 


A New Sheriff on Capitol Hill

The pending Republican takeover of the lower chamber of Congress—regardless of which Republican ends up with the speaker’s gavel—has reshuffled the Hill’s priorities and put a potential thorn in Biden’s side.

The highest-priority item on the agenda for congressional Republicans is an investigation of the chaotic 2021 U.S. troop withdrawal and multinational civilian evacuation of Kabul. Rep. Michael McCaul, who is likely to take over the House Foreign Affairs Committee, drafted a searing report on the withdrawal released in August that called out the Biden administration’s failure to adequately plan for the procedure, which was agreed to during the Trump administration. McCaul has also taken the Biden administration to task for abandoning U.S.-trained Afghan commandos during the withdrawal, with some of the elite soldiers making the decision to flee to Iran. Biden administration officials, who largely escaped questioning about the withdrawal when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, are likely to be subjected to marathon hearings over the scenes at Kabul International Airport during the final days of the U.S. military presence. 

Another big question is aid for Ukraine. Though Congress has beefed up the Pentagon’s budget beyond what the White House asked for, some pro-Trump Republicans want to dial back assistance to Kyiv, which is fighting an existential battle with Moscow. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has promised to more closely monitor aid to Ukraine, and incoming Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance has suggested that he doesn’t “really care” what happens to Ukraine. At the very least, the Biden administration’s determination to continue aiding Ukraine’s fight for survival will face greater scrutiny from the new Republican House.

And then there’s China. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, whose bid for leadership has split loyalists of former President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill, has already pushed to make China a focal point of the GOP’s foreign policy. He has enlisted other China hawks to help accelerate the U.S. decoupling from China; one of his acolytes has introduced legislation to ban Chinese-owned TikTok in the United States and has raised concerns about U.S. tax dollars subsidizing the Chinese solar panel industry. 


Much Ado About Molecules

The global energy landscape underwent dramatic shifts in 2022 as Russia’s weaponization of Europe’s natural gas supply wreaked havoc around the world, driving up energy prices and plunging import-dependent countries into economic turmoil. Washington, though not the hardest hit by the resulting fallout, spearheaded efforts to adopt a Russian oil price cap that ultimately kicked in in December. After a whirlwind year, Biden’s focus will now be keeping global prices down—and advancing his push for clean energy and a green economy. 

In 2023, one of Biden’s big challenges “is to ensure there’s sufficient supply of all types of energy to avoid more price spikes at home and arguably abroad as well,” said Richard Bronze, co-founder of Energy Aspects, an energy consultancy. “The second is, while doing that, to change the trajectory of carbon emissions, both in the U.S. and globally, which are on the rise in 2022.”

Congress already passed Biden’s big sweeping climate, tax, and health care bill that, among other goals, is aimed at shifting the United States away from fossil fuel use. But that’s only heightened tension with European allies who are worried by how the Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies may disadvantage their own companies in the global market. 

Looming over all of this is the question of how China’s rapid turn away from zero-COVID could reshuffle the energy landscape. After three years of subdued energy demand, the country’s reopening will only add more pressure to a global oil and gas market still reeling from the past year. “It is definitely possible that one of the things that will happen in 2023 is that China rebounds, and all of a sudden a tight market becomes even tighter,” said Ben Cahill, an energy security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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