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Looking Ahead to 2023 by Looking Back

What last year’s foreign-policy events can tell us about this year’s.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
"The All-Seeing Trump," a parody of a fortune-telling machine is seen near where the election night party for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will be held at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 8, 2016 in New York City.
"The All-Seeing Trump," a parody of a fortune-telling machine is seen near where the election night party for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will be held at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 8, 2016 in New York City.
"The All-Seeing Trump," a parody of a fortune-telling machine is seen near where the election night party for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will be held at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 8, 2016 in New York City. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Before I got too far into 2023, I decided to look back to see if 2022 had gone according to my expectations. In my last column of 2021, I described “Biden’s 2022 Foreign-Policy To-Do List.” What did I get right, what did I get wrong, and how well did the Biden administration perform?

1. China and Taiwan. My first prediction—that “we won’t see a serious crisis or military confrontation over Taiwan in 2022”—was correct. Tensions rose slightly in response to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-advised visit there in August, but cooler heads prevailed and both Beijing and Washington subsequently decided to lower the temperature for the moment. This decision isn’t surprising, as both Beijing and Washington have pretty full plates. Thus far, at least, the Biden administration seems to be getting away with its undeclared economic war on China, but whether its campaign will succeed remains to be seen. U.S. allies in Asia (and Europe) aren’t happy with export controls on advanced chip technology or the protectionist elements of the administration’s broader economic program, and that could be an opportunity for China. Looking ahead, I’m still confident that peace will prevail in East Asia in 2023.

2. Ukraine. I got this one wrong, but only in part. Writing in late December 2021, I predicted Russia would not invade. I wasn’t 100 percent certain, however, and said that if Moscow did invade, I expected it to launch a “limited aims” incursion focused primarily on the Donbas, most likely leading to a “frozen conflict” similar to the situation in Georgia. Why did I think so? Because a limited campaign would be “less likely to provoke a strong and unified response from the West.” A limited incursion would also put President Joe Biden (and NATO) in a “no-win” situation, because there was “little appetite [in the U.S.] for a shooting war in an area far away from the United States and right next door to Russia.” I thought Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that a large-scale invasion would trigger fierce Ukrainian resistance and create a “costly running sore Moscow could ill afford.”

Before I got too far into 2023, I decided to look back to see if 2022 had gone according to my expectations. In my last column of 2021, I described “Biden’s 2022 Foreign-Policy To-Do List.” What did I get right, what did I get wrong, and how well did the Biden administration perform?

1. China and Taiwan. My first prediction—that “we won’t see a serious crisis or military confrontation over Taiwan in 2022”—was correct. Tensions rose slightly in response to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-advised visit there in August, but cooler heads prevailed and both Beijing and Washington subsequently decided to lower the temperature for the moment. This decision isn’t surprising, as both Beijing and Washington have pretty full plates. Thus far, at least, the Biden administration seems to be getting away with its undeclared economic war on China, but whether its campaign will succeed remains to be seen. U.S. allies in Asia (and Europe) aren’t happy with export controls on advanced chip technology or the protectionist elements of the administration’s broader economic program, and that could be an opportunity for China. Looking ahead, I’m still confident that peace will prevail in East Asia in 2023.

2. Ukraine. I got this one wrong, but only in part. Writing in late December 2021, I predicted Russia would not invade. I wasn’t 100 percent certain, however, and said that if Moscow did invade, I expected it to launch a “limited aims” incursion focused primarily on the Donbas, most likely leading to a “frozen conflict” similar to the situation in Georgia. Why did I think so? Because a limited campaign would be “less likely to provoke a strong and unified response from the West.” A limited incursion would also put President Joe Biden (and NATO) in a “no-win” situation, because there was “little appetite [in the U.S.] for a shooting war in an area far away from the United States and right next door to Russia.” I thought Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that a large-scale invasion would trigger fierce Ukrainian resistance and create a “costly running sore Moscow could ill afford.”

As we all know now, Putin overestimated Russia’s military capabilities, underestimated Ukraine’s, and decided to invade anyway. Nor were Russia’s initial objectives limited to the Donbas. I got that wrong, although I was correct in assuming that its actions would provoke fierce Ukrainian resistance and a “strong and unified” Western response. Since then, the Biden administration has led the Western response with considerable tactical skill, aided in no small part by Russian over-confidence; repeated Russian blunders; and vigorous, creative, and heroic Ukrainian resistance. This item on Biden’s to-do list turned out differently than I expected, but I’d give him and his team high marks for their overall performance once the fighting broke out.

But looking ahead presents a grimmer picture. The war is far from over, and I fear that 2023 will be more difficult for the Biden administration, the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the rest of NATO than the past year was. Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have done enormous damage and its greater size and population may enable it to outlast Kyiv in a war of attrition no matter how much outside support Kyiv receives. I say “may” because reliable information about each side’s actual losses, reserves, and ability to sustain its forces into the future is hard to discern on the basis of publicly available information. Neither Russia nor Ukraine shows any sign of wanting to compromise and devising a workable deal would be difficult even if both sides were genuinely interested in one. Ukraine’s battlefield successes will be harder to duplicate this year, and a protracted stalemate is bound to lead some observers to call for increased Western support and helping Ukraine take the fight to Russia directly, while others will argue that it’s time to push for a cease-fire. No one knows which of these views will win out, but it’s a safe bet that Ukraine will continue to absorb a lot of Biden’s bandwidth next year. And the longer the war lasts, those countries that have remained on the sidelines (China, India, etc.) will be the main beneficiaries.

3. Israel and Iran. In 2021, I warned that Biden was likely to face renewed pressure for military action against Iran. Here I was overly pessimistic: This issue never really came to a boil in 2022. But Benjamin Netanyahu is back as prime minister, heading the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Any possibility of reaching a new agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program now seems like a pipe dream. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s foolish decision to leave the original deal allowed Tehran to move much closer to the bomb than when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was in force, and Iran’s current leaders seem more interested in stockpiling more highly enriched uranium and hardening their nuclear infrastructure than in negotiating new limits. Iran’s willingness to provide Russia with drones for use against Ukraine makes it even less likely that we’ll see any diplomatic progress on that front. Netanyahu has already said that stopping Iran’s nuclear program is one of his top foreign-policy goals, and that means pushing the Biden administration to support more aggressive action. A war in the Middle East is probably the last thing Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken want right now, but that won’t stop Netanyahu and his allies inside the United States from pressing their case. Repeatedly.

Meanwhile, the new cabinet’s explicit commitment to deepening Israel’s unjust system in the occupied territories is already triggering alarm bells among progressives and handwringing from some of Israel’s supporters in the United States. Don’t expect the United States to do much more than express “concern” about Israeli policy and offer the usual ritual incantations to the dead-as-a-doornail “two-state solution.” Nobody in this administration is prepared to go to bat for Palestinian rights or to contemplate reducing U.S. support for Israel, no matter what the new Netanyahu government decides to do. This situation will further expose the gap between the Biden administration’s rhetorical commitment to democracy and human rights and its actual behavior. But when dealing with the Middle East, this sort of hypocrisy is nothing new.

4. Credibility concerns continue. In my prediction column, I said Biden had a credibility problem. Not because of his (correct) decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, but because the United States couldn’t possibly fulfill every one of its global commitments and because other countries were worried that Trumpian isolationism might eventually come back with renewed vigor. The good news is that the forceful and thus-far effective response on Ukraine and Biden’s sustained effort to reach out to traditional allies in Europe and Asia have allayed these concerns temporarily. The bad news is that the more fundamental structural problems remain: Asian partners worry that Ukraine will be an enduring distraction from the need to counter China, Europeans worry that Trumpism still lives within the Republican Party, and hawks back home keep saying the national security budget that is fast approaching a trillion dollars per year still isn’t enough to meet all of the United States’ far-flung global commitments.

Ironically, a bit less confidence in U.S. protection could be beneficial, if it encourages others to do more to protect themselves and thus make a greater commitment to regional stability. Over the next year, therefore, Biden’s challenge is to convince U.S. allies to make good on their promises to do more and to turn today’s resolve into tomorrow’s capability. But this goal could be tough sledding during a global recession.

5. A humanitarian crisis? In 2021, I warned that we were likely to see a growing humanitarian crisis, even if I wasn’t sure where it would occur or what form it would take. Sadly, this turned out to be true. The World Economic Forum reports that there are now some 100 million refugees worldwide—7.9 million from Ukraine alone, with an additional 5.9 million people internally displaced—with tragedies having occurred on nearly every continent and continuing to fuel large-scale migration flows (including the continuing crisis on the United States’ southern border). The Biden administration doesn’t have a concrete answer for this—apart from sending relief aid—but neither does anyone else. Only a cockeyed optimist would expect this problem to diminish significantly next year, and if Ukraine’s power grid crashes completely this winter, the consequences could be truly horrific.

6. Setting priorities and sticking to them. In 2021, I suggested that a final challenge for Biden would be “resisting pressures to get involved in the latest crisis du jour.” The administration did tolerably well on that score, if only because its plate was already full. Bear in mind that the United States is now seeking to inflict a decisive defeat on two major powers at the same time: It is trying to help Ukraine inflict a military defeat on Russia and trying to inflict a major economic defeat on China through a combination of export controls on advanced technology, subsidies to the U.S. semiconductor industry, increased military support for Taiwan, and a campaign to line up most of the United States’ allies behind these efforts. Those are some pretty darn ambitious objectives, leaving little room for additional crusades. Biden also got lucky, insofar as no equally grave challenges emerged following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The late baseball player Lefty Gomez was on to something when he said he’d rather be lucky than good; I only hope Biden’s run of good luck continues.

7. The war at home. My worst fears about domestic dysfunction did not come to pass. In late 2021, inflation was rising, Trump was getting ready to run again, just about everyone expected a “red wave” in the midterm elections, the Supreme Court had been captured by a conservative faction whose views are sharply at odds with those of most Americans, and fears that the midterms would be tainted by electoral misconduct and post-election shenanigans were widespread. And I was hardly alone in these concerns. I even went so far as to suggest that only far-reaching constitutional reforms could fix the rot.

Here’s one where I was happy to be proved wrong. The midterms went off without serious problems, Trump’s new campaign has yet to catch fire, his legal problems keep mounting, and many of the candidates he backed lost badly. Republicans took the House of Representatives (narrowly) but not the Senate, and their slim margin in the House and internal divisions within the party may limit their ability to do much harm (or much good, for that matter). Inflation is gradually being tamed, and the U.S. economy has outperformed other advanced capitalist countries. The United States is hardly out of the woods yet—as the election of George Santos (whoever he is) and other political food fights remind us—but those who yearn for an end to scorched-earth politics and a return to constructive, reality-based partisan competition should be heartened by what happened last year. Heartened, but not complacent.

And on that uncharacteristically upbeat note, I wish you all a happy (and, ideally, more peaceful and prosperous) new year.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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