Five Foreign Policy Stories to Watch in 2023
Two thousand twenty-two had its fair share of big news stories. The same will be true of 2023. Some of the events that will make the news will surprise. Here are five that won’t. Each of them figures to make headlines in 2023—and to absorb the time and energy of policymakers in the United States and abroad.
1. The War in Ukraine. Many policymakers and experts a year ago dismissed U.S. and British intelligence reports that Russia would invade Ukraine. Almost everyone expected a quick Russian victory if it did. As 2022 ended, Ukraine had not only turned back the Russian military offensive but gained the upper hand in the fighting. Rather than seeking a face-saving diplomatic exit from his grievous miscalculation, Russian President Vladimir doubled down on his brazen aggression by deliberately targeting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. The specter of a brutal winter appears not to have shaken Ukrainian resolve. Western support for Ukraine also appears to be holding, even as European publics recoil at the war’s economic fallout. For his part, Putin has suppressed domestic criticism of his war, dashing hopes that his ouster from office might bring peace. So bitter fighting is likely to continue throughout the winter, even if the prospects for significant breakthroughs on the ground seem slim. That could change in the spring, either because Russia launches a new military offensive, perhaps with Belarus’s support, or Ukraine seeks to reclaim Crimea. Major advances on the ground by either side might create space for diplomacy. But such advances could also spur escalation. Putin has not renounced his implicit threat to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, fighting in Ukraine will continue to roil global markets, driving up energy prices and heightening food insecurity across the Global South. One sobering possibility is that the world will live under the shadow of the war in Ukraine for years to come.
2. The Axis of the Aggrieved. President Joe Biden came to office insisting that the contest between democracies and autocracies is the defining division in world affairs. Regardless of whether that framing is the best one for U.S. foreign policy, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped solidify what might be called the “axis of the aggrieved”—authoritarian powers that resent U.S. preeminence and Western influence more broadly. On the eve of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping affirmed what they called a “friendship without limits.” While Beijing declined to help Moscow rebuild its depleted weapons stocks as its war in Ukraine faltered, it has failed to criticize the Russian invasion and instead has used its media power to blame the West for the war. North Korea moved closer to both China and Russia, including by selling rockets and artillery to help Moscow sustain its war in Ukraine. Iran similarly deepened its military ties with Russia, first by selling Moscow drones and then by selling other advanced military systems and parts. Whether and how these ties deepen remains an open question. Mutual contempt of the U.S.-dominated world order may not provide the firmest foundation for collaboration. China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helps make the Biden administration’s case that U.S. friends and partners should limit China’s rise. Likewise, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program complicates life for Beijing in northeast Asia. And Iran worries that China may find Saudi Arabia a more appealing Middle Eastern partner.
3. Tensions Over Taiwan. President Xi has vowed to reunify what China regards as the wayward province of Taiwan. He has set not forth a timetable for accomplishing this goal, or ruled out using force to achieve it. The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations is among the experts warning that China might invade Taiwan before 2024. On balance, that seems unlikely. Mounting a successful amphibious invasion of an island that sits one hundred miles off the mainland is a daunting task, especially for a military that has not seen significant combat in more than four decades. President Biden has said the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of an attack, even though no treaty obligates it to do so. Washington clearly would prefer not to have make good on that vow. Some war games show the United States losing any fight over Taiwan; others show it winning. Either way, the costs would be ruinous for all involved. But an outright invasion is only one possibility. China could also accelerate “grey-zone activities” that probe Taiwan’s defenses and pressure Taipei. China did just that in retaliation for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan. The next House Speaker may repeat Pelosi’s visit, which will give Beijing justification to step up pressure on Taiwan. A gradual intensification of Chinese grey-zone activities could present the United States with escalatory dilemmas where the challenge becomes conveying resolve without triggering a clash between Chinese and U.S. forces. A controversy is already brewing in Washington over whether promised military aid is getting to Taiwan fast enough to deter Beijing—or possibly defeat it.
4. Turmoil in Iran. Will the Islamic Republic of Iran still exist on December 31, 2023? The mullahs who have governed Iran for four decades now face the most significant domestic challenge to their rule. The immediate cause of the protests buffeting the regime is the September 2022 death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman. The reason for her arrest? She wasn’t wearing the required hijab properly. Her death touched a nerve in a country already angry about a stagnant economy, high inequality, government corruption, and growing climate-related challenges. The government has responded to demonstrators chanting “Women, life, freedom!” with more repression. However, shooting some demonstrators in the street and publicly executing others after sham trials has only fueled public opposition. The regime may continue to double down on repression, fearing that conciliatory gestures will just generate more demands. But more repression could also lead the European Union and others to toughen sanctions on Iran. A wild card is the health of eighty-three-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He is rumored to be ill. A leadership change in the midst of nationwide protests could split the regime. The protests have likely extinguished the already dim prospects for reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran blames the United States and Israel for engineering the protests, and the Biden administration isn’t likely to sign any agreements while the regime is shooting protesters in the street. The question preoccupying the White House is whether Iran might try to distract attention from its problems at home by acting more malignly abroad.
5. The Biden Administration’s America First Economic Policy. When 2022 started, geopolitical divisions buffeted the West. European leaders dismissed the Biden administration’s warning that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, and experts worried that a Russia attacked limited to the Donbass might split the transatlantic alliance. But Putin ordered a large-scale invasion that united the West in opposition. Despite predictions that Western solidarity would quickly crumble, it held up. But as 2022 ended, a new dividing line emerged between the United States and its closest allies: economic policy. Contrary to the hopes of most U.S. trading partners, President Biden left many of Donald Trump’s tariffs in place. In 2022, the U.S. Congress passed, and Biden signed into law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act. They subsidized U.S. industries and discriminated against producers outside of North America. French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the two laws might “fragment the West.” Many other U.S. allies were equally scathing in criticizing the U.S. embrace of industrial policy. Biden admitted that the Inflation Reduction Act had “glitches” and spoke of making “tweaks” to the law. However, Congress isn’t likely to revise its handiwork. The Biden administration also banned the export of advanced semiconductor chips and equipment that use U.S. technology to China, forcing U.S. trade partners to choose between complying or losing critical export opportunities. The U.S. actions came as the war in Ukraine rocked the European economy. That prompted some leading European officials to complain that Washington was championing the Ukrainian cause only because the U.S. economy was profiting from the fighting.
Sinet Adous and Michelle Kurilla assisted in the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series:
Five Foreign Policy Stories to Watch in 2022
Five Foreign Policy Stories to Watch in 2021