Ten Most Significant World Events in 2022
Future historians may come to regard 2022 as a hinge in history, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. Major war returned to Europe, with the attendant threats of nuclear strikes, and the door closed firmly shut on the U.S. policy of strategic engagement with China. Yes, the past twelve months did bring some good news. Most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic eased in many countries. But overall, 2022 brought more bad news than good news. So here are my top ten world events in 2022. (My colleagues in CFR Digital have created a video that recounts the top seven.) You may want to read what follows closely. Many of these stories will continue into 2023 and beyond.
10. Turmoil Rocks British Politics. It is never good when a prime minister’s tenure is measured in “Scaramuccis.” But that was the United Kingdom’s situation in 2022. The country whose empire once spanned the globe had three prime ministers in just two months and also lost the world’s longest reigning monarch. The proximate cause for the turmoil at 10 Downing Street was more than fifty members of Boris Johnson’s government resigning in July to protest the seemingly endless parade of scandals on his watch. He agreed to resign, and was succeeded by Liz Truss. She lasted just forty-five days—or 4.1 Scaramuccis—the shortest tenure of any British prime minister in history. (Truss also holds the distinction of being the last prime minister that Queen Elizabeth II asked to form a government.) Truss won the job in an internal Conservative Party election in which just 0.3 percent of registered British voters were eligible to vote. She sealed her doom by immediately slashing taxes. The move sent the value of the British pound plummeting. Rishi Sunak, who helped engineer Johnson’s downfall, got the honor of trying to pick up the pieces as Britain’s first prime minister of color. He faces daunting headwinds. Britain looks to be in a recession with inflation running at 15 percent, partly because of skyrocketing energy prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The bigger problem, and the broader cause for Britain’s turmoil, is that Brexit has not produced the economic bonanza that proponents promised. “Remainers” can say, “I told you so,” but a return to the European Union isn’t in the cards.
9. A Trio of Crises Buffet Pakistan. Political, economic, and climate crises wracked Pakistan in 2022. In April, Prime Minister Imran Khan lost a no-confidence vote in parliament, continuing a streak in which no Pakistani prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term. Khan, however, did not go quietly into retirement. He instead led his followers in a series of protest marches on the capital of Islamabad seeking to oust his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Seemingly in retaliation, the government charged Khan in August with violating Pakistan’s antiterrorism laws. In November, he was wounded in a failed assassination attempt. He blamed Sharif and senior military officials for the attacks and demanded that the country hold early elections. As Khan’s followers were marching, Pakistani officials were struggling to solve the country’s debt crisis as the foreign exchange reserves needed to finance its debt and to pay for imports ran perilously low. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a bailout package in August that prevented an immediate economic collapse. However, Pakistan owes roughly $30 billion to China alone, equivalent to 30 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, and has to pay back roughly $2 billion in foreign loans overall in 2023. The steps needed to secure the IMF’s help are likely to slow economic growth even as inflation spikes. In August, torrential monsoon rains and melting glaciers triggered epic floods that compounded Pakistan’s political and economic woes. One-third of the country was flooded, and more than one million homes were destroyed. Pakistan’s triple crises make it likely that its 225 million citizens will face a difficult 2023.
8. Humanitarian Crises Deepen. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine focused attention on Ukrainians fleeing their homeland for security abroad. That coverage helped obscure humanitarian and refugee crises elsewhere in the world. Some 32 million people around the world currently are refugees, meaning they have fled their native country because of persecution, conflict, or violence. When the internally displaced—that is, people who have been forced from their homes but continue to live in their native country—are included, the number balloons to more than 100 million. That is 13 million higher than the end of 2021, or equivalent to the combined populations of Ireland, Lithuania, and New Zealand. The surge in refugees and internally displaced people is only in part due to the war in Ukraine. The humanitarian situation in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Yemen remains desperate without any signs of a resolution in the underlying conflicts. Syria alone accounts for a fifth of the world’s refugees. A surge in gang violence in Haiti prompted thousands of Haitians to flee overseas and sparked talk of a foreign intervention to restore order. One possible bright spot heading into 2023 is Ethiopia. In early November, the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leaders signed a peace deal that ended a two-year long civil war that has displaced more than 5.1 million people. But international relief agencies and private humanitarian organizations worried that the Western efforts to help Ukraine were crowding out funding for humanitarian crises elsewhere.
7. Latin America Moves Left. What a difference five years can make. In 2017, right-of-center politicians dominated politics in Latin America. But starting in 2018 with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, the winds shifted. Center-left candidate Alberto Fernández claimed Argentina’s presidency in 2019. Socialist Luis Arce won Bolivia’s presidency in 2020. Last year, socialist Pedro Castillo became president of Peru and leftist Gabriel Boric became president of Chile. The trend to the left continued in 2022 as democratic socialist Xiomara Castro was sworn in as president of Honduras, former rebel fighter Gustavo Petro made history by becoming Colombia’s first leftist president, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva returned to the presidency by defeating the incumbent right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro. A regional shift to the left has precedent in Latin America. In the late 1990s and early 2000s politicians like Hugo Chavez, Lula, and Evo Morales won election and spurred talk of a “pink tide.” Whether the recent trend constitutes a second pink tide can be debated. What is undeniable is that these leaders will be hard pressed to deliver on their promises to tackle the many economic, gender, and racial inequities besetting their countries. They all face a slowdown in global economic growth, rising interest rates, increased inflation, and the continued consequences of COVID. At the same time, political polarization has deepened across the region. Events have already claimed one leader. Just this month, the Peruvian Congress impeached President Castillo after he tried to invoke emergency rule.
6. Iranians Protest. Regimes born out of protests can also be toppled by them. That reality must haunt the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who in 2022 saw the most significant challenge to their rule since they came to power in 1979. The protests began in September when “morality police” in Tehran arrested Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman visiting Iran’s capital city, for failing to cover her hair properly. She died in police custody. When the news reached her hometown of Saqqez in northwestern Iran, hundreds of people gathered to condemn her death and Iran’s mistreatment of women. The protests quickly spread throughout the country as Iranians across social, class, and ethnic lines marched to the slogan: “Women, life, freedom!” Iranian leaders blamed the United States and Israel for engineering the protests, though the driving force was the government’s political repression, corruption, and mismanagement of the economy. The government tried to quell the protests with force. By December, Iranian security forces had killed as many as 450 protestors on the streets, and the government had begun publicly executing protestors convicted in rushed trials for crimes against the state. The persistence of the protests in the face of government repression prompted speculation that Iran is in the early stages of a new revolution. Perhaps. But so far, the regime has shown no signs of splintering, and no one has emerged to lead the opposition. Should that change, Iran’s theocratic regime could be headed for the ash heap of history.
5. COVID Eases. Pandemics eventually end. Three years after COVID burst onto the scene, the world appears to have turned the corner on the first global pandemic in a century. In September, the head of the World Health Organization declared that the end of the pandemic is “in sight.” That reality was evident in the fact that many countries abandoned the lockdowns, travel restrictions, and related measures that they had imposed when COVID swept across the world in early 2020. They were able to do so because of the success of vaccines and therapeutic treatments in lowering the chances of dying from COVID and because many of their citizens had already been infected and developed some protection against the virus. The one exception to this trend was China. It pursued a zero-tolerance policy long after every other country had abandoned the strategy, preferring instead to impose draconian crackdowns whenever and wherever outbreaks occurred. By late 2022, the Chinese people had begun to rebel against what Chinese officials had hailed as their great success. In December, Beijing began easing its COVID restrictions. However, it had not developed its own highly effective vaccine, refused to import highly effective Western vaccines, and had a population with relatively little exposure to COVID. So the death toll in China from COVID will soar in 2023. Even if China avoids the death tolls that the United States and other countries experienced in 2020, COVID will remain a deadly disease there and elsewhere for years. At the end of 2022, more than 2,000 Americans were dying of COVID each week.
4. Inflation Returns. Sometimes the good old days were not so good. The late 1970s are a case in point. Anyone who lived through those years experienced what it was like to see inflation eat through their paychecks. The inflationary spiral was broken only after the U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates and triggered a brutal recession. In the four decades since then the world has lived in a low inflation environment. Indeed, for a time the bigger worry for economists was that inflation rates had fallen too low and might trigger a disastrous deflationary spiral. That peril was avoided, but 2022 saw inflation rise around the world. The price spikes were driven by a combination of demand and supply issues. On the demand side, years of easy government monetary policy combined with a flood of government spending to prevent an economic collapse during the COVID pandemic put more money in consumers’ pockets. On the supply side, first COVID and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted global supply chains, creating scarcities in a wide array of goods. Spiking prices have roiled politics in rich and poor countries alike as leaders scrambled to address growing public anger. The problem is that the main cure for inflation is raising interest rates. Doing that, however, does little to solve supply chain disruptions, and it could trigger a recession. The U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks hope to engineer a “soft landing.” Even if they succeed, higher interest rates are already creating a debt crisis for many poor countries.
3. Climate Change Intensifies. Forty years ago, when scientists first warned of a possible climate catastrophe, it was a problem for the future. Two thousand twenty-two showed that that perilous future has arrived. Once rare extreme weather events became commonplace. Europe experienced record heat waves that burned forests and dried up rivers. Pakistan endured a similarly brutal heat wave that was followed by epic monsoons that left as much as one-third of the country under water. The U.S. southwest endured a record drought that shrank reservoirs like Lake Mead and diminished crops yields. On the other side of the country, Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on Florida. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations warned in April that the effects of climate change will soon become irreversible. There were a few bright spots in the climate change debate. In August, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed into law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which has been heralded as the most important step taken thus far to reduce the emission of the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. Likewise, scientists generated technological advances that might someday wean humanity off fossil fuels. But overall, government action continued to lag. The COP27 meeting at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, ended with a loss and damage agreement that in theory will lead wealthy countries to compensate poor countries harmed by climate change. But no breakthroughs were made in cutting emissions. Instead, the share of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continued to rise in 2022.
2. U.S.-China Tensions Grow. The great power competition between China and the United States is fully underway. The Joe Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, released in October 2022, made the point bluntly: “China harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit,” and the United States intends to “win the competition.” The administration pointed to Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its efforts to intimidate Taiwan, and its rampant theft of intellectual property as evidence that Beijing’s behavior had forced the United States to abandon its policy of welcoming China’s rise. China’s belligerent response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August highlighted just how tense relations had grown between the two countries. In October, Biden took a major step to limit China’s rise by denying it access to the advanced semiconductor chips and technology essential to dominating fields like artificial intelligence. Biden also continued to urge friends and allies to take similarly tough stances on China. However, the administration’s tendency to act unilaterally, its lackluster trade initiatives, and its embrace of an industrial policy that could steal jobs from those same friends and allies, undercut its efforts. In mid-November, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit. They promised to work to reduce mutual tensions and pledged cooperation in areas like climate change and public health. Nonetheless, mutual suspicion and acrimony are likely to dominate the relationship for years to come.
1. Russia Invades Ukraine. Sometimes intelligence agencies are like the mythical Cassandra, correctly predicting events only to be disbelieved. Late in 2021, U.S. and British officials began warning that Russia would invade Ukraine. Many European leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, dismissed the idea of war. But on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a "special military operation" that it said was needed to force the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” To the surprise of the Kremlin and most military experts, Ukraine withstood the initial onslaught and then began to turn back Russian forces. Moscow abandoned its bid to take Kyiv and shifted to seizing the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. In September, the Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive that liberated the northeastern city of Kharkiv. Six weeks later, Russian forces abandoned the southeastern city of Kherson, spurring speculation that Ukraine might seek to reclaim Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014. Russia’s invasion exposed significant geopolitical divisions. Western nations rallied behind Kyiv. China and most countries in the Global South did not, despite their insistence that national borders are sacrosanct. Some even blamed the invasion on NATO expansion. They failed to explain, though, how an alliance that mustered less firepower on the ground than it did thirty years earlier and that one member leader said was experiencing “brain death,” suddenly threatened Russia. As 2022 ended, a ceasefire looked unlikely. Russia targeted Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, hoping that winter would do what the Russian military couldn’t, break Ukraine’s will. Meanwhile, the rest of the world struggled to adapt to the price shocks, supply disruptions, and food shortages triggered by Russia’s brazen aggression.
Sinet Adous and Elia Ching assisted in the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series:
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2021
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2020
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2019
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2018
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2017
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2016
Ten Most Significant World Events in 2015