You are not alone if 2023 has you feeling worn down. It has been a trying year on the world scene, as the forces of disarray grew stronger. Ongoing wars ground on, while new ones erupted. Geopolitical competition increased, to the point where a meeting between rival heads of state became front-page news even though their talks yielded little tangible progress. In all, good news has been in short supply. So here are my top ten world events in 2023. You may want to read what follows closely. Many of these stories will continue into 2024 and beyond.
And if you would like visuals to go along with the list, here is the companion video my colleagues in CFR Digital have created recounting all ten events.
10. The global democratic recession continues. Optimists are predicting a fourth wave of global democratic expansion. That prediction was a bust in 2023. Freedom House started the year by announcing that 2022 marked the seventeenth straight year in which global freedom and democracy declined. As if to prove the point, Africa’s coup epidemic continued. In July, Niger’s military ousted the country’s democratically-elected president. Neighboring states threatened to intervene if the coup wasn’t reversed, but the military juntas running Mali and Burkina Faso threatened war in response. In August, Gabon’s military took power and made vague promises to eventually hold elections. A new progressive party won the most seats in Thailand’s May election. However, a backroom deal produced a pro-military government that left the election’s biggest winner on the outside looking in. India’s government continued to use the law and intimidation to silence critics, and many other democracies restricted freedom of expression. The trend of candidates claiming they would lose their election only if the vote were rigged continued. Far-right parties fared well across Europe, reviving memories of how European democracies collapsed a century ago. Guatemala’s attorney general tried to keep the country’s president-elect from taking office, while Peru’s attorney general used corruption investigations to pressure lawmakers to help her allies. Donald Trump called his opponents “vermin,” said that if he regained the White House he would not be a dictator “except for Day One,” and suggested he would use the presidency to target his political enemies. All in all, not a good year for democracy.
9. The space race heats up. One hundred and fifty years ago the advice was: “Go west.” Today the advice might be: “Go to the heavens.” Both countries and companies are making big bets on space. Seventy-seven countries have space agencies; sixteen countries can launch payloads into space. The moon has been of particular interest. Russia’s moon effort ended in disappointment in August when its lander crashed into the moon’s surface. Days later, India became the fourth country to land an unmanned vehicle on the moon, and the first to do so near the moon’s south polar region. Two weeks later, India launched a mission to study the sun. China and the United States also have ambitious moon programs, with NASA aiming to return astronauts to the moon by 2025. These and other space-related efforts are fueling concerns that geopolitical rivalries will lead to the militarization of space. The surge in interest in space has also highlighted the lack of rules governing space operations. The United States has promoted the Artemis Accords to “govern the civil exploration and use of outer space.” China and many other space-faring countries have declined to sign on. Working out rules for space is complicated by the fact that private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic play a large role in space operations. That raises questions about profit motives and national obligations. But the surge in space activity also raises questions about whether the seemingly mundane problem of space junk will complicate exploration of the heavens.
8. India passes China as the world’s most populous country. For the last century, if not longer, China has had the world’s largest population. That ended in 2023. India now does. Its population is estimated to be 1.43 billion people. India will likely remain the most populous country for decades to come. China’s population is both shrinking and aging. Demographers project that the Chinese population will fall by 100 million people by mid-century, or more than the population of all but fifteen countries in the world today. Over the same time period, China’s median age will rise from thirty-nine years-old to fifty-one. India’s population, meanwhile, should reach nearly 1.7 billion by mid-century with a median age of thirty-nine. While demography isn’t destiny, it does constrain and enable every country’s opportunities. Countries with younger, growing populations tend to have more vibrant workforces that consume more, and as a result, enjoy higher economic growth rates. The Chinese government is facing increased pressure to invest in the country’s social safety net, an expensive proposition that could take resources away from other priorities. India’s more favorable demography has spurred talk of a “demographic dividend” created by young workers serving as an engine of growth. If so, the consequences for the balance of power in Asia could be significant. That is, of course, a big “if.” In policymaking as in poker, what matters is not just the cards you are dealt but how well you play them.
7. Azerbaijan seizes Nagorno-Karabakh. The aftershocks of the collapse of the Soviet Union continue to be felt three decades later. The countries that emerged from the Soviet collapse had borders that often didn’t align with where national groups lived—sowing the seeds for conflict. The Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan, for instance, was populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians uninterested in being governed by Baku. In late 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, triggering a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. When the fighting ended in 1994 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire, Nagoro-Karabakh had gained de facto independence along with a chunk of Azerbaijani territory. Despite intermittent cross-border attacks, the ceasefire held until large-scale fighting erupted in September 2020. After six weeks, Russia negotiated another ceasefire. This one left Azerbaijan in control of much of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tensions remained high. In September 2023, Azerbaijan attacked again. Within days, it overran the territory it did not already control and announced it would begin the enclave’s “reintegration.” Within one week, more than one hundred thousand Armenians, or roughly 85 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, fled to Armenia. The exodus sparked protests in Armenia over its government’s failure to protect fellow Armenians and raised questions about why Russia failed to prevent the enclave’s demise. The safety of the remaining Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh could be a continuing flashpoint between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So too could the Zangezur Corridor, a small slice of Armenian territory that connects Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani enclave bordered by Armenia, Iran, and Turkey.
6. Civil war wracks Sudan. Two thousand twenty-three was supposed to be the year that Sudan became a democracy. The Sudanese people instead got a civil war. The conflict had its roots in the protests that led Sudan’s military in April 2019 to overthrow the country’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. The new military junta struck an agreement with civilian groups to share power and work toward elections. However, in October 2021, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, led another coup. In December 2022, the two men yielded to popular pressure and agreed to lead a two-year transition to civilian rule. That agreement made Burhan and Hemedti co-equals and called for the RSF to be integrated into the SAF. Neither that agreement nor the marriage-of-convenience between the two men lasted. On April 15, 2023, RSF forces attacked SAF bases across the country. Efforts to negotiate a ceasefire went nowhere. By the fall, the RSF controlled most of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, while the SAF controlled Port Sudan, the country’s main seaport. Fighting was particularly heavy in Darfur, where the Janjaweed, the RSF’s predecessor, conducted an ethnic-cleansing campaign against the region’s largely non-Arab population back in the early 2000’s. As the year came a close, the fighting had killed more than 10,000 people and displaced 5.6 million more—or close to 15 percent of Sudan’s population.
5. Artificial intelligence (AI) offers promise and peril. AI burst into the public consciousness last year with the release of ChatGPT. In 2023, the technology based on so-called large-language models not only got better—the latest version of ChatGPT is reportedly ten times more advanced than its predecessor—governments, companies, and individuals moved quickly to exploit its potential. That triggered heated debates over whether AI is unleashing a new era of human creativity and prosperity, or opening a Pandora’s box that will produce a nightmarish future. Optimists pointed to how AI was unleashing scientific breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace across a range of fields, enabling rapid drug design, unlocking medical mysteries, and solving seemingly unsolvable mathematical problems. Pessimists warned that the technology is developing faster than the ability of humans to assess and mitigate the harm it might cause, whether that is creating mass unemployment, hardening existing societal inequalities, or triggering humanity’s extinction. Geoffrey Hinton, one of the pioneers of AI, quit his job at Google to warn of AI’s dangers, and technology leaders like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak signed an open letter warning that AI poses a "profound risk to society and humanity." Meanwhile, skeptics argued that much of AI’s promise will be derailed because the models will soon begin training on their own outputs, leading them to become divorced from actual human behavior. Governments seem not to be moving fast enough, whether individually or collectively, to harness the benefits of AI and contain its risks.
4. U.S.-China tensions continue to simmer. As 2023 began, U.S.-China tensions seemed to be easing. The prior November, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping had a productive meeting on the margins of the G-20 summit in Bali. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to visit Beijing in February to discuss putting “guardrails” on the two countries’ increasingly tense geopolitical rivalry. But then a Chinese surveillance balloon appeared over the United States. It drifted across the country for a week before a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor shot it down off the coast of South Carolina. Beijing insisted that the balloon had been blown off course while monitoring the weather, an explanation the United States rejected. The incident inflamed political passions in the United States and prompted Blinken to postpone his visit to Beijing. Most troubling, Chinese officials refused to take a call from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after the balloon was shot down, highlighting the lack of an established communication channel between the two superpowers. Blinken finally travelled to Beijing in June for what State Department officials called “constructive” talks. Those conversations did not stop Washington from imposing additional restrictions on trade with China or persuade Beijing to ease its harassment of Taiwan, the Philippines, or U.S. military forces in Asia. Biden and Xi met in November on the sidelines of the 2023 APEC Leaders’ Forum in San Francisco. The talks produced a few minor agreements but no major breakthroughs. Agreement on a modus vivendi continues to elude the world’s two most powerful countries.
3. Ukraine’s counteroffensive gains little ground at a heavy cost. Hopes were high early in 2023 that a Ukrainian counteroffensive might break Russia’s hold on eastern Ukraine and possibly Crimea. The much-awaited counteroffensive began in early June. Despite inflicting massive losses on Russian troops, the battlelines barely moved. The Russian military had used the winter and spring to prepare formidable defenses. In early November, Ukraine’s top general described the fighting as a “stalemate” and admitted that “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.” Indeed, as the general spoke, Russia had gained more territory over the course of the year than Ukraine had. Diplomatic conversations quickly turned to whether Ukraine could sustain, let alone win, a war of attrition that seemed to favor Russia given its substantially larger economy and population. Despite suffering horrific losses, Russia had double the number of troops in Ukraine in fall 2023 compared to the start of the invasion and the Russian economy was on a war footing. Meanwhile, “Ukraine fatigue” had begun to emerge in the West, especially in the United States as Republican lawmakers balked at sending Kyiv more aid. With long-term trends potentially favoring Russia, calls grew for Ukraine to pivot from offense to defense and to seek a ceasefire. Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would agree to halt the fighting is debatable. He likely believes that time is on his side, especially if the U.S. election next November delivers a president looking to cut ties with Ukraine.
2. Hamas attacks Israel. The Middle East looked promising in late September 2023. The Abraham Accords were deepening ties between Israel and Arab countries. Speculation abounded that Saudi Arabia might soon establish diplomatic relations with Israel. A ceasefire in Yemen’s bitter civil war was holding. These trends prompted National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to declare: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades now.” That changed just eight days later, on October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. Roughly 1,200 Israelis were killed, the deadliest day in Israel’s history. Some 240 people were taken hostage. Vowing to eradicate Hamas, Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza and then invaded northern Gaza. A negotiated pause in the fighting at the end of November secured the release of roughly one hundred hostages. But fighting soon resumed with Israeli troops moving into southern Gaza. The soaring death toll for Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, fueled worldwide complaints that Israel was committing war crimes. Israel denied the charge, arguing that Hamas was using Palestinian civilians as human shields. Joe Biden unequivocally backed Israel’s right to retaliate and traveled to Israel early in the conflict to show his support. By early December, however, U.S. officials were publicly urging Israel to do more to protect civilians or risk “strategic defeat.” Initial fears that the conflict with Gaza might lead to a broader Middle East war eased by year’s end but did not disappear. How the conflict will end and what will follow it remain open questions.
1. Global temperatures shatter records. Climate change is no longer a future threat. It is the world’s new reality. Two thousand twenty-three is likely the hottest year on record. Global temperatures have not been this high in 125,000 years, and they are poised to blow past the 2 degree Celsius limit enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The result has been extreme weather events around the globe, ranging from historic wildfires to extreme drought to record flooding. The once-obscure phrase “wet bulb temperature” entered the lexicon as people worldwide learned firsthand that high temperatures combined with high humidity can kill. Optimists pointed to developments that could turn things around. Total investments in clean energy have soared. The cost of wind and solar power continues to fall and many emitters will reach peak emissions in the next few decades. Hydrogen is being touted as source of clean energy. The first commercial ventures aimed at sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere are becoming operational, while scientists experiment with “enhanced rock weathering” that uses minerals like basalt to passively absorb carbon dioxide. However, serious doubts remain about how fast and how widely such technologies can be scaled up, especially as fossil fuel production and emissions continue to rise. Diplomats gathered in solemn forums like the twenty-eighth Conference of Parties (COP-28) to discuss plans and agreements. But these meetings seemed to attest to the saying that “when all is said and done, more is said than done.” Humanity may have missed its chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Sinet Adous, Michelle Kurilla, and Shelby Sires assisted in the preparation of this post.
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