In the late twentieth century, the American psychic Jeane Dixon, nicknamed the Seeress of Washington, won a huge following after predicting, in a 1956 magazine article, that a man resembling John F. Kennedy would be elected President four years later—and then die in office. But she also said that the Third World War would begin in 1958 and that the Soviet Union would land the first man on the moon. Soothsaying is not science.
Yet some of the trend lines for the world in 2023 are already visible; the wars and crises of 2022 will shape the challenges of the New Year. Among them, ruthless autocrats are exerting their might in ways that strain the diplomatic bandwidth, financial resources, and arms stockpiles of democracies. None of the world’s most troubling crises—Vladimir Putin’s gruesome invasion of Ukraine, Xi Jinping’s unprecedented military drills around Taiwan, Iran’s nuclear advances and arms sales to Russia, Kim Jong Un’s record missile provocations, the Taliban’s increasingly draconian rule in Afghanistan, the takeover of Haiti by hundreds of gangs, and the spread of ISIS franchises across Africa—seem likely to abate anytime soon.
Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union marked the so-called end of history, 2022 marked the “return of history,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted this month. It’s a sobering reflection of the trajectory of humanity. The globalizing interdependence of the early twenty-first century has not prevented a resurgence of aggression that has already killed tens of thousands. Global organizations—most notably the United Nations, formed after the previous century’s two devastating World Wars—have appeared largely powerless to stop the bloodshed. As 2022 ended, roughly half of the world’s democracies were in decline, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, in Sweden. Polarized societies didn’t trust elections. Corruption had become intractable. Civil liberties and press freedoms were threatened.
This year’s failures set an ominous precedent for the year ahead. “As the divide between the world’s democracies and autocracies hardens, the world is entering a renewed period of competition and confrontation,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish Prime Minister and a NATO Secretary-General, told Foreign Policy, in September. But the long-term agendas of thugocrats face obstacles at home and abroad despite the autocratic ways of leaders even in Moscow and Beijing and Tehran.
In Russia, Putin publicly fashioned himself in June as a twenty-first-century Peter the Great, with irredentist visions of conquering neighbors to restore the Russian Empire. The war in Ukraine looks like it could slog on—killing thousands more on both sides—well into 2023, and even beyond. “It is too late for Putin to give up on the biggest undertaking of his career,” Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. intelligence specialist on Russia now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote this month. “He might as well keep the war going hoping to prevail somehow and then write the final chapter of his career as a winner. He would rather die trying or try until he dies.” The widespread assumption is that diplomacy, at best, is more likely to freeze the conflict than end Putin’s aggression, Sir Robin Niblett, the former director of Chatham House, the international think tank in London, told me.
For the first time in a half century, the U.S. is also seriously concerned about Moscow’s use of a nuclear weapon, especially if Putin begins to fear losing either the war or his own power. Nuclear weapons remained a central tenet of Russian strategic doctrine throughout and after the Cold War. This fall, Putin’s generals reportedly discussed how and when to potentially use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. “When the leader of a modern nuclear power, as Mr. Putin is, talks as recklessly and irresponsibly, as he has been doing, about the potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, you’ve got to take it seriously,” John Kirby, of the National Security Council, told reporters.
Yet Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has also backfired. His invasion exposed the weakness of his military, the hapless strategies of his generals, and his own recklessness. Russia has suffered at least a hundred thousand casualties, the Pentagon said last month. Putin has faced internal defiance, too. Military conscripts have complained about being dispatched to the front lines with scant training and antiquated weaponry. Russian commentators have publicly questioned how Moscow has conducted the war. Western sanctions have imperilled his economy. Russia, for now, seems a superpower no more.
The invasion has also strengthened and revitalized NATO, the opposite of what Putin intended. Before the war in Ukraine, it appeared sapped following President Donald Trump’s repeated threats to leave the organization and Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. The alliance of thirty nations instead got a new mission—and more momentum than at any point since the Cold War ended. Sweden and Finland, which had resisted becoming members for more than seven decades, scrambled to join.
In China, Xi engineered a historic third term as the President of the world’s most populous nation at the Communist Party Congress in October. He has more power—and, some experts claim, more ambitious military, economic, and regional goals—than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He has threatened to use “all measures necessary” to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. At a summit in Bali, in November, Xi told President Biden that intervening on Taiwan’s behalf is the “first red line” that the U.S. better not cross.
Washington and Beijing, however, are not yet in a new Cold War, Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, told me. “It’s not just Biden saying that. Xi has no interest in it. And there’s far too much interdependence,” despite the intense competition over technology and Taiwan, he noted. For all of Xi’s new political muscle, he needs Western trade to reverse his flagging economy. U.S. allies don’t want to be forced to choose between the two economic and military powerhouses either, Bremmer said. Like Putin, Xi’s seeming omnipotence was challenged recently when protests in multiple cities demanded an end to his sweeping “zero COVID” policy. A government that spent years tightening control over communications—particularly the Internet—struggled to prevent videos of demonstrations and police brutality from going viral. Xi ended up ceding ground by easing restrictions.
In a bid to shore up their positions at home and counter the West, Putin and Xi expanded their alliance in 2022. On the eve of the Olympic Games in February, the two leaders—wearing matching mauve ties—boasted that their partnership with “no limits” would create a “new era.” Putin backed China’s claim to Taiwan, while Xi agreed that NATO expansion in Europe threatened Russia. The breadth of their growing military coöperation was visible in September, when China deployed more than two thousand troops, twenty-one warplanes, and three warships for a joint exercise in Russia. A few months later, Russia and China flew joint patrols—including bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons—over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
In the short term, the two major powers in Europe and Asia are more cohesive and less vulnerable to U.S. pressure, Niblett said. In 2023, the divide between the West and the Russia-China alliance is likely to deepen. But the U.S. is strengthening its position by linking its allies in the Atlantic and the Pacific: it has done this by drawing Japan, South Korea and Australia closer to NATO and the G7. At the same time, it is encouraging the Europeans to turn their rhetorical commitments to Indo-Pacific security into practical steps, Niblett told me.
In Iran, President Ebrahim Raisi consolidated hard-line control over the executive, legislative, judicial, and military branches of government. The regime rigidly enforced social codes and further restricted personal freedoms. After more than a year of diplomacy about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran also balked at terms agreed to by the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—and accelerated its nuclear program. It would now need less than a week to have enough enriched uranium to fuel a bomb. (Other steps are required to build it.) Iran also provided hundreds of drones to Moscow that Russian forces used to destroy infrastructure and kill civilians in Ukraine. Revolutionary Guards were dispatched to Crimea to train their Russian counterparts, according to U.S. and British intelligence officials.
Yet, in the fall, a new generation, led by teen-age girls and other young women, mobilized months of protests across the country after the death of a twenty-two-year-old woman who had been detained for not covering enough of her hair. It was the boldest challenge to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution—at a time when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is aged and ailing. “For 2023, I predict the biggest story will be Iran and the interplay of protests, possible succession at the top, and the nuclear issue,” Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations president, told me.
“It was not all bad though,” Haass said of 2022. America’s main rivals faced internal troubles at the same time that many of the worst democracy deniers were defeated in the U.S. midterm elections. The West demonstrated resilience and a reinvigorated unity, he noted. So did protesters across continents. “From Mariupol to Managua, from Kabul to Kigali, from Taipei to Tehran, we have witnessed innumerable acts of bravery and defiance on behalf of freedom and against authoritarian aggression,” Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that monitors democracy worldwide, said last week. For all the extraordinary crises that the U.S. and other democracies will have to navigate in 2023, the thugocrats are likely to face their own challenges, too. ♦