December 1, 2023

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5 Big Foreign-Policy Developments to Watch in 2023

2022 brought the biggest war in Europe since 1945, the largest uprising in Iran since the 1979 revolution, widespread protests in China, a military scare over Taiwan, and a global energy and food crisis, to name just a few of the important foreign-policy developments we covered for our readers. Some of these events were hard to predict—who was expecting anti-regime protests all across China?—whereas others grew out of long-term trends Foreign Policy’s experts were already watching.

Each December, we survey some of our experts for the most important issue they’ll be following in the coming year. Beyond the most obvious one—Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine—here are five things Foreign Policy columnists are keeping an eye on in 2023.

More U.S.-Chinese Friction

By James Crabtree, Foreign Policy columnist and executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia

Lately, Washington has been cautiously upbeat on Sino-U.S. ties. White House Indo-Pacific tsar Kurt Campbell recently suggested that China has too much on its plate at home and may therefore take a mellower approach to diplomacy in Asia. If that’s the case, Beijing may well prefer to keep relations stable with Washington, too. Rather than picking new fights, Chinese President Xi Jinping would build on the positive tone of his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia, in November last year.

Unfortunately, there are several factors pulling in a more confrontational direction. Washington is readying a range of new economic and military measures to compete with Beijing, all of which have the capacity to dent bilateral ties—just as was true with recently imposed restrictions on advanced semiconductor sales to China or the decision to provide extra weapons to Taiwan. The Biden administration is also pushing forward with plans to deepen economic and military cooperation with its Indo-Pacific partners, including Australia, India, and Japan.

Even if China tones down its rhetoric, 2023 is likely to see Beijing throwing its diplomatic weight around the Indo-Pacific region as it moves beyond the relative insularity of 2022, when it was focused on the now-abandoned zero COVID-19 policy and preparations for the Chinese Communist Party Congress. Xi’s recent return to the international scene with his visit to Saudi Arabia suggests a renewed attempt by Beijing to court nations in the global south, to which Washington will have to respond. Then there is the risk of further confrontation over Taiwan.

Take all this together, and it suggests the relative improvement in Sino-U.S. ties after Bali may be nothing more than a temporary blip in a steadily deteriorating relationship, with plenty of underlying pressures capable of producing renewed tensions. Let’s hope Campbell is right, but don’t be surprised if he’s not.

Economic Trouble Ahead

By Edward Alden, Foreign Policy columnist, visiting professor at Western Washington University, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office on August 27, 2020 in Culver City, California.

The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office on August 27, 2020 in Culver City, California.

The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office on August 27, 2020 in Culver City, California.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Over the past few years, the biggest mistakes in economic policy across the globe have been errors of under-reaction: Europe was too complacent to recognize the dangers of dependence on Russian energy, the United States was too deeply invested in China to wake up to the security threat, and central banks everywhere were too slow to respond to surging inflation. In 2023, however, the biggest danger will be over-reaction.

The Biden administration is sprinting away from the inclusive, open market version of globalization the United States has championed for the past 75 years—and urging other countries to do the same. Washington has gone all-in on industrial policy, showering U.S. companies with hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies in an effort to speed the transition to clean energy and dominate the next generation of semiconductor production. The European Union is following along, announcing plans to suspend rules limiting state aid and cobbling together a matching array of subsidies. Other countries will have little choice but to join in.

Much of this is long overdue, but the challenge will be to stop the pendulum before it swings too far. The Biden administration, for example, continues to paralyze the World Trade Organization (WTO), the guardian of the global trading system. In early December, the administration blasted the WTO for a perfectly correct ruling: that the Trump administration’s nakedly protectionist steel and aluminum tariffs lacked any shred of a national security justification. Instead of applauding, the Biden administration huffed, as its predecessor would have, that the “United States will not cede decision-making over its essential security to WTO panels.”

Similarly, new sanctions against China are one of the few issues uniting Democrats and Republicans in a newly divided U.S. Congress. TikTok, the social media app owned by China’s ByteDance, is next in Washington’s crosshairs. Expect a series of other moves this year to further decouple the U.S. economy from China.

The danger is that such actions go beyond sensible precautions, such as shoring up security in critical supply chains and policing cyberspace, and move into beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism. The world has seen that movie before—and does not need a re-run.

Iran’s Revolution Isn’t Over

By Anchal Vohra, Foreign Policy columnist

In Iran, things will get much worse before they get better. The regime hanged a protester from a crane in a public square in November last year, condemned several others to death row—including at least three children—and continues to unleash its security forces on unarmed protestors. The crackdown is meant to frighten thousands of Iranians who have taken to the streets in dozens of cities, turning initial protests against state-sanctioned misogyny into a much broader fight against a regime they believe has turned Iran into a pariah.

There is no sign the regime is even considering stepping down or implementing major reforms in response to mass protests. On the contrary, it’s highly likely that the regime will execute more people and arrest thousands without compunction.

But the masses of young Iranians protesting and dying for basic freedoms are also in no mood to give up. The momentum they have built since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed while in custody for wearing a hijab improperly will likely lead to a sustained anti-regime movement in Iran.

The United States and Europe will continue to issue little more than symbolic condemnations—so as not to endanger prospects for a revived nuclear deal, which Western powers believe might keep Iran from making a nuclear bomb. Israel, however, will likely up the ante on the covert front, targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

My last visit to Tehran in 2016 made it very clear to me that many Iranians were opposed to the current regime and would challenge it. It may take them more time to reclaim their country from the regime’s clutches, but the Iranians will battle hard.

Trump May Soon Be Gone, But His Policies Won’t Be

By Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy columnist

In 2023, the Republican Party will very likely be engulfed in vicious infighting over who’s to blame for its disastrous showing in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. That struggle could be decisive in determining whether former U.S. President Donald Trump will be the party’s nominee in 2024. For the first time in more than six years, leading Republicans are openly distancing themselves from Trump, who faces several criminal investigations and continues to focus obsessively on his big lie that he won the 2020 election. By the end of this year, it should be clear whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—whose smashing re-election victory was one of the party’s few bright spots in the midterms—and other prominent Republicans will seriously challenge Trump. Lara Brown, a political scientist and the author of Jockeying for the American Presidency, said it is even possible that 2024 could echo the 1912 election, when then-former President Teddy Roosevelt split from the GOP and ran as a third-party candidate. That disastrous move handed the White House to Democrat Woodrow Wilson on a platter.

All this is good news for the Democrats and Biden, who is signaling that he intends to run again despite his age. (At 82, he would be the oldest president ever inaugurated.) But it is important to note that no matter who becomes president in the next cycle, U.S. foreign policy will continue to embrace much of Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Biden has departed from Trump in important ways—most significantly by reviving NATO and U.S.-European cooperation in support of besieged Ukraine. But he has also kept Trump’s neo-protectionist trade tariffs in place, directed hundreds of billions of dollars toward boosting industrial capacity at home, and settled in for a long-term confrontation with China. A Trump successor, such as DeSantis, would likely do the same.

European Unity Is Fraying

By Caroline de Gruyter, Foreign Policy columnist and Europe correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

One big thing I will be watching in 2023 is the political will of the European Union’s national leaders to work together and find common solutions at a time of increasing geopolitical conflict and economic uncertainty. In the past, member states often made decisions and then handed implementation over to the European Commission—the EU’s day-to-day executive branch. Nowadays, national leaders often remain involved during the implementation phase as well.

While this trend has gone on for some time, it has accelerated during the pandemic and especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many of the most important decisions by member governments or coordinated among them—such as military support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia—thus remain at least partly in national hands and continue to depend on the political will of governments and, potentially, also on the outcome of elections.

This weakens Europe in the face of rising global turmoil from the war. National leaders are confronted with huge problems they cannot solve alone, and the war has forced them to seek new, common solutions in sensitive areas such as security and defense, which used to be strictly national issues. On one hand, many leaders are calling for a stronger Europe. But on the other, they have been reluctant to let the commission implement their decisions, instead getting behind the wheel themselves.

The EU is increasingly turning into a bazaar where national governments wheel and deal: They check the commission’s contracts with vaccine producers, evaluate each other’s democratic record, and demand changes in other countries’ COVID-19 recovery projects. The good thing is that governments now own their policies and have less reason to blame “unelected bureaucrats” in Brussels for unpopular decisions. The flip side is that everyone can obstruct everything—and veto unrelated decisions to get their way, as Hungary and Poland did in order to unlock EU subsidies that were blocked after the two countries were found to violate European standards on anticorruption and rule of law. If these tantrums, which happen across the board, become the new norm, the EU is in for a rough ride.