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5 January 2023

Ten crucial questions about the world in 2023 

The New Statesman’s writer at large identifies important global trends for the year ahead – and makes some predictions.

By Jeremy Cliffe

This is the fourth “ten crucial questions about the world” in the year ahead that I have written for the New Statesman. To look back on the past three is to recognise the imperfect nature of the exercise. In early 2020 I concentrated not on whether the world would soon be consumed by a pandemic but whether the US and Iran might go to war following America’s assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. At the start of 2021 I pondered whether vaccines would bring a return to normality, whether the US would really leave Afghanistan and who would win the German election. In early 2022 I reflected on the Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s borders yet concluded that a full-scale invasion was unlikely. 

But I offer three points in defence of the exercise. First, I have not yet raised a “crucial question” in one of these pieces that has not turned out to be genuinely crucial in the year that came. Second, where my predictions have been wrong, I have acknowledged as much at the end of each year by grading them each on a scale of zero (entirely wrong) to three (entirely right). My 2020 predictions scored 18 out of a possible 30, my 2021 ones scored one more, 19, and my 2022 ones scored 17. Third, to go back and reread those past “ten crucial questions”, the predictions contained therein and the grading exercises one year after each is to recognise that there is value in asking oneself what matters and anticipating what might happen; not because one can ever get everything right, but because to do so is to force oneself to examine and test one’s assumptions.

So in that spirit, here are ten crucial questions about the world in 2023 – and predictions for each. As ever, I will return to these in December to see how I did.

1. Will Russia use chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine? 

Ukraine made some spectacular advances in the second half of 2022, around Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south. Might its next move be to cut the Russian-occupied zone of the country in two by retaking the Black Sea coastal corridor around Melitopol? That would put immense pressure on enemy forces on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River and in Crimea. The latter, occupied by Russia since 2014, is of particular sensitivity to the Kremlin. Might that be the point at which Vladimir Putin – his regime by this stage potentially wobbling – turns to chemical or nuclear weapons to reverse the tide of the war?  

Prediction: To attempt to read the mind of a dictator with a firm record of delusional behaviour is foolish, but to the extent that the Russian president retains some residual strategic faculties he will not take this step. His best hope is to slow the pace and intensity of the conflict, turning it into an attritional war and playing for time in the hope that the West will tire of backing Kyiv, especially following the 2024 US presidential election. To break the taboo of chemical or nuclear weapons use would do the opposite, so I consider it unlikely.

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2. Will the “Global West” continue to prove resilient? 

Last year was when the “Global West” (the US plus its allies in Europe and the Pacific) showed its resilience. It found greater unity on the invasion of Ukraine than many would have predicted, Nato has been revitalised by the war and the new security reality in Europe, while in Asia the US has deepened its alliances and shown its enduring technological power in the form of the Chips Act, a major blow to the strategically crucial Chinese semiconductors industry. Will this trend continue in 2023? 

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Prediction: Fractures will grow in 2023. Joe Biden’s administration will not give up the vast subsidies and “Buy American” provisions in its Inflation Reduction Act. Rather, with the 2024 election nearing and the economic interests of blue-collar swing states growing in political salience, it will deepen them. Particularly in a year of global recession, this will inflame relations with the rest of the Global West and prompt tit-for-tat protectionism. Divisions will also grow over China (with Germany, France and Italy seeking a more independent relationship and even Pacific allies like Japan and South Korea bridling at elements of the “tech war”) and over the endgame in Ukraine (where Western unity will come under strain as debates intensify over whether and when to nudge Kyiv towards the negotiating table).

3. Will Nigeria turn a corner? 

Africa’s most populous country holds a general election on 25 February, when it will elect a new federal president and new upper and lower houses of the federal legislature. Nigeria has the potential to be one of the giants of the 21st century; the World Bank predicts that by 2100 it will be the world’s second-most populous country after India. But even since its first democratic transfer of power in 2015 it has struggled with a dysfunctional economy, regional conflict, corruption and jihadism. At the vote next month many younger voters are vesting their hopes in Peter Obi, a social-media savvy third-party candidate pledging a fresh start and accountability, as a means of moving beyond the country’s discredited two-party system. Will they prevail? 

Prediction: Nigeria’s electoral system tends to favour two-party politics, because it rewards geographical breadth of support. Obi’s backers are concentrated in centres like Lagos in the urban south. So his victory remains a long shot. 

4. Will there be de-escalation or yet greater tensions in the eastern Mediterranean? 

Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean rose markedly in 2022. This was especially down to Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had a bad year economically at home, but a good one internationally as an influential broker between the West and Russia. This combination of domestic weakness and foreign strength saw him escalate tensions with Greece (warning last month that Turkish missiles could hit Athens), Cyprus (intensifying Turkish drilling activities off the island’s coast) and the Kurds (whom he blames for the terrorist attack in Istanbul in November). In June 2023 Turkey goes to the polls. How will that affect a region that looks increasingly like a powder keg?

Prediction: Tempers will boil over into a full-blown security crisis. Polling puts Erdoğan in line with, or even behind, the opposition in the election and it is a real possibility that he will lose power. That in itself would be a good thing. But in the six months before the election, that prospect may well prompt the Turkish president to use foreign-policy adventurism to rally support or even justify postponing the vote. This might take the form of launching a ground incursion against Kurds in northern Syria (to the benefit of Islamic State), triggering a naval crisis off Cyprus or landing troops on one or more of the Greek islands. That the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is mired in a wiretapping scandal, also faces an election by July only increases the chances of escalation in the Aegean.

5. Will India emerge as a new superpower? 

No major economy grew as fast as India’s in 2022. China’s woes and growing trans-Pacific tensions are encouraging international firms to turn instead to the subcontinent. India has also benefited from the digital boom of recent years, for which its services economy in centres like Bangalore has been well-placed. Like Turkey it has gained leverage by being a “pivot” state in the global response to Putin’s war in Ukraine – it is also a partner crucial to the US in its rivalry with China. Also significantly, India will in 2023 overtake China to become the world’s most populous country. In the year to come, will these developments converge to make India a third superpower alongside the US and China?

Prediction: There are indeed reasons to be bullish on India. Yet its politics provides countervailing grounds for scepticism. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has lately intensified his assertion of a Hindu chauvinist national identity that marginalises hundreds of millions of Indians, sows the seeds of conflict and violence and threatens to stifle the country’s energies. With an election looming in 2024, his focus will be on reinforcing his nationalist BJP’s electorate. That is not a solid basis for Indian superpower-dom.  

6. Will Russia hold together? 

The war in Ukraine has made Putin more dependent on Russia’s periphery. He has drawn disproportionately on the outlying republics within its borders, like Chechnya, Dagestan and Buryatia, for troops to send to the front. Figures with power-bases there, like Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, and the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have grown in influence. And as the quagmire in Ukraine has diminished Putin’s global standing he has also become more reliant on states just beyond his borders, like Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, for enduring international influence.

Prediction: In 2023, as the war drags on and its futility becomes more obvious at home, the centrifugal forces spinning these satellites of the old Russian empire outwards will accelerate. Unrest will grow in the internal republics, possibly up to the point of breakaway attempts and civil war. Instability there will recoil onto the Russian metropole, from its depoliticised business elites to the siloviki (the influential military officers in government) around Putin, from whom his successor will be drawn in the conceivable, though not yet probable, event that he falls. Meanwhile from Minsk to Bishkek, states formerly ascribed to Russia’s “near abroad” will increasingly disregard and even confront Moscow and turn instead to other powers – from the US and EU to Turkey and China.

7. Will Iran’s protests contribute to peace in the Middle East? 

Iranian protesters, overwhelmingly women, took to the streets following the death in September of the student Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality policy for allegedly failing to wear her headscarf correctly. They have snowballed and put the Khamenei regime under real pressure. At the time of writing, early elections are mooted. Regime change cannot be ruled out. So what will an Islamic Republic in flux mean for the wider Middle East?

Prediction: Some form of substantive shift in the regional balance of power will originate in Iran this year. The optimistic scenario is that the protesters prevail, the Khamenei regime is overthrown (or at least replaced with some new transitional authority) and Tehran’s international relations are reset for the better. Unfortunately, the pessimistic scenarios are both more likely and more numerous. It could be that the regime stirs up conflict in the wider Middle East to reassert its supremacy at home, as it has done before. Instability might also come from Iran’s deepening military alliance with Russia and the emboldening effect of the new air defences and jets it stands to receive from Moscow in return for its drones and ballistic missiles. Or it might result from the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear programme, with Tehran now intensifying its enrichment of uranium after talks in Vienna stalled in September. Whether expressed through its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, or in direct belligerence towards powers like Israel or Saudi Arabia, one or more of these shifts will meaningfully change the geopolitics of the region in the next 12 months.

8. Will the EU seize its window for reform? 

Things are stirring in the European Union. The war in Ukraine has pushed defence and energy integration up the agenda. Momentum behind new eastern enlargement is growing and with it the case to overhaul the union in preparation, by streamlining decision-making on major economic and foreign policy topics for example. The European Commission and Parliament are both arguing for a convention leading to treaty change as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe (a sort of citizen consultation exercise) and Paris, Brussels and Berlin agree big reforms of some form are needed. Coming between the 2021-22 Franco-German election season and the 2024 European election and institutional turnover, 2023 is the obvious window for change. Will the chance be seized?

Prediction: Internal divisions will mean the union largely misses it. Relations between France and Germany are tetchy and both have lost face in central and eastern states over their comparatively conciliatory stance towards Russia. Right-wing populist governments in Italy and Poland (at least until the latter’s election in the autumn, which might bring in a more moderate, pro-European government in Warsaw) do not help either. Combined with grim economic news and a yet harsher, though survivable, energy crunch next winter, all this will mean that the EU muddles through the year, with at most patchy and sporadic progress on topics such as defence, rather than achieve the great leap forward needed.

9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?  

Every year crises or disasters occur that are not on the calendar, yet rise to the top of the global news agenda. Recently, disproportionately many of them have been products of international interdependence (“connectivity wars”, Mark Leonard calls them in his book The Age of Unpeace). That trend allows us to highlight some of the known unknowns that could become major stories.

Prediction: Here I roll forward two items from my 2022 “bad news” entry: the world continues to underestimate the chance of the fragile peace in the western Balkans breaking down and of a crippling cyberattack or some other meltdown of its increasingly sensitive digital infrastructure. Other areas of concern: a worse-than-expected global economic turndown; a major increase in European populist authoritarianism amid the continent’s economic difficulties; the Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva becoming mired in domestic difficulties and hence falling short of expectations, particularly on the Amazon; growing authoritarianism in states such as Algeria and Tunisia triggering new crisis in north Africa; humanitarian or security crises accentuated in the world’s poorest regions by the global slowdown; and a resurgence of Covid-19 brought on by China’s sudden abandonment of its “zero-Covid” strategy.  

10. Where will the unexpected good news occur? 

Where the bad news is often, though not always, sudden and dramatic, the good news of a given year often takes place far from the television cameras and the rankings of social media trends. Yet these items can be even more significant than the doom-laden stories that make the headlines. Here, too, it is worth contemplating the “known unknowns”. 

Prediction: As with the bad news, here my “predictions” are more points to watch – of varying degrees of likelihood. One good news item almost certain to materialise is that the roll-out of renewable energy around the world will greatly accelerate under the pressure of the energy crisis. Another reasonable bet, given the pace of advance already, is that the mRNA vaccine breakthroughs of Covid-19 will generate at least one major breakthrough in another field, like cancer. Less certain are potentially positive events in specific countries. Lula could surprise on the upside in Brazil, especially when it comes to the existential question of the Amazon’s future. Ethiopia in November reached a ceasefire in its Tigray War. Could that mean a move back from the brink towards the great hopes vested in that country only a short few years ago? In Europe, some countries could defy the prevalent gloom: Britain’s relations with the EU may improve; Spain’s election may not, as widely expected, see the country’s far-right join the first national government since the Franco years; there is a genuine chance that the authoritarian Law and Justice party will lose power at the autumn Polish election.

[See also: What China’s devastating Covid outbreak means for the rest of the world]