BERLIN — Beginning in 2020, at the start of each year I have identified ten crucial questions about the coming 12 months in world affairs and offered predictions on each topic. At the end of each year, I have returned to the predictions and graded them each on a scale of zero (entirely wrong) to three (entirely correct), with a maximum possible score of 30.
This might look like – and in some respects it surely is – a spurious exercise. Unexpected events usually define world affairs in a given year just as much as do discernible, long-term trends. I did not predict the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. I did not predict the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine this year. And I mark my own homework. Impeccable impartiality this is not.
And yet the exercise does serve certain purposes. I get to ponder and test out my theories about international politics – both when I sit down to write them and when I grade them a year later. Whether or not they agree with me, readers get a framework with which to think about the year ahead. And I am held to account as a journalist and analyst. My predictions for 2020 came out at 18/30, those for 2021 at 19/30. So how did my predictions for 2022 perform?
- Will vaccinations in low-income countries catch up?
My prediction in January: “The gap between rich countries […] and poor ones (where logistical bottlenecks could hamper distribution even when vaccines are delivered) will be larger. Expect at least one more breakout variant.”
What happened: On the one hand this prediction was too gloomy. Low levels of Covid-19 vaccination in poorer countries have not produced a major breakout variant and overall the number of new daily cases of Covid has fallen from a high of 3.8 million in late January to about 700,000 now (though this figure is expected to rise as China exits its “zero Covid” regime). But on the other hand, 2022 has emphatically not seen the searing global vaccine inequalities resolved. Only 34 per cent of Africans have received at least once dose and other vaccination programmes (against measles for example) remain disrupted following the pandemic. That the virus did not hit harder in many poor countries seems to be largely thanks to their young populations. The next pandemic may play out differently, and the world is clearly still a long way from developing the norms and mechanisms that would ensure vaccine equity when it hits.
Score: 2/3 – the gap is not larger and the new breakout variant has not yet come, but the pessimism was correct.
2. Will Russia invade Ukraine?
My prediction in January: “[There will be] a substantive military move to drive a permanent wedge between Ukraine’s eastern regions (the Donbas and possibly a land-bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea) and the rest of the country but most likely through some form of hybrid warfare rather than a conventional, full-scale invasion.”
What happened: Vladimir Putin’s failure to take Kyiv and topple Ukraine’s government in the first weeks following the historical turning point of 24 February meant that his war was indeed reduced to an attempt to control the Donbas and a land-bridge to Crimea (essentially the four oblasts farcically “annexed” on 30 September). But hybrid warfare this was not; Putin’s obsession with the country turned out to trump any strictures of military, geopolitical or economic realism that would have held back a more rational leader. Both at the start of the year and especially after I visited Kyiv a few weeks later, I believed that a full-scale invasion would be a catastrophe for Russia and that Putin would thus restrain himself. It was, but he did not – and the rest is still-unfolding history.
Score: 1/3 – I read Putin’s fundamental strategic calculus correctly, but not how he would act on it.
3. Will the threats to US democracy grow?
My prediction in January: “Build Back Better will pass but in a highly diluted form, the Democrats will lose the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate in the midterms and the Republicans will deepen their indulgence of unconstitutional political methods.”
What happened: The year has seen the Republicans continue to stray from conventional democratic norms and has supplied new illustrations of the US’s profound polarisation (most notably when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade in June) but the year has gone better for the Democrats than I expected. Joe Biden was able to pass swathes of the Build Back Better Act – including around $369bn of new spending on infrastructure and green energy – in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act. In the midterms Biden’s party lost the House of Representatives only narrowly and not only held the Senate but even gained a seat there. Abroad, the war in Ukraine has provided an illustration of America’s enduring power and the resilience of its alliances.
Score: 1/3 – threats to US democracy remain alarming, but I underestimated the prospects of the Biden presidency.
4. Will we see an unprecedented surge in famines?
My prediction in January: “Horrific famine in at least one country will to some extent shake the rich world out of its introspection, as was the case in Ethiopia in 1983-85.”
What happened: At the time of writing the UN has not made a formal declaration of famine in East Africa; but reporting typically lags the situation on the ground and aid organisations are warning that this point is close – and that the circumstances are in any case calamitous. By November some 21 million people in the region were in dire need, up from 13 million at the start of the year. Russia’s war in Ukraine did demonstrate to the West the fragility of global food supplies, with Putin blockading Black Sea ports earlier this year in order to disrupt grain and fertiliser supplies and trigger a humanitarian and geopolitical crisis, putting pressure on Kyiv’s Western backers. Yet still the world may be sleepwalking into a famine in 2023 comparable to that in Ethiopia in the 1980s.
Score: 2/3 – technically wrong but, tragically, on the path to being correct for 2023.
5. Will China’s leadership achieve a year of stability?
My prediction in January: “Domestically, 2022 will be the most difficult year for the Chinese Communist Party since at least 2008 and possibly 1989.”
What happened: The past year was indeed the most difficult for the Chinese Communist Party since 1989. Beijing’s “zero Covid” strategy (draconian lockdowns and border restrictions compensating for an inadequate vaccination programme) has been a disaster and brought the biggest wave of protests since 1989. The country’s economic growth has slowed to about 3 per cent for the year, far below its trend rate. And its long-term economic and demographic prospects have deteriorated to such an extent that the Japan Centre for Economic Research, a think tank that previously projected that China would overtake the American economy by 2035, now forecasts that it will never become the world’s largest economy. It reaches the end of the year attempting to exit its zero-Covid debacle amid overflowing hospitals and shortages of medicines.
Score: 3/3 – a direct hit.
6. Who will win the battle of strongmen vs liberal democracy?
My prediction in January: “At least one major international strongman – most likely, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – will attempt to ‘do a Trump’ and defy the legitimate electoral result through widespread manipulation and/or violent insurrection”.
What happened: Contrary to this prediction, the world did not see a “January 6 moment” in one of the world’s strained democracies. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán did not need to brazen out a defeat: he was re-elected for a fourth term at the election in April, in a sign that the country’s long-abused democracy may have reached a point of no return. In Brazil, Bolsonaro did lose by an unexpectedly narrow margin but did not stir up the mass insurrection many feared. Turkey (also on my mind as I wrote this prediction) did not go to the polls; we will see next year whether Recep Tayyip Erdoğan loses and attempts to defy an election result there. But overall the year has seen the strongman model – from Brazil and Turkey to Russia to China – meet its limits, with systems overly dominated by one leader suffering from the lack of the checks, balances and rival poles of power that can challenge bad policymaking.
Score: 1/3 – liberal democracy ends the year in (somewhat) better shape than I had anticipated.
7. Will it be a good year for Macronism?
My prediction in January: “The most likely outcome of the election is a narrow Macron win that returns the president to office with his authority dented. At a European level, there will be incremental achievements – but more in the field of fiscal policy, where he is working with the grain of wider shifts, than on defence and security policy”.
What happened: This was mostly right. Emmanuel Macron was re-elected, the first French president in two decades to achieve that feat, but with a narrowed margin (securing 58.5 per cent in the run off against Marine Le Pen, down from 66.1 per cent in 2017). His authority was indeed dented when, in legislative elections in June, his party lost its majority in the National Assembly – humbled both by the new left-wing block Nupes and Le Pen’s party, which surged from eight seats to 89. Macron’s European and foreign policies continue to be marked by hyperactive ambition, and this year saw him confirmed as Europe’s preeminent leader, but where the EU progressed this year it was largely on defence and security – due to Russia’s war in Ukraine – rather than fiscal matters.
Score: 2/3 – nearly 3/3, but with a point deducted for missing the focus of his European agenda and arguing that the Gaullist candidate Valérie Pécresse would be “competitive” in the presidential election (she took a humiliating 4.8 per cent in the first round).
8. Will the Iran deal be resurrected?
My prediction in January: “The deal will survive in some extremely limited form but will not be resurrected, increasing tensions between the US and Iran at least to the level they reached following Trump’s drone strike that killed the senior Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.”
What happened: Talks to resurrect the deal have been stalled since September and the International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran is now enriching “worrying quantities of uranium”. Joe Biden declared talks on the deal “dead” in November. Two factors have further heightened tensions between Iran and the West: the protests that have swept through Iran since September have seen the US, EU and UK impose additional sanctions on officials leading the violent reprisals, while Tehran is deepening its military ties with Moscow, sending Russia drones to use against Ukraine and (Western governments warn) potentially hundreds of ballistic missiles in the near future.
Score: 2/3 – right about the deal and rising tensions, though these have not yet reached the crisis levels of January 2020.
9. Where will the unexpected bad news occur?
My prediction in January: Here I cited concerns about a vaccine-resistant “monster” variant of Covid-19, a major international cyberattack with crippling effects or a climate shock spanning more than one region. I expressed particular concerns about Libya, the Sahel region, the Balkans and Afghanistan.
What happened: There were of course climate disasters (from the devastating floods in Pakistan and Nigeria to a killer summer heatwave in Europe), accentuated by the dismal failure of the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt. In the western Balkans, tensions between the authorities and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have risen, though new impetus on EU enlargement to the region has also provided some countervailing good news. The year in Taliban-run Afghanistan has been predictably grim, with the drugs trade surging and women’s rights rolled back. But both the new monster variant of Covid and the mega-cyberattack have thus far been conspicuous by their absence (the latter particularly so in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine). Meanwhile it has been a worst-then-expected year for the New Statesman’s own homeland: Britain’s economy underperforming even those European counterparts more directly exposed to the shock of Russia’s war, the country’s politics lurching through a succession of crises including two changes of prime minister and the year drawing to a close amid a crippling wave of strikes.
Score: 1/3 – particularly for the incorrect predictions on Covid and cyberattacks.
10. Where will the unexpected good news occur?
My prediction in January: In my start-of-2022 predictions I argued that positive news was particularly likely in the field of medical breakthroughs following on from the Covid-19 vaccines and of minimum corporate tax amid rich countries. I opined that “one or more of Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be successfully ousted in 2022”.
What happened: The leaps forward in mRNA vaccines driven by the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic have indeed brought progress towards such breakthroughs as a universal flu vaccine or even, in the long term, possible mRNA treatments for cancer. The global minimum tax won approval from EU member states but ran into legislative hurdles in the US. And Jair Bolsonaro was indeed ousted in Brazil (with polls not looking good for Erdoğan in Turkey ahead of next year’s election). Other good news, not anticipated in my look-ahead in January, included Ukraine’s remarkable resilience and bravery in the face of the Russian onslaught, the significant degree of Western unity and resolve in response to the invasion and, elsewhere, an acceleration in India’s economy after years of underperformance.
Score: 2/3 – broadly accurate.
All of which gives me a grand total of 17/30, down two points on last year. Notably, several of my misses were related to the shock of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which changed everything and challenged significant elements of how many people had seen international affairs at the turn of the year. It has been a year defined by “Westishness”, the simultaneous realities that the post-Cold War era of hegemonic Western-led globalisation is over but that the West remains the world’s preeminent geopolitical alliance; a year, as I argued in August, thus revealing the transitional nature of our times.
For more reflection on Putin’s war in Ukraine and the past year in world affairs more widely, tune in to our end-of-year episode of the World Review podcast in which Emily Tamkin, Ido Vock, Katie Stallard, Megan Gibson and I look back on what we got right and wrong about 2022. And look out for my ten crucial questions about 2023, and accompanying predictions, which will appear early in the new year.
[See also: Why the West underestimated Ukraine]