Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Looking Ahead to 2023 by Looking Back

| Jan. 04, 2023

What last year's foreign-policy events can tell us about this year's.

Before I got too far into 2023, I decided to look back to see if 2022 had gone according to my expectations. In my last column of 2021, I described "Biden’s 2022 Foreign-Policy To-Do List." What did I get right, what did I get wrong, and how well did the Biden administration perform?

1. China and Taiwan. My first prediction—that "we won't see a serious crisis or military confrontation over Taiwan in 2022"—was correct. Tensions rose slightly in response to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's ill-advised visit there in August, but cooler heads prevailed and both Beijing and Washington subsequently decided to lower the temperature for the moment. This decision isn't surprising, as both Beijing and Washington have pretty full plates. Thus far, at least, the Biden administration seems to be getting away with its undeclared economic war on China, but whether its campaign will succeed remains to be seen. U.S. allies in Asia (and Europe) aren't happy with export controls on advanced chip technology or the protectionist elements of the administration's broader economic program, and that could be an opportunity for China. Looking ahead, I'm still confident that peace will prevail in East Asia in 2023.

2. Ukraine. I got this one wrong, but only in part. Writing in late December 2021, I predicted Russia would not invade. I wasn’t 100 percent certain, however, and said that if Moscow did invade, I expected it to launch a "limited aims" incursion focused primarily on the Donbas, most likely leading to a "frozen conflict" similar to the situation in Georgia. Why did I think so? Because a limited campaign would be "less likely to provoke a strong and unified response from the West." A limited incursion would also put President Joe Biden (and NATO) in a "no-win" situation, because there was "little appetite [in the U.S.] for a shooting war in an area far away from the United States and right next door to Russia." I thought Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that a large-scale invasion would trigger fierce Ukrainian resistance and create a "costly running sore Moscow could ill afford."

As we all know now, Putin overestimated Russia's military capabilities, underestimated Ukraine's, and decided to invade anyway. Nor were Russia's initial objectives limited to the Donbas. I got that wrong, although I was correct in assuming that its actions would provoke fierce Ukrainian resistance and a "strong and unified" Western response. Since then, the Biden administration has led the Western response with considerable tactical skill, aided in no small part by Russian over-confidence; repeated Russian blunders; and vigorous, creative, and heroic Ukrainian resistance. This item on Biden's to-do list turned out differently than I expected, but I'd give him and his team high marks for their overall performance once the fighting broke out.

But looking ahead presents a grimmer picture. The war is far from over, and I fear that 2023 will be more difficult for the Biden administration, the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the rest of NATO than the past year was. Russia's attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have done enormous damage and its greater size and population may enable it to outlast Kyiv in a war of attrition no matter how much outside support Kyiv receives. I say "may" because reliable information about each side's actual losses, reserves, and ability to sustain its forces into the future is hard to discern on the basis of publicly available information. Neither Russia nor Ukraine shows any sign of wanting to compromise and devising a workable deal would be difficult even if both sides were genuinely interested in one. Ukraine's battlefield successes will be harder to duplicate this year, and a protracted stalemate is bound to lead some observers to call for increased Western support and helping Ukraine take the fight to Russia directly, while others will argue that it's time to push for a cease-fire. No one knows which of these views will win out, but it's a safe bet that Ukraine will continue to absorb a lot of Biden's bandwidth next year. And the longer the war lasts, those countries that have remained on the sidelines (China, India, etc.) will be the main beneficiaries....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Looking Ahead to 2023 by Looking Back.” Foreign Policy, January 4, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt