2022 was the year that everything changed. Except, of course, our enduring faith in our own ability to tell the future. Sure, we had our worst year ever in terms of predictions – even our biased self-judgment system could only see fit to award us 6 out of 10 points. And yes, maybe we predicted that Russia would not launch an invasion of Ukraine, thus missing the entire plot of 2022.
But never mind, the predictions business is a dirty game. Success requires not so much clairvoyance as amnesia. So once again, for 2023 we will peer hopefully into the future while quietly forgetting the past. Through that one-way lens, we see these ten predictions for the key foreign policy trends of 2023:
1. The war in Ukraine continues without any formal settlement.
There will be several efforts by various interlocutors – Turkey, the United Nations, Kazakhstan – to broker some sort of end to, or at least a ceasefire in, the war in Ukraine. But even as the intensity of the war waxes and wanes, all such efforts will come to naught. Both sides will remain confident of victory and will prefer, in 2023, to continue efforts to shape any negotiated settlement on the battlefield.
2. European and Western unity on the need to isolate and punish Russia remains strong – but the rest of the world loses its patience with the West.
As the war continues, the much-vaunted Western unity on the need to support Ukraine and punish Russia will continue. There will be a steady drip of new sanctions against Russia and a steady flow of new weapons and assistance to Ukraine. Economic pain, refugee flows from Ukraine, and even populist agitation will not seriously dent this consensus. This is because European unity stems from the rapaciousness of Vladimir Putin and the determination of Joe Biden. Only those two can really end it. But while the West becomes more united, the rest will grow increasingly frustrated with the second order effects of sanctions and high energy prices. They will show ever less support in votes at the UN and a greater determination to lessen their dependence on the dollar.
3. Donald Trump’s legal problems fail to put him in jail. He remains obnoxious and the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
It is a fair bet that various Trump scandals will still garner headlines in 2023, given that they have continuously since 2016. But in 2023, none of these scandals will rise to the level of creating any serious jeopardy of incarceration. As long as Trump remains free, the scandals will only increase both his popularity among the Republican base and his obstreperousness. Despite some challenges from within the party, he will end 2023 as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
4. China is found to have violated Western secondary sanctions against Russia, sparking a crisis in US-Chinese relations.
China is probably already violating various Western sanctions against Russia, but those violations remain at a low enough level that it is in the interest of both China and the West to pretend it is not happening. In 2023, various revelations, possibly including some munitions shipments to Russia, will force these violations out into the open, forcing the West to respond.
5. Israel and Saudi Arabia will reach an agreement on greater economic and diplomatic exchanges but stop short of establishing formal diplomatic relations.
By the end of 2023, Israel and Saudi Arabia will have established normal relations in all but name. Trade, investment, and diplomatic exchanges will all expand dramatically and publicly. Continued unrest in Iran will also inspire and increase Israeli and Saudi Arabian cooperation on efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region. Formal diplomatic relations, however, will not be established while King Salman continues on the throne.
6. The Polish Law and Justice party loses the parliamentary election. The new government settles Polish disputes with the European Union and Germany.
Without the ability to invade Russia, the Law and Justice party that has ruled Poland since 2015 will lack a similar rally-around-the-flag effect. They will lose the election to a semi-united opposition that promises to continue Poland’s high domestic spending by securing more funds and a smoother relationship with Brussels. Once in office, the new government will move quickly to settle Polish disputes with the EU and Germany, while continuing the previous government’s increased defence spending and strong leadership stance against Russia
7. Turkey launches a further incursion into northern Syria, expanding its protected zone. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP retain power after the Turkish elections.
In the run-up to the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, the Turkish military will launch a further incursion into northern Syria aimed at suppressing Kurdish “terrorists” and expanding its “safe zone” in Syria. The Assad regime will protest vehemently, but its Russian sponsors will prevent it from responding. The Americans will similarly decide not to challenge Turkey. With the consequent rallying effect, as well as various pre-election legal shenanigans, Erdogan and the AKP will manage to win the 2023 elections.
8. A debt crisis emerges in Africa, spawning competitive Chinese and Western efforts to offer relief.
Increasing interest rates, a strong dollar, and recession in the developed world will translate, as it often has in the past, into a full-blown debt crisis in many countries in Africa. But this time, China and the West (mostly via the IMF and World Bank) will engage in a competitive process to trade debt relief for geopolitical influence. The West may find that the existing international financial institutions are clunky tools for this more competitive process of debt relief.
9. The market for critical raw materials will tighten considerably, spawning both transatlantic and Western-Chinese trade tensions as they compete for minerals.
As global efforts to expand green technology production continue apace, commodity prices for key minerals, such as lithium and nickel, used in that effort will spike. Europe, the United States, and China will begin (or maybe bring into the open) a rather unseemly contest to secure sources of supplies for those minerals, increasing global trade tensions. The US will seek to launch a global consortium on critical raw materials, which will intrigue Europeans but fail to gain much traction in the global south.
10. Energy prices see no further major increases and the EU does not experience any serious energy shortages, even as it further decouples its energy system from Russia.
The EU’s energy decoupling from Russia will be nearly complete by the end of 2023. But the global economic downturn and greater than anticipated flexibility of energy markets means that the EU will not see further major increases in energy prices, much less energy shortages, in the winter of 2023-2024. Russia will similarly manage to shift much of its energy production to other buyers but will nonetheless undergo a major decline in fossil fuel income relative to the situation before the Ukraine war.
Bonus: The US moves to ban Tik-Tok or force its sale to a non-Chinese company. It pressures Europeans to do the same.
US authorities will become frustrated in 2023 by revelations that Tik-Tok’s parent company, ByteDance, is not adhering to previous agreements on the safeguarding of data generated by Tik-Tok (as well as by the endless stream of ridiculous dance videos). The US Congress and the Biden administration will move to either force a sale of Tik-Tok or ban it from the US market. They will pressure Europeans to join them in this effort, making it a new test of European adherence to US policy on China.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.