Dr Peter Collecott CMG was the British Ambassador to Brazil from 2004 to 2008, and prior to that the Head of the FCO’s Administration. He had earlier postings in Germany, Indonesia, Australia and Sudan, and in London worked on Middle Eastern and EU affairs. Since leaving the FCO he has advised multinationals, governments and NGOs on business, political and sustainable development issues.
Richard Schiffer is an international lawyer qualified and licensed in the UK and the USA (Illinois). He is a founding partner, Co-Chairman and General Counsel of the Ambassador Partnership LLP. Richard was a pioneer in bringing to the UK the use of mediation for the resolution of commercial disputes, founding and Chairing the ADR Group from 1989 to 2016.
After a tumultuous 2022, many of us had hoped that 2023 would prove to be a calmer year, allowing the world to begin to recover from the geopolitical and economic shocks of the Ukraine war, as well as the tumults of domestic politics – in Britain and elsewhere. It was not to be.
In the event, 2023 was a year in which geopolitical and economic ructions continued and had an increasing effect on domestic politics in many Western countries. Governments struggled to maintain an aura of competence in the face of multiple crises. Populations became even more disillusioned with politics and increasingly fearful for their own security and prosperity. The contest between democracy and autocracy, both domestically and internationally, sharpened considerably.
Geopolitically, the central issue for most of the year was the continuation of the Ukraine war – the failure of the much-vaunted Ukrainian Spring offensive and the descent into a stalemate and a drawn-out war of attrition, pitting Russian willingness to take heavy losses over the long term against fragile Western resolve to continue to support an increasingly stretched Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the closer Russia-China relationship, forged by the Ukraine war, continued, and managed, inter alia, to undermine Western influence in the Global South – not just over support for Ukraine, but more fundamentally in the struggle to demonstrate the advantages of democracy when pitted against the apparent efficacy of authoritarianism. The Global South itself, with India in the lead, sought to increase its influence, including through a large, and possibly incoherent, expansion of the BRICS group.
This new Russia/China axis, coupled with increased concern over Chinese intentions towards Taiwan, worried both publics and policymakers in the West and Asia. This stimulated the US, and way back on its coattails the UK, to pay more attention to its friendships in Africa and its alliances in the Asia Pacific region. One result of this has been the taking forward of the AUKUS alliance, a clear military response to growing Chinese expansionism in East Asia. Less confrontationally, 2023 saw the US make efforts to restart a high-level dialogue with China after years of very little contact.
Economically, 2023 continued to be dominated by the huge hike in energy prices as a result of the Ukraine war and the efforts of Europe, largely successful, to wean itself off Russian gas and oil. The resulting inflation moderated as the year progressed, before dropping sharply in the second half. At the same time, the tightness of the labour market post-pandemic, and the consequent pressure on wages as firms competed for scarce skilled labour, lessened. However, this did little to moderate the fully-fledged cost of living crisis across the West, as the less affluent, including many in the middle class, struggled to maintain living standards. Populations became increasingly despairing because of the inability of governments to alleviate their hardship.
This disillusionment with governments fed into a wider sense of insecurity. Governments across the West were seen as having failed to address satisfactorily multiple crises at home. Domestic politics was becoming more polarised and extreme, and unable to function properly, in the US, the UK and across Europe. Moreover, outside crises were impinging directly on more domestic concerns – whether the war in Ukraine and energy prices or increased immigration generated by wars in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, or by economic insecurity in Africa and Latin America. This has led populations to worry that their democratic governments and wider institutions are not functioning well, and to be prepared to support those who promise a better future while actively undermining these democratic institutions. This is true from the US to the UK, Poland, Hungary and Turkey. Many others see this as the West being in a political and social crisis, and fear that democracy will suffer as the tectonic plates of global power shift with governments and societies slow to adapt.
As if to emphasise the unpredictability of geopolitics and the consequent increased insecurity, October saw the murderous Hamas attack on Israel and the continuing, and brutal, Israeli reaction. This eruption has not only brought the spotlight back onto the century old simmering inability of the Israelis and Palestinians to live together peacefully, and the total absence of a serious peace process. It has highlighted serious differences in outlook between governments and people in Israel and the Arab States, as well as in many Western countries. In the West it is remarkable how support for Israel from governments has been accompanied by widespread support for the Palestinian cause among the public – not just Muslim populations – and by greatly increased feelings of insecurity among Jewish populations. Once again, as global politics becomes more complicated and confrontational, the effects are rapidly seen domestically in many countries. And the effect is division and insecurity.
Meanwhile, the long-term existential threat of climate change continues, but with less public focus - until the recent COP 28 in Dubai. Much as expected, this produced some useful results, but was not the inflection point many were seeking, particularly the threatened Small Island States. Despite the COP being held in a major producer of fossil fuels, or perhaps because of this, the meeting did agree a text talking, for the first time, about the need to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Another positive sign was that geopolitical tensions between the US and China did not seem to inhibit bilateral cooperation on climate change. In the more immediate world, 2023 is almost certain to have been the hottest on record, and 2024 is predicted to be even hotter.
2023 will also be remembered as the year in which another long-term trend – the use of AI – became ubiquitous. Some saw this as the likely answer to the struggle to improve productivity. More, including many in the professional middle classes, saw it as a threat to their jobs and livelihoods – another source of insecurity.
If 2023 was, after all, another tumultuous year for the world, do not hold onto the hope that 2024 will be quieter. It is likely that it will be even more of a white-knuckle ride and that it will determine the shape of geopolitics for many years to come. 2024 is election year for over half the world’s population – in the US, UK (probably), India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Russia and about 40 other states. Some elections are predictable and will cement in power either autocrats like Putin or those who are increasingly authoritarian like Modi. Others, in particular the US Presidential elections, are less predictable and could well determine whether the West can re-establish its confidence in itself and its democratic system, or whether it will slip further into divisive, authoritarian politics, hastening the demise of Western power and influence. This means that 2024 is also the opportunity for all those of us who can vote in free and fair elections to do so – to protect our democratic future.
We suspect that many of us will leave 2023 behind without too much regret. We wish you all a peaceful and relaxing Christmas and a Happy New Year, to fortify you before the excitements of 2024 come lapping over the threshold.
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