So many unknowns are adding up that the next year is unpredictable. Will there be a Brutus to change the deal in Moscow? Could a defeat for Recep Erdogan in the June elections usher in a new era in the Middle East and across the Mediterranean? Will the Iranians overcome their theocracy, whose support would then be lacking for both Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad? Could inflation spiral out of control in Europe and cause enough social unrest to weaken the EU states?
One could extend this list of questions by also asking whether the entry of an anti-Arab far-right to the Israeli government could reignite the oldest of conflicts and how Xi Jinping will try to regain control now that protests have forced him to relax containment measures, but in politics there is no point in chanting with Doris Day: “Que sera, sera, Whatever will be, will be”.
Whatever will be, will be, but beyond this obvious fact, how can we try to prevent a chain of tensions from eventually leading to a third world conflict when this is not a hypothesis but a real possibility?
Since this would be anything but impossible, let’s imagine for a second that a Covid outbreak clogs up Chinese hospitals, that the scale of the epidemic and the wave of deaths cause an economic crisis, and that Xi-Jinping’s power is threatened by rivals building on popular discontent. Apart from his unlikely resignation, the Chinese president would then have only one card left to play: attack Taiwan in order to take control of the army and create a nationalist momentum that he would hope to capitalise on.
If it came to that, the United States could not allow China to gain an advantage over it by imposing itself on Asia. Just by stepping in, the United States would intervene in this conflict and it is hard to see how it would not lead gradually to the formation and confrontation of two blocs, the West on one side and China, Russia and other emerging countries on the other.
Let us then imagine that the Ukrainian army continues to push the Russian troops back to their borders and that no Brutus changes the situation in the Kremlin. There is no telling what new extremity this might lead him to, but it could just as easily lead him to resorting to weapons of mass destruction as it could lead him to testing the Atlantic Alliance with an incursion into Poland or one of the Baltic states, countries whose membership of the Alliance places them under US nuclear protection.
Needless to say, the world would then experience a crisis far more serious than the one in Cuba, because there is no longer a Political Bureau to channel the impulses of a man who does not have the rationality of a Khrushchev either.
Let’s also imagine that the Iranian theocracy wants to acquire nuclear power- it now has the means to do so – in order to restore its image and to be able to repress its people even more. It is not proven that Israel and the Gulf states would let this happen and that a bombing of Iranian nuclear installations would not be immediately followed by a shower of missiles on Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
Finally, let’s imagine, because there is a lot of talk about it in Ankara, that Recep Erdogan annexes the Turkish part of Cyprus or some of the Greek islands close to its coast in an attempt to unite behind him a country weary of his authoritarianism and an inflation rate verging on 100%. These are countries that are members of the Atlantic Alliance that would thus enter into conflict at the very moment when the Alliance and Russia are at loggerheads and could be even more so in the spring than they are today.
On these four fronts alone, 2023 will be the most perilous year in the post-war era. Perhaps we have already entered a pre-war period without realising it, but that does not mean that there is nothing to do but sit back and wait resignedly for and let be what will be.
On the contrary, we must react by seeing that, contrary to popular belief, the balance of power is in favour of the democracies. The Chinese, Turkish, Russian and Iranian regimes have considerable means of nuisance, but they are the ones in crisis, they are the ones who are disowned by their peoples and they are the ones who no longer know how to get out of it. The democracies, on the other hand, have been able to arm Ukraine and enable it to resist the aggression of the world’ s largest country. At the same time, Europeans’ attachment to their Union has never been greater, while Putin has managed to expand the ranks of the 27 and NATO, while Central Asia is breaking away from Moscow. Xi-Jinping, meanwhile, had barely become the new Mao before his omnipotence was already called into question. Recep Erdogan would be taking great risks to avoid an electoral defeat by resorting to war, and even the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, a great supporter of Vladimir Putin and theorist of illiberalism, is losing momentum with an inflation of more than 20% and a difficult tug-of-war with his EU partners.
Democracies have their problems. They are complex and numerous, but there is no regime crisis threatening them, and Putin’s and Xi’s difficulties strengthen their authority so considerably that their room for manoeuvre is widening.
Together, the Democracies could make the Russian president look bad by putting forward a proposal for a European architecture that offers security guarantees to all countries on the continent. This would spark a debate in Moscow, offer an exit route for Russia, return Ukraine to its international borders and, once the aggression repelled, one day usher in an era of continental stability and cooperation.
Similarly, the European Union could publicly encourage the Chinese to offer security guarantees to their Asian neighbours and thereby initiate a process of disarmament in Asia comparable to that experienced in Europe with détente and perestroika. This would make it possible to freeze the Taiwan question for as long as it takes for China to develop its ambition to organise peaceful cooperation between the states on its periphery, or even an Asian common market.
Because the dictatorships are weakened, it is time to propose to them that they use the occasion to return to the principles of the United Nations Charter and to evolve the functioning of the United Nations, its Security Council and all the international organisations.
As an ally of the United States, but now sufficiently united, rich and strong to exist on its own, the European Union would have the means to start playing a role of intermediary and peacemaker in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in 2023. The Union can and must ward off the nascent pre-war era, for if not the Union, then who?
This column will resume on the second Monday of January.