A Survey of Significant Events of 2023

The year highlighted even more starkly than is usually the case, that the more things change, the more they stay the same

By Anil Madan

As we look back over the events that captured our attention during 2023, I am struck by how the year highlighted even more starkly than is usually the case, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For the duration of the year, the most significant ongoing event was Putin’s unrelenting war on Ukraine. As the year moved on, it was difficult to see anything displacing that major story. But the ongoing climate-related disasters around world and the frequency of adverse weather events showed that we are simply not meeting, and perhaps without even trying, the challenge to mitigate and adapt to catastrophic storms, floods, and fires.

Just as the Middle East seemed to be simmering down, albeit with Iran’s malevolent Ayatollahs always lurking, we had the October 7 attack by Hamas deep into Israel. Whether Iran had anything to do with the specific attack remains to be seen, but there are already dispiriting indications that high level Iranians were in fact in on the planning.

The third most important story was the deterioration in China-US relations and the ratcheting up of China’s pressure on Taiwan. China’s ongoing repression of the people of Hong Kong took a stark turn near the end of the year when the trial of 76-year-old Jimmy Lai started.

But there was a glimmer of good news on the China front. Presidents Xi and Biden had two somewhat productive discussions in Bali and San Francisco. High-level contacts from Secretary of State Blinken, Treasury Secretary Yellen, and Defense Secretary Austin, suggest that there is a conscious effort to lower the temperature. Treasury Secretary Yellen pointedly stated that the US does not seek disengagement from China. Nor should the US or China continue to approach the relationship with the idea that the other is hostile.

President Xi called on President Biden to stop providing military aid and support to Taiwan and to allow the unification process to come about peacefully. There is a serious disconnect here. Forcing reunification against the will of the Taiwanese people is a notion that runs contrary to every American democratic value. At the same time, it is not realistic to think that America can rebuild its manufacturing base that has largely gone to China or, indeed, relocate it to other countries. There is simply not enough capital to build replacement factories and if there were, where would the world find the workers to run them?

The two countries seem to be working towards an understanding that China could invest in manufacturing in other countries. This would be to the mutual benefit of China and the US and would ease the impact of China’s demographic bomb as it is called—the effect of a shrinking and aging population, and a consequent slowing of China’s great growth trajectory.

Surge in anti-democratic authoritarianism

There was generally, a seeming surge in anti-democratic authoritarianism and a rise in local conflicts around the globe. The most blatant offenders, in no particular order, include Erdogan of Turkey, Lukashenko of Belarus, and Orban of Hungary. Repression of journalists and opposition politicians in India remains an ongoing story, but one difficult to fathom since Prime Minister Modi does not appear to require oppressing others to stay in power and his record in improving the lives of ordinary Indians is quite remarkable.

If we consider Putin’s ongoing war on Ukraine, the folly of human nature should confound us. Whereas it appears that neither side can prevail in the short run, as I prognosticated back in 2022, it will be difficult for Ukraine to hang on. True, the prospects for a Ukrainian victory — which really means survival as a nation — have been heartening with reports of Ukrainian successes from counteroffensives and severe troop losses by the Russians. There is, however, the other side of the equation. In large measure, as much as Ukraine’s strength is the resolve of its people, the reality is that without continuing and unbegrudging aid from the US and EU/NATO countries, Ukraine cannot go on.

Rising Ukraine war fatigue endangering US, EU support. Pic NY Times

2023 showed us that the noblest of intentions of countries that have been Ukraine’s staunchest supporters have begun to yield to war fatigue among their citizens, and the immense financial and materiel cost. So it is that both the European countries and the US are seeing pressure to stop the flow of aid to Ukraine. This wavering, in the face of no disagreement that Ukraine is doomed without continuing aid is troubling. The resolve of the Ukrainian people, and their tenacious desire to be a free and democratic nation, has seemingly lost its allure for the nations who initially cheered it as the raison d’être for their declared unwavering commitment.

President Biden who promised massive aid for Ukraine and delivered up to a point, has suddenly seen that his ability to continue American support is dependent on the acquiescence of the Republican controlled House of Representatives. And the extreme right wing Republican party Congressional representatives are unwilling to compromise on aid to Ukraine unless Biden compromises on border enforcement. It is not clear whether the extreme right-wing faction of the Republican party is opposed to aid for Ukraine on any principled basis or is merely using something that is apparently near and dear to Biden’s heart to gain leverage over him.

Threats to democracy and stability in Ukraine came from outside its borders when Putin attacked. The long list of wars and conflicts going across the world shows that threats to democracy and freedom are spurred by internal threats as well. In Niger, the military overthrew the country’s elected president. Gabon’s military also took power. The elections in Thailand might as well not have happened. The winner was not given a chance to form a government. Instead, the armed forces installed a puppet or pro-military government. In South Sudan, war erupted among two warlords and their supporters. In Latin America, elected governments were not safe either, most notably in Peru and Guatemala.

Victor Orban of Hungary was able to defy the will of all other EU members when he seemingly beat a retreat and allowed for talks on Ukraine’s admission as a member of the EU to proceed. But notably, he has not abandoned his threat to veto Ukraine’s eventual admission as a member.

Erdogan was able to defy the will of NATO countries to admit Finland and Sweden. He relented as to Finland and may yet give up his opposition to Sweden’s membership in NATO.

Surprisingly, the remaining EU and NATO countries didn’t move to boot Hungary out of the EU and Turkiye out of NATO. A little bit of reverse authoritarianism against autocrats might go a long way.

On October 7, 2023, the face of the Middle East was changed when Hamas attacked inside Israel, killed 1,200, and took some 200 hostages. As that event unfolded, I predicted that Hamas had made a major mistake, that this attack would give Israel carte blanche to go after Hamas and wreak devastation such as we have never seen before. Sadly, I was right. We have perhaps seen only the first chapters that will eventually chronicle of what Hamas wrought on October 7, 2023.

For now, the situation remains in flux. Israel’s quest to destroy Hamas does not allow for a ceasefire of any substantial duration. Yet the pressure on Israel is immense to stop its widespread bombing that necessarily kills large numbers of Palestinian civilians. Already, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is intense and we may yet see death tolls rising exponentially from starvation and disease.

 The COP28 conference, a sorry exercise and a sham

The COP28 conference in Dubai was, to most dedicated climate change aficionados, a sorry exercise and a sham as Sultan al Jaber, the head of the conference is an oil industry executive. The conference ended with a concluding announcement that attendees had agreed to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems. It did not include language calling for a phasing out of fossil fuels as some had wished. The result may well be a distinction without a difference. The major energy consuming countries are still dependent on fossil fuels to run their economies and absent a major technological breakthrough, that is not likely to change over the next 25-30+ years.

The agreement acknowledged that it is imperative that we phase down “unabated” coal burning. Hence, the notion of transitioning to “energy systems” with the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. As well, the agreement called for accelerated action in the remainder of this critical decade.

Unabated coal burning means uncontrolled release of CO2. Abatement implies that carbon capture and storage technology will be used to keep CO2 emissions from being released into the atmosphere. However, the attendees left without defining what effective abatement should achieve at a minimum. What we were left with is a system that still clearly lacks any standards. How much of the CO2 emissions need to be captured before abatement is considered sufficient to meet environment-saving goals? Is 50% of CO2 emissions or 90%? There was also no serious attempt to address the problem of methane release.

Lastly, with a presidential election coming up in 2024, a major story has been Donald Trump’s continuing polling strength among Republican Party faithful. It is not clear at all that Trump’s vociferous supporters reflect anything other than a dedicated cohort among a minority party in America. But the ongoing debacle on America’s southern border and the populist appeals that Trump uses to rally support among the faithful, suggest that the Biden team better pay attention.

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that Trump is disqualified from serving as President for another term because he engaged in insurrection against the United States and gave aid and comfort to other insurrectionists. It ordered his name removed from the Republican primary ballot. Trump has vowed to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. There are serious legal questions to be resolved, but whatever the outcome, allowing Trump to run could have profound consequences for the country if he wins, and barring him from running is likely to engender protests and howls from his supporters and Republican politicians that will create much turmoil in the US.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 22 December 2023

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