Issues to watch in 2023

From nuclear proliferation to African debt, here are the issues six of our expert contributors expect to make the news in the year ahead.

The World Today Published 2 December 2022 Updated 9 October 2023 3 minute READ

Europe’s energy outlook

Mike Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy, Warwick Business School

There is cautious optimism that Europe will endure this winter without an energy crisis. Gas prices have fallen, storage is 95 per cent full, and the autumn was mild. High summer gas prices cut industrial demand but domestic heating demand will be critical over the winter. Already, France’s problematic nuclear fleet and lower hydroelectric output mean Europe is using more gas to generate power. 

The problem is next winter when ensuring adequate gas storage will be much harder

Russian pipeline gas supply to southern Europe has fallen by 55 per cent. While Asian demand has fallen, Europe has still paid record prices to secure additional liquefied natural gas (LNG), largely from America but also Russia. European demand for LNG this winter will push prices up, and these will rise even higher if China relaxes its Zero-Covid policy and demand recovers. However, with luck, Europe will avoid power cuts in early 2023. The problem is next winter. With less Russian pipeline gas and a tight LNG market, 90 per cent winter gas storage levels will be much harder to achieve. 

NATO’s resurgence

Alice Billon-Galland, Research Fellow, Europe Programme, Chatham House and one of 14 NATO Young Leaders

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO adopted a new strategic concept. Member states will reinforce NATO battlegroups and bolster higher readiness forces from 40,000 troops to more than 300,000, while striving to avoid escalation with Russia. Turkey’s attempts to block Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership will preoccupy Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General, until he leaves his post next autumn.

Infrastructure vulnerabilities such as the sabotaged Nord Stream pipeline will be a NATO focus

Expect arguments on defence spending in the run-up to the July summit in Vilnius. Although only nine of its 30 members are expected to meet the 2 per cent spending target, the debate is moving towards 3 per cent, in part to reduce dependency on American assets and hedge against the uncertainty of the 2024 US presidential election. Infrastructure vulnerabilities, such as the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage in the Baltic, will also be a focus. Otherwise, NATO ’s eyes will be on China: from its relations with Russia to the threat of cyberattacks.

Universal health reforms

Robert Yates, Executive Director, Centre for Universal Health, Chatham House

In response to the perma-crisis experienced by many populations this past year, some leaders are launching or extending universal health reforms. New left-wing leaders in Chile, Colombia and Brazil have promised to rebuild their publicly financed universal health systems. In Brazil, newly elected president Lula da Silva has pledged to increase public health spending and improve access to medicines. It is hoped Malaysia’s new coalition will carry forward its predecessor’s pledge to raise health spending to 5 per cent of GDP by 2027 to provide a universal package of free health services.

Might a US presidential candidate propose a publicly financed health system? 

In September, world leaders will discuss universal health coverage at the UN General Assembly. There, Chatham House will publish its Commission for Universal Health report, identifying countries in which crises may trigger new national health programmes. Might this be when a US presidential candidate announces a platform to create a publicly financed health system?

Weapons of mass destruction

Patricia Lewis, Director of the International Security Programme, Chatham House

Since its illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia has attacked civil nuclear power stations, falsely accused Ukraine of possessing bioweapons and radiological bombs, and threatened to use nuclear weapons. In contrast, NATO has instead demonstrated that deterrence can be highly effective with conventional weaponry. In the coming year, the Kremlin’s nuclear brinkmanship will still be a focus. Washington will try to restart bilateral nuclear negotiations with Moscow and similarly try to engage Beijing.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is a growing threat

Following the failure of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to reach consensus in August, the next review cycle will start by looking at strengthening the process. Iran’s nuclear capabilities remain a concern, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is a growing threat. So, we are left with a question: will 2023 be the year of  nuclear conflict or the year when states get busy again on non-proliferation and disarmament?  

Africa’s mounting debt

Joseph Asunka, Chief Executive Officer, Afrobarometer

Inflation is at historic highs in several African economies. Meanwhile, many African countries including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo will hold  elections in 2023, driving up public spending, increasing inflationary pressures and exacerbating poverty. According to Afrobarometer data, the proportion of Africans experiencing high levels of poverty has increased from 19 per cent in 2014/2015 to  26 per cent in 2021/2022.

Zimbabwe is in debt distress and Nigeria is at risk, which makes their elections in 2023 critical

Worse still, many of those countries holding elections are either, like Zimbabwe, in debt distress – that is unable to honour their obligations to creditors – or at high risk of debt distress, like Nigeria. This makes the elections in Zimbabwe and Nigeria critical. The expiration of the World Bank/IMF-backed debt service suspension initiative in 2021 has only amplified this risk. What are viable policy options to tackle this dire economic predicament? A debt service moratorium, debt cancellation and serious attention to fiscal discipline.

Feminist foreign policy

Daniela Philipson García, Co-founder of Internacional Feminista, and a PhD candidate, Monash University

Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) is under threat. The war in Ukraine led to strengthened military budgets and alliances at odds with FFP’s human security and peace-centred approaches. Sweden’s new right-wing government reversed its FFP. In Mexico, the first Global South country to adopt an FFP, Congress has voted to expand the military’s role to curb cartel-related violence, in contradiction of its FFP. The second anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a moment to assess how foreign policy, diplomacy and women’s and girls’ rights have been affected globally. 

Colombia has announced a feminist foreign policy along with a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security

There is hope. Germany, whose coalition government adopted an FFP in 2021, is to publish more guidelines in the spring. The governments of Colombia and Chile have announced their own FFPs. Colombia’s first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, to be announced at the UN General Assembly in September, is expected to set a standard for a region submerged in violence.