What Now?

by Bill Murray

After three years of pandemic and a year of war, could things be about to get better? With the defeat of Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, President Xi’s Covid problems in China and President Putin’s all-around debacle of destruction in Ukraine, could the worldwide wave of authoritarianism be breaking? 

If so, the incoming Republican House could be the rump of ugly populism and, for all that that’s fun to write, it could go out kicking up more trouble than anyone wants to see. This Congress will legislate the future of the country until a new president is elected. Hoo boy, how much could they undo in two years?

If last week gave us a preview of the next two years in the U.S. House, they promise to be sort of like watching a YouTube lecture at 2x speed, choppy and distracting. But as the House Republican caucus settles in to comb through the life of Hunter Biden, what might happen in the rest of the world? Undreamt of things, probably. All over the place.

We won’t have to wait too long to learn one thing: the true extent of China’s Covid problem. That should become clearer over the next several months. We know that as it is, untold numbers of rural Chinese people, surely millions, languish in a health care system with only the most basic resources. We also know that when the going gets tough, government controlled data gets scarce, and worryingly, that is precisely what we are seeing now.

Can China get enough people vaccinated, fast? Will the arrival of Covid in every obscure corner of the country over the Lunar New Year holidays, the world’s largest human migration, produce a dangerous new variant? (China’s Transport Ministry expects more than 2 billion passengers to travel over the next 40 days.) If deaths mount, how will the Party handle any political violence? Imagine the criticism if China were a country that allowed criticism.

The shambles of the abandonment of Xi’s zero Covid policy, combined with the conventional wisdom that Ukraine’s (relative) success against Russia has given Xi pause, leads to our first prediction for 2023: China won’t invade Taiwan. The Politburo Standing Committee has its hands full and will tend to the home front first.

Ukraine – and the world’s maneuverings around it – continues to dominate geopolitics. History is being laid down, post-post-Cold War rules are being written, geopolitical theory revised, established weapons procurement routines turned upside down. Germany has declared itself at a zeitenwende.

 “Unless wars are short and victorious, they increasingly divide into peace faction vs. victory faction; end-the-carnage and write off your losses, vs. sunk costs and their-sacrifice-shall-not-be-in-vain.”

I read that quote when the war was six months old and it sounded right at the time. Yet with the one year anniversary bearing down, what do we see? Ever further closing western ranks. In December the US agreed to send its first patriot missile battery and last Thursday, 315 days into the war, we saw a coordinated effort from France, Germany and the United States to equip Ukraine with armored fighting vehicles – wheeled light tanks from France, as many as 40 Marder tracked infantry fighting vehicles from the Germans and 50 US tracked, armored Bradleys.

During the lull in winter fighting, as both sides to rebuild and restock, Ukraine has proposed diplomacy, calling for a UN summit by the end of February. Russia meanwhile seems to sink further into sclerosis. While it absorbs drone attacks on strategic bomber bases, Putin endures domestic criticism from the right, and fires and explosions have occurred at a minimum of 72 military facilities within Russia—including 44 draft offices and 28 bases,” one academic paper suggests “Russia has lost companies representing ~40% of its GDP.”

What happens inside Russia bears watching closely in the year to come. (Three suggestions: Novaya Gazeta Europa and Meduza, both currently published from Riga, and The Moscow Times, exiled to Yerevan.) I’ll be watching for industrial distress, further fraying of borders in the former Soviet space and accelerated moral decline. The authoritarian way is to spread unsavory complicity among the elites. Passed through, this accelerated moral decay that contributed to the Soviet collapse.

Although it’s hard to imagine from here, it is at least possible that by January 3, 2015 (when the American 118th Congress goes out of business), Vladimir Putin won’t be running his mafia regime. Mark Galeotti’s thinks (I paraphrase from his podcast) when Putin is no longer running the show, his successors may be more content to be mere kleptocrats instead of imperialist kleptocrats. There’s something to hope for in 2023.

One prediction on the war front: it’s safe to say that short of a disastrous turn for Russia, Belarus won’t enter the war. A Lukashenka intervention would come at the risk of domestic turmoil and further internal sabotage that would outweigh whatever benefits Lukashenka’s questionable army might bring.

For all the West’s empathy for Ukrainians, hoping they can get back to their normal lives soon is wishing for the impossible. A third of the population are now refugees, internationally or internally displaced. The equivalent in the United States would be 110 million people.

Many families will never reunite, many Ukrainians will never return and many who do will grapple with riven families, PTSD, all manner of postwar trauma. Ukraine is going to need sustained help, and a lot of it. So here’s a solid prediction: whenever the war ends, most of the frozen Russian assets seized at the beginning of the war will be held and used as war reparations to help rebuild Ukraine. Even Germany has opened the door to the idea.

Before we free ourselves from the authoritarian’s club, a word about Türkiye’s President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan. For the first time in twenty years, no G7 country is holding an election this year. But Türkiye is, on June 18th. Already Istanbul’s well-regarded Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has been sentenced to jail for declaring that “those who cancelled the March 31 (2019 Istanbul mayoral) election are fools.” Apparently, Erdoğan took that personally.

In that election İmamoğlu, the opposition Republican People’s Party candidate, defeated the candidate from Erdoğan’s AKP Party by about 13,000 votes. Erdoğan called for the election to be run again and İmamoğlu then won by 800,000. İmamoğlu’s prison sentence is widely regarded as a preemptive strike by Erdoğan against an İmamoğlu electoral challenge.

If İmamoğlu’s conviction stands on appeal it comes with a banishment from holding office. Appeals normally take a year or so to move through the courts. No prediction here, but let’s see if İmamoğlu’s appeal process is expedited. The 2018 appeal of Selahattin Demirtas, a pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party leader, took only weeks. Similar treatment of İmamoğlu would be a fair measure of Erdoğan’s pre-election jitters.

In the midst of Turkish electoral jockeying, Finland, Sweden and NATO are in a hurry to get the two countries’ NATO accession bids done, having collected official support from all the other NATO countries except Hungary (whose approval has been promised when its parliament reconvenes, probably next month). Since President Erdoğan will feel the need to show that no one bosses him around, not NATO, not nobody, during the campaign, another easy prediction here: NATO and the Nordics will have to wait at least until the third quarter of 2023 before their expansion plans are realized.

If economists are right the big Western economies will struggle against slipping into recession in the new year, and the going will be tougher still for the global south. A number of poorer countries have seen increased political instability since Covid disrupted everything, and in July 2022 the government fell in Sri Lanka. Which country will be the next Sri Lanka?

No prediction on this one, but the competition is robust. A few contenders:

Egypt, with a near 95% debt-to-GDP ratio, has been in perpetual economic crisis, but as 2022 closed, the third of its 100 million people who are living in poverty were finding it harder than ever to eat. It’s the world’s largest importer of wheat, eighty percent of which comes from around the volatile Black Sea.

• Ghana was spending over half its tax revenues on debt interest payments before suspending payments on its Eurobond, commercial term loans, and on most of its bilateral debt last month. Inflation is getting close to 30% and its currency, the cedi, is the worst performing in the world.

Laos has one of Asia’s highest rates of inflation, a currency depreciating fast, and a debt-to-China problem similar to Sri Lanka’s. Laos owes $6 billion for a high-speed rail line connecting China with Vientiane, a textbook example of a sleepy capital that really didn’t need it. At the kip equivalent of US$33 per second-class ticket from Vientiane, on the Thai border, to Boten, China, six billion dollars will take some time to pay it back.

And in a category all its own, there will always be Haiti, where the situation is so dire no one even much wants to help.

As the reality of the world’s climate precarity grows increasingly visible, so we can also see that the search for solutions is forever carried forward but never resolved. But not for lack of meetings. In fact, private jets ferrying dignitaries around to climate-wrangle is one thing the dignitaries seem to agree on.

Here is a list of 576 international environmental conferences this month alone. Now even smaller cities are getting in on the chase for the environmental dollar. The committed environmental activist can visit the International Conference on Land Use Change in the Changing Environment and Conservation (ICLUCCEC) in Cancún, the  International Conference on Water, Energy and Environmental Management (ICWEEM) in Mandalay and the International Conference on Urban Growth and Environmental Degradation (ICUGED) in Bogata, all three in the first six months of the year. So another safe prediction for 2023: U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s plane won’t rest on the tarmac for long.

We started with the 118th US Congress, and let’s come back there to close. Six days ago on January 3rd, the 118th United States Congress began, which is not to say it swore itself in. In the House, that took until the early hours of January 7th. During the midterm campaign the columnist Jim Geraghty called Mehmet Oz “the wildly underperforming Ford Pinto of Republican Senate candidates.” Speaker Kevin McCarthy has absconded with that title, bound for the House.

Let us be grateful that Nancy Pelosi has given up her leadership role; that’s progress. The first woman to serve as Speaker of the House made history, but a generation is too long to serve as an elected official and 35 years as a Congressperson is too to ride the gravy train. May her departure usher in a generation of leadership closer to the challenges to come, and may she gather her laurels (probably she has someone to gather them for her) and sit on them somewhere way up on a back bench for her final term.

After the week we’ve just seen, what can we say about the Republicans? With their disinclination to even pretend to want to govern, can we expect anything more of the newly self-appointed Tyranny of Twenty than disruption and a drive to defund? For this group, cavorting on cable is way more fun than governing. Robert Draper offers the example of Madison Cawthorn, the one term Congressman from North Carolina who boasted about the quiet part: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”

If there’s one area of legislation the Cable Cabal might agree on, it’s taking things away from people. So fights over perennials like raising the debt limit (due in the third quarter) and the next spending bill (the government is funded through September 30) will be nasty, brutish and long-winded, and this time the best efforts of all but the buffoon brigade may not prevent a US default.

The 118th Congress will govern, such as they do, through what promises to be a colorful Republican presidential primary campaign, possibly including former President Donald Trump. One last prediction: for as long as Republican hijinks continue in the House, the President will profess to look on with solemnity, more in sadness than in glee.