Years from now, how will historians remember 2022? One obvious answer could be that it was dominated by Russia’s war in Ukraine—a battle with immense global ramifications for energy, food, nuclear proliferation, sovereignty, and democracy. FP columnist Stephen Walt, the magazine’s resident realist scholar, has long made the point that while the war itself is incredibly important, the issues of climate change, technology, and China’s strength are more likely to determine the course of geopolitics in the decades to come.
With that in mind, how does Walt look back at the last 12 months in world affairs? How would he grade the Biden administration’s foreign policy in 2022? I spoke with Walt on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. In part 1 of our discussion, we looked back at the year that was. Part 2, which releases next week, predicts what 2023 might look like. What follows is a highly condensed and edited transcript of our first discussion. Subscribers can watch the full interview in the video box at the top of this page.
Foreign Policy: Has the war in Ukraine changed the global order?
Stephen Walt: I don’t think it has yet. What it has done is it’s reinforced a number of conditions that already existed. The war has given NATO its mojo back. There were divisions inside the alliance. The Trump years had put a lot of strain on it, and all of a sudden you get a war with Ukraine and NATO is back in a big way. NATO has rediscovered its mission.
What effects the Ukraine war has on the world order are going to depend a lot on how it turns out. If this ends up as a smashing victory for Ukraine, which everyone hopes for, then you can imagine that having some significant follow-up effects. If, on the other hand, it ends up an unhappy negotiated settlement, that leaves Ukrainians disappointed, Russians disappointed, Americans thinking that this wasn’t such a foreign-policy success after all, then it might have some other implications. But as I’ve said in the pages of Foreign Policy over the past year, if you step back from Ukraine for a second, it may not be all that significant in shaping what the 21st century really looks like. If you were looking forward 10 or 20 or 30 years, you wouldn’t think that whoever controls the Donbas is really going to be the critical determinant. Whereas whoever controls the commanding heights of digital technology, that’s going to be pretty significant. Whether the United States remains a fully engaged power in Europe or Asia is going to be significant. Whether the global temperature increases by a degree and a half, 2 degrees, or 2 and a half degrees is going to be significant.
FP: Well, one thing that this war has done is it has accelerated a move toward nonalignment, with some countries less inclined to want to follow what the United States considers as its priorities and objectives.
SW: I think that’s exactly right. In that sense, the Ukraine war has been like a flashlight that has illuminated a new aspect of the global landscape. We are no longer in a unipolar world. The United States is no longer the only game in town—and responses to Ukraine are consistent with that.
I want to push that further, though, and say that points us toward something else that has happened in 2022. Take the United States’ two closest allies in the Middle East—Israel and Saudi Arabia. To a first approximation, neither one of them is helping the United States in Ukraine. They’ve both adopted a hands-off approach toward it, and Saudi Arabia rejected the Biden administration’s request that they increase oil production as a way of dealing with inflation and also undercutting revenues for Russia. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is also courting China, with [President] Xi Jinping visiting recently and the Saudis organizing a series of summits.
Other countries are going to pursue their own interests as they see them, and they’re going to have choices. They don’t necessarily have to just line up with Washington, and this is something we’re just going to have to get used to. 2022 started to reveal that. India would be one final example, clearly an increasingly important partner vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific but pretty much absent from the global response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, again, for its own reasons.
FP: Is it your sense that the Biden administration and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment get this shift? When they deal with an India or a Saudi Arabia or an Israel, are they dealing with them knowing that these countries are hedging their bets?
SW: They understand that the landscape has changed a little bit, and they understand that other countries have their own interests and are going to pursue them. At the same time, I think one of the defining features of the Biden administration was his attempt to get the United States’ band back together and take it on the road. They spoke from the very beginning about wanting to assemble the world’s democracies. They’ve held a democracy summit. They’re going to hold another one. The idea was, we’re going to restore ties with all of our traditional allies. And one of the expectations there is once we’ve done that, once we’ve made nice with them, they will line up with us when we call upon them. In some cases, you’re finding that is working. Certainly, Europe’s response to the invasion of Ukraine has been quite gratifying. What I don’t think the administration has fully taken on board is that’s not going to be true elsewhere. They understand it cognitively, but it’s still not really part of their sort of reflexive grasp of how international politics works these days.
FP: This has been a tough year for Beijing, with zero-COVID having held back their economy. We began to see the emergence of protests over the last few weeks. We’re now hearing reports that incidences of COVID, especially in Beijing, are on the rise. How much of what has transpired has surprised you?
SW: The biggest surprise was the outbreak of protests, given how effective China has been at controlling demonstrations ever since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Hong Kong is a slightly different circumstance for all the obvious reasons. I haven’t been particularly surprised by all the troubles that China has had, because in a sense, they are directly connected to Xi’s coronation as China’s unchallenged leader at the 20th Party Congress. The problem with having all that political power concentrated in one person is if that person heads off in the wrong direction, there’s no corrective mechanisms that can stop them.
We see that in two dimensions. One was the zero-COVID policy, which became his trademark approach, which he refused to budge for, and that has caused economic problems but now is likely to cause significant public health problems as they try to come out of it. That was something that Xi now bears responsibility for. The second part has been his overtly ambitious foreign policy. This is sometimes described as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, the in-your-face approach to dealing with other countries. We saw this in Bali when he suddenly confronted Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, and essentially tried to dress him down for behaving inappropriately. This is not something world leaders typically do in public, and it’s certainly not going to do anything to enhance Canadian attitudes toward China, which have been spiraling downward for quite some time as well.
The combination of these policies at home and the more sharp-elbowed approach to diplomacy abroad have put China in a much more difficult position than they would have been otherwise and have made it much easier for the United States to enlist support from other countries to try to keep China somewhat in check.
FP: Did U.S. sanctions on China’s semiconductors strike you as outside of the norm of what you were expecting from the Biden administration on China policy?
SW: I was actually quite surprised by that, and I think one shouldn’t underestimate exactly how significant that move was. It’s much more significant than anything the Trump administration did. This was a major escalation. We declared economic war on China and basically declared that as a national objective, we were going to retain economic supremacy. The United States was going to do everything it could to make sure it continued to control the commanding heights of the most sophisticated and important technologies, and it would take active measures to try to hinder China’s ability to develop those things.
This connects back to the war in Ukraine in an important way because the United States is now trying to defeat two great powers simultaneously. We are trying to help Ukraine inflict a military defeat on Russia, and we’re trying to inflict an economic defeat on China at the same time. And in each case, we’re trying to walk a rather fine line: in the Ukraine case, to inflict a defeat without prompting escalation, especially nuclear escalation; and in the Chinese case, without crashing the world economy or provoking the Chinese to do something, say, toward Taiwan as well. This is a quite ambitious set of objectives the Biden administration has taken on, and I’m not sure everyone fully realizes just how much they’re trying to do and how difficult it may be.
FP: On Ukraine, it seems like the United States is relying on allies to cooperate. But in the case of the semiconductor ban on China, it’s a bit more coercive in that many countries and companies have to comply with the U.S. sanctions, otherwise they face a whole range of other problems.
SW: Right, and here’s where these two conflicts then start to intersect. There are a number of Asian countries that are not happy about the chip war, and relatedly, the Inflation Reduction Act and the other measures that the Biden administration is taking to support U.S. industries. Some of our Asian partners are not relaxed about China. They’re not happy about the economic consequences of what we’re doing here, which affects them directly, and that’s also true of some of our European partners. The Dutch, in particular, are upset about our efforts to drag them into the chip war with China. They don’t regard China as an imminent threat, and this is a clear economic cost for them.
FP: You’re a professor. You grade for a living. How would you grade the Biden administration’s foreign policy in 2022?
SW: I would give them an overall B- and write a note saying, “A for effort.” And this gets back to something I wrote earlier this year that they are much more skillful at running U.S. foreign policy than their predecessors. They understand how to make the machinery run. We have not had a lot of embarrassing gaffes or moments where it appeared that it was amateur hour. They have done quite an impressive job of assembling the anti-Russian coalition and eliciting support. Certainly, within Europe, they got a lot of points for having spoken very candidly before the war about what they were seeing and having been vindicated by all of that.
FP: Just to play devil’s advocate, the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 was largely botched, and the Taliban’s now in power. Iran is ever closer to a nuclear bomb. Wouldn’t you agree that there are other areas of U.S. foreign policy that haven’t worked out so well?
SW: No question about that. I have a different view of Afghanistan than almost everyone, and it is worth noting that after the flurry of criticism in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, that issue just dropped away. In that sense, President Joe Biden’s strategic instinct that this was not a vital interest for the United States to continue to pour time, money, effort, and attention into Afghanistan has been vindicated. I also believe that, although, yes, the withdrawal did not happen perfectly, we could have done it 10 times and it wouldn’t have worked out very well in nine out of those 10 times, because the problem we faced was inherently difficult to address. There was no way to get out without having a mess behind us.
Another event in 2022 is the recognition that the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is in a death spiral, it’s not coming back, and one can fault the administration for not placing enough priority on that. Yes, they got talks started, but the only way to do this would have been to do it very quickly upon taking office while you still had a somewhat more agreeable Iranian government in place. Once they let that window slip by, the Iranian elections brought a more hard-line government into power, then they were never going to get a deal easily. So I wouldn’t give them high marks for that one, but they did make a judgment that they couldn’t push it early on, rightly or wrongly.
FP: It’s been a year of lots of elections in Latin America. Some analysts have said that we are now seeing the return of left-wing politics in Latin America. What’s your sense? Is there a broader regional trend you can discern from the elections we’ve seen in Latin America?
SW: It’s always tempting to see big patterns here, but what we’re really seeing is a reflection of a chronic problem of unstable governance throughout much of that continent. Therefore, when it’s buffeted by any set of disturbances, whether it’s economic or financial or COVID, you’re going to see politics get roiled in different ways. At any given moment, it’ll appear that the right is ascendant, or the left might be ascendant, but I don’t see a sort of overwhelming and enduring pattern emerging there.
I do think that it is striking how little attention we in the foreign-policy world pay to Latin America, given that what happens in Latin and Central America and in Mexico may have more direct reverberations on our domestic politics, largely through migration and refugee flows than anything else, and yet we kind of treat the Western Hemisphere as almost an afterthought, [and that’s striking] given that it’s so close and so important.
Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports