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The sun rises above Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023 (Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)
The sun rises above Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023 (Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

PoliticsDecember 18, 2023

A brutal 2023: The Bulletin World Weekly year in review

The sun rises above Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023 (Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)
The sun rises above Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023 (Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

The Bulletin World Weekly is a newsletter by Peter Bale exclusively for Spinoff members, covering and analysing the most important stories from around the globe. In this special edition, a look back at a tumultuous year.

To get the Bulletin World Weekly in your inbox every week next year, sign up to The Spinoff Members.

The world is arguably on edge as we head into that reflective period of the holiday season and the turn to a new year. The outcome of two critical wars – Ukraine and Israel-Gaza – may be decided in the coming months, each of which has huge implications.

Then there is the 2024 United States presidential election, a struggle between populism and rationality that may define American influence for years to come and which itself has enormous implications for peace in Europe and in the Middle East.

Maybe, just maybe, we close the year with a glimmer of hope on climate change with the Cop28 conference in Dubai agreeing on a statement that at least starts a process to turn our energy demands away from fossil fuels and tries to restore a 1.5C cap on warming.

We might also reflect at the turn of the year on what didn’t happen this year that might have: China did not invade Taiwan (certainly not at the time of writing) but is clearly concerned about the island’s enthusiastic democratic elections in January.

Yet we also face another year of under-reported tragedy and misgovernment in Myanmar, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and North Korea.

A Ukrainian soldier looks out from a tank as he holds his position near the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region on December 13, 2023 (Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine is the frontline

Ukraine is where the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism has played out over the past nearly two years and where the west – especially Washington – will decide how to draw a line against a hostile invasion and the threat from Russian president Vladimir Putin.

It is remarkable to reflect just how central Ukraine has been to politics in the United States since well before the invasion: the US supported the so-called Orange Revolution nearly 20 years ago, setting an unsteady path to democracy; Kyiv was a vector for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; Donald Trump tried to hold military aid to Ukraine hostage to press his claims of Biden family corruption; and now President Volodymyr Zelensky is in Washington begging recalcitrant Republicans to keep supplying the weapons and money Ukraine needs to defend itself from Russia for another winter.

Putin, meanwhile, must feel his strategy of waiting out a flaky west is winning. He this week officially declared what the world had assumed, that he would stand in his own rather less democratic presidential election in 2024 – setting up a return of the Putin-Trump double act.

“Ukraine faces dwindling reserves of ammunition, personnel and western support. The counteroffensive it launched six months ago has failed. Moscow, once awash in recriminations over a disastrous invasion, is celebrating its capacity to sustain a drawn-out war,” reporters Paul Sonne and Andrew E Kramer wrote in The New York Times (gift link).

Israel and Netanyahu go it alone

In Israel, the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using the attack on Gaza as a vehicle to rescue his political career from corruption charges and his failure to anticipate the October 7 Hamas strikes, and also set up a return of the Bibi-Trump double act.

“Trailing heavily in the polls and in the midst of a bloody conflict with Hamas in Gaza, Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping to take Israelis’ trauma and anger in the wake of October 7 and mould it to his electoral needs,” liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in the lead to an analysis by Anshel Pfeffer.

It seems hardly credible but it is happening in front of our eyes – the past repeating itself.

Trump is by far the leading Republican candidate for the presidency – so secure he disdains turning up for the televised debates – and polls suggest he is ahead of President Joe Biden in critical states and among important voting constituencies. Biden, it seems, cannot get a break despite a strong economy that many of his people just aren’t feeling, a Ukraine war that seems like one of the “forever wars” Trump complained about, and his obvious age.

Biden has tied himself dangerously to Netanyahu and now accuses Israel of “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza while signing orders to deliver those very bombs. Washington vetoed a ceasefire demand despite it being brokered by the UN secretary-general himself.

“In the face of international pressures – nothing will stop us, we will go to the end, to victory, no less than that,” Netanyahu said after visiting troops, where he told them: “I want to say in the clearest way what I just said to the commander in the field – we continue to the end.”

It is hard to imagine a more consequential election in our lifetimes. Trump may yet stand even if he is convicted on the array of federal and state charges he faces, setting up the prospect of chaos just as great as re-electing him might mean for the United States and the world. Here is a handy Politico guide to the last Trump presidency.

None of us may be entirely comforted by Trump’s presumably tongue-in-cheek but who-knows-really comment that he would not be a dictator “Except for day one”.

Delegates applaud during a plenary session on day 13 of the UN COP28 Climate Conference on December 13, 2023 in Dubai. (Photo by Fadel Dawod/Getty Images)

Countries can act together

A glimmer of hope to end the year may be in the importance of the final agreement reached at the 28th Conference of the Parties in Dubai, where the head of the Abu Dhabi national oil company managed to negotiate a text which for the first time referred to shifting away from the global dependency on fossil fuels. It may also have set out a path to at first exceed but then pull back to the 1.5C global warming objective set in Paris in 2015.

Given the Ukraine war, Israel thumbing its nose to the world over levelling Gaza, and the impotence of the United Nations and vetos of the Security Council on issue after issue, it may be the idea that all parties could at least sign up to something – even with reservations – that we can think of as a victory for a common view of humanity and life on Earth.

“This is a moment where multilateralism has actually come together and people have taken individual interests and attempted to define the common good,” US climate envoy John Kerry said after the deal was adopted, Reuters reported from Dubai.

Another glimmer of hope, perhaps, includes the election of a progressive and internationalist government in Poland, maybe offset by the election of a self-described anarcho-capitalist as president in Argentina. Those on the right who favour populist leaders and the culture wars they thrive on may also find succour in the spread of even the most unhinged ideas.

“Western civilisation is being destroyed from within by forces we can’t control,” The Daily Telegraph headlined a column by Allister Heath (paywalled), saying a cabal of “woke” academics, environmentalists and peaceniks were in charge, concluding: “the woke stormtroopers have unleashed a monster they cannot control.”

Recommended end-of-year reading and listening

You might find it intriguing, as I did, to go back to the end-of-year Bulletin World Weekly for 2022 where I wrote about the importance of confronting the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the risks to the Chinese economy as it recovered from Covid. Then there was the 2021 review which focused to some extent on the insurrection by Trump supporters. The 2020 review, you won’t be surprised, was about Covid and disinformation, among other things.

Reuters photographers each year assemble a remarkable collection of images that tell the story of the year and can inspire or depress or shock in equal measure.

In case you are wondering where reporting from Gaza is originating, in most cases western reporters have been denied access to the area, unless on escorted trips with Israeli forces. Palestinian reporters in Gaza have gone on describing the destruction around them, often at immense personal cost, including the loss of their families and their own lives. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that as of December 13, 63 journalists and media workers had died. Separately, Reuters published a damning investigation into the killing of one of its cameramen by Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon.

In the shadow of the Holocaust: How the politics of memory in Europe obscures what we see in Israel and Gaza today is a brave and memorable essay in The New Yorker (paywalled) by Russian emigre journalist Masha Gessen, who describes their own feelings as a descendent of Holocaust victims and how they believe that memory and the Holocaust itself are betrayed: “The ghetto is being liquidated,” Gessen writes of Gaza. “The Nazis claimed that ghettos were necessary to protect non-Jews from diseases spread by Jews. Israel has claimed that the isolation of Gaza, like the wall in the West Bank, is required to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians. The Nazi claim had no basis in reality, while the Israeli claim stems from actual and repeated acts of violence. These are essential differences. Yet both claims propose that an occupying authority can choose to isolate, immiserate – and, now, mortally endanger – an entire population of people in the name of protecting its own.”

The piece is reminiscent of writer Hannah Arendt, who created the concept of the “banality of evil” and was heavily criticised by other Jews. In fact, a German group this week cancelled its award to Gessen of a prize in Arendt’s name because of the New Yorker article.

A recent episode of the Foreign Policy Live podcast gave an insight into the Palestinian perspective on the Israel-Gaza crisis in a depth we seldom hear. Historian Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, dealt with the history of Palestine and Israel in a cogent and coherent way. It was something of a counter to a recent essay in The Atlantic (gift link) by historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and I expect Sebag will be interviewed on the same podcast soon.

My books of the year:

The Maniac, by Benjamin Labatut, a fictionalised version of the life of computing and weapons pioneer John von Neumann which expands into forecasts about the importance of artificial intelligence in our own lives from now and into the future.

The World: A Family History of Humanity, by Simon Sebag-Montefiore, an almost comically long but unputdownable read of everything since the dawn of time.

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, by Nicholas Shakespeare, is a definitive biography of the creator of James Bond which suggests he had more in common with his creation than previously imagined and an upbringing and life of eye-popping snobbishness.

Keep going!