Home > News > Five things that didn’t happen in the world in 2023
242 views 10 min 0 Comment

Five things that didn’t happen in the world in 2023

We missed some breakthroughs, but we dodged some disasters.

- December 22, 2023
NATO photo of Ukrainian and Dutch soldiers at joint training in Wędrzyn, Poland on December 7, 2023.
Ukrainian and Dutch soldiers at NATO Combined Arms Training Command in Wędrzyn, Poland on Dec. 7, 2023 (cc) NATO

Year-end lists are usually for things that happened – and a lot happened in the international arena in 2023. But a lot of foreign policy is about things that didn’t happen, for better and for worse.

Here are five big things that didn’t happen in 2023. While many of these relate to U.S. foreign policy, they affect countries around the world.

1. Nuclear war

Any year that passes without the use of nuclear weapons is worth noting. In 2023, we had more reminders to never take the non-use of nuclear weapons for granted. As Caitlin Talmadge pointed out soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukraine crisis almost immediately became a nuclear crisis after Vladimir Putin issued nuclear threats. Yet nuclear escalation has not happened. 

Austin Carson, who has written about the ways adversaries collude in secret to control escalation (most recently here at Good Authority in the context of why the Israel-Hamas war has not yet escalated to a wider regional conflict), has repeatedly warned us not to be complacent about the risk of nuclear escalation. In an article in Foreign Affairs on “missing escalation in Ukraine,” Carson argues that “the absence of [nuclear] escalation does not mean that analysts have been wrong to fear it. Quite the contrary: a fear of escalation can motivate military commanders and policymakers to make cautious decisions that help prevent it.” 

Both sides in the Ukraine war have made concerted efforts to avoid provocative or accidental scenarios that might trigger escalation. But such efforts are not automatic, and we can’t take it as given that they will continue.

2. A U.S. debt default

Disclosure: I don’t have a license to practice international political economy. But a U.S. debt default would have been bad, right? That it didn’t happen is good. 

Still, the debt deal that avoided a U.S. default contributed to the anger of far-right House Republicans who ultimately ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). And the risk of debt default was far from a U.S. problem: Many analysts have highlighted the unusually high risk of default for many countries in 2023.

When the U.S. comes close to its debt ceiling, Congress usually nudges the limit upward just enough to avoid a default scenario but not enough to solve the problem. Before presidential elections, however, both parties in Congress have tended to give the debt can a pretty big kick down the road. This time, they kicked it to early 2025. That means the winner of the 2024 presidential election will get to play this game all over again.

And it means 2023 is unlikely to be the last year that a U.S. debt default makes the “didn’t-happen-but-came-scarily-close” list.

3. A breakthrough in Ukraine

The Ukrainian counteroffensive, eventful as it was, turned out to be less successful than many hoped. Countries learn a lot about each other’s capabilities and intentions while fighting, so more has happened than might meet the eye. But the hoped-for breakthrough has to go on the “didn’t happen” list.

Fairly or not, this non-event will affect the politics of Western support for Ukraine going forward. It might lead to louder calls for Ukraine to negotiate – but as Stacie Goddard recently explained here at Good Authority, negotiations over territory in this conflict will be very, very difficult.

4. A repeal of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (and the 2002 AUMF for Iraq)

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Congress passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for countering terrorism. This legislation has since been the main justification for counterterrorism operations in many countries beyond Afghanistan, which harbored the terrorists who organized the 9/11 attacks. A separate 2002 AUMF covers the war in Iraq. 

For background on AUMFs, (failed) efforts to repeal them, and the legality of U.S. military decisions in Syria and elsewhere, see this, or this, or this, or this by Good Authority contributor Andrew Rudalevige

Congress made some progress on repealing the 2002 AUMF in 2023, when the Senate voted to repeal both the 2002 and 1991 authorizations to use force against Iraq. The House was … preoccupied. So both laws still remain on the books. But the 2001 AUMF is the bigger question, since it has been the basis of much of the U.S. war on terrorism. 

The political puzzle is why, when so many within Congress agree that the 2001 AUMF should go, there has still been no action. After all, defending a 20-year-old law when the war it officially authorized ended two years ago would seem to be a heavy lift. To be sure, there are sincere advocates of removing the 2001 AUMF, including senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), who have worked hard on the issue. But several factors have given the 2001 AUMF staying power long after it appeared to wear out its political welcome. 

One is that the 2001 AUMF is often a path of least resistance. Presidents since George W. Bush might not have liked relying on the 2001 AUMF, but doing so was certainly the easy route. 

A second, less obvious factor is that the AUMF was also politically useful for members of Congress, giving them an avenue for procedural criticism rather than opposing the use of force itself. 

This status quo has been hard to dislodge because of a third factor: the politically unappealing prospect of crafting and voting on a bill to repeal and possibly replace the AUMF. Agreeing on a replacement would be difficult. As for repeal, few members want to vote to take authorization away from the president and risk being blamed for tying the president’s hands. With renewed hostilities in the Middle East – including attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria – few in Congress would want to take a risky vote to repeal the existing AUMF. 

Finally, there’s that potent political force: inertia. After all, the 1957 Middle East resolution authorizing the use of force is still on the books

So don’t hold your breath for the repeal of these laws in 2024, either.

5. All the other things that we don’t or can’t know about (yet)

For every foreign policy story in 2023, there were likely hundreds of non-stories – because much of foreign policy is invisible. There are events that flew under the radar, to be sure. But there are also events that we don’t know about, or events that did not happen – both avoiding bad things and failing to achieve good things.

That doesn’t mean nobody did anything. On the contrary, making something happen or preventing a bad thing from happening often takes a lot of behind-the-scenes effort from those serving in government, often with little public credit or reward. And the non-events might yet turn into events. For example, perhaps falling short in a diplomatic effort lays the groundwork for future success. 

Unless the media report these efforts or near-misses, we must wait for memoirs, books by journalists and historians, and possibly the declassification process to fully understand them. It is a reminder that what we read about in the news is only a partial picture of what happens in foreign policy.

So the 2023 list certainly doesn’t end here. The non-events in foreign policy are often just as interesting when we learn about them as the stories that made headlines.