The year 2022 saw many new installments in the long-running tug-of-war between leaders who want to push the limits of their power and the often-invisible forces that shape how politics work. Others worked to shore up the constraints that can hold back the worst effects of poor leadership.
Here are some takeaways from the drama — and the quieter moments — on the international stage.
Leaders made big moves
No leader took a riskier path than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24. In addition to the vast human suffering in Ukraine, Putin’s nuclear alerts and warnings revived fears of nuclear war in Europe, as articles by Caitlin Talmadge and James Cameron explained.
Analysis by Jeff Colgan and Jessica Weeks helped explain why Putin, a personalist dictator, faces few constraints. Russia’s oil wealth helps insulate him from domestic opposition and enables his aggression.
In China, President Xi Jinping consolidated power and installed loyalists — to the exclusion of women — at the Communist Party Congress in October, removing more constraints on his already-centralized regime.
Leaders of democracies also took risks, though of a different kind. In Britain, businesses and citizens felt the economic pain of Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2016 gamble: Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who supported Brexit as part of the Cameron government, took ethical risks by flouting his own coronavirus lockdown rules to attend parties and mishandling multiple scandals involving conservative members of Parliament.
Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, announced a dramatic “mini-budget” plan to boost post-Brexit growth — which sharply boosted borrowing costs for both the government and ordinary British people, sending the economy and her government into crisis.
People and institutions can strike back
Across the globe, many leaders ran into the cold, hard reality of constraints. A big factor Putin — like many observers — didn’t count on: the leadership skills, diplomatic resourcefulness and communications savvy of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
And while Putin may have faced few checks on the road to war, that could not hide the poor preparedness of Russia’s military and low morale among conscripts, as Jason Lyall argued here at TMC. Putin also faced a strong response from the West in terms of sanctions and willingness to accept the pain of limited energy supplies.
Constraining leaders requires people
The year also demonstrated that it takes a lot of work to constrain leaders — even when constraints operate through long-standing institutions.
Putin found this out firsthand. After years of undermining Western institutions and sowing divisions among NATO allies, Putin may have been surprised at the swift, cohesive U.S. and European response after his attack on Ukraine. As Igor Logvinenko explained here at TMC, “The lackluster sanctions policies of Western countries and the profit-seeking by multinational companies reassured Putin that yet another invasion would go mostly unpunished.”
But as The Post’s “Road to War” feature showed, U.S. and European governments engaged in sustained diplomatic efforts to build a united front against Russia — overcoming obstacles like European skepticism of U.S. intelligence after the Iraq War, and Germany’s reliance on Russian gas to power its economy.
Individuals mattered in this process. Zelensky’s courage and relentless diplomatic outreach were crucial. So was President Biden and his administration. As Dan Drezner points out, “There is simply no way to imagine Trump rallying the support of the advanced industrialized democracies to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
In China, TMC editor Jeremy Wallace explained, Xi Jinping encountered the limits of his ability to control the lives of Chinese people directly, as lockdown protesters dared to express anger at Xi himself.
The year also reminded us that democratic constraints with any real bite require attention, effort and even the will of individuals. In Britain, it took several cabinet-level resignations and then a flood of ministers exiting the government to push Johnson out of office, despite the public already turning against him.
Truss ran into a more concrete barrier when her economic plan tanked the British pound and spooked bond markets. Many nevertheless said the Tory party was constrained from quickly ousting her. Her own government undercut that hesitation by mishandling a vote on fracking that turned into a confidence vote in Truss’s government, triggering chaotic scenes in Parliament and, soon after, the Tory party’s decision to turn on her.
Of course, Americans watching the Jan. 6 hearings might recognize this story: Individuals speaking up are crucial to generating accountability for leaders.
Face-to-face diplomacy still matters
It was also the year face-to-face diplomacy returned in full force.
No meeting was more dramatic than Zelensky’s surprise visit to Washington in December. Beyond the symbolism, Zelensky targeted much of his message toward lawmakers skeptical of lavish aid to Ukraine. As Republicans gain control of the House in January, 2023 will tell us whether Zelensky’s efforts run into a formidable constraint — partisan polarization.
Much diplomacy happened behind the scenes. In the run-up to the war, U.S. officials shuttled to Moscow, but also held countless meetings with NATO allies to build consensus. This pattern accords with my own research with James Lebovic, showing that high-level face-to-face diplomacy during crises centers on this kind of alliance consultation and reinforcement. Invisible diplomacy also helped prevent crisis escalation when an errant missile landed on Polish territory.
Summits and multilateral meetings resumed in person, providing crucial unscripted conversations, along with the more formal meetings. In the fall of 2021, Biden held a sidebar briefing for the leaders of Britain, France and Germany at the Group of 20 summit in Rome, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Zelensky on the sidelines of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. A lot of patient, low-profile conversations slowly convinced many allies who were skeptical that Putin would really invade Ukraine.
Some visits raised tensions rather than lowering them. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) August visit to Taiwan angered Beijing, while reassuring the Taiwanese people. After months of heightened stress in the Taiwan Strait — as Scott Kastner explains here at TMC — the trip complicated an already complex Biden administration China policy.
Pelosi’s trip also intensified discussion on a rare issue that unites Congress: competition with China, a major theme of 2022 with the passage of the Chips Act — as Sarah Bauerle Danzman explained — and significant Biden administration restrictions on China’s access to semiconductors.
And it wasn’t just the major powers who used face-to-face diplomacy effectively. As Anjali Dayal argued here at TMC, Kenyan ambassador Martin Kimani delivered a powerful speech defending territorial integrity and independence to the U.N. Security Council’s emergency session on Ukraine. The norm against territorial conquest, as Tanisha Fazal explained for TMC readers, has been crucial to the international order since the end of World War II — and small countries like Kenya used the U.N. platform to defend it.
Can the world rein in bad leadership?
Looking back at 2022 — and the last few years on the foreign policy beat here at TMC — it’s easy to identify leaders trying to leave their mark on the international stage.
A safe prediction for 2023: There will still be bad leadership in the world. But 2022 gives some hope that it’s still possible to check the worst effects of poor leadership — if individuals and institutions are willing to put in the effort.
Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.