A Bad Year For The West?

The BBC's security correspondent thinks so.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner expounds on “Why 2023 was an uncomfortable year for the West.”

The past 12 months have seen a number of setbacks for the US, Europe and other major democracies on the international politics stage. None has been disastrous, for now. But they point to a shifting balance of power away from the US-dominated, Western values that have held sway for years.

On many fronts, the wind is blowing in the wrong direction for Western interests.

By and large, I think this is wrong. But he makes some interesting points.


Despite some recent successes in the Black Sea, the war is not going well for Ukraine. That means, by extension, it is going badly for Nato and the EU, which have bankrolled Ukraine’s war effort and its economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

This time last year, hopes were high in Nato that, supplied with modern military equipment and intensive training in Western countries, Ukraine’s army could press home the advantage it had gained that autumn and push the Russians out of much of the territory they had seized. That hasn’t happened.

The problem has been one of timing. Nato countries took a long time making their mind up about whether they dared send modern Main Battle Tanks like Britain’s Challenger 2 and Germany’s Leopard 2 to Ukraine, in case it provoked President Vladimir Putin into some sort of rash retaliation.


The Russian army may have performed abysmally in its attempts to seize Kyiv in 2022, but where it excels is in defence. All that time that Ukrainian brigades were getting trained up in Britain and elsewhere during the first half of 2023, and while the tanks were being shipped eastwards to the front, Russia was building the biggest, most extensive lines of defensive fortifications in modern history.


For Ukraine and the West, the metrics are nearly all going in the wrong direction. Ukraine is running critically short of ammunition and soldiers. Congress is holding up the White House’s attempts to push through a $60bn military support package. Hungary is holding up the EU’s €50bn aid package.

One or both may eventually get through, but that may be too late. Ukrainian forces are already having to switch to the defensive. Meanwhile, Moscow has put its economy on a war footing, devoting one-third of its national budget to defence while throwing thousands of men and thousands of artillery shells at Ukraine’s front lines.

Obviously this situation is deeply disappointing for Ukraine, which had hoped by now to have turned the tide of war in its favour. But why does it matter to the West?

It matters because President Putin, who personally ordered this invasion nearly two years ago, needs only to hold on to the territory he has seized (roughly 18% of Ukraine) to proclaim a victory.

Nato has emptied its armouries and committed everything short of going to war in order to support its ally, Ukraine. All potentially ending in an embarrassing failure to reverse the Russian invasion. Meanwhile, the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all Nato members – are convinced that if Mr Putin can succeed in Ukraine, he will come for them within five years.

Gardner’s factual recitation is irrefutable. But I disagree with his conclusion. Indeed, the notion that anything but a complete humiliation constitutes victory for Putin is absurd.

The war began with the expectation that Putin’s forces would simply roll over Ukraine’s, annexing the country in a matter of days. Most of us were surprised at both the resiliency of the Ukrainian people and the degree to which Western militaries had trained up their forces in the years since the 2014 invasion of Crimea. For a time, some observers got too giddy at the prospect of a complete rollback.

It’s true that some in the West, particularly the United States, are starting to rethink the cost of this long-term commitment to Ukraine. But it remains true that NATO is stronger now than at any point in the post-Cold War period—if not its history. Two long-neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, have agreed to join the alliance. How that’s not a victory for the West and a defeat for Putin escapes me.

Vladimir Putin

The Russian president is a wanted man. In theory.

In March 2023, he was indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, along with his Commissioner for Children’s Rights, for war crimes committed against Ukrainian children.

The West hoped this would make him an international pariah and bottle him up in his own country, unable to travel for fear of arrest and deportation to The Hague. That hasn’t happened.

Since that indictment, President Putin has been to Kyrgyzstan, China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, getting a red-carpet welcome each time. He has also taken part virtually in the Brics summit in South Africa.

Round after round of EU sanctions were supposed to bring the Russian economy to its knees, forcing Mr Putin to reverse his invasion. Yet Russia has proved to be remarkably resilient to these sanctions, sourcing many products through other countries such as China and Kazakhstan. True, the West has largely weaned itself off Russian oil and gas, but Moscow has found other willing customers, albeit at a reduced price.

The fact is that while Mr Putin’s invasion and brutal occupation of Ukraine is abhorrent to Western nations, it largely isn’t to the rest of the world. Many nations see this as Europe’s problem, with some putting the blame on Nato, saying it provoked Russia by expanding too far east. To the dismay of Ukrainians, these nations seem oblivious to the widescale torture and abuses committed by Russia’s invading troops.

Again, this is all true. But it hardly represents either a “setback” or “a shifting balance of power.” That the global south doesn’t share Western values is not a new thing. Ditto the fact that Putin is welcomed by autocrats.


The West, Arab ministers told me recently at a summit in Riyadh, has double standards. “Your governments are hypocrites,” I was told. Why, they asked me, do you expect us to condemn Russia for killing civilians in Ukraine when you refuse a ceasefire in Gaza, where thousands of civilians are being killed?

The Israel-Hamas war has clearly been catastrophic for all Gazans and for those Israelis affected by the murderous Hamas raid into southern Israel on 7 October. It has also been bad for the West.

It has diverted global attention away from Nato’s ally, Ukraine, as it struggles to hold off Russian advances this winter. It has diverted US munitions away from Kyiv in favour of Israel.

But most of all, in the eyes of many Muslims and others around the world, it has made the US and UK appear complicit in the destruction of Gaza by protecting Israel at the UN. Russia, whose air force carpet-bombed the city of Aleppo in Syria, has seen its stock rise in the Middle East since 7 October.

Again, it’s not as if the Muslim world was pro-Western on October 6. But, yes, the US-UK support of Israel has weakened whatever support we had there. The notion that we could be allies with Israel while simultaneously being partners with its enemies was always a fantasy.


Iran is under suspicion of secretly developing a nuclear weapon, which it denies. Yet despite Western efforts, it is far from isolated, having extended its military tentacles across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza through proxy militias that it funds, trains and arms.

This year, has seen it forge an ever-closer alliance with Moscow, which it provides with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Shahed drones to launch at Ukraine’s towns and cities.

Designated as a hostile threat by several Western nations, Iran has benefited from the Gaza war by positioning itself in the Middle East as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

Again, this is status quo, not some new development. Iran has been an American enemy since 1979. The Soviet Union and Russia have been its primary weapons supplier since the fall of the Shah. And the two countries have gotten closer over the years as they’ve both been under Western sanctions. Pariah nations seeking comfort with other pariahs is the natural order of things.

Africa’s Sahel

One by one, the countries of the Sahel region of West Africa have been succumbing to military coups that have seen the expulsion of European forces that were helping to combat a jihadist insurgency in the region.

The former French colonies of Mali, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic had already turned against the Europeans when in July, yet another coup saw the ousting of a pro-Western president in Niger. The last French troops have now left the country, although 600 US troops remain there in two bases.

Replacing the French and international forces are the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group, which has managed to cling on to its lucrative business deals despite the mysterious death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash in August.

Meanwhile, South Africa, once seen as a Western ally, has been holding joint naval exercises with Russian and Chinese warships.

I must confess that African politics is not prominent on my radar screen. But, yes, Russia and China have made substantial inroads there. That US aid, trade, and investment comes with all manner of strings tied to human rights puts us at a severe disadvantage.

North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is supposed to be under strict international sanctions because of its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme.

Yet this year, it has forged close links with Russia, with its leader Kim Jong Un visiting a Russian spaceport, followed by North Korea sending a reported one million artillery shells to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

North Korea has test-fired several intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are now believed capable of reaching most parts of the continental US.

See Iran above. Pariahs gotta stick together.


To some extent, 2023 has seen an easing of tension between Beijing and Washington, with a largely successful summit between Presidents Biden and Xi in San Francisco.

But China has shown no sign of backing down on its claims over most of the South China Sea, issuing a new “standard” map that extends its claims almost right up to the coastlines of several Asia-Pacific nations.

Nor has it given up its claims over Taiwan, which it has vowed to “take back”, by force if necessary.

This has been the status quo for decades now. It’s not a sign of a weakened West.

Gardner shifts gears here:

Reasons for optimism?

Against this gloomy backdrop for the West, it is perhaps hard to see glimmers of hope. But on the plus side for the West, the Nato alliance has clearly rediscovered its defensive purpose, galvanised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Western unanimity shown so far has surprised many, although some cracks are now beginning to appear.

But it is in the Middle East where there is the greatest potential for improvement. That’s partly because of the horrific scale of events which have unfolded on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border.

Before 7 October, the search for a solution to the question of a future Palestinian state had largely been abandoned. A certain complacency had crept into Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians that this was a problem that could somehow be managed through security measures, without having to make any serious moves towards offering them a state of their own.

That formula has now been shown to be fatally flawed. One world leader after another has proclaimed that Israelis will not be able to live in the peace and security they deserve unless Palestinians can do the same.

Finding a just and durable solution to a problem that stretches back into history is going to be incredibly difficult and will ultimately involve painful compromises and sacrifices on both sides if it is to succeed. But now at last, it has the world’s attention.

I have little hope for a solution to the Palestinian problem. There will be no two-state solution and there’s not a one-state solution that’s acceptable to both sides.

Honestly, while I concede that Gardner’s focus is on the “international politics stage,” the main setbacks for the West have come from democratic backsliding in so many countries. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is of course the most prominent but we’ve seen growing support for far-right, anti-democratic parties across much of Western Europe. That’s a far greater danger to Western values and influence than any of those listed in the article.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Agree. He ignores a lot fo history to make his claims. Iran is secretly developing nukes. Israel has been claiming since the 1990s that Iran was 5 years away from having nukes. At this point this is old technology. If Iran wanted nukes they would make them. Or just buy them from N Korea or Pakistan. (As an aside Russia has long sold Iran weapons but Iran now sells to Russia their drones.) Gaza/Israel/Palestinians is a problem with no solution. Israel has options if it chooses though they arent ideal. They could elect leaders that prioritize security, not indirectly support Hamas and not prioritize new settlements. There never should have been a 10/7 and they dont need to have another one if they pay attention. They are still going to see rocket attacks and occasional small group attacks so it’s not an ideal solution, but that doesnt exist.

    You identify the real risk, which is the rise to prominence of authoritarian fascist leaning leaders in Europe and voters supporting them. This always seems to happen when there are crises and we have had several big ones, including the global banking crisis and covid. In crisis someone will proclaim they are the tough guy or woman with the answers, which usually includes finding a group to blame. Chief among those now is immigrants. It’s a worldwide issue now. A lot fo that is driven by fear or hate of “the other” but it is also realistically a problem. The US is capable of accepting a lot of immigrants but there is a limit to the carrying capacity of our emergency and social services. The rate really does need to slow down, at least in the US.


  2. MarkedMan says:

    This has been a hard year for the West. There will always be hard years. The question of “good” or “bad” comes up in evaluating our response. I would give the West a “pretty good” in that regard.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    1) Russia, an enemy, has lost 300,000 men in combat, and multiples of that in expatriation. They’ve burned through huge stocks of equipment and ammo while demonstrating for all the world to see the inferiority of Russian weapons. They’ve lost their gas pipeline to Germany. And NATO added Finland and Sweden, expanding the NATO/Russia direct border by hundreds of miles. Poland has swung back to a moderate government while rapidly arming itself. Germany is positioning troops more aggressively.

    This is a huge win for the US and NATO, a huge loss for Russia. We all want to see Ukraine score a clean win, but it’s not vital to us. What matters to the US and NATO is that Russia today is much weaker than it was three years ago.

    2) Israel is not strategically important to NATO, and a mixed bag for the US. This war has not led to violence in the Arab street, no sitting Arab governments are in danger of being overthrown, the war has not widened significantly. Israelis died, Gazans died, none of it will have much effect on US security. The Israelis will start to ramp down while denying they’re doing it, Hamas will make defiant statements and be hunted in their tunnels and I’d guess in Qatar, by Israeli forces. Nothing will be better, nothing will be solved, and after a respectful interval the normalization between Israel and the Arabs will resume.

    3) The Sahel? No one gives a damn. No one ever does give a damn. From the western perspective the only ‘threat’ posed is of more refugees.

    4) As noted in the OP, North Korea and Iran remain Norther Korea and Iran, respectively.

    5) China has probably already missed its moment. Competition for low cost manufacturing is moving to Mexico, southern and and southeast Asia. They have a huge demographic hole reducing the proportion of earners dramatically relative to the number of pensioners – which means there’s not much chance of domestic consumption making up for lost exports. The Belt and Road initiative is looking creaky with countries afraid of Chinese debt traps and leery of Beijing’s bullying. China is certainly formidable, and yet lacks the power projection ability to protect their own ships in the Red Sea.

    Bottom line is that 10 years ago we were hearing about nothing but the US being eclipsed by China. That’s no longer the narrative. From ‘doomed to second place’ to ‘the only true superpower’ is a hell of a shift in narrative for the supposed loser.

    So, yeah, @James is absolutely right. This looks like an editor assigned a think piece on western decline and the writer scraped the barrel looking for rationales to support an already-formed conclusion.

  4. Ken_L says:

    Gardner brought to mind the old maps of the world we had when I was a kid, showing all the British Commonwealth countries in red. And as the years went by, one after another, they changed color. Decline and fall! But reading someone who still reifies “the West” was an exercise in nostalgia, akin to references to the US president as “leader of the free world”. “The West” stopped being a thing when the Cold War ended, and had the last rites read when America and the UK waged aggressive war against Iraq, over the objections of many long-term friends and allies.

    The closest analogy I can think of to Ukraine is an alternative history in which Poland managed to defend most of its territory from the German invasion in 1939, and two years later, was still hanging on to the immense frustration of the Nazis, while the rest of Europe re-armed. I think a claim by Hitler that this represented a “victory” would have been greeted with universal mockery, as would bragging by Putin about Ukraine.

  5. Zachriel says:

    @steve: If Iran wanted nukes they would make them.

    That’s right. Iran may eventually produce a nuke, but what they have is breakout capability, the ability to make a nuke if they are threatened. It gives them the deterrent without actually having nukes. Iran nuclear deal was meant to keep the breakout capability to a year or so. That would give time for the international community to respond if Iran made the move towards nukes, but would give Iran the confidence that they had a viable nuclear deterrent. Of course, Trump destroyed that carefully balanced negotiation, so the international community has been left in the dark, and it must be presumed that Iran now has a relatively short breakout period.


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