For Biden, Trump, Putin and Xi, age may just be a number – but is it for the world?

Whether or not it is a factor, global affairs will be shaped by how 2023 pans out for them

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva in June 2021. Getty Images
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In 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping will turn 70. Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 70 in 2022. US President Joe Biden is now 80, and his predecessor Donald Trump is a few months away from his 77th birthday.

The youngest of these leaders is Mr Xi, who not only clinched a third term last year, but also entrenched his absolute leadership, insulating himself from potential domestic shake-ups. He has the backing of the politburo and the military, but the challenges he now faces are economic in nature. Mr Putin's fate appears linked to the Russian war in Ukraine, whose President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will turn 45 this month. There’s also the Russian presidential election in 2024, making 2023 even more decisive for Mr Putin’s future.

For the next US presidential election, also in 2024, the campaigns are already under way, amid sharp divisions inside both the Democratic and Republican parties, and naturally, between them. The age of both Mr Biden and Mr Trump, who has announced his run, matters greatly for Americans, especially young people. But it doesn't appear to be a decisive issue within the campaign teams. Both men are determined to seek re-election despite the age question. While resisting ageist discrimination is a positive notion, vitality is not taken lightly in election campaigns, which test physical and mental endurance.

Why is all this important? Because the whole world is affected by what happens to the leaders in Washington, Moscow and Beijing.

The coming year will be one of preparation and readiness. It will also be one of instability and increased tumult, as long as the Ukraine war isn’t settled, and as long as the Iranian regime continues to face domestic unrest with no progress on the stalled nuclear talks that are key to sanctions relief. Terrifying surprises could be in store from North Korea, and the fate of the global economy remains nebulous. This underscores the importance of the electoral fates of Mr Biden, Mr Putin and Mr Trump. Only Mr Xi appears comfortable in his position.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his regime are under sustained domestic pressure. AFP

The deteriorating health of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will turn 84 in 2023, will be closely watched given the issue of succession. The health of his decades-long regime is also facing intense pressures. It has nuclear, missile and military capabilities, but its theocracy has failed to bring stability and prosperity to the people. Today, Iranians are leading protests against its repression and its humiliation of them, and against impoverishment and authoritarianism.

The whole world is affected by what happens to the leaders in Washington, Moscow and Beijing

In stark contrast, relatively younger men are leading some of the Arab Gulf states. Their connection with their bourgeoning nations' younger generation has had a significant, and positive, impact on the process of delivering a stable and prosperous future for their residents.

It is going to be a year of retribution for Iran, according to its leaders. The year for flexing muscles and reminding the world that Tehran will not yield to foreign pressure, and that it has nuclear leverage, missiles and other security cards it can deploy to impose its will. But its regime had placed too many expectations on the Vienna talks, seeking to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, and was disappointed when it hit the inspection obstacle posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which it thought it could bypass. The regime also feels the need to divert the world’s attention away from the domestic protests, which it mistakenly believed would be short-lived.

Either the attempts to divert attention from the Iranian uprising succeed through the revival of the Vienna talks – which seems very unlikely at present, at least in the first half of 2023 – or Tehran will try to find other ways to accomplish it. This could be mean triggering a confrontation with Israel, now being run by the most right-wing government in its history.

There are concerns over the possibility of some form of Iranian retribution, and that it could declare itself a de-facto nuclear power by stepping up its uranium enrichment. Yet, such a development could open the door to a war that no one wants, and that everyone fears.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 25, 2019 US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak during a meeting in New York 
on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Donald Trump faces the prospect of becoming only the third US president to be impeached when open hearings begin this week into his alleged effort to bolster his re-election hopes by pushing Ukraine to find dirt on a Democratic rival. / AFP / SAUL LOEB

How can Iran finance its nuclear and regional ambitions, when it is crippled by an economic crisis and sanctions? I am given to understand that Iran has received a windfall from its expanding energy and trade ties with Russia, and military co-operation in Ukraine.

The Ukraine war is set to continue in the new year, with developments on the battlefield that could mark a turning point. All efforts for a ceasefire have so far failed. The opportunity has been missed because the military men have, for now, trumped the politicians in suits. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stressed Russia is determined to achieve a clear victory in Ukraine and will not abandon its goal of "liberating" Donbas, Zaporizhzhia and other regions linked to Russian "pride" in Ukraine. According to military experts, the Russian army is planning to launch a decisive offensive.

Will it be decisive enough to swing Mr Putin's electoral fortunes in 2024? Time will tell.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, appears confident that the Republican Party has no alternative but to nominate him as its presidential candidate, despite his own legal problems and the rising popularity of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Rumours are swirling in the Trump camp about the chances of securing a "winning ticket", with Mr DeSantis running as Mr Trump's vice-presidential candidate. The Trump team is also seeking to capitalise on Mr Biden’s mistakes in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are once again revealing their ugly face by banning women from work and girls from education, the US's economic problems, and corruption allegations concerning Hunter Biden, the incumbent's son.

Democrats appear, nonetheless, determined to re-nominate Mr Biden despite his age and the disappointment among the party's left wingers over the President’s unfulfilled promises. So far, there is no Democratic candidate to challenge him.

None of this will be settled in the first quarter of the new year, but electoral battles of all kinds will be launched on several fronts. The economy will feed back into politics, and vice versa. Diplomacy has been militarised. A broader war in Europe remains possible, and the nuclear threat is not off the table. Despite all this, we must not submit to pessimism, despair or fear. We must banish them ahead of the new year.

Published: January 01, 2023, 2:00 PM