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How 2023 Made History

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In 2023, longstanding conflicts many thought dormant flared up, with tragic results including mass loss of life and displacement. In compiling this year’s list of history-making events, the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the subsequent invasion of Israeli forces into Gaza was foremost in the minds of some of our faculty members, and they identified different ways in which this conflict made history. Drama and chaos in the US House made the list, as did a resurgence in the organized labor movement.

There also were some important stories that allowed for lighter and more optimistic moments, including the reignition of a long-deferred dream of enshrining equal rights for US women. And read to the end for the item about a world-conquering movie featuring a certain doll who favors pink.

In our annual look back, SIS faculty present a list, in no particular order, of the things that made history in 2023.

The Biden administration's October 30 executive order on "the Safe, Secure and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence" was a paradigm shift in thinking about the government's role in directly addressing some of the fundamental security challenges of AI technology. Calling for an all-of-government approach, for which the administration has become known, the policy outlined near- and medium-term actions, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the interplay between AI advancements and the sectors they impact.

-Foreign Policy and Global Security Department faculty

Hamas’s invasion of Israel on October 7 resulted in 1,200 Israeli deaths, hundreds of hostages taken captive to Gaza, and the destruction of entire communities in southern Israel. It was the country’s worst-ever terrorist attack—Israel’s 9/11—and the largest single-day atrocity against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. The Hamas massacre sparked a devastating war in Hamas-controlled Gaza that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe, with the deaths of thousands of Palestinians—as of this writing, 15,000, according to Gaza health officials—hundreds of thousands of damaged or destroyed homes, and a shortage of food, water, medicine, and fuel in the coastal enclave. The war has put the long-neglected Palestinian issue back on the map and is a fresh challenge to President Biden’s growing list of foreign policy challenges as he is set to launch his 2024 reelection campaign.

-Guy Ziv

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were punctuated by waves of localized spectacles of violence against Jewish communities—marked by public beatings and massacres of men, women, and children; mass rape; and the destruction and looting of property by perpetrators who were often neighbors. It was these “pogroms” that drove millions of Jews to emigrate to the United States and sparked the initial efforts to build a Jewish homeland where Jews could enjoy the protections provided by the State—normal protections that were so starkly denied to them as minorities in exile. The attack by Hamas and other groups of Palestinian men from Gaza on Israeli communities on October 7—with indiscriminate massacres of men, women, and children; rape; the destruction and looting of property; and the abduction of both children and the elderly to be abused and held hostage in Gaza—is a conscious and deliberate return to that dark and humiliating past. The effect on Jewish communities worldwide has been profound, and the cascade of responses to the pogrom is reconfiguring political alliances and alignments in ways that will lead October 7 to be remembered as an inflection point well into the future.

-Keith Darden

The last two months of 2023 constitute a reminder of the catastrophic consequences of the failure of local, national, and global political leaders to achieve peace in Israel/Palestine. The inability to put an end to the 56 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has resulted in a horrible loss of Israeli civilians on October 7 and unprecedented mass destruction and ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Palestinians killed and injured.

This has brought back the conflict dynamics to square one, in which Palestinians are struggling to claim their humanity and confront a systematic campaign of dehumanization. Further militarization and weaponization of identities will only bring pain and destruction to all. We know from the peace and conflict resolution perspective and from experience of other conflicts: there are no winners in this human tragedy!

I hope that people and governments who enabled and supported the continuation of this war will finally learn that supporting peace in Israel/Palestine can be achieved only by putting an end to the Israeli apartheid and ensuring that all people in that land should have equal rights to live in freedom and dignity. 

The silent complacency and active endorsement of the war on Gaza and the West Bank by many local and international governments have not only legitimized war crimes, but also undermined decades of efforts to build a culture of peace in this region and destroyed the remaining faith that people might have had in the Western agencies and narrative of democracy, human rights values, and international laws.

-Mohammed Abu-Nimer

On March 17, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his alleged role in the war crimes of unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia. This is historic in that it is the first time an arrest warrant has been issued against a sitting president from a P-5 state. Though Russia does not recognize ICC jurisdiction, the warrant does, at least on paper, require that other states party to the ICC’s Rome Statute enforce the arrest warrant if Putin were to travel to or through their state.

-Jeff Bachman

Enlargement is back on the political agenda in Europe. Although the EU decided to grant candidate status to Ukraine in June 2022 in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the political commitment to formally open negotiations will be determined in December 2023 at the next European Council meeting. That decision will come amidst rising nationalist sentiment in some European member states and possible resistance to ‘greenlighting’ the start of accession negotiations. While the path toward enlargement will be a long one, given not only the ongoing conflict but also European membership requirements, a positive signal from the EU will be significant, given widespread domestic support for membership in Ukraine. Enlargement’s political revival is also significant for the Balkans as well, after a decade of neglect during which it has suffered significant setbacks.

-Michelle Egan


2023 was the year when the weaponization of water came out into the open. Over the past 50 years, human rights activists, peace advocates, and international organizations have made substantial progress in strengthening legal and political norms against targeting water supplies and water infrastructure in times of warfare. But this progress has been backsliding over the past decade. Now, the deliberate destruction of the Kakhovka dam during the Ukraine war, followed by Israel’s cutoff of drinking water to Gaza, threaten to fully rupture that fragile progress. It will take years of hard work and renewed advocacy to put the cork back in the bottle that protects civilians’ water needs in times of war and conquest. Otherwise, we may look back on 2023 as the year that the human right to water became one more victim of violence.

-Ken Conca

As former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov described during a November visit to the School of International Service, Russia's ongoing violence against Ukraine continues to shape European and international understanding of the geopolitical landscape.

-Foreign Policy and Global Security Department faculty

Tight labor markets and high inflation prompted workers around the world to protest and strike. Hollywood actors and writers, autoworkers, hotel workers, Kaiser Permanente employees, and university personnel at Rutgers and the University of California system all had successful strikes. French workers protested pension reforms. Canadian federal employees and British Columbia dockworkers struck. British doctors and transportation workers continued their long-running disputes with the government. Japanese Seibu Department Store employees protested store closures. South Korean rail employees and teachers engaged in work stoppages. Filipino transport workers and Cape Town taxi drivers struck. Nigeria airport employees staged walkouts. The upsurge in industrial action is likely to continue into 2024.

-Stephen Silvia

On July 26, Niger became the fourth country in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to undergo a military coup since 2020. ECOWAS, a regional organization that espouses “zero tolerance” for coups, responded by threatening to use force and intervene militarily to restore constitutional order in Niger. Through this forceful move, ECOWAS hoped to stem the recent string of coups in West Africa. However, ECOWAS’s threat rallied Burkina Faso and Mali—both coup-affected countries currently suspended from ECOWAS—to support the Niger junta and formalize an anti-ECOWAS coalition: the Alliance of Sahel States. While ECOWAS has since backed down on their military intervention threat, the organization faces tough questions going forward: harsh responses to political crises might trigger backlash and portend a regional split, as occurred in Niger, but soft responses might throw ECOWAS’s role in maintaining peace, security, and democracy in West Africa into question.

- Sahil Mathur (PhD candidate and adjunct instructor)

One of the most striking developments in 2023 was the general acceptance by the international community of the forceful transfer of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia—ending a decades-long conflict with the removal of the 100,000 Armenians remaining in Azerbaijan. At the end of 2022, Azerbaijan began a blockade of the Armenian enclave, which tightened in July 2023 when all food, fuel, and International Red Cross-provided medical and other essential supplies were fully cut by the Azerbaijani government—to the point where deaths from malnutrition were recorded. The total blockade was followed in September by the invasion of the enclave by Azerbaijani forces and the complete depopulation of Karabakh of Armenian communities that had been continuously inhabiting the area for over a millennium—all without much of a peep from the international community, college campuses, the UN, or humanitarian organizations. It raises the question of whether we are returning to the era of population relocation and violence as an acceptable way to end national-territorial disputes—at least for some states.

-Keith Darden

The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed as the 28th amendment to the US Constitution 100 years ago. It states “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The deadline for initial ratification by the states has passed, as only 35 out of the needed 38 passed the amendment by 1979, but Virginia became the needed 38th state to ratify in 2020. The ERA has become mired in legal disputes about whether the final three ratifications were valid. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), alongside Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO), introduced the ERA Now Resolution in 2023 to certify state ratifications and publish the ERA in the Federal Register. In 2023, a Congressional Caucus for the Equal Rights Amendment was launched. This important women’s rights issue is linked to American University, as Alice Paul, the drafter of the ERA, studied at AU’s Washington College of Law. 

-Michelle Egan

On October 3, for the first time in US history, the Speaker of the House was voted out of the position during a congressional session. Remarkably, the reason for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) removal was not corruption or wrongdoing, but rather his decision to advance a government spending bill that had more support among Democrats than among Republicans, which provoked the ire of the MAGA wing of the GOP. After McCarthy's removal, the US House of Representatives lacked a Speaker and could not carry out its basic functions for 22 days, thereby taking congressional dysfunction, which was already quite high, to new heights. Although this particular crisis was resolved, the increasingly intransigent attitudes of many MAGA Republicans bode poorly for the ability of current or future Republican congressional leaders to govern effectively.

-Jordan Tama

In a year marked by increased US-China competition, pandas became a symbol both of its low point, in the recall to China of three bears from Washington's National Zoo, and some potential warming, with President Xi Jinping's November promise after his meeting on the margins of APEC with President Biden that pandas will return. While the Xi-Biden meeting promised the reinstatement of military lines of communication and established new modalities for strategic and economic dialogues, the US's underlying assessment that the People's Republic of China has the will and capability to fundamentally change the post-WWII international system remains.

-Foreign Policy and Global Security Department faculty

In 2023, Barbie became the highest-grossing film of the year, with over $1.4 billion in ticket sales globally; the highest-grossing live-action, comedy film of all time; the highest-grossing film that Warner Bros. has ever released; and the first film by a female director—Greta Gerwig—to gross $1 billion. And all of this despite some political controversies about whether the film endorses a Chinese claim to the South China Sea, and despite efforts—some successful—to ban the film for its affirmative presentation of LGBTQ+ themes. Whether Hollywood learns the right lesson (make more films with diverse production staffs) or the wrong one (make more films based on toys) remains to be seen. But in any case, the landscape of global popular culture has shifted with the success of this remarkable film.

-Patrick Thaddeus Jackson