Year-in-review: The stories that made headlines on the foreign affairs front in 2016
by Amanda Connelly (feat. Ferry de Kerckhove)
December 29, 2016
This past year has been one for the history books.
In addition to spawning more legitimate ‘what the —-‘ moments than perhaps any in recent memory, 2016 has also seen the culmination of years of simmering geopolitical and social tensions not only in Canada but around the world.
For foreign policy makers, the difficult questions they faced this year won’t magically disappear like New Year’s resolutions halfway through January.
Instead, the core challenges of the past year will only deepen and force Canadians to make hard choices about where we see our place in the world.
Without any further ado, here are the top five foreign affairs stories of 2016 and what they will mean for Canadian policy makers over the coming year.
SPOILER: Because the election of Donald Trump will impact just about every possible story that could be included on this list, we have decided to focus on the specific geopolitical issues and how they will evolve rather than his election as a whole. Explaining every possible challenge his inauguration could pose to Canada would mean we are here all day.
Renewed Russian aggression
While Russia’s frosty state of relations with the West is nothing new, 2016 saw what can only be described as a deep freeze as President Vladimir Putin continued to defy international sanctions and continued his unabashed push to neuter Western democratic influence spanning from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and all the way up to the highest office of the United States government.
“For Canada, or from a Canadian perspective, the reassertion of Russian influence in Eastern Europe, in Syria, Middle East, and political interference in western democratic states is probably the most important issue in its near-term implications and effects,” said Jeremy Littlewood, assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a specialist in security and intelligence studies.
As iPolitics reported earlier this year, senior military leaders including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan are bracing for a smear campaign targeting Canadian Forces troops once they deploy to Latvia in early 2017 to lead one of four NATO battalions in the Baltic aimed at deterring Russian aggression.
Charting a new course in Syria
Continuing from the previous point, the deployment of Russian ground troops and bombers in late 2015 and early this year to help formerly beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ultimately turned the tides in that country’s six-year-long civil war.
Aleppo and the major cities forming the backbone of Syria are now firmly in the hands of the regime. With the West wiping its hands of the fight, the future of Syria will now depend on how the regime and its backers — Russia and Iran — try to force the pieces back together again.
The other moving target in all of this is ISIS and the veritable Pandora’s box of extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. While the regime retook Aleppo, ISIS recaptured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and still retain control of Raqqa in the northeast. As the Battle for Mosul in Iraq intensifies during early 2017, expect to see a flight of ISIS fighters back across the border to Raqqa as well as to Islamist terrorist groups elsewhere. As a member of the coalition fighting ISIS, Canada will have to navigate how to work with the countries able to exert influence over Syria in order to root out ISIS from Raqqa and also grapple with a changing scope of US contribution to that mission.
“What happens to Syria under the Trump presidency?” said Ferry de Kerckhove, former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan and a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa. “There is a strong likelihood of Trump ceeding the full terrain to Russia in exchange for the latter’s full cooperation in the fight against terrorism, namely Daesh.”
They say hard times make for strange bedfellows, and there’s a good chance Canada could find itself uncomfortably close to some unsavoury characters as the coalition evolves to its next stages. The current mission, changed from bombing to training, advising and assisting in February 2016, is up for re-evaluation in March 2017. Sajjan has not yet ruled out some form of contribution to the situation in Syria.
US vs. China
He’s only been President-elect for a month and a half but already Trump has managed to stick a thorn in China’s side with his tweets about taking a call from the Taiwanese president.
Casting doubts on whether to uphold the US’s one-China policy has only added gasoline to that fire, likely prompting China’s “unpresidented” seizure of a US underwater drone from international waters.
North Korea testing the waters
Closely tied to the above is the issue of North Korea.
Over the past two years, China has shown growing frustration with the Hermit Kingdom and even supported international efforts to tighten sanctions aimed at curbing Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear testing and missile development. But strained US-Sino relations under Trump could see a bolder North Korea.
“The North Korean leader is taking his time to assess where Donald Trump will go but the more the latter irritates China, the more Kim Jung-Un will return to dangerous bravado,” said de Kerckhove.
The potential of a nuclear-armed North Korea within the next three to five years could have direct implications for Canada.
“[North Korea] can deliver its nuclear weapons via missiles,” said Littlewood. “That has direct impact on Canada given any US target beyond the Western coast would involve or potentially involve a flight path that crosses over Canada. Such a capability is not inevitable – but the trajectory of developments this year points to it being more likely in the future.”
The people have spoken
Underlying all of these challenges is the chorus of populism and nativism that moved Oxford English Dictionaries to name ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year.
“I think there is one very big point, that has specific inputs or causes, and significant outputs, each of which would constitute in themselves huge stories,” said Jeremy Kinsman, former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the European Union, the United Kingdom and others.
Kinsman pointed to the veritable laundry list of challenges over 2016 that can be linked to the rising populist wave.
From Brexit and the rise of populist demagogues like Donald Trump and France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen to the growing radical nationalism advocated by leaders in Eastern Europe’s right wing movements as well as in Russia, China and the Philippines, Canadian leaders face a global climate he says is increasingly skeptical of pluralism and diversity.
We already know the government advocates for a policy of “responsible conviction,” or standing up for certain values when it is convenient. But 2016 has shoved the government up against the rough reality of deciding how and when to stick up for its values, and the challenges they face in 2017 will not be any different.
Whether Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both billed as symbols of liberal leadership, can counter those sentiments will be one of the key questions they face in the coming year.
“It is amplified by the evidence that became clear in 2016 that social media are a force that divides and distorts more than it connects and clarifies,” Kinsman said. “The main victim is democracy itself.”
Populism has left the station, and it remains to be seen whether the light looming in 2017 is the end of the tunnel or an oncoming train.