Commentary from Colin Robertson

What conflict zones will flare in 2015?

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
January 5, 2015

In medieval times, mapmakers charted the unknown with the words “Here be monsters.” We’ve since mapped our physical world but our geopolitical landscape continues to shift, leaving death and mayhem in its wake. 

Canadians have the advantage of three oceans and, in the United States, a friendly neighbour and protective ally possessing the world’s most powerful military. But this does not make Canada fireproof.

What happens beyond our borders matters. Epidemics like SARS and H1N1 are but a plane ride away. The displaced – the UN Refugee Agency calculates every four seconds someone is forced to flee – find a haven in Canada. One in five Canadians, including half of Torontonians, are born beyond our borders.

We can’t predict the future but expert research helps us anticipate the kinds of monsters we face in 2015.

The annual report of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action assesses conflicts affecting U.S. interests, all with consequential effect for Canada. 

Top of their list is the continuing violence in Iraq, the threat posed by ISIL and further exacerbation of Sunni-Shia divisions within the Middle East. With RCAF jets participating in the bombing raids, this is no longer just a planning scenario. 

Contingencies in the next tier include: 

An attack on the U.S. homeland or one of our treaty allies. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said an attack on the United States is an attack on Canada. An attack, by Russia on a NATO ally, would oblige Canadian involvement. 

A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure would profoundly affect Canada, especially our interconnected power grids. 

A nuclear crisis generated by North Korea, or confrontation involving China and its neighbours in the China seas, would imperil sea-lanes traversed by half the world’s commerce. 

A breakdown in the Iranian nuclear negotiations leading to an Israeli pre-emptive strike would, given Canada’s commitment to Israel, test our diplomacy. 

Then there is climate change.  

The concluding report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides compelling evidence for action by leaders at December’s UN summit in Paris. 

The report details ocean and atmospheric warming – increasing the severity of floods and droughts that hit hardest the luckless and left-out. Lloyds, the world’s biggest insurance broker, says the steady rise in costs of global disasters must trigger a “behavioural change” in mitigating climate change. 

Set back in Copenhagen, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama persevered and in November secured a climate deal with China. It paves the road to Paris. 

Canada needs to get on the climate train. If the Harper government can’t (or won’t) then the provinces should take the initiative. The Calgary flooding was the most costly natural disaster in our history. Yet only 25 of 450 Canadian cities surveyed in a study for the McConnell Foundation had climate adaptation plans. 

The emerging global health crisis is covered in another report by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). 

Ebola-like contagion – plagues, parasites and blights – draw headlines and test international capacity. But the non-contagious diseases – heart, diabetes, cancer – are also increasing, especially among younger people. 

These diseases killed 13 million people in 2013. The CFR estimates the cost of non-contagious diseases for developing nations over the next two decades will be $21.3-trillion (U.S.) It’s the equivalent of their total economic output in 2013. 

Then there is the unexpected – the “black swan” events. A year ago, who predicted that Vladimir Putin would annex Crimea? What was ISIL? 

When dealing with international contingency planning, three realities stand out: 

First, when the alarm sounds, the United States answers the call, deals with it, then pays the tab. 

Only the U.S. can mount and simultaneously sustain campaigns in various theatres, whether it be conflict or disaster relief. The U.S. has carried the burden of primacy since 1945 but now, in an age of retrenchment, Americans increasingly want to “stay out” of world affairs. 

Second, others need to step up. 

The Allies and the newly developed nations – China, India, Brazil – all benefit from the post-war order underwritten by the United States. Free-riders need to pay their share. 

Canada is no shirker. Our refugee intake is admirable. But our current spending on defence, diplomacy and development diminishes our capacity and reliability. 

Third, governments must lead. 

Only governments can pull together the private sector and civil society and then leaders must act, preferably in concert, using international architecture like the United Nations.

We will never slay all our monsters or anticipate the black swans. Disorder, whether through conflict, climate or disease, is disruptive and costly. So we need to participate, prepare and pay our share. 

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP   


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