Memo to the PM: The world in 2008

Written by  //  January 7, 2008  //  Canada, Politics, Public Policy, U.S., Wednesday Nights  //  No comments

January 2, 2008
Jeremy Kinsman: Diplomatically Speaking
While most of us are making New Year’s resolutions we likely won’t keep, policy planners and intelligence folk in foreign ministries are agonizing over their own kind of annual predictions.
They will surely counsel their political bosses that, in 2008, surprise will once again be the norm. It’s the safe, professional default position and gets them off the hook a year from now for failing to have called the right shots.
But how many are likely to predict that some of the surprises might be positive?
A bleak start
True, strategic and combustible Pakistan seems headed for a nightmare year after the grotesque public assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
But Western politicians who chant that the killers of Bhutto must not be allowed to stop Pakistan’s march to democracy must be seeing things. Pakistan is nowhere near Western-style democracy and the goofy top-down family anointment of her 19-year-old son as co-leader of the clannish party she once led reveals the country’s contradictions in tragicomic terms.
Sadly, the continuing reign of Pakistan’s controversial president, Pervez Musharraf, remains the likeliest low-risk option against that country degenerating into chaos and darkening the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, which is still being organized in Pakistan’s ungovernable border areas.
But Pakistan is not the only depressing story unfolding in 2008. The Balkans, where Canadian soldiers helped create a peace in the 1990s, may revert to violence as Serbs convince themselves they are the victims of the impending independence of their breakaway province, Kosovo.
Is this Europe’s problem — solely? — as some have suggested? Ottawa, through NATO, may have to think long and hard about this corner of the world.
Then there will be the usual bad news emanating from Africa, obscuring progress in places such as Tanzania and Mozambique.
The agony of Somalia’s anarchy endures. Same with Sudan, where an under-equipped UN force is unlikely to staunch Darfur’s bleeding.
Add to this, Zimbabwe’s scorched-earth political landscape and the high-level infighting surrounding President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, once Canada’s, not to mention the continent’s, most hopeful story.
Any better news out there?
In the hunt for good news, the decline of Washington’s status in the world seems an unlikely place to start. However, it can be argued that a greater U.S. awareness of its own limits, particularly in areas such as the Middle East, may be responsible for the wary groping toward peace between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and for a stabilization in regional conflicts more generally.
In devastated Iraq, the “slide toward chaos” that the Iraq Study Group anticipated a year ago has levelled off. A decline in violence since the summer is partly because ethnic cleansing has increasingly removed Sunnis and Shias from each others’ lives. Nothing of course can redeem the cost of this ruinous war but at least now the possibility of a loosely federated political structure for Iraq may be feasible.
There is another opening here. The de-escalation of violence in Iraq is also a result of a conscious decision by Iran to stop arming Shia militias.
The U.S. intelligence estimate last month, which said Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, reduces the chance of a dangerous military showdown with Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice now affirms that Washington is “open to better relations with Iran,” which could help stabilize the wider conflict zone including Afghanistan itself, the locale of Canada’s all-preoccupying commitment.
Our only “win” available in Afghanistan will be when Taliban and dissident warlords begin to accept that the costs of their war exceed the benefits of a durable peace with a more credible, for them, Kabul government.
But for that to happen will require continuous Western military pressure, which raises the question of whether the NATO alliance — read Western Europe — will share this dangerous deployment. My guess is not. The more likely scenario is a gradual shift of U.S. forces from Iraq, and NATO’s disappointing past, reducing its relevance in the future.
U.S. leadership
How the democracies of the West are led still sets the tone of global direction. In recent years, American leadership has been squandered by the lightweight and misguided performance of George W. Bush. But the decline in U.S. influence is surely reversible after the election later this year of a new president and administration.
From my current perch here at Princeton, I sense a fairly depressed American electorate with something of the expectant mood of 1960, including a readiness to jump toward generational change. Polling shows much less fear of terrorism than in 2004, but continued anxiety for the health and fairness of the American economy.
Unfortunately for Canadians, this defensive American economic outlook combined with the monster bureaucracy around border security and the likely continuing rise in the loonie, will probably [combine to] deepen our trade and border woes with the U.S. in 2008.
Canadians, perhaps especially, look forward to a sympathetic U.S. administration in the years ahead. But will they find that in the historically protectionist Democrats?
Almost certainly, it will be the Democratic turn come November. And the election of either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be a hugely symbolic first that should impress the world.
She is the more conventional, if polarizing, figure, banking on nostalgia for the extended economic boom of the pre-9/11 Clinton years. Obama represents a break in both generation and political tone.
Obama is also the candidate most likely to recommit the U.S. to international bodies like the UN and the World Bank, a multilateral approach that is Canada’s traditional comfort zone.
There is no question that U.S. prestige would soar around the world with his election. Whether it stayed buoyant would depend on how an Obama administration managed the issues of the day.
An old, new world order
A big challenge will be China. Princeton scholar John Ikenberry argues that if the defining struggle of the next century is seen as being between China and the U.S., “China will have the advantage.”
But, he says, if that struggle is defined as being between China and a renewed Western-led international system, the triumph will belong to a liberal international order, so long as Washington “sets about strengthening that order now.”
This would be good news for Canadians, whose creative edge in international affairs has always been, until recently anyway, to promote such multilateral cooperation.
Year-end polls show Canadians in a much better mood than Americans about the state of our country, but yearning for changes in our foreign policy.
Canadians want renewed emphasis on human rights and democracy, international development, and restoring the effectiveness such institutions as the UN and NATO. More than Americans, Canadians see the greatest threat to the world coming from climate change.
It is baffling that the national mood doesn’t seem to penetrate the Stephen Harper bubble. That it doesn’t is evident from the sad performance at the climate change gathering in Bali of John Baird, the minister of the environment.
If the world does, indeed, move towards a new multilateralism, it will expect Canada’s experienced contribution.
But would a planner’s memo arguing this approach get the time of day from a government and bureaucracy still locked into yesterday’s American landscape? One way or another, we have to hope that 2008 will bring a readiness to accept the promises of change, wherever they can be found.

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