Trudeau, Turkey and a Tour d’Horizon
GB sits down with one of North America’s most esteemed international affairs analysts
GB: How is the new Trudeau government in Ottawa doing thus far in international affairs?
JS: The Trudeau government is doing brilliantly so far in rebranding Canada. I have never seen a rebranding performance as effective as that of Justin Trudeau in his first year. He has put Canada on the map. He is a sought-after companion by leaders around the world – in part because he represents a generational shift to almost all of the G7 and many of the G20 leaders. He speaks for a generation that has not yet been empowered with leadership. In a quite astonishing way, Canada is the first country to really go through a generational change in leadership. So, by all reports – and not from his Canadian team, but from people in Washington, Berlin, Tokyo and other capitals – there really is great interest in the prime minister.
On the substantive issues, of course, it has been not quite a year yet. Where has Trudeau made his mark? On environmental policy, he has certainly changed the conversation for Canada. Now he has to deliver domestically, and that is not in place yet. But he has really embraced an environmental agenda – quite differently from the way in which Stephen Harper really lagged badly and was dragged reluctantly into the conversation.
The second big change is Trudeau’s genuine embrace of an Indigenous peoples’ agenda. That is an issue in all circumpolar countries, as well as several others, including Australia. This is probably the worst stain on Canada’s record, and Trudeau is moving in a sincerely committed way to do what he can. We do not yet know what that is going to look like in policy terms, as there has been no delivery yet, but clearly it is a big change for people looking at Canada from the outside.
GB: What are the weaknesses of the new government?
JS: It is too early to tell. The weaknesses will be exposed when we see the divergence between objectives and delivery. Most of the issues are not yet out of the policy shops in Ottawa.
GB: What have been the surprises in the Trudeau foreign policy agenda?
JS: A key surprise is Trudeau’s policy posture toward Russia. Trudeau seemed to be signalling a policy of engagement early on, but when you look at what the government has done in practice to date, there is much less difference between this prime minister and the last one than many people had anticipated. Trudeau went to the NATO summit in Warsaw and made a major commitment to deploy forces in Latvia – something that certainly does not endear Ottawa to Moscow. He then went to Kiev and used language that was encouraging of the Ukrainian government.
A second major surprise is the Trudeau government’s position on China. We will know much more about this in the fall, when Trudeau visits Beijing. On the South China Sea, the Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruled firmly in favour of the Philippine side. That lays down the gauntlet for all of the major powers to either endorse the ruling or not. If Trudeau is going to China, and the Chinese foreign minister is returning to Ottawa, then this may well mean that there is an agreement in the works on certain deliverables in the relationship. It is not clear yet what those deliverables are. There is a fairly measured tone coming out of Ottawa now on a free-trade agreement with China. That, again, is not that dissimilar from what we heard from the Harper government.
GB: What about risks for the Trudeau foreign policy agenda?
JS: One area where there clearly are risks is Ottawa’s renewed commitment to peacekeeping. Peacekeeping was part of the mandate letters for both the foreign and defence ministers. The minister of defence is now actively talking about this commitment, and there are two potential deployments that are on the table and are likely to go forward. As we commit to deploy, we have to look at the size of our army. We just made an open-ended commitment to Latvia, with no exit strategy. There is now active talk of participating in what is close to a classical peacekeeping mission in Colombia, because there is a real peace process there. But the other mission that the minister of defence is talking about is in Mali. Frankly, that is not a peacekeeping mission. It is a commitment to assist the government in Bamako as it struggles with an Al Qaeda- and ISIS-led insurgency. There is a real risk of casualties, as the minister of defence himself has acknowledged.
There are huge procurement challenges in two critical areas for Canada – in naval and air capabilities. The big question is: where is the infusion of funding that will allow us to move forward on both navy and air force procurement decisions at the same time as we ramp up deployments abroad?
We have to bear in mind that we have a small land force. We also have huge procurement challenges in two critical areas for Canada – in naval and air capabilities. The big question is: where is the infusion of funding that will allow us to move forward on both navy and air force procurement decisions at the same time as we ramp up deployments abroad? When our forces are deployed internationally, the army legitimately says that it needs to be appropriately equipped. Our forces need the right kit. Our soldiers are in the field, and the Canadian public understands and appreciates that. So this could be an area of considerable vulnerability for the Trudeau government.
GB: How is the new foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, doing thus far?
JS: Again, it has been less than a year, but he has had to make one basket of particularly important decisions on the export of arms to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. For this particular minister of foreign affairs, this is not an area of great comfort, because Dion has a strong record of commitment to human rights. This is a very difficult issue for the Canadian public and for the government to figure out, because if Canada truly wishes to be part of global supply chains and to preserve some industrial capability – rather than purchasing everything that our forces will need over the next generation – then we must have a military manufacturing capacity inside the country. If we do not export, then we are clearly not going to have that capacity, as our domestic market is too small. So it is misleading to think about such decisions as being only about human rights. Human rights are certainly part of the issue. Jobs also. But this is part of a much larger industrial strategy for Canada. We have to decide: do we just want to buy off the shelf globally, and therefore take ourselves out of the business completely?
GB: What should we be watching for in the US election?
JS: There has never been an election like this in the US. It is utterly astonishing. There has never been a candidate who is as unqualified as Donald Trump to be president. I am astonished by the behaviour of the Republican leadership. The entire Bush family stands out because it has refused to endorse Trump. In my view, that is exactly the right strategy. I am mystified that Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders could endorse him. For the Republican Party, this election is about what that party stands for the morning after a potential Trump loss. Those people who endorsed him and those people who are going to run with him will bear a heavy responsibility.
GB: What if Trump wins?
JS: That is possible. The experts in American politics give that a low probability right now, because the electoral college calculus is overwhelmingly biased in favour of Hillary Clinton. That said, campaigns matter. Debates matter. What happened to Hillary Clinton in respect of her behaviour in the State Department is deeply damaging to her. The director of the FBI said that if she were an employee of the State Department, she would lose her job and would be ineligible for security clearance. People hear that and ask themselves, “Is there a trust issue here?” The American public is clearly saying that there is indeed a trust issue. So it is a mistake to assume that this is a foregone conclusion. It would, of course, be catastrophic to have Donald Trump as president. This would be the most unqualified, inexperienced and poorly prepared person in a position to use the world’s most dangerous weapons. By all accounts, he does not like briefings. He shoots from the hip, over and over. It is terrifying to much of the rest of the world to watch this election.
GB: What are the big international decisions that the next US president will need to make?
JS: They are legion. The first one will be in respect of China, because it is entirely conceivable that the Chinese will react with some anger to the recent ruling and attempt to reinforce their position in the South China Sea. That will be a major foreign policy challenge for any US president. The second decision point is Russia and that country’s behaviour. The new US president will, as with Obama today, need to walk and chew gum at the same time – deal with the Ukraine situation and the NATO buildup in Eastern Europe, just as he or she engages in deep negotiations with Moscow for a joint strategy for Syria, and possibly for other theatres in the Middle East.
The kind of support that an American president might wish to get from Europe on major foreign policy issues will not be there. This is really a continent turning inward at the very time when there are big challenges in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in Asia.
GB: What about America’s strategy for Europe?
JS: That is an enormous challenge, because we have a splintered Europe. I do not think that any US president has really had to deal with such fractures in Europe for the past four decades. Of course, there is not much that an American president can do. A new president can certainly encourage the Germans to be forthcoming with Britain, and to resist a punitive strategy. I suspect that is why the British government is delaying invoking article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Still, as we saw with Barack Obama when he tried unsuccessfully to influence British voters, Europe will make its own decisions. The UK will make its own decisions. This is going to be a long process. It is going to consume the next two to three years. Europe will be looking inward rather than outward. The kind of support that an American president might wish to get from Europe on major foreign policy issues will not be there. This is really a continent turning inward at the very time when there are big challenges in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in Asia.
GB: How should the next American president interpret the recent events in Turkey?
JS: The attempted coup was a tragedy for the Turks. Turkey is a vitally important country at the nexus of Europe and Asia, bordering the volatile Middle East. It is also in the midst of a vital struggle to lead the way to a democratic political system that is compatible with its rich Muslim and Ottoman heritage. Even before the coup, Erdogan was seeking to rewrite the constitution in order to consolidate power in the office of the president. His Islamic party was joined by the secular opposition in resisting the coup, but Erdogan is now using the coup as an excuse to crush any opposition inside the military, the judiciary, the media and the universities. The next US president will have only limited leverage, and can only urge Erdogan to end the state of emergency and restore civil liberties. Here, too, the US is only a bystander at a critical moment in history.
GB: What about other conflicts and decision points in the Middle East?
JS: Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran was certainly one of his signature achievements. History will confirm this. Obama is underappreciated for the leadership and courage that he showed. There is no question that he prevented what could have been one of the worst wars in the region – a war with Israel and Saudi Arabia lined up on one side, and Iran lined up on the other. It would have been devastating. There would have been city-to-city warfare of an order of magnitude that the Middle East has really not seen since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. We sometimes misunderstand how devastating conventional war could be between a country the size of Iran and a country with a concentrated population like Israel. It would have been a catastrophe – an absolute catastrophe. I think that Obama has not gotten the credit he deserves.
GB: Would Israel not potentially use a nuclear weapon were it overwhelmed in a conventional war or by missiles?
JS: I am not convinced that this would be the case, because Israel’s missile defences are quite good. Its offensive capability is real. A nuclear strike would truly be a last resort. Israel would have to be on the verge of total defeat – a truly Samson option.
GB: What about the Syrian theatre?
JS: In Syria, Obama followed a logic that is very clear, although the consequences are troubling. Obama said that the war in Syria would only have escalated had the US intervened with ground forces. So that was off the table. The second alternative was to arm militia forces. Obama refused to do that. The limited evidence that we have already shows the leakage of weapons that happens when militias are armed at a distance. The ongoing civil war has led to a massive refugee exodus from Syria, which has overwhelmed Europe. That refugee exodus – those visuals of people marching through European fields – is responsible more than anything else for spooking the British public. These are the unexpected consequences of the Syrian crisis and associated decision-making in distant capitals.
GB: Was the Libyan intervention not critical to these consequences?
JS: The Libyan intervention was a case where, under the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, the US mobilized allies and promised Russia that this would be a limited intervention designed to protect civilians. However, the intervention very quickly escalated to regime change, infuriating Russia and provoking a change in policy in Moscow with which we are all living today.
GB: Is there anything that a new American president can do in the Middle East?
JS: Obama is already changing gears. There are all kinds of rumours and leaks about a collaborative strategy with Russia in which the two countries would establish a joint intelligence centre, a joint command structure, and intelligence-sharing targeting Al Nusra (now apparently Jabhat Fatah Al Sham). Targeting Al Nusra in Syria is entirely legitimate if you think that the major problems are Islamist forces in this part of the world. However, it plays to the advantage of Assad. So what the next American president inherits is a strategy that has effectively given up on forcing Assad to leave – that is, a transition will only happen way down the road. For its part, Europe will buy into any arrangement that will halt the refugee flow. And Turkey, now preoccupied with the aftermath of the attempted coup, and struggling with a demoralized military, will be less vociferous in its opposition to Assad.
GB: What is the future of Israel?
JS: As a result of Netanyahu’s policies toward Palestine, the Israeli government is under tremendous pressure from the EU. This really matters because Israeli research and science funding, which is at the core of Israel’s strategy for economic success, comes overwhelmingly from the EU. Having said this, over the last two or three years, as a result of ISIS and the war in Syria and the rivalry with Iran, Israel, in functional terms, has, for the first time in its history, very good relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It has excellent relationships with Jordan. It has repaired its relationship with Turkey. And it has excellent relations with Egypt. There is deep military cooperation between the two countries in the Sinai Desert.
In terms of the regional picture, then, this is probably the time of greatest historical security for Israel. It only faces one conventional threat now – on one border. In the past, it always faced multi-front wars. Israel today faces a moderate to serious conventional threat from Hezbollah, at its northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah has about 130,000 missiles and rockets, which it can use to effectively reach any part of Israel and paralyze the local population and the economy.
Still, by comparison, if we look back 20 years, when we consider what we call ‘basic security,’ Israel is more secure now than it has ever been. By the way, it is interesting that Israel’s military was consistently opposed to using force against Iran. Today, even in the government of Netanyahu, leaders are quietly saying that the Iranian nuclear agreement bought Israel a decade. So that virulent criticism of the agreement in the lead-up to its signature last year has almost disappeared.
GB: What about the Palestinian question?
JS: This is an ongoing issue. There is no prospect, really, of resolution in the near future. The negotiating positions are frozen in time. There is also the additional factor, which will be important to any US president, of leaders in both Israel and Palestine who are on their last legs. Abbas is old, tired, not well, and actively disliked by his own public. Everyone in Ramallah talks only about one thing – the transition. So we are in the post-Abbas period, even though Abbas is still there. The same holds for Netanyahu, even if he is much younger than Abbas. The Israeli public, by and large – even in the right wing – is fed up with him.
Every prime minister has a limited shelf life, and Netanyahu is at the very end of his. There are now ongoing criminal investigations into Netanyahu’s financial affairs – something that usually signals the beginning of the end. I therefore expect that there will be changes at the top in both Israeli and Palestinian societies. The next US president is likely going to wait this out. He or she is not going to invest – not wanting to fail from the outset, and instead wanting to wait until the ‘winning conditions’ for negotiations are present.
GB: Do you foresee resolution of the Israel-Palestine question over the next 10 years?
JS: No. The political elites in both societies are currently radicalized. That should not be a surprise. When there are years of failed negotiations, people lose hope in any kind of diplomatic or political process. What we see, as the Europeans ramp up an effort to try once again, is old familiar ideas that have failed repeatedly. Each time that they fail, there is an escalation in violence. I suspect that the French initiative is going to go nowhere – first of all, because President Hollande is so weak himself and faces elections, and second, because the Europeans are going to be overwhelmingly preoccupied with preserving and fixing the EU.
GB: What is the future of the Kurdish question?
JS: This is the best moment in modern Kurdish history. There is an autonomous republic in Syria. There is an autonomous Kurdish zone in Iraq. The Kurds always behave with circumspection because they know how high the stakes are for them, and they do not want to lose what they have. But there is no question that we are beginning to see collaboration across borders, even if in each of those societies – in Iraq, in Syria, and in Turkey – Kurds are divided among themselves.
GB: What is the future of Saudi Arabia? Will the House of Saud survive the next 10 years?
JS: Saudi Arabia is a much more resilient country than many people think – and not only because it has oil. It has a governance model that people really do not understand. It is a very effective model because the royal family fans out across the country to meet weekly with people. It has its ear to the ground on local grievances. So people do not have the same degree of alienation from the centre, and the regime does not have the same palace ignorance as do other authoritarian states. To be sure, the Saudis have to transform their economy. They have a deputy crown prince – in his early 30s – who is now ruling the country, so there has been a generational shift in leadership. This is the first time that Saudi Arabia has moved beyond the original king’s sons. If the new leadership can execute that transition, then power will have passed peacefully to the next generation of leaders, and I believe that they will survive.
GB: Where will the UK be a decade from now?
JS: The British story is astonishing. Jeffrey Simpson, one of Canada’s leading columnists, wrote a wonderful column in which he said, “This is their dumbest hour.” Brexit truly is a self-inflicted wound, resulting from network politics inside the British Conservative Party. This was an internal partisan rivalry that led to a gamble on the future of the country in a way that was supremely irresponsible. Britain cannot come out of this better off than it was before the referendum. Whatever its options, it can only come out worse off.
GB: Will the EU survive?
JS: The British always had one foot in and one foot out of Europe in ways that the core of the EU never did. I am reasonably optimistic that the EU will hold together. Where are the exit risks? The Netherlands? Finland? These are not make-or-break countries for the EU. I do not believe that France will exit the EU – unless, of course, there is the most astonishing upsurge in right-wing politics and you get, say, Marine Le Pen as President of France. Such a scenario has already been pushed back twice. So, if I were an odds-maker in London, I would probably bet on the EU surviving, but in a chastened capacity – that is, recognizing that the ‘thick’ kind of regulatory apparatus that Brussels has put in place cannot be the way forward. Regulating the moisture content of cheese across European member states cannot be the way forward for an EU that is accountable and vibrant and innovative, and that must attract the loyalty of Europeans. After all, what are the great assets of the EU? Not its institutions, and not its regulations. The greatest attraction is the ability of citizens to move freely across national borders. That is why students and young people love it. Unskilled and skilled labour alike love it because you can move across borders and find jobs. Small business people love it. (It is actually a wonderful thing – a wonderful story – that Polish plumbers came to the UK, because there were not a lot of Londoners who wanted to be plumbers.) So the EU must have a lighter hand as it goes forward, and must put a lot more emphasis on opportunities than it does on regulation.
Janice Stein is founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.