10 foreign policy events to watch out for in 2018

From key Brexit decisions to a possible conclusion of TPP11, here are 10 events of global importance to keep on your radar.  

By: /
December 20, 2017
Journalists work during the fifth round of NAFTA talks involving the US, Mexico and Canada, in Mexico City, November 18, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

1. January 23-28: Montreal NAFTA negotiations

Trade negotiators from Canada, the United States and Mexico will be in Montreal from January 23 to 28 for the sixth round of NAFTA negotiations. Despite the rapid pace of negotiations so far, it’s unlikely that the January meeting will see much progress. Throughout 2017, the major roadblock to productive NAFTA talks has been the United States’ “extreme” positions that are widely considered unacceptable to Mexican and Canadian negotiators.

The January session is expected to tackle some of the
thorniest issues at hand, such as autos and dispute settlement. A key question for the meeting will be: Will the negotiations wrap up in 2018? With another turbulent year likely for American politics, Mexico’s presidential election in July, and Canada also pursuing trade deals elsewhere, the goal of reaching an agreement by March may not be realistic. The negotiations will likely define the three countries’ relationships for months — and years — to come.

2. February 9-25: Winter Olympics in South Korea

2017 was a year that saw rising tensions between North Korea and the United States. Kim Jong-Un’s regime routinely conducted missile tests while Donald Trump’s sabre rattling scared diplomats and average citizens alike.

In 2018, South Korea will host the Olympics Games. As the world’s Olympians arrive in Pyeongchang, security concerns will be ever more urgent. In response, South Korea will have 5,000 armed troops at the games and is developing a special cyber security division to protect against hacking from the North, all of which makes this a global sporting event with unusually high tensions. Nevertheless, following confusion after US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said American athletes’ participation in the games remained an “open question,” the White house confirmed it looked “forward to participating.” Russia, on the other hand, will be banned from taking part, with the International Olympic Committee finding it guilty of the “systemic manipulation” of anti-doping rules — though Russian athletes who can prove they are clean can compete under a “Olympic Athlete from Russia” category.

3. TBD: Key Brexit transition discussions

The United Kingdom isn’t scheduled to officially leave the European Union until March 29, 2019, which means 2018 will be especially complicated. Talks are ongoing, with the UK and EU negotiation teams meeting each month. They have reached an agreement on three big areas: what the rights of UK and EU expat citizens will be after Brexit, how much money the United Kingdom will need to pay when it leaves, and the tricky issue of the Northern Ireland border. Negotiators are now discussing the terms of the United Kingdom’s transition period, as it leaves the European Union.

What makes the Brexit negotiations particularly complex is that two pillars need to be pursued in tandem: on the one hand, a plan for how to untangle the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, while on the other, a new framework to define their future relationship — particularly with regard to trade. Some have suggested the United Kingdom and the European Union should pursue a Canada-style trade deal, but UK banks are calling for something far more ambitious. 

4. March 18: Elections in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin would like a fourth term, and he’s widely expected to get it. Voting will take place on March 18, four years since the annexation of Crimea (if Putin somehow he doesn’t secure a majority, another round of voting will happen on April 8.) The lack of suspense admittedly makes this campaign decidedly less exciting to watch, but there is one political figure in Russia who is rapidly gaining prominence and worth paying attention to: Alexei Navalny.

Navalny is a threat to Putin not because he is a viable political choice in the 2018 election (in fact he has been barred from running), but because of what he represents to Russia’s youth. As an opposition leader focused on fighting corruption, he is challenging the hypocrisy coming from the Kremlin and Russia’s elite. The European Court of Human Rights has argued that Navalny should be allowed to run, which Moscow considered to be an attempt at meddling in its election. 

5. June 8-9: G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec

While the United States withdraws its global influence, leadership on the world stage will fall to others. Next year, the Group of Seven (G7) summit, attended by leaders of the world’s most advanced economies — the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada — will be held in Quebec. As chair, Canada will be in a unique position to communicate to allies that it is prepared to address the pressing issues of today. The Trudeau government has announced its agenda will focus on five broad areas: investing in inclusive growth, the jobs of the future, advancing gender equality, addressing climate change and strengthening peace and security. Read more on what to expect from Canada’s G7 presidency here. 

Also, as this will be Donald Trump’s first scheduled visit to Canada as president, expect a heated reaction from some Canadians.

6. July 1: Mexico’s presidential election

Incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto is ineligible to seek another term, and his presumed successor, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, has positioned himself for a presidential run. However, the election result is far from a foregone conclusion. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), a left-wing populist, is leading early polls, which could complicate on-going NAFTA negotiations, because Mexico’s priorities could radically shift under his leadership. AMLO is a seasoned politician who has been the runner-up in the past two elections, and with 43 percent of Mexicans viewing him positively, it’s more than possible for him to be elected in 2018.

It’s also well worth watching the candidacy of Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, the first Indigenous woman to run for president. Though Patricio Martinez is unlikely to become president, and is open about how it’s a symbolic run, her campaign aims to raise awareness around the issues facing Mexico’s Indigenous population, and may prove pivotal in drawing disillusioned voters into Mexico’s political process.

7. Summer: Cannabis becomes legal in Canada

Cannabis in Canada is set to be legal on July 1, and while this is typically considered a domestic issue, it challenges Canada’s international treaty obligations. Canada has signed three international drug control conventions dating from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, which require it to prohibit and punish possessors, sellers and consumers of cannabis. While it may not seem like a big deal to ignore these conventions — Uruguay did just that when it passed similar legislation in 2013 — Canada will not want to be seen to be selective over which international agreements are worth following and which are not. 

That said, globally, particularly in Latin America and Europe, there is a growing recognition that the prohibition of cannabis reflects a very outdated and ineffective strategy for advancing public health. As such, as Canada prepares to legalize marijuana at home, it’s worth watching how the country’s evolving drug laws are received on the world stage.

8. November 6: US midterm elections

In 2018 the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and most governorships are up for reelection. These midterm elections have long-term stakes, because those governors and senators who are elected in 2018 will still be in power in 2021 and 2022, when the country will go through its once per decade redistricting process. In effect, what’s at stake in 2018 is the ability to redraw the political battlegrounds and reverse the gerrymandering that has allowed the GOP to take control of so much of the country. 

While the Democrats have had a relatively successful year, picking up two governorships and making headway in states like Virginia, the 2018 midterms are a mixed bag. To retake the House, Democrats need to take 24 seats from the Republicans, and the Senate is virtually completely out of reach. It’s tempting to treat the 2018 midterms as a litmus test of the Democratic resistance to Trump, but the tides turning against the Republicans is far from guaranteed. 

9. December 3-14: COP24 in Poland

2018 is an important year for international climate diplomacy. The landmark Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, was a massive achievement, but it left unclear some guidelines for fully implementing the treaty. Next year, not only are these guidelines supposed to be finalized, but the Talanoa dialogue launched last year in Bonn will be conducted in the months leading up to COP24 — the Twenty-fourth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The dialogue is intended to be a transparent opportunity for the world’s countries to take stock of where they’re at with their climate goals. The hope here is that by engaging in these talks, the vague goals in the Paris Agreement can be better defined (for example, what exactly does it mean to keep global warming “well below” 2°C?) It will also be an important lesson in whether facilitative talks can open the door for more ambitious climate goals, or whether these talks will descend into empty platitudes. 

10. TBD: A possible beginning for the TPP11

Within days of taking office in January, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between a dozen countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, designed in part to strengthen economic ties in the face of Chinese regional hegemony. When the United States withdrew, it was unclear what the future of the agreement would be, but the 11 remaining countries have salvaged the agreement and appear intent on following through. However, in November at the APEC Summit, an “agreement in principle” was supposed to be announced, until Canada dug in its heels, postponing the announcement and leading analysts to wonder what will come next.

Canada has its plate full with trade negotiations, currently renegotiating NAFTA and developing a trade agreement with China. While Justin Trudeau has said Canada won’t rush into any trade deal, he will likely be keen to deliver on these agreements, making 2018 an important year for the TPP11.