Coming off a roller coaster year of international intrigue, 2019 is shaping up to be just as unpredictable. Mark your calendars as we take stock of the most anticipated and overlooked foreign policy events of the next 12 months.
1. February 16: Nigeria’s presidential elections
In an election year where a record 79 candidates are vying for the top spot, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and opposition leader Atiku Abubakar have emerged ahead of the pack. For the first time since the end of military rule, both of the top two candidates are Muslim, both hail from the north, and both are from the same Fulani ethnic group. That might not seem remarkable to an outsider, but Nigeria is a country where people often vote along political and ethnic lines, and where an unwritten rule swings top presidential candidates between the north and south every eight years.
Even though the two leaders come with very different credentials — Buhari a career military officer and Abubakar a wealthy businessman — their shared background has suppressed their ability to run divisive campaigns over religion, geography or ethnicity. Instead, core policy issues like food security and the economy are being debated like never before.
By 2050, Nigeria is expected to grow to be the third largest country in the world. But pressures over scarce resources are already leading to violence. Conflict between farmers and herders along the country’s middle belt in 2018 than the fight against Boko Haram. Along the coast, others are raising the alarm that a projected 53 percent drop in fish stocks due to rising sea temperatures could spur further violence. This internal strife has forced Nigeria to scale back its once substantial UN peacekeeping commitments to token levels across the Sahel, where Canadian forces are deployed with the UN and local militaries. Such facts serve as a reminder that the fate of the country will have an impact far beyond its borders.
“We continue to treat this continent as a region that stands alone, divorced from global development,” said Judd Devermont, the CIA’s former senior political analyst on sub-Saharan Africa, in an interview. “Whether we’re talking about terrorism or migration or the oil sector or piracy — where Nigeria goes, the region goes.”
2. March 29: Brexit
Ever since the 2016 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, Brexit has dominated the UK’s political conversation. Responsibility for the UK’s exit has fallen on Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, whose negotiating team has spent the last 18 months brokering the terms of divorce. On November 25, 2018, the other 27 European member-states agreed to support a 585-page draft withdrawal agreement meant to address everything from the UK’s “divorce bill” to citizens’ rights and — in what has proved to be the most controversial part of the withdrawal agreement — the Irish border “backstop.”
From the beginning, some of May’s most ardent critics have come from within her own governing coalition. Hard Brexiteers like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have lambasted the deal as “vassal state stuff.” On December 10, May suspended a vote to finalize Brexit after it became apparent the deal would not have the support needed to pass in parliament. That has raised the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and triggered speculation around the early warning signs of a worst-case scenario withdrawal.
3. March 31: Elections in Ukraine
From direct military action to cyber espionage and disinformation campaigns, Russia appears to be ramping up its hybrid warfare ahead of the Ukrainian presidential elections. On November 25, Russian forces attacked and captured three Ukrainian war ships and 23 sailors in the Kerch Strait. By restricting access to the Sea of Azov, experts say Russia targeted two strategic goals: to strangle Ukrainian exports and to make Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko look weak ahead of the elections. It is a risky move. Poroshenko’s reelection campaign has been laced in the language of militarism and faith, and he may well benefit from the incursion.
Experts say Russia’s strategy is not to provoke a wider conflict with NATO forces (including the roughly 200 Canadian soldiers deployed in Ukraine), but rather to undermine the entire international order. “If Russia succeeds in further destabilizing or fragmenting Ukraine, it’s going to produce things like flows of refugees [and] more deaths, which is going to have a wider effect,” former UK Ambassador to Ukraine Robert Brinkley told OpenCanada. “This is not rule of law, this is rule of the jungle, and that’s dangerous for everybody.”
4. April: Beijing hosts second Belt and Road forum
As China moves to helm a greater share of the world’s economy, some have called the Belt and Road forum (BRF) its answer to the G20. But unlike the G20, the BRF — which has yet to set an exact date — hinges on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trademark foreign policy plan connecting the Middle Kingdom with the rest of Asia, Africa, Europe, and more recently, Latin America and the Arctic. Through a “belt” of overland rail and highway networks, and a “road” of sea lanes, China seeks to anchor the trillion dollar modern-day Silk Road through a string of ports, power plants and industrial complexes.
When Beijing hosted the first forum in 2017, participants came from more than 100 countries, including 29 heads of state. Since then, China has handed out massive loans to countries along the web of trade corridors. But as billion dollar projects line up, there are growing concerns some countries will not be able to pay back mounting debt. Others have pointed to the crackdown on ethnic Uighers in Xianjing as a sign of how China intends to do business with outsiders. That has experts questioning one of China’s fundamental weaknesses: how can it claim leadership through connectivity abroad while pursuing repression at home? Meanwhile, tensions remain frayed between China and the West over tariffs, cyber security and access to global technology markets. Speaking at the an APEC meeting in Port Moresby, Papa New Guinea, last November, US Vice President Mike Pence cast China as a predatory moneylender offering a “one-way road.”
“We don’t coerce or compromise your independence,” said Pence. “The United States deals openly, fairly.”
5. Ongoing: Kick off to US 2020 campaign
In the painfully slow burn of US politics, someone is always campaigning. So it is no surprise that with the end of last fall’s mid-term elections comes the start of the presidential campaign. Backed by an 89 percent approval rating among registered Republicans, President Donald Trump has repeatedly declared his intention to run a second term. Democrats appear to be wasting no time in their push to find a presidential candidate. In early December 2018, the Associated Press reported the Democratic National Committee is planning to schedule the first primary debate as early as May, a full three months earlier than the 2016 election cycle.
While Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her intention to run for president on December 31, other Democrats rumoured to considering a bid include former Vice President Joe Biden, Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
6. June 3-6: Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver
Promoted as the world’s largest conference on “gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women,” this year’s event will highlight the central role that women and girls must play to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Women Deliver is largely backed by the Canadian and Danish governments, and was last hosted in Copenhagen, attracting nearly 6,000 people from 169 countries. Held once every three years since 2007, this year, both Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and her husband, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are slated as featured speakers. That is no surprise considering the central role gender equality and women’s empowerment has taken since the Liberal government launched programs like the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. Despite clear arguments for why we need a feminist foreign policy, some have criticized the hypocrisy of the Canadian government claiming moral superiority on the one hand, and selling weapons to some of the most egregious abusers of women’s rights on the other.
7. June 28-29: G20 leaders meet in Osaka, Japan
This year, the Japanese hosts will focus on technology, setting an agenda around building consumer trust, privacy, data protection, and society-level retraining programs as the digital economy displaces jobs. With one of the highest levels of public debt and fastest aging populations in the world, Japan is also expected to table discussions on how to manage the impacts of an aging population on member countries’ public finances. One unidentified source in the Abe administration told Reuters that Tokyo will suggest global account imbalances be fixed through multilateral coordination instead of the kind of bilateral trade deals Trump pursued at last year’s summit.
Of course, global events can easily derail the best laid plans. Several analysts predict the G20 will be saddled by a looming emerging market credit crisis, a sustained US-China trade war, and the US administration’s continued intransigence on climate change.
8: July 20: Afghan presidential elections
Amid persistent violence, corruption and a lack of jobs, Afghans are approaching the 2019 presidential elections with a mixed sense of hope. In the largest poll of its kind, 52 percent of respondents said they believe the next elections would be free and fair. And while 82 percent said they have no sympathy for the Taliban, 62 percent report fear when going to the polls, the highest level of fear ever recorded and a 10 percent uptick from 2017.
In what many regarded as a test run for this year’s presidential elections, last October’s parliamentary vote was marred by violence, corruption and mismanagement at all levels. After widespread speculation, the Independent Election Commission announced in late December it would delay the elections three months, from April to July, to open up negotiating space with the Taliban. The decision came a little more than a week after the Trump administration’s surprise announcement to withdraw roughly half of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is expected to restart negotiations with Taliban representatives this month following three meetings in 2018. The negotiations are part of an attempt to end 17 years of war that have claimed the lives of an estimated 212,000 people.
9. TBD: Ratification of the CUSMA/USMCA
North America’s new free trade agreement is expected to go into effect on January 1, 2020. For that to happen, each country needs to pass new legislation to ratify the deal. In Canada, the new agreement could receive royal assent by late June, before parliament breaks for the summer. That would mean Canada could wrap up its end of the legislative process before the federal election on October 21. On the Mexican side, newly inaugurated President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recent hinted at his satisfaction with the deal after securing the deletion of a chapter on energy that posed “a risk to our sovereignty.”
Despite criticism of Canada’s hardball negotiating tactics from the Americans, the biggest roadblock to ratification appears to come from the US side. Legislation will likely make its way to the House by January when the new Democrat majority will sit for the first time. While many Democrats have not committed to vote one way or the other, some, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, have come out opposing the agreement as it stands on grounds it does not go far enough to protect labour and the environment.
10. October 21: Canadian federal election
Looking back on 2018, the Liberal government has been embroiled in some high-profile diplomatic spats. Hardball free trade negotiations with the US, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s tweet in support of imprisoned Saudi activists, and, most recently, Canada’s part in the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou have all splashed the country’s name across international headlines. Will any of this matter when Canadians go to the polls in October?
You can bet the Liberals will use the renegotiation of NAFTA as evidence they should be the party to steward Canadian foreign policy. On other issues, the Trudeau government will likely be confronted with tough criticism. Canada faces stiff competition in its bid to get on the UN Security Council, and Trudeau’s promises to return Canada to its peacekeeping glory days are falling well short. On climate change, the Liberals have struggled to negotiate a carbon tax with provincial leaders. Oil rich provinces have accused the federal government of not doing enough to bring its product to market. Others have challenged the absurdity of backstopping the construction of a pipeline when its contents sabotage hopes of Canada reaching a carbon-neutral future. And, on the integrity of the elections themselves, the Liberals will have an additional challenge of securing a fair vote free of foreign influence.
With all this, the election will surely be an event to watch for anyone interested in how Canada charts its future in energy production, harnesses the emergence of disruptive technologies, and navigates the populist tide that has rippled across the globe.