'Fasten your seatbelts – it's going to be a bumpy year': U of T experts on what to expect in 2018

January 5, 2018 by Noreen Ahmed-Ullah - U of T News

From a new crown prince making waves in Saudi Arabia to government protests in Iran and a battle between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un over who has a bigger nuclear button, there’s a lot to give pause in the year ahead.

U of T News reached out to our political scientists and historians to weigh in on what international conflicts Canadians should be keeping their eye on, and what may be in store closer to home.

Their thoughts – and even a few outright predictions – fell into four main subject areas.

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Trump forecast for 2018

 Sarah Sanders listens during a daily news briefing at the White House with an image of Donald Trump on a computer screen.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks via video as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders listens during a daily news briefing at the White House on Thursday, Jan. 4. Sanders spoke on various topics including the new book Fire and Fury, written by Michael Wolff. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Ronald Pruessen

Ronald Pruessen is a history professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book about former U.S. president Barack Obama.

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy year.

There is a chance that Trump will be out of the White House by the end of 2018. His own unstable personality might just prompt a resignation as he finds Washington, D.C., the country and the world less amenable to kowtowing than his ego and “reality TV” authoritarianism require. There could also be a Nixon-like resignation, designed to provide an escape hatch from impeachment proceedings, perhaps prompted by the results of ongoing investigations by the special prosecutor and Congress.

Another possibility is that more of Trump’s House and Senate enablers and more of the citizens who supported him in 2016 may join those already starting to abandon his rickety vessel. Could Trump’s bizarre words and outrageous actions reach a critical mass sufficient to produce a tipping point in the balance of political power in the November elections? Of course, I’d be a fool not to consider another distinct possibility – that Trump will remain in the Oval Office with enough public and Congressional support to survive a bumpy 2018.

There are those who speculate about Trump’s potential to mature, but I’m strongly inclined to rule that out. Since he has been stuck in a mode that combines egomania and infantilism for 70 years, why would he suddenly develop a capacity for dignity or serious public service? He has also been shrewd, of course, but that’s a trait that can peak in and out. Trump’s tweets – especially those with which he launched 2018 – may even suggest a mind and a personality growing more bizarre and less stable. Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, quotes one of Trump’s longtime associates, billionaire Thomas Barrack, Jr., who says, “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.”

Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller may generate serious charges involving money laundering and/or collusion against those around the president, including his son and son-in-law, which may not be enough to end the White House residency of the paterfamilias himself.

For the moment, there are too many moving parts and too many variables to allow a clear view to January 2019. Stay tuned to see how they play out – but buckle up.

Robert Bothwell

Historian Robert Bothwell is a professor specializing in international relations and Canadian history at the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs.

There are no real precedents in American history for Trump. The only ones I can think of are from ancient history – the worst-behaved emperors of Rome or the weak and foolish tyrants of the Middle Ages. There is the possibility that the Mueller inquiry will come to fruition, and that Mueller will outline impeachable and/or even indictable conduct on the part of Trump or his immediate circle. If so, my guess is there will be paralysis in U.S. politics at least until the fall, with the 2018 midterm elections becoming the most important in American history – a referendum on Trump but also Trumpist populism.

But I do not think impeachment efforts will get off the ground, pushing the issue onto the electoral calendar. Unfortunately, Trump and Trumpism will linger, even if Trump himself is disposed of.

There is also the possibility that Trump will dismiss Mueller and terminate his inquiry. This would be the equivalent of a coup d’état and would place the president above and beyond the law. It would, obviously, be a very rash and foolish thing to do, but there is no guarantee that Trump would not do it, based on his past behaviour. Would the “deep state” or for that matter the 50 to 60 per cent of Americans who say they do not support him obey Trump in such a case? And what of the 30 per cent and more who seem ready to support him no matter what?

Global conflicts

Robert Bothwell

Iranian pro-government supporters march during the funeral of a young member of the Revolutionary Guards in the city of Najafabad.
Iranian pro-government supporters march during the funeral of a young member of the Revolutionary Guards in the city of Najafabad, on Wednesday, Jan. 3. A total of 21 people died and hundreds were arrested in five days of unrest that began on Dec. 28 as protests against economic grievances quickly turned against the regime as a whole, with attacks on government buildings and police stations. Photo: Morteza Saleh/AFP/Getty Images.

There’s a vast array of potential conflicts in 2018. If we’re lucky, we’ll only get a few of them. The main focus of our attention should be Asia. It’s not clear whether the rise of China presages a challenge or a conflict – between China and its immediate neighbours, Japan and Vietnam, or between China and the United States, or any number of other countries, including Canada. The Chinese seem inclined to have their way in negotiations, relying on their formidable economic prowess and in anticipation of their arrival at “No. 1” status, but they may well choose to wait and see how far and how fast the United States loses credibility with its allies in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. Why exert yourself when the American government and its faithful electoral base are doing your work for you?

Janice Stein

Janice Stein is the Belzberg Professor of Conflict Management in the department of political science at the Faculty of Arts & Science. She was the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.

North Korea is an obvious area of deep concern, as is the South China Sea. In both cases, I expect that this year will see the great powers quietly coming to terms with what is already in place. North Korea is an established nuclear power with the capacity to strike North America, and China is the hegemonic power in the South China Sea. The other great powers will grudgingly, reluctantly, come to terms with both and focus on developing strategies of containment. We should always worry about the danger of miscalculation between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un – one isolated and cut off from criticism, and the other erratic, undisciplined, ill-informed, and quite frankly, dangerously juvenile in his repeated taunting and provocation of Kim Jong-Un. If we can navigate around this out-of-control president, I expect that the United States, China, Japan, and Europe, without ever saying so, will move this year to robust strategies of containment. The long and short of it – North Korea is a nuclear power with the capacity to strike the United States. That is where we are now, and there is no turning back the clock.

The Middle East continues to be plagued by civil wars that spill across borders and domestic unrest. The demonstrations inside Iran are very significant because they reflect a deep struggle between President Hassan Rouhani and the clerical establishment in the context of an economy that is still dominated by the economic interests of the Republican Guards and their allies. After heavy spending by (former Iranian president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad to meet the demands of his rural base as well as the clerical establishment, President Rouhani moved to rein in social spending and food subsidies while disclosing the increasing spending on religious institutions. Rouhani quietly disclosed that spending to spark protests against the religious establishment among a conservative, rural population that is increasingly squeezed. Iran is an overwhelmingly young country with a youth unemployment rate of close to 40 per cent. Whatever happens over the next few months, the largest and most developed society in the Gulf faces very difficult economic and social choices.

Closely related is the ongoing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that shows no sign of moderating. That rivalry plays out in the escalating civil war in Yemen and in Syria. It is unlikely that this year will see an end to the civil war in Yemen since none of the external powers – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran – show willingness to back down. It may indeed be the year that Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, wins a decisive victory on the ground in Syria and eliminates all but token opposition. Assad will then be face-to-face with a country that he helped to destroy and must rebuild from the ground up. Here, neither Iran nor Russia can be much help.

It is very unlikely that Myanmar will allow large numbers of Rohingya to return in safety. The military leadership of Myanmar are united in their determination to expel the Rohingya and will drag their feet as long as they can to avoid any significant resettlement. Bangladesh is a poor country that does not have the economic and social resources to absorb the Rohingya refugees and resettle them outside the squalid camps in which they now live. The forced outmigration of the Rohingya is one of the great tragedies of this last year. Bob Rae, Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, has seen their plight close-up and has had extensive conversations with their leaders and will issue a final report very shortly. I am sure that whatever else he recommends, he will urge a worldwide effort to improve the living conditions and educational opportunities for the Rohingya who have been victimized.

Cyber espionage and cyber war are enormous risks. It is difficult to exaggerate the vulnerability of societies that are increasingly connected to the Internet of Things. Cyber defence lags badly behind cyber offense. Governments and businesses are simply unwilling to make the massive investments in security that are required to keep pace with the geometric development of the capacity for cyber espionage and attack. It will probably take a massive attack to wake up leaders in the public and private sector to the challenges they face. That has been the pattern in the past. Cyber defence may be easier to defeat if blockchain technologies and quantum computing can deliver what they promise – 2018 will tell us a lot about the promise of both.

Global leaders to watch? I would watch German Chancellor Angela Merkel very closely. Can she cobble together a government? Her leadership is critical to Europe’s future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India always merits attention – can he consolidate his base in India and position himself to win decisively again, fundamentally altering the trajectory of Indian politics? And finally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a gambler who rolls the dice, determined to revolutionize Saudi Arabia at home, force its economy off its dependence on oil exports, and compete with Iran for region-wide influence. So far, not much to show for the recklessness with which he is pursuing his agenda.

Aisha Ahmad

Aisha Ahmad is an assistant professor of political science at U of T Scarborough and co-director of the Islam and global affairs initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She is the author of Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power.

While Islamic State has lost ground in Iraq and Syria, it would be foolish to think that the movement is out of the game. Not only have Islamic State affiliates taken root in North Africa and South Asia, but the original movement in Iraq has not actually disappeared. It is hiding in the underground, waiting for the chance to reclaim power. The thing to remember is that when jihadists start to lose territory, they intentionally shift their strategic plan. They stop governing, pull back and refocus their efforts on waging a low-cost, long-term insurgency. To do so, they find refuge in the underground criminal economy. We have already seen this happen in Afghanistan and Somalia, and are now watching the exact same pattern play out in Iraq. The latest research from the field shows that Islamic State has already begun heavily investing its resources in front businesses in Iraq, and the movement is hoping this massive money laundering campaign will finance a long-term battle. These militants are not gone. They are hiding in the criminal underworld, waiting for their chance to reclaim power.

Insurgency and terrorism might catch headlines, but the real danger is when powerful states clash. Looking to the year ahead, the greatest threat facing the world is the tremendous uncertainty in American foreign policy. Being unpredictable is a smart strategy in a boxing ring, but unpredictable behaviour in the international arena is a recipe for global chaos. When great powers behave in unpredictable ways, their rivals make dangerous mistakes. The resulting security crises can quickly spiral out of control and drag the entire world into war. I wish I could tell you that great powers never go to war by accident, but there are tens of millions of soldiers who fought between 1914 and 1919, who we must never forget. And so, it is alarming that the North Korean regime said that it believes that recent American military exercises are a secret plan to stage a surprise nuclear first strike. The Cuban Missile Crisis taught us how fragile peace is, and how essential diplomacy is to preventing catastrophe. Those tough lessons should motivate diplomats to work around the clock in the year ahead.

Brexit, Germany and the European Union

Randall Hansen

Randall Hansen, a professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science, is the interim director of the Munk School of Global Affairs. He is the Canada Research Chair in Global Migration.

Angela Merkel speaking to the press.
All eyes are on Germany’s Angela Merkel as she works to build a coalition government. Photo: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images.

The Brexit process is the easiest to predict, and Britain will emerge anything but unscathed if it does leave the European Union. The chances that it will not leave have increased, but Brexit is still the most likely result. The U.K. has three simple choices. It can stay in the single market and accept the free movement of EU workers and all EU regulations without having any say on them. It can leave the single market but stay in the customs union. In that case, it could control immigration but could not negotiate any free trade deals with third countries. Or it can leave both and negotiate its own deals while controlling immigration. The last remains the most likely, and it would be the most damaging. The EU will offer a version of the Canada-EU free trade deal – free trade in some goods but not services. The U.K. will have to expand its bureaucracy massively to cope with the movement of goods, will be cut out of some 70 free trade deals already negotiated by the EU and will lose easy access to its most important market. And let’s not forget Ireland, which effectively has a veto on the whole process. The terms will be set by the EU. This year, the U.K. capitulated to every EU demand – such is negotiating with an economic superpower. There is no reason to think that it will not do the same next year.

For Germany, a coalition will be formed, most likely a grand coalition with the social democrats. This would be the best option for not only Germany but for the EU, as the social democrats are most sympathetic to the degree of fiscal integration necessary to make the euro work. The far-right should always be watched with the eyes of a hawk, but the Alternative for Germany party is no threat to German democracy. Russia will continue to fund the far-right – the Alternative for Germany almost certainly receives money from Moscow. It is a stepchild of the 2015 migration crisis, and the party is both splitting and revealing its true racist colours. But we should not be passive: The AFD, the Front National and Trump should be met with three strategies: resist, resist, and resist.

The Italian elections in March will be closely watched for evidence of further populist successes. The Five Star Movement party has said it does not want to the leave the EU but rather hold a referendum on euro membership. My guess is that – as was the case in France – this anti-euro rhetoric will soften as the election approaches. Italy’s commitment to the EU is far too strong. The greatest worries in Europe are democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland and the continued economic divergence between northern Europe, and Italy and Greece.

Against the predictions of many, Brexit has not resulted in further EU fragmentation. Indeed, the EU has emerged stronger and, if the economy continues to improve, it will grow stronger still. As it develops, all eyes should be on Paris. As the British have decided to consign themselves to irrelevance, and as Macron tackles longstanding structural challenges in France, the power of France will grow. Germany, with its size and booming economy, will be the anchor of Europe for the foreseeable future, but the alliance with France will grow in importance for the EU. This is in many ways a case of Back to the Future – the reconciliation and partnership of France and Germany is where it all began.

The migrant crisis

Phil Triadafilopoulos

Phil Triadafilopoulos is an associate professor of political science at U of T Scarborough, specializing in citizenship and immigration policies.

I expect that numbers will continue to rise. The conflicts that have resulted in refugee movements are still active, and we may see new ones arise. Established paths into Europe have been closed for some time, so migrants will continue to use very dangerous routes. Sadly, this will result in more deaths on the high seas. There will be more pressure on states such as Greece and Italy, which are already being overstretched, as migrants arrive in those states but are unable to move on because other European states are simply not interested in sharing the burden. The situation in reception camps, especially on the Greek islands, is therefore likely to deteriorate. I believe we will continue to see refugees coming from South Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan and other major refugee-producing states. Migrants driven by conflict will be joined by those who are interested in improving their and their family’s prospects – this has been a long-standing phenomenon that will continue. Given the severity of changing weather patterns and other consequences of climate change, we should also expect to see movements based on these factors as well, though significant movements of climate refugees may be some years away.

The big and obvious point is that there are a relatively small number of countries with strong economies and stable political systems. These countries act as beacons in a world marked by poverty and political instability. It makes sense that people in poorer, politically unstable countries will be drawn to them. These richer, beacon states could use more immigration to invigorate their aging, shrinking populations. Yet we’re likely to see continuing closure, as a result of prevailing political conditions. Historians of the future will have their hands full in explaining how we arrived at this paradoxical state of affairs.

Back at home in Canada

Robert Bothwell

Patrick Brown.
Patrick Brown and his Ontario PCs are vying for a win in the June provincial elections. Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

The major issue for Canada is the United States and the nature of its policies and political system. Put bluntly, we depend and have depended for more than 100 years on a friendly, non-threatening and rational American political system. Though there have been occasional signs of Trump’s favour, his fixed convictions about the rest of the world do not promise well for Canada – and make no mistake, we fall in the “rest of the world” category.

The NAFTA negotiations are a case in point. Canadian negotiators have proceeded as they usually do – deploying considerable resources, working out a fact-based narrative and relying on reason and compromise to reach a mutually advantageous conclusion. To say that we have not met a willing negotiating partner would be an understatement. One side is protectionist, the other not. And that’s that – no matter how much breath we expend in talking to a brick wall. The other side sees negotiations as a zero-sum game and pursues a strategy that can be summed up as, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

Like every other American ally, Canada is going to have to contemplate a world in which our policies and perhaps our polity diverge from those of the American government and its supporters.

Chris Cochrane

Chris Cochrane is an associate professor of political science at U of T Scarborough.

The lack of a pipeline for Alberta oil will be extremely challenging for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and could be a source of federal-provincial conflict in the very near future, especially if the United Conservative party wins the next election in Alberta, as I suspect they will, barring a major meltdown within the party.

In Quebec, the debate about “religious neutrality” will be something to watch, as the provincial Liberal government’s controversial policy last year, which requires people to show their faces when receiving public services, is actually more moderate than the proposals floated by the government’s main opposition parties, which would ban face coverings in all public places. I think these laws will be found by courts to be inconsistent with Quebec’s own provincial Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

On the ethics issues, it’s clear now that that this government – actually the Prime Minister, in particular – needs to receive or accept some better sources of common-sense advice re: the appearance of financial propriety. The Prime Minister seems to be oblivious to how he and others should act in straightforward, common-sense circumstances. This is both for the sake of his own image, which has taken a hit, and for the sake of setting precedents about how other politicians and officials should behave.

Nelson Wiseman

Nelson Wiseman is a professor of political science and director of the Canadian Studies Program at the Faculty of Arts & Science.

My predictions for what’s in store for Canada: On the NAFTA file, Canada abandons Mexico and deals bilaterally with the U.S. on trade. If the Trump administration cannot make a deal with Canada, with whom can it make a deal?

In the June election, the Ontario Conservatives will prevail, and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) will win the Quebec election in October. The result will be grousing from those provinces about federal Liberal policies. The provinces will complain about the insufficiency of federal funding for health care and infrastructure.

The Supreme Court will rule that buying alcohol in one province and taking it to another province is constitutional, possibly opening the floodgates for other products such as dairy and eggs. Cannabis legalization will be postponed until late autumn.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls goes nowhere and is dismissed by most Indigenous organizations. Expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline will begin.

Toronto and Vancouver housing prices will see declines of 5 per cent. The Canadian dollar will average 74 cents US. More retail transactions will gravitate to online. Large office buildings and condominiums in Toronto with retail space on their main and lower floors will be challenged to find tenants.

Mayor John Tory will be easily re-elected. City Council will reverse the Scarborough subway decision. Bombardier will deliver two prototype vehicles for the Crosstown LRT in December.