Trump, Syria, climate change and global security: U of T experts offer global look-ahead for 2017

photo of a peace sign written in candles and a drawing of the world
Photo by Sunil Pradhan/ NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Year was surreal – a word that captures how tumultuous 2016 was from start to finish.

Terrorist attacks in Brussels and Nice. A coup in Turkey. Brexit and a polarized America. The headlines have been so bleak some asked if the world is falling apart.

But there is hope, experts say. Here at home and around the world, Canadians are working to make the world a better place. They’re making Toronto a stronger, more inclusive city. They’re designing tiny, ant-like robots that may one day be able to rescue people after earthquakes. They're running free English classes for Syrian refugees and preserving precious U.S. environmental data for future generations. 

“There's tons of hope,” says U of T's Aisha Ahmad. “The great hope is that universities like the University of Toronto remain an essential front line in putting out truth. In an ocean of fake news and fake information, we remain a bastion of science-driven, reason-based analysis that is essential to elevating this discussion.

“The great hope is that we continue to do this and that our students – world-class young scholars – in our classrooms and out there in the world continue to provide a critical voice of reason to this global conversation in 2017.”

U of T News spoke with Ahmad and other experts at the university to get a sense of what awaits us next year. Brace yourself. 

Trump and the world: Robert Bothwell
Syria’s future: Aurel Braun
Climate change: Kate Neville, Matthew Hoffmann
The fate of Europe: Randall Hansen
Global security: Aisha Ahmad

President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated in January (photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump and the world

Professor Robert Bothwell of the Faculty of Arts & Science spoke to U of T News reporter Romi Levine about what the U.S. can expect once president-elect Donald Trump takes office.
The U.S.:
Who can say at this point? But the signs are not good for a tranquil Trump presidency domestically. And when you look at the cabinet appointments... words fail me. You appoint a climate change denier as head of the EPA. You appoint oil industry executives to handle pollution, and then you appoint somebody who doesn't believe in evolution to be secretary of education who also doesn't believe in public schools. And you appoint somebody who in business terms has been in bed with the Russians for quite a while as secretary of state? It's just terrifying. The appointments do prove that the United States is going to move significantly to the right. 
The signs aren't promising. Picking a quarrel with China for no good reason that I can see, that will probably dominate events. Obviously China won't do anything until after Jan. 20th, but at that point, if Trump wants any co-operation or any favours from China, I don't think that's going to happen. 
With Russia, it's hard to predict how that will play out. The thing is, Russia is inherently very weak but they play a weak hand very well. Putin is probably at the extremity of what he can afford with Syria. Will Trump actually prove to be the Siberian candidate or will he do what he claims he can do, and that is negotiate with Kremlin from a position of strength. Who knows? His various denials about Russian influence are meant to shore up his legitimacy as president. 
Where Canada will stand, heaven knows. We're obviously not front and centre on their agenda and that's probably good, but whether they are going to start bullying us for example on refugees, we just can't say. They may approach us and say 'If you want an open border, you're going to have to stop the refugees.' 
We've never confronted this. There have been quarrels and disputes, but really, we've never had to confront an American administration that is as unpredictable as this one. Obviously Trudeau is not going to be palsy walsy with Trump. I'm sure Trudeau will do what his father did with Richard Nixon – he'll try and keep it on business and hope for the best but Trump's boasted prowess and negotiation style might mean that he will try to put the squeeze on us in a variety of ways. 
International trade:
I think Trump will discover that revising NAFTA is harder than he thinks. He could denounce it of course, in which case I gather we in Canada would return to the free trade agreement that preceded NAFTA. 
The most urgent problems will be in the Western Pacific, and they start with the end of the TPP. Since it has a larger political purpose, we should contemplate it carefully. 
The TPP is dead. It was more important politically than economically. It was an attempt by Obama to shore up American alliances in the Pacific area. But that leaves Trump with no real policy in Western Pacific and with the virtual certainty of a real crisis out there, it just depends where it starts. Will it start with North Korea? Will North Korea continue to be aggressive in a nuclear fashion and will the Americans decide they better take it out before it gets really serious? That could happen. And then there's the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and what will the Americans do about that?

Syria's future

The death toll in Syria is reported to have increased to more than 500,000 with half of the country's population displaced. Aurel Braun, U of T professor of political science and international relations at the Munk School of Global Affairs and University of Toronto Mississauga, spoke to U of T News reporter Romi Levine about the ongoing crisis. Braun is also an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian studies.

Pro-Assad forces have taken control of rebel-held eastern Aleppo. What does this mean for Syria’s future?

It certainly appears that the Assad regime is surviving. It's a major victory in tactical, strategic and psychological terms. It is also a terrible tragedy for the Syrian people. It's not that it was a simple matter of democratic rebels fighting the Syrian regime. Rebel forces consisted of all sorts of groups, some of which, such as Islamic State were committing horrible crimes themselves.

As Russia cozies up to president-elect Trump, will Putin shift support for the Assad regime in Syria?

The Russians have played a very powerful and effective tactical game, and it remains to be seen whether this was really a viable long-term and effective strategy.

There's also the unpredictable factor of an incoming (U.S.) administration, which at the moment seems to be very much inclined to be forthcoming and friendly to Russia, but that can in the long-term easily turn on Russia. Mr. Trump wants to be a winner, Mr. Putin wants to be the winner, and there can only be one winner. If you are looking at an economy that is eight times bigger than Russia, one where Mr. Trump intends to build up the American military, should there be a falling out? I suspect this would be very difficult for Russia. So it is possible at some point Russia will have to withdraw. It will be much more difficult without Russian help for the Syrian regime.

Is there likely to be intervention in Syria from countries like the U.S.?

It is hard and risky to predict, but the past is not encouraging. One of the key problems is, we often look at what is happening in Syria as a refugee problem rather than as a war problem. Let me emphasize as strongly as I can that I think it's essential for countries to treat refugees humanely. That it is so vital that we should care for people in need, that we ought to be forthcoming in trying to rescue those who are on boats trying to escape, those who are abused in camps trying to get into Europe and so on.

But the sad reality is that the refugee problem is really a manifestation, a symptom in a sense of the larger issue of war.

The world is not willing to address this to confront these regimes, to put a stop to Assad when there was still a possibility of creating a stable and viable opposition. I'm rather pessimistic in terms of the world's willingness to address the root causes of conflict.

Climate scientists are worried the U.S. will backtrack on environmental policies once Donald Trump is in office (photo by Billy Wilson via Flickr)

Climate change

Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.” He has nominated a climate skeptic, Scott Pruitt, and ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson to key cabinet positions. Kate Neville and Matthew Hoffman of the Faculty of Arts & Science spoke to U of T News writer Geoffrey Vendeville about environmental policy under Trump. 

What does Donald Trump's election mean for environmental policies? 

KN: I have a hard time at the moment knowing what his presidency means for just about anything. I say that not at all facetiously. 

I think we're entering a very, very uncertain time. This is a man who doesn't take briefings. This is someone who doesn't understand how government works. None of the projections looks good for the environment. I think we can say fairly confidently we won't see improvements in many of the environmental areas that we might care about – everything from climate change to water protection, biodiversity and so on. 

What do you think of his cabinet picks? 

KN: I think they're terrifying.  

Usually the secretary of state is not seen as an environmental appointment, but given that he's naming Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobile CEO, to that position, there are very clear environmental implications. This is someone who runs one of the world's largest oil and gas companies. This is someone whose company has been shown to have been actively involved in climate denialism for decades. 

Scott Pruitt, his pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has been fighting the Clean Power Plan. This is a climate skeptic who denies there is risk of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. 

What kind of impact might the Trump presidency have on climate science and research? 

KN: Climate scientists are very worried. In fact, the University of Toronto recently had an archiving event for climate data because of the fear on both sides of the border that, not only will we see funding withdrawn from climate science, we might see the deletion of climate data sets.

Read the Toronto Star story
Read the BBC story 
See the CBC story

What would the consequences be if Trump were to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement? 

MH: This depends. The characteristics of the Paris agreement which is different from ones we’ve seen before, like in Kyoto, is that it’s designed to be decentralized. The agreement is a collection of individual state-based commitments. On some level, the Paris agreement depends less on the United States being there. 

On the other hand, the US is a key player. It’s a political and financial leader. Some of the political fallout might be that if the US isn’t taking Paris seriously, other countries might reassess their commitments. The good thing is coming out of Marrakech a few weeks ago, countries have reaffirmed their commitments to Paris in the face of a Trump presidency. 

Is there reason to be optimistic that we’ll see meaningful action on climate change in 2017? 

MH: Outside the US, there’s potential to see quite a bit. If we look close to home, the pan-Canadian climate policy will start to ramp up. Ontario will implement its cap-and-trade program. 

Read more about Hoffman and other U of T professors’ takes on Trudeau’s carbon pricing strategy. 

There’s been a lot of technological development and action among sub-national actors such as provinces, states and cities. I think that’ll continue in 2017.

The fate of Europe

Britain voted to leave the European Union. Now what? Randall Hansen, a professor of political science, sat down with U of T News reporter Romi Levine to discuss Brexit and other issues, including tight European elections and tensions in the Baltic states.

Britain is set to begin the process of leaving the European Union in 2017. What is “Brexit” set to look like?

If Prime Minister (Theresa) May does what she says she will do, she will invoke article 50 by March and that will set in motion a two-year timetable for Britain to leave the European Union.

It's possible that some sort of compromise will be made for the United Kingdom. That's extremely unlikely. The ‘soft’ Brexit would require that Britain accept the free movement of workers, which it said it's not prepared to do. Everyone in the EU has said is that there can be no compromise on free movement. If you're a member of the single market, you have to accept the free movement of workers. Unless there's a compromise on that, there won't be a soft Brexit. There will only be a hard Brexit.

There was talk that some Brits would be able to opt in to keep their European citizenship. Is this likely to happen?

I regard this as a fantasy. The only way to get European citizenship is to be a citizen of a member state of the European Union, which is exactly what Britain will not be. There will probably be a deal on Britons already residing in the European Union, but what there won't be is this application option for Brits after Brexit to keep their European Citizenship.

It’s a big election year in Europe with the Netherlands, France and Germany all set to go to the polls. What can we expect?

I think the Front National will not come to power in France, and that is because the fathers of the French constitution, Michel Debré and Charles de Gaulle, knew the French better than they knew themselves and the two-ballot system means you need a majority to win. Only the top two candidates go forward to the second presidential ballot.

While it is probable that Marine Le Pen will be on the second ballot, it is possible, though unlikely, that she would lead on the first ballot. But it's almost impossible for her to get a majority on the second ballot. Even with a conservative candidate like François Fillon, the socialists will hold their noses and say he is better than she is. If Le Pen does win, it will be a disaster. She would promise to hold a referendum on France leaving the European Union and were that to pass, but I don't think it would (but I didn't think Brexit would happen either), there would be no European Union without France. The project would really, really be over.

If we have more attacks like we did in Berlin today, the calculus could change, but Germany is the least likely case for being turned over to the far-right because the Alternative for Germany (AfD) would have to get a plurality of votes – get the largest vote – and that seems to be incredibly unlikely. The other parties would have to be prepared, even in that situation, to work with the AfD.

Angela Merkel will most likely emerge as chancellor. In Germany, the major opposition party the Social Democrats cannot profit from the refugee crisis or from terrorism because they are, by definition, a pro-immigrant party and by definition an anti-Islamophobic party. So the two narratives you would need to leapfrog over Merkel aren't available to the Social Democrats or the Greens.

As Russia makes its presence known in the Baltic states, so do U.S. troops and NATO. Will tensions escalate in the next year?

This is the hardest to predict. This depends on the president-elect of the United States in part, who is the most unpredictable politician on the planet. His position can change over the course of a Tweet, much less over the course of an hour. It's very hard to know.

Putin is going to feel emboldened by the election of Donald Trump because Trump has made it clear he likes Putin because Putin said a few nice things about him absurdly enough, and because Trump has made critical comments about NATO.

In terms of NATO member states, there is so much institutional and political and historical weight behind NATO and so much support in the Republican congress that it would be very difficult for Trump to withdraw from NATO or massively reduce American support for NATO and only under those circumstances could you imagine the nuclear option – or the conventional option – the invasion of the Baltic States.

I think Ukraine is more of a danger zone. Putin will certainly do everything he can to make the Baltic States feel more insecure because he loves insecure states around him.

Global security

The world is highly volatile these days. Assistant Professor Aisha Ahmad, an international security expert, says the world is entering an era of great power transition and extreme uncertainty, threatening to destabilize our international system. She spoke with U of T News reporter Geoffrey Vendeville.

What are the biggest threats to international security next year and in the years to come? 

The biggest threat to international security in 2017 is that we are witnessing a major shift in great power politics, with a president-elect that has signalled abandoning the Pax Americana that has defined our liberal international order, which has emboldened Russia both in eastern Europe and Syria. This of course exacerbates problems of terrorism, but it speaks to much more significant inter-state rivalries.

We're not talking about the violence of civil wars. We're talking about off-the-charts level of threats.

Think back to the First and Second World Wars. That's the magnitude of threat when great powers come into confrontation with each other. 

What are the possible sources of conflict? 

In Eastern Europe, we are facing the possibility of increased Russian aggression – largely because the US is sending mixed signals to Russia and Eastern Europe about how committed they are to NATO. Mixed signals create dangerous levels of uncertainty in international affairs, and nothing is worse for world politics than uncertainty. 

In the Middle East, Aleppo has fallen. That conflict is going to be ongoing for the next decade with an ongoing insurgency and civil war stalemate for the foreseeable future. Turkey is very much in play in the Middle East. As a NATO ally that is increasing its ties with Russia, this warns us that states are re-evaluating how they are balancing and bandwagoning in this era of great power transition.

In East Asia, the atrocious gaffe over Taiwan has understandably aggravated the Chinese. China is the rising economic superpower in the world, and it's frankly pretty annoyed that Donald Trump took a call from the head of Taiwan. In response, China has mobilized in the South China Sea more aggressively while the incoming (U.S.) administration has signaled to allies South Korea and Japan that they might need to build up their nuclear arsenals. When great powers behave erratically, this sparks crises. In international affairs predictability and peace go hand in hand. 

You mentioned the First and Second World Wars. Is the current situation really that bleak?

I'm usually the person who goes up to a panel, and I'm the one who says, “Ok, you need to calm down. Let's put the threat into perspective.” I'm not an alarmist.

I am not proposing we have a hysterical reaction. I am saying that this is the most serious international security situation I have encountered in my lifetime. If we had a Cuban Missile Crisis situation in the coming year, this would be catastrophic. We need steady hands at the helm, and rational leaders that follow predictable courses of action. 

There are many threats on the horizon, but is there hope, too? 

Yes, there's tons of hope. The great hope is that universities like the University of Toronto remain an essential front line in putting out truth. In an ocean of fake news and fake information, we remain a bastion of science-driven, reason-based analysis that is essential to elevating this discussion. The great hope is that we continue to do this and that our students – world-class young scholars – in our classrooms and out there in the world, continue to provide a critical voice of reason to this global conversation. 

These interviews have been edited and condensed for length


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