Ten years ago this weekend, my colleague and friend Michelle Lang was killed in a homemade landmine strike on a Canadian light armoured vehicle that had just started a patrol a few kilometres south of Kandahar City.
Lang was a keen student of the world, but there have been many changes in the global order since she passed away. My guess is that she would likely be stunned to know what is now what.
Notwithstanding the Afghan war, after a long period of relative calm between 1990 and 2010, the world has not kept still. Many malevolent influences have been tearing at the global fabric — the twin evils of populism and nationalism, big power brinkmanship, irredentism, territorial grabs on land and at sea and how best to tackle climate change without destroying the existing financial systems.
Aside from a sudden paranoia over the environment, most Canadians have been unaware or at least unconcerned by the disorder and chaos overseas. Part of this derives from Canada’s irritating smugness about how much it thinks the world loves it without having actually ventured forth very much into the international quagmire.
Another factor has been its media’s obsessive fascination with Donald Trump’s unusual presidency. This has left little space for Canadians to consider the daunting number of international crises and looming crises and what Ottawa, in its modest way, might try to do about any of them.
Three leaders have dramatically changed the calculations being made in nearly 200 foreign capitals, especially during the past year.
The first move was by Vladimir Putin. It began with Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, swiftly followed by the civil war that its military intelligence service and secret police stirred up out of almost nothing in Ukraine’s Donbass.
The effect of Putin’s tightening lasso around Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been profound. He destroyed a post-Second World War consensus that no country would annex the territory of another.
The bloody drama engineered by Putin in Ukraine, where about 13,000 soldiers and civilians have died, was followed a year later by a major air and minor ground war that saved Syria’s murderous strongman, Bashar al-Assad, turned mercurial Turkey from a foe into a sometime ally and led to the Russian occupation this fall of bases and territory in Syria that had, until recently, been controlled by U.S. forces.
While doing this, Putin began to practice hybrid warfare. This combines traditional military strategies and tactics with relentless disinformation campaigns. To further confuse and undermine western confidence, there has been persistent probing of western governments, their voting systems, their militaries, their industries and social media networks.
The second development, more ominous than the first, has been the rise of China as an economic superpower, backed by an increasingly confident, assertive foreign policy. Some of this was anticipated, but it is taking place much sooner than everyone in the West had expected.
It was not known even five or seven years ago how vast and effective China’s industrial espionage efforts were — nor how this fit with Chairman Xi Jinping’s global strategy to steal, buy, bully and influence as much of the world as possible as quickly as possible.
A key part of Beijing’s multifaceted strategy was a shocking claim to about 90 per cent of the world’s busiest waterway, the South China Sea. The claim dovetailed with an unprecedented island-building scheme that only began six years ago and a spending spree on warships and coast guard cutters never seen before outside of wartime. The nearest neighbours have already been intimidated, and the U.S. navy is at risk of being pushed well back in the Pacific Ocean.
As China’s navy does laps around the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, it has launched icebreakers that have been sent to the Arctic and Antarctica. At the same time, Xi has dispatched thousands of Chinese bankers and businessmen and tens of thousands of Chinese labourers across Asia, Africa, southern Europe and Latin America.
Once there, they have set to building sometimes practical and sometimes absurd infrastructure projects. Often abetted by corrupt political leaders, China has allowed small, impoverished nations access to mountains of loans that they cannot possibly pay back.
Though Canada has done almost nothing about it except fret, Russia has built up its military forces and icebreaker fleet, and China openly talks about what it believes will be its fair share of the Arctic Ocean’s resources.
Putin and Xi have gotten away with such audacities because the third global player, the United States, has scored a staggering number of “own goals.” Barack Obama and his successor, Trump, have either not been much interested in the world, concluded the U.S. can no longer afford to defend large swathes of its informal empire or do not understand the strategic implications for the U.S. and its friends of not resisting Beijing and Moscow’s outlandish behaviour.
Washington allowed Russia to rip Ukraine apart. China was left alone to dredge up seven man-made military bases in the South China Sea that a U.S. admiral likened to “a great wall of sand” and begin work on a string of naval bases and airfields from Cambodia to the Middle East and, now, the South Atlantic.
Yet another ominous international development has been a slew of big, sometimes violent revolts that have sprung up over the past couple of years without leaving any dots to easily connect. With the exception of Hong Kong, Canadians have heard little about any of the angry demonstrations shaking Lebanon, Venezuela, Brazil, Sudan, Iraq, and many other countries.
To this toxic stew add an influx of immigrants to Europe from Africa and the Middle East triggered by wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This has, in turn, stoked populist movements from Scandinavia to Poland to Italy. Meanwhile, notorious terrorist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State are still pursuing the dream of an Islamic caliphate, and the European Union faces economic upheaval because of the uncertainties that Brexit has already caused in the United Kingdom, even before Boris Johnson’s government officially pulls the plug next year.
Different opinions about Brexit have fed political polarization in Britain. For many different reasons, this is also true across the continent, in Trump’s deeply divided America and even in sleepy Canada, where the usual courtesies of political discussion have largely been forgotten by the right and the left.
Pessimism and cynicism have become today’s currency. The only common theme appears to be that folks in many distant places are angry with their rulers and on edge about today, let alone tomorrow.
China is hardly supreme but often behaves as if it already is. Russia is a whiny, volatile troublemaker with nukes. The U.S. has lost the mojo that once made it a self-described “shining city on the hill.”
The challenge for Canada and the rest of the planet in the new decade that begins on Tuesday night at midnight is to confront or at least figure out how to ride out the grim whirlwinds that Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have created.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.