2013 hot-button issues: Ongoing international strife could wash up on Canada’s shores

Smoking chimneys and cooling tower of a coal-burning power plant are seen on a hazy day in Wuhan, China.

Facing serious world economic problems as the year begins, Canadians can take comfort in a recent Angus Reid opinion survey conducted in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. It found that three in five Canadians rate the current economic conditions in our country as “very good” or “good,” compared to only 23 per cent of respondents in the U.S. and 11 per cent in Britain. Unemployment among household members, however, remains many Canadians’ weightiest concern. Our related problems include record household debt, continuing weak demand for exports from the U.S., and an uncertain housing market.

Most European countries expect little or no economic growth this year. Whether the Canada-European Union free trade negotiations, now in their third round, can produce an agreement that benefits economies on both sides of the Atlantic remains to be demonstrated to Canadians.

In America, Congress has approved a compromise, which should ultimately avoid more than $600-billion (U.S.) in tax increases and spending reductions during the year. The “grand bargain,” placing the American government on a road to a balanced budget, is not yet achieved, but tax credits for low income families and college students and extended unemployment benefits will now continue.

To shrink public and private debt levels virtually everywhere, including Canada, requires strengthened international institutions. The World Trade Organization, UN, EU, IMF., G-20 and other bodies are too often ineffective in tackling serious problems preventatively. Most need to become more results-oriented, especially in promoting global economic recovery.

[ David Jones: U.S. economy, Mideast peace are most critical problems in 2013 ]

Obtaining shared responsibility for major world problems by all national governments is no doubt the major precondition of better international governance.

New challenges include environmental, social and cyber-security issues.

On the environmental front, scientists name nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that should not be crossed because they are essential for human life. They say we have already crossed three of them, including climate change, nitrogen loadings, and the rate of biodiversity loss. Severe income inequality is strongly correlated with destructive social trends in a range of spheres; greater equality relates to better social indicators and more harmonious and successful nations.

A security guard stands in front of the headquarters building of China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) in B …Cyber governance today mirrors the early years of the nuclear era before arms control policies introduced rules and limits. Some forms of cyber regulation, moreover, could be worse than none. The main policy need is to maintain a free flow of information while concurrently limiting various forms of "cyber-aggression" without giving national governments license to curb the flow of information for political purposes.

For many Canadians, there are international issues of particular priority. Latin America and the Caribbean have long been places of winter visits, trade and family origin. More engagement with the region in 2013 by Ottawa should be strongly favoured.

From China comes one of our largest cultural communities, but almost three in four Canadians think its state-owned enterprises should, following the Nexen-CNOOC experience, be barred from buying control of more of our resource companies. It is also important to Canadians and many others that the Beijing government assume the role of a responsible stakeholder in the UN Security Council and elsewhere in international governance.

The Chinese cell-phone maker Foxconn last fall experienced an employee riot. Management says it has now reduced the average hours worked by employees, but most still appear to work far more than the legal nine hours per week of overtime. Foxconn remains opaque about factory conditions, refusing to divulge reports that might help raise labour standards. For Canada, the U.S. and other countries, corporate social responsibility probably now means repatriating a good number of manufacturing jobs and redirecting some Asian trade to nations in the region with the rule of law, human dignity and democracy.

The billion residents of the African continent are in the midst of a natural resource boom, which could benefit from Canadian mining skills and related education programs. Many Africans are saying “never again” to the violence, plunder and corruption that so often accompanied booms in the past. The U.S. Congress in 2010 required American-listed companies to report payments made in winning contracts; the European Parliament is expected to pass similar legislation soon. Canada, home to the most important financial markets for resource-extraction companies, must step up and do the same early in 2013.

In the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad in Syria clearly must go with an estimated 59,000 citizens now dead. In Iraq, as the commentator Robert Fisk notes, “Its own civil war will go on grinding up the bones of civil society while we largely ignore its agony." Fisk adds more encouragingly about Saudi Arabia, “Arabia, where the first Arab awakening began? Where, indeed, the first Arab revolution – the advent of Islam – burst forth upon the world. There are those who say that the Gulf kingdoms will remain secure for years to come. Don’t count on it. Watch Saudi Arabia."

In short, Canadians will certainly be affected by how the above and other international issues play out during 2013, but can be reasonably confident that we will come through them comparatively well. We must, however, play a more useful role internationally.

(Photos courtesy Reuters)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.