Simon Palamar: Global politics and security expert at CIGI

| July 2, 2018 | 0 Comments

DIPLOMAT_2018-07-02_0035Simon Palamar joined the Centre for International Governance Innovation in 2012 after completing a PhD from Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He manages CIGI’s Constructive Powers Initiative, which brings together foreign policy planners and academic experts from a dozen countries to discuss sensitive, new and emerging global security issues. His research interests include arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, mediation and negotiation and armed conflict, to name a few. He spoke with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, about those interests as they relate to international affairs. Diplomat magazine: Having noted that armed conflict is one your specialties, what can be done to end the war in Syria? Simon Palamar: The data I’m seeing suggest that it certainly can end and it will end with victory for the government. At this point, the risks to escalation in Syria are more between Iran and Israel than between the government and rebel groups. The trajectory in [the latter] regard has been fairly clear for a couple of years now. Ever since Russian armed forces intervened decisively, the writing’s more or less been on the wall. There simply isn’t a cohesive or large enough opposition group to end the war in [the opposition’s] favour. All the data seem to indicate the government is slowly grinding down opposition forces. And most of the Syrian government’s adversaries — whether the Turkish government or the United States, who quietly supported opposition forces throughout the ordeal — have come to accept in one way shape or form, explicitly or quietly, that there will be a role for Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath party in Syria and that’s just what they have to accept [in order] to find a way to end it.

On Egypt: ‘By some reports, the military government in Egypt is as strong as ever.’’ (Photo: Trevor Hunsberger CIGI Photographer)

On Egypt: ‘By some reports, the military government in Egypt is as strong as ever.’’ (Photo: Trevor Hunsberger CIGI Photographer)

DM: It does seem as though they’ve decided that’s the best path, even though it’s not perfect.

SP: A lot has changed since [the Arab Spring in] 2011, which was an optimistic time. [Many] had high hopes for what was happening in the north of Africa, what was happening in Egypt, but at this point, the change of the policy from the Turks and the Americans and the admission that Assad is part of the settlement process — that really sealed the fate of the Syrian revolution and whatever’s left of it. It’s debatable and it’s a highly polarizing issue to what extent the spirit that was around in 2011 is still there. The big difference was the begrudging acceptance of Assad by the Turks and the Americans.

DM: 2011 was the Arab Spring — it’s hard to believe it was that long ago. And yet, when you think about it, so little has changed.

SP: Yes. The military government in Egypt, by some reports, is as strong as ever or stronger. Libya turned out in an extremely disappointing way for a lot of people. Hindsight is really 20/20 in this case in terms of how excessively optimistic everybody was, given the way politics have evolved in North Africa and the Middle East since then. It’s rather sad. It’s a sobering lesson to not get caught up in the moment and not get too swayed by what’s happening right in front of you.

On Syria: ‘The data seem to indicate the government is grinding down opposition forces.‘ (Photo: Trevor Hunsberger CIGI Photographer)

On Syria: ‘The data seem to indicate the government is grinding down opposition forces.‘ (Photo: Trevor Hunsberger CIGI Photographer)

DM: What is your take on Iran’s place in the world at the moment?

SP: Iran’s place in the world right now is particularly interesting. For a lot of people watching the Middle East, the recent escalation in tensions between Israel and Iran — that tit for tat and Israeli airstrikes hitting Iranian bases in Syria — is very worrying. To determine how Iran is faring in its efforts to secure its neighbourhood, it’s worth looking at the recent past. A couple of years ago, people were wondering what Iran’s endgame was in Syria. Even before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) went into effect in 2015 and sanctions were lifted, the Iranians were sending money, material and people to Syria. It looks as though this was costly. It was clear what Iran’s interest was in Syria: Hezbollah in Lebanon is one of Iran’s most important partners in the region. Hezbollah’s ongoing conflict with Israel provides Tehran with a level of credibility in the Arab World that the Iranian government can’t achieve on its own. Keeping the Syrian land bridge open to Hezbollah was critical, and Iran’s level of commitment was tremendous. Meanwhile, it really did look as though the Syrian-Arab Army was disintegrating. Even if the government was holding its own in the war, it was doing so with pro-government militias that it didn’t directly control. Tehran’s interest was obvious, but how it was going to achieve it wasn’t. Now it seems clearer that the Iranian government knows that, one way or another, Bashar al-Assad will be in a weaker position after all of this. Whether he’s ousted, or if he stays in office and the Syrian government wins, he’ll be such a controversial figure, he’ll be weakened to some extent. Iran needs to maintain its influence in Syria and it looks as though Iran expects a Lebanonization of Syria [meaning] further fracturing of Syrian politics along ethnic and religious lines. Iran’s dedication to the regime, and past support for various pre-government militias, may now mean that whatever happens, they’ll have clients in Syria. It now looks as though that strategy worked to some extent and this has surprised and concerned the Israeli government. Instead of a decline in Iranian influence in Syria, you have the opposite, so now we see these military clashes between the Israelis and the Iranians in Syria. That’s very worrying, but this is all against the larger backdrop of the [JCPA]. The U.S. never really settled on its strategy for dealing with Iran in the long run. Barack Obama did a good job of selling the [JCPA] and as an arms-control agreement, it’s a pretty good one. It really does allow an almost unprecedented level of monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities. So, the [JCPA] temporarily froze Iran’s nuclear activities and bought the U.S. time to figure out how to address Iran, but it didn’t settle the fact that the American diplomatic and security communities remain divided about the challenge that Iran poses and what to do about it. Now that Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the JCPA, Iran’s position in the Middle East has certainly weakened, at least in the short run. It tells Iran’s adversaries that the U.S. will tolerate more assertive action against Tehran. In the longer run though, the Iranian government, if clever, could exploit the gap between the U.S. and the parties — the EU, France, Germany, U.K. — who have remained in the JCPA.

On the Iran nuclear deal: ‘As an arms-control agreement, it's a pretty good one.’ (Photo: Trevor Hunsberger CIGI Photographer)

On the Iran nuclear deal: ‘As an arms-control agreement, it’s a pretty good one.’ (Photo: Trevor Hunsberger CIGI Photographer)

DM: I have three countries to ask you about — Russia, China and North Korea. What are your biggest concerns about those nations separately and as a bloc?

SP: With Russia right now, it’s hard to isolate a single concern, so I’ll give you a two-part answer. One is that if Russia remains isolated from Western Europe, if the Russian economy doesn’t recover like it needs to, [President Vladimir] Putin will find it increasingly beneficial and easier to double down on the sort of rhetoric that he’s been using of late. You might recall that just before the last election in Russia, Putin gave a state of the union address. Rather than talk about improving the economy and Russia’s efforts to constructively deal with Western sanctions and oil prices, he showcased a whole range of new weapon systems, some of which may have been complete theatre. His message was, ‘the West cannot ignore us. We may not be the superpower we used to be, but we still have a veto in international politics. We can still be a spoiler and we can cause problems.’ And there’s no evidence of that message hurting at all. Of course, there are huge questions about the openness and fairness of the election in Russia, but there was no real opposition. The most compelling opposition thinker, Alexei Navalny, was prohibited from running. As socio-economic conditions stagnate in Russia, [Putin’s United] Russia Party seems to find it easier to double down on the ballistic language. After a while, it becomes a huge risk that people start believing it — that it’s not just political theatre. If elites start to take it more seriously, that’s bad. That’s very bad. Regarding China, there was the debate in Canada about the construction firm Aecon being purchased by a state-owned Chinese construction company. The debate was about whether this was good for Canada. There were legitimate concerns, but were there national security implications here? I’m not sure there were, but nevertheless, a national security review went ahead [and Canada ultimately said no.] In Europe, we’re seeing a similar pattern [in which] European governments are taking a closer look at takeovers by Chinese state-sponsored firms. The response from the Chinese government can be a little bit over-the-top. There have been accusations that Canada, for looking at this national security issue, is immoral, or that the Canadian government is driving a wedge between China and Canada. The rhetoric is overblown, but where we have a risk with China is in an effort to keep the relationship going as smoothly as possible, [so] we downplay any potential risk. I don’t really think the Chinese have any intention to harm. The fact is that a Chinese state-owned company will ultimately serve its political masters and China’s national strategic interests come first. If that means they’re purchasing companies to bring technology to China, or if it means they’re doing it for anything other than a profit motive, it may not always be in the Canadian interest. But I think for right now, there’s a desire to have a good relationship with China and there’s a real benefit there. On the other hand, there are politicians, civil servants, business people in Canada who are worried about China and we risk getting into a very binary debate about whether China is an existential threat or whether it’s a completely benign and perfect friend. The fact is that it’s somewhere in between, but going one way or another, we risk getting the relationship completely wrong. We need to have an even-handed view. Looking at Chinese state-owned companies taking over Canadian assets, we should be careful about it, take our time. We have to be careful that we don’t mischaracterize the benefits or the challenges. On North Korea, my biggest concern is that its diplomatic efforts might end up being phenomenally successful with South Korea and China and that they fall flat with the U.S. or vice-versa. That poses a number of challenges. South Korea is still obviously reliant on the U.S. to provide a lot of its national security needs, and the alliance gives the U.S. a long-term reason to keep itself in Northeast Asia and another way to influence Chinese foreign policy. They’re really tied at the hip in Asia. With the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit, there were always 1,000 reasons it could go sideways or capsize. Earlier this year, the big risk to worry about was Seoul finding itself inadvertently out ahead of the U.S., eager to engage North Korea while the U.S. remained cool to the idea. The worst case here would have been a major breach in the South Korean-U.S. strategy towards the North, which Pyongyang, or others, think they can then exploit to their own ends. I think [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in is a remarkably capable diplomat. He’s been very good at pacing himself, talking with his allies and making sure they make their promises in public so it’s easier to be held to account, but there’s a risk that the North Koreans can convince the Chinese they’re getting impatient, and that small political differences between Seoul and Washington are ready to be exploited. The Singapore surprise was that the risk of South Korean and U.S. policy diverging did increase, but because of Trump’s eagerness to embrace the North. Trump’s surprise announcement that the U.S. would be suspending joint field exercises with South Korea seemed to take Moon aback, as it did senior legislators and officials in Washington. It remains to be seen if Kim will exploit this to his own ends. If we look at those three countries as a bloc, we have authoritarian leadership in all three and all three countries tend to play up a chauvinistic brand of politics. My concern is that pluralistic democratic societies end up acquiescing to authoritarian demands about the way international politics ought to be conducted. [It might be that democrats begin to accept] Russia’s implicit argument that some countries in Eastern Europe, for example, shouldn’t have the right to set their own foreign policy. Or with China, in the South China Sea, that some countries’ legal rights aren’t the same as China’s, that China is a cut above in the hierarchy of the world. My concern is more with liberal democratic societies that acquiesce to this behaviour and therefore embolden them when we should be continuing to hold them to treaties and agreements they agreed to follow in the past.

Chrystia Freeland's foreign ministers’ meeting on the stability of the Korean Peninsula in January was an example of the Trudeau government practising good foreign policy, Simon Palamar says. (Photo: Kim Stallknecht)

Chrystia Freeland’s foreign ministers’ meeting on the stability of the Korean Peninsula in January was an example of the Trudeau government practising good foreign policy, Simon Palamar says. (Photo: Kim Stallknecht)

DM: In your co-authored paper on constrainment with Russia, you advocate defending against Russian threats, penalizing Russian violations of global norms, waging a battle against Russian propaganda, supporting the aspirations of the Russian people and maintaining democratic unity. Has any of this been achieved, in your opinion?

SP: I think it’s happened to varying degrees. On unity, the rallying around the U.K. government after what looks like the attempted murder of [former Russian spy] Sergei Skripal was important. There’s a big principle that you shouldn’t be having your government agents potentially executing nerve gas attacks in other countries. On pushing back against the Russian narrative that they’ve been aggrieved by Western Europe — I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that. I think sometimes efforts to push back risk falling into almost creating caricatures of Russia and the U.S.S.R. of the past, or of Putin as an omnipotent political mastermind genius. I don’t think we’ve done a tremendously good job there. For the most part, the sanctions regime against Russia has held together and that’s good. There are some challenges. Germany, for example, has signed on to go ahead with a pipeline from Russia to Germany to carry Russian natural gas to bypass a lot of Eastern Europe. So, there are some challenges there, but I think it’s time to have some serious thinking about the long-term goals with Russia. I don’t know that Vladimir Putin will acquiesce on matters such as Crimea or Ukraine’s right to make its own foreign policy decisions. So what are the realistic long-term goals [with sanctions?] Is it to just prevent Russia from doing additional damage to Eastern Europe and make things no worse? Or is there some way to substantially improve relations between Western Europe and Russia in the next 10 years? I don’t know what the answer is, but I think we’re at the point now where Western resolve has been demonstrated. If these sanctions can remain in place, it’s time to think of creative ways to engage Russia in some way. And if that engagement doesn’t look like it’s working, [we] can stop. I think it’s been not a bad year all together. The coalition against Russia has held together, they’ve demonstrated unity at times. It could have been much worse.

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have had good success in getting North Korea to the table. (Photo: Republic of Korea)

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have had good success in getting North Korea to the table. (Photo: Republic of Korea)

DM: On arms control, what are your suggestions for stopping North Korea?

SP: On North Korea, there are all sorts of reasons to be pessimistic and people have been [quick] to point out that the summit between Kim and Trump took a backwards route to come to fruition, since you don’t typically have the leadership meet first and then work out the details. Ultimately, if you were looking for a detailed path forward, the Singapore summit was a disappointment. Worse yet, Trump arguably accepted North Korea’s preferred formulation of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” rather than unilateral, complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, it did not go as badly as it could have, and it did not go so wrong that we are in a worse position than we were in a year ago. The task now for the U.S. and its allies is to pick up where they were before the summit. Keep the sanctions coalition together. Make sure Chinese patience with sanctions is not wearing too thin — Beijing’s co-operation being pivotal for sanctions enforcement. If the North Koreans seem willing to continue dialogue, then entertain the idea, ideally in a multilateral setting, where Pyongyang will have less wiggle room. Is it possible that the North Koreans won’t bargain in good faith? Absolutely. It’s probably more likely than not. [But] I’m not one of those people who sees war as a realistic outcome regardless of what happens, so the downsides really are limited. They have to be managed and you have to watch out for them, but the fact is that it looks very much like North Koreans have accomplished their mission to have functioning nuclear weapons. The horse has left the barn, so to speak. So Singapore was certainly not a breakthrough, but whatever’s going on between North Korea and the Americans, you may as well try it for what it’s worth, keeping in mind that there is a broad coalition out there for the Americans to fall back on if or when talks fail.

DM: What are your top three worries in the world?

SP: I don’t really worry that much, but I guess one would be what happens in the next recession in North America or, God forbid, another global recession. Since the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, North America has been in a fairly steady economic expansion. Nevertheless, our politics have become quite polarized, first in the U.S. and recently in Mexico with this current election cycle. We’ve seen polarization in Europe and Russia, arguably, has it, too. So if we see this polarization during relatively good times, what happens when the next recession comes? Another major worry I have would be what happens in Latin America. I’m thinking of the triangle of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. It’s been easy for Canadians and Americans to ignore them for a long time. You have borderline failed states in all three countries. You have tremendous crime, corruption, violence. Occasionally, it spills over in the form of refugees travelling through Mexico and going to the United States and this creates huge bilateral problems. [In Canada,] we generally just put our heads in the sand. We say it’s not our problem, but that derails trilateral relations. Trilateral relations never really work between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Ultimately, anytime you see momentum on the three countries working together — whether it’s competitiveness, or the narcotics trade and its effect on Mexican society — those efforts always get derailed by Canada and Mexico prioritizing relations with the United States. So as things go very poorly in Central America or in Venezuela, there’s a chance Mexico bears the brunt of refugee claims there. It’s another way to undermine North American relations. If [Andrés Manuel López] Obrador [is to be] elected in Mexico this July, that really makes that an incredibly difficult proposition that will poison relations. Not that they’re not already poisonous, but it’s another poke in the eye. I guess a third one would be that Iran does get a nuclear weapon. That would be horrifying, not because they would use it, but because of the Saudi reaction, for example. Or if Turkey becomes a single-party state — that would be another big worry because that would have ramifications across Europe as well. DM: What solutions can you offer to your three worries? SP: The second one is easier than the first. Not that we can fix what’s gone wrong in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Those problems are generational, but we can [make changes], for example, to Canadian refugee policy. There’s an argument to be made that Canada should prioritize Western hemisphere refugees to ultimately assist its own part of the world. Also, taking a very hard look at what’s going on in this hemisphere would be wise. On Venezuela, we’ve seen the Lima Group [a multilateral body that seeks a peaceful end to the crisis in Venezuela] and Canada could take a good role there. It’s a trackable problem, not fixable, but trackable. On how we deal with polarized politics? That’s above my pay grade. I hope someone smarter, or with more resources, weighs in on that one. With Iran getting a nuclear weapon, it’s the authoritarianism. Around the world, you see authoritarian governments that are doing relatively well. It’s where they say, ‘You give up your fundamental rights to freedom of speech and political expression and we’ll provide security.’ It’s the social compact. You’ve got elected governments in parts of Europe that are stripping away the powers of the judiciary. You get that democracy is an inevitable federal outcome for most societies, but freedom isn’t, necessarily. Anything that I think feeds into that authoritarianism — the Iranian government getting nuclear weapons that would probably prompt the Saudi royal family to fire one of their own, or Turkey going to one-party rule — creates reason to worry. DM: If we turn our attention to trade, what are your thoughts on Trump’s escalating trade war with China? SP: I think overall the approach that the administration has taken is probably not going to work and some of the things they targeted are not worth targeting. Steel, for example, or manufactured goods — there are big technological trends that are pushing manufacturing in certain countries. Those are fairly obvious and have little to do with trade policy. It has more to do with technology and automation. At the same time, China seems to be aggressive when it comes to acquiring patents for technology. Their rules for direct investment in China are still fairly strict and there have been well documented concerns about Chinese corporate espionage. So the idea that the Chinese government has an aggressive policy when it comes to acquiring technology through unfair means – there’s some credence there. There are lots of governments that share that concern with the Americans. But the big issue here is that [the U.S. didn’t engage like-minded] countries like Germany to go to China with the same demands. I think there are some real issues that they’re on the right track on, but the way they’re going about it — bilaterally and bragging about a trade war — suggests that it’s not a serious effort.

DM: With respect to your Canadian foreign policy specialization, what do you think Canada should be doing now in terms of pro-active foreign policy?

SP: Rather than blue sky, I’ll give a couple of examples of things they’re doing [well.] Chrystia Freeland’s decision to convene the [foreign ministers’ meeting on security and stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver in January] with [then-U.S. secretary of state] Rex Tillerson was the right move. A lot of people called it a return to the days of Canada as a bridge-builder. I don’t know if that’s true or if it was ever that true, but it was good because the Americans felt the need for a little coalition-making so [that] everyone agrees on how to proceed. I think the meeting was very much the right move. Seeing the foreign minister talk about the Rohingyas was also good. It’s not clear Canada alone has the ability to persuade anyone to get involved, but putting it on the G7 and the foreign ministers’ meeting is the kind of thing to be doing. Will it solve everything? No, but if you can make inroads with the Americans, Germans and Europeans and then turn to the Japanese to tell their allies in Myanmar that something needs to be done here, that’s better than simply expressing disgust at the situation. I also like Canada’s involvement in the Lima Group to manage the situation in Venezuela. These are hard issues and there’s no big win on any of these, but Canada’s little moves are good. I think taking a principled stance on relations with Russia, standing by our European allies, has made our position clear there. I think being consistent, looking for little ways Canada can nudge our partners in a certain way, that’s all very good.

DM: What is your take on North American relations at the moment?

SP: I think the real thing to talk about there is NAFTA and I’ll admit I was mystified by the media cycle on the NAFTA negotiations. After every round, someone tosses a couple of hints to a reporter, and then we talk about how things are getting worse. Ultimately what’s getting leaked is what people want to get leaked. We’re oscillating through talks of breakthroughs and collapses. Right now, no one wants to be going through this. But so far, it does seem as though most issues are moving forward (albeit slowly). As we get closer to [the U.S. mid-terms], things do seem to be falling in line, with some caveats. The outburst from Trump, [and his advisers Peter] Navarro, and [Larry] Kudlow after the G7 was ugly, but when you combine the over-the-top language with the ever-shifting American rationale for steel and aluminum tariffs — first it was a national security matter, next it was to convince Canada to revisit supply management in the dairy industry — the overall impression is that it was directed at a domestic (American) audience, to reassure protectionist voters that their agenda is still intact. American insistence on a five-year sunset clause is troubling (since they must know this is basically undoable) and the steel and aluminum tariffs don’t improve matters, but it’s not clear that they fundamentally change the parameters of the NAFTA negotiations. All this being said, I’ve seen little to no evidence that Congress will be interested in relinquishing its control over foreign affairs and international commerce, including its constitutional powers and its ability to grant trade promotion authority. There’s been a lot of talk about Trump being unpredictable, and how he follows his gut, but there’s a whole process [for the U.S. to pull out of NAFTA] and I’ve seen little to no evidence that that would happen. You wouldn’t have a Congress that would acquiesce to that. I remain fairly optimistic about NAFTA. That doesn’t mean the Trump Administration, in a fit of frustration, [won’t] actually send the withdrawal letter to its counterparts, but that also doesn’t mean it’s actually withdrawing from NAFTA. There’s an entire process. The short answer is that this feels like a lot of theatre. The more rational predictions about how this might fall out seem to be coming true so far. I think Trump may come out with a slightly different agreement than he entered into negotiations with and that may be enough. He can hold it up and say ‘Look, I got some changes.’ Whether it’s slight modifications of automobile content or a slight change to the trilateral dispute-settlement process, that can end up looking like a win for him. I think we’ll probably come out of this more or less intact.

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