There was little good news in 2018. Here's how that could change (or not) in the year ahead

Given some of the issues that dominated 2018 — U.S.-Russia relations, the North Korean nuclear threat, extreme weather, an increase in hate rhetoric and violence — CBC News asked some prominent Canadian thinkers to share what they believe will happen in 2019.
Powerful storms, like Hurricane Florence in September, were just part of what made the news in 2018 feel relentless and oftentimes dark. Will 2019 be better? (David Goldman/Associated Press)

2018 is behind us. Good riddance. It was a year of relentless news, much of it not good. World leaders hurled insults and threats at each other over social media. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, either by war or extreme weather. People were killed as a result of anger and intolerance. 

Given some of the issues that dominated the year — U.S.-Russia relations, the North Korean nuclear threat, extreme weather, an increase in hate rhetoric and violence — CBC News asked some prominent Canadian thinkers to share what they believe will happen in 2019. We wanted them to look ahead through the lens of their specific area of interest and expertise. 

We also asked what they hope will happen and what issue they think deserves more attention. 

More than one apologized for being so gloomy and pessimistic. 

The world order

Janice Stein, founding director of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, expects 2019 will see a continued deterioration of the existing world order:

Globally, the importance of the "liberal" international order will continue to recede as it becomes obvious to all that the three remaining big powers — China, Russia, and the United States — are led by bullies who believe that they can get what they want by threatening others. Europe and Canada will continue to look on in disbelief.

From left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Thomas Kronsteiner, Thomas Peter, Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

I expect that Brexit will be postponed as time runs out, for all intents and purposes meaning that it will not happen. Nevertheless, Europe will continue to turn inward as it struggles with its internal demons: the strengthening of political extremes and the weakening of the centre. The wave of populism that has swept Europe from Britain to Poland has not yet run its course. Immigrants will continue to bear the brunt of right-wing movements that are still growing in Europe.

Pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit demonstrators shout at each other opposite the Houses of Parliament in London back in December 2018. Britain's troubled attempt to leave the European Union continues. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

In Asia, what China does will matter even more than it has in the past to its neighbours. Embroiled in a nasty and unexpected trade war with the United States, Xi Jinping's leadership will be challenged in unanticipated ways at home and abroad.

The Middle East will see alliances jumbled as it adjusts to the withdrawal of the United States as a major player. Russia, Iran, and Turkey will become even more important as the axes of power shift. Long-standing conflicts will not be easier to resolve, however, and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia will deepen. The Middle East will become less important to global politics than it has been in several decades as new sources of oil and renewable energy come on line.

Margaret MacMillan, emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University and professor of history at the University of Toronto, says there will be continued pressure on "international institutions, the international order and international norms":

Trump is expected to continue diminishing U.S. involvement in international institutions. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The United States under President [Donald] Trump is clearly withdrawing or is interested in withdrawing from a lot of international involvement. It won't be able to withdraw completely but the trend is in that direction.

Other states will push to pursue their own interests. Russia is unpredictable. But what is predictable is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to try to increase Russian influence in the Middle East, around the borders of Russia. The Chinese will continue to flex their power and they're investing a lot in the military. And I think you'll see other leaders, like [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan or the new leader of Brazil also trying to assert the interests of their own countries, and this is not necessarily going to be good for the international order.

Room for hope

Both academics said they have hope — if perhaps only just a wee bit — that increasingly self-centred countries might make a few changes that could also benefit the larger international community.

Stein wrote: I still hope that the United States and China reach an agreement on trade that avoids inflicting unnecessary damage on an already fragile global economy. I hope that liberal democratic governments understand and move to address in a vigorous way the economic and social inequalities that are tearing our societies apart. And I hope, with little reason, that countries move to address the challenge of climate change before it is too late and irreparable damage is upon us.

MacMillan expressed her hopes for 2019 this way: I'm hoping that we will collectively realize that we live on a pretty small globe. That we have issues we have to deal with collectively or we're really all going to be in trouble. Climate change of course is the foremost among them. But international economic issues as well. We're not very well set up at the moment to deal with another major economic crisis as we did in 2008 and that's worrying. I think there are a lot of people worried about the possibility of another crash.

The North Korean threat

Jack Kim, chair of Han Voice, a non-profit human rights organization that helps North Korean refugees, says any discussion of North Korea requires "crystal-balling," as the regime of Kim Jong-un is so unpredictable by nature.

Soldiers march across Kim Il-sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

At some point, the uneasy dialogue that is going on between the nexus of the U.S.-South Korea-North Korea is going to come to a head. [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in is almost pot-committed to rapprochement with the North as his administration's cornerstone policy. His approval ratings go up and down depending on how successful he is with the North, and if he doesn't reveal substantive progress soon his party may soon be in trouble with the South Korean electorate.

Donald Trump's temperament may soon be tested if Kim Jong-un sticks to insisting that "denuclearization" means the denuclearization of all the players on the Korean peninsula — including the United States. If he finds out that he has been "had," what happens next, especially with players such as [former U.S. defence secretary Jim] Mattis now out of the picture?

Kim's hope for 2019 is that the negotiations with North Korea start fresh.

Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their June 2018 summit in Singapore. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

At this point, the hope would be that fundamentally, all parties re-evaluate their assumptions going into negotiations and start with this baseline: the North Koreans would be fools to give up their nuclear weapons. If that's the case, rather than dealing in absolutes, which are much harder to negotiate, we can start with smaller ticket items, and install smaller confidence-building measures in all parties involved. This also requires that the major negotiating points are hammered out before the next summits happen — the North Koreans are starting to believe (and probably with good reason) that U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration can only fundamentally be decided by Donald Trump the individual, rather than through a process with the U.S. government apparatus.

Angry weather and squandered resources

Scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki says the effects of climate change will continue to intensify, but Canada will fail to deal with the threat for another year.

Strong wind gusts caused intense waves that flooded urban areas of Havana in December 2018. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Environmental issues, especially climate, will continue to be perceived as "special interests" (like ballet, opera or rodeo riding) pushed by environmental groups and the Green Party. Politicians like Justin Trudeau understand the reality of climate change's threat. In 2015, he announced that "Canada is back" in Paris, committing to try to keep temperature rising beyond 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. But politics dictates something else, and despite that commitment, Canadians now own interests in a pipeline to deliver Alberta bitumen to ports and a $40-billion liquefied fracked gas plant — commitments that obliterate any ability to meet promises made in Paris.

I believe economics and politics will continue to constrain the discussion, and that before the October federal election, media will continue to cover candidates for office debating whether climate change is real, whether humans are the cause and whether a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is the best mechanism to mitigate it. In other words, faced with an existential crisis comparable to all-out global war, we will continue to focus on short-term human economic, political and social issues without making climate our number one challenge.

Maude Barlow, author, activist and honorary chair of the Council of Canadians, expressed similar doubts about Canada's will to protect the environment.

I am deeply concerned that in 2019 and beyond, between the effects of climate change and many other assaults on our water, we will see increasing water-related problems. All our lakes are warming and all our glaciers are melting. Our groundwater is at serious risk of pollution and overuse and our lakes and rivers are at risk from nutrient overload. We are also contaminating watersheds though extractive industries such as mining and oil extraction. With the drying of lands and forests, we can expect more horrific fires and we will start to understand how our lack of care for our water sources is a serious concern.

Cooksville Creek in Mississauga, Ont., where some of the area's highest chloride levels are recorded. (CBC)

Barlow said her hope for 2019 is that federal and provincial governments will come together to create water protections for the ecosystem and for all Canadians:

We need strong federal leadership, a national water act and a water minister as promised by the Trudeau government several years ago.

The next global economic crisis

When asked what issue isn't getting enough attention as 2019 begins, Stein seemed to echo one of MacMillan's concerns, that the U.S., Canada and Europe have limited resources to respond to the next economic downturn, which could occur at any time.

Experts say the economy will take a turn for the worse at some point. The question is how prepared will countries like Canada and the U.S. be to handle it. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

When the financial crisis hit in 2007-2008, the United States in particular threw everything it had to pour liquidity into banks in Europe and elsewhere around the world. We do not appreciate how important the United States was to rescuing the global financial system and avoiding a depression that could have been worse than what the world experienced in the 1930s. Despite this effort, the financial crisis deepened inequality within societies and sparked the wave of populism that is now washing through liberal democratic societies. When — not if — the next crisis hits, the U.S. will have fewer resources to throw at it at a time when economic and social cleavages will be much deeper than they were in 2008 and publics are much more distrustful of their leaders.

  • Some answers were edited for length. Hyperlinks were added by CBC News.