News Roundup – War, Peace, and Oil

In the news this week:


  1. North Korea

The United Nations Security Council has imposed new trade sanctions on North Korea after the rogue nation performed another nuclear weapons test. These types of sanctions are themselves problematic, but there doesn’t seem to be a better option at the moment. Let’s unpack it.

First, the United Nations must respond to North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons. The idea of Kim Jong Un with nuclear capabilities is far scarier than Trump’s braggadocio, and the fragile nuclear balance we live in would change dramatically if North Korea succeeds in developing such weapons of mass destruction.

While the US and Russia have been reducing their nuclear arsenals – after decades of activism urging them to – there are still enough nuclear weapons in the world to render it uninhabitable. The power of nuclear weapons today is not in their use, but in the threat of their use, and that threat only works if people think you might actually use them. That’s why Donald Trump says he “won’t take anything off the table”, hinting that he might be willing to use nuclear weapons; if nobody believes that he might, they lose their power to deter other nations or terrorist groups from violent actions. Other nations that also hold nuclear weapons are not so quick to imply that they might use them, but their very existence gives them the option of a hail-mary, worst-case-scenario action; so should some nation decide to invade, say, the UK, they might find such an action very costly if the UK launched a warhead at their capital. Whether or not anyone believes that any UK prime minister would approve such a horrific action is important, but having the ability to do so provides some deterrent, even while the basic human decency of the UK in general assures us that they’d probably never do such a thing. While Donald Trump seems to lack much of that decency, Kim Jong Un seems unaware of the concept; North Korea continues to function on the basis of elaborate delusions of greatness that leave little room for the reality of their desperate situation.

Which is where sanctions come in. In theory, trade sanctions are considered a strong but non-violent way to influence an enemy or rogue nation. The amount of money the nation stands to lose when UN nations refuse to trade with them, or even block their products from leaving the country, is significant. Stop building nuclear weapons, we say, and we’ll trade with you again. Such an approach assumes a level of logic and decency that ideologies like North Korea’s do not allow. The people there are already very poor, with the government providing each citizen with 573g of rice per day. While the effects of trade sanctions like this would be felt most by businesses in a liberal democracy, a totalitarian government like North Korea’s doesn’t have a private sector to buffer it from the effects, but the people also don’t have a private sector to buffer them from the effects of a broke government. So the trade sanctions hurt the government rather than business, but the people rely on the government for bare necessities. If it could be proven that trade sanctions are leading directly to the civilian population being harmed, they would constitute a war crime: we do not approve of inflicting pain and misery and death on innocent people as leverage against their government. But then again, what else is a nuclear strike? The levels of hypocrisy in what is considered a legal act of war are astounding, but nevertheless trade sanctions are preferable to nuclear war, and any direct incursion into North Korea to stop their bomb building would undoubtedly set off a chain of events involving several nuclear powers (with Russia and China as allies of North Korea). What a tangled mess.

Canada was once a nuclear power. We disarmed, and have since signed on to treaties repudiating them. We need to be more vocal and unequivocal about our rejection of weapons of mass destruction. North Korea wants nuclear weapons because they want the world to respect them – they want the world to see them the same way they see themselves. They see condemnation of their nuclear weapons program by nuclear states as hypocritical – and they’re right. We should use our international influence to condemn nuclear weapons, and create a climate in which possessing nuclear weapons is seen as a negative thing rather than a sign of power or strength. At the same time, we can use trade to offer positive incentives to North Korea rather than always negative ones (i.e., sanctions). Whether or not North Korea would agree to any ethical requirements attached to offers of trade is another matter: we should at least promote the idea, painting a picture of what trade with a non-nuclear North Korea could look like for its people. Scorning and shaming North Korea hasn’t worked, sanctions haven’t worked, and threats of war are hypocritical and far too dangerous.

2. Syria


The tragedy of the Syrian conflict continues to unfold, not just in the sense that the massive loss of life and millions of refugees are terribly sad, but also in a Shakespearean sense.

Turkey and Russia have agreed that a ceasefire is needed to end the war. While the idea that we have to stop shooting each other in order to end a war seems obvious, what isn’t completely obvious is that there’s more than one war being fought in Syria. Most of us are aware that ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria) is in Syria trying to form a caliphate, and most of us are also aware that Syria has been in a state of civil war for several years, with rebel groups trying to unseat dictator Bashar Al Assad. But with other nations taking sides in the civil war, it has also become a proxy war: Turkey supports the anti-Assad forces, while Russia supports Assad. The US and its allies are present to fight ISIS, but also oppose Russia’s support of Assad. The entire conflict started with Syrians rebelling against an oppressive ruler, and those same people continue to bear the brunt of the violence, but with so many other parties involved those people are almost tactically forgotten.

Canada’s role in Syria should be calling for, and helping to support, ceasefires; to deliver aid during ceasefires; and to settle as many refugees as we can. We must continue to draw attention to the plight of the people of Syria, so that they don’t get lost in the mess.


  1. Colombia

Colombia’s congress has ratified a peace deal that will end the fifty-year conflict with the FARC. Doing so was not without controversy: the opposition in the Senate walked out on the vote. While it seems to me that any cost for peace is probably much lower than the cost of continued war, not everyone wants peace. In the 1980’s when a similar peace process was launched, FARC guerrillas who laid down their weapons were murdered by right-wing militias; and just last month the people of Colombia voted in a referendum to reject the peace deal. This new peace deal has plenty of amendments, but there will not be a second referendum, and there is concern that some people will not respect the peace – particularly because it comes at the cost of issuing an amnesty to people implicated in murders and massacres.

This brings up the issue of what justice actually is. There are two very different views of justice, and both come from the Old Testament. In one view, we want “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – retribution in equal measure, or a punishment that “fits the crime.” In context though, such passages are properly understood as a limitation on the mob justice that was common in that era, in which a slight against one person could cause a clan war. The greater picture of justice coming out of the Hebrew Bible is rooted in a reconciled community. The people of Colombia have a choice: between the satisfaction of retribution, or the short-term risk and long-term reward of actual reconciliation. The latter is infinitely harder, but also infinitely better.

Canada has our own issues of reconciliation to address, and properly implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (as our government has promised to do) will provide a global model of the value of reconciliation.

2. Thailand

Thailand has a new king, and that’s good news for stability there. Thai politics are very polarized, and the monarchy tends to be a unifying force; the death of the king last month had some on edge. That said, the monarchy is also in some senses above the law and kept out of the press, so scandals about the crown prince (now king) could limit that unifying effect. Hopefully this new monarch will bring the factions of his nation together.

Oil (and Climate Change)

  1. The United States

President Obama is working to ensure that his environmental legacy lasts beyond the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. That’s good news, considering that Trump has promised to deregulate the oil and gas sector (apparently to create “millions of jobs”). Cheers to Obama for keeping at it.

2. Canada

Meanwhile, the Liberal government has approved the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain and Enbridge Line 3 pipelines. Thankfully Evan Solomon made some sense of it, because it leaves me feeling sick. If Solomon is right and this is the result of political and economic calculations, then I suppose I can understand it – but it’s still incredibly short sighted. Even if allowing this pipeline will save Notley’s environmental agenda in Alberta, and thereby save Trudeau’s environmental plans for all of Canada, it still shoots those plans in the foot. This is the state of politics in Canada: that to achieve our goals we must make achieving those goals much more difficult, if not impossible. Trudeau’s political goals might survive it, but our plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet our international commitments and avoid more than 1.5 degrees of total warming (and thereby saving the lives of millions of people) will likely not.

In both Canada and the US, this week’s news about environmental agendas illustrate the way that politics can distract us from the actual issues at hand. Obama is not only safeguarding his environmental legacy, he’s also putting a hole in Trump’s agenda; Trudeau is not only selling out First Nations and our UN commitments to avoid backlash from Conservatives, he’s trying to do it in such a way as to keep them on board long enough to make a real difference in our emissions (or at least, that’s what we hope, as backwards as it is). Politics often requires such strategies and compromises in order for change to be feasible – because like peace in Colombia, we cannot simply make major changes without the buy-in of the people. Doing so makes the government irrelevant, as people take matters into their own hands (in Colombia in the form of militias to murder former FARC members, in the US to riot under the banner of “not my president”, and in Canada…well, we’ll see over the next few weeks). Trudeau and his team need to figure out how to explain this decision in order to get the support of the people, and so far they’re utterly failing to do so in a way that makes sense.


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