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The trouble with going back to the future

Canada has just had perhaps its greatest election when it comes to advancing the cause of mutual accommodation. The country faces some very difficult economic challenges, for which it and its new government are not prepared. But even before Canadians cast their ballots this week, the polls showed that roughly 65 per cent of them – Quebeckers included – would vote against policies steeped in divisiveness and exclusion.

Contrast this with political forces at play elsewhere. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump may appear to have little in common, but they are, in fact, on the same wavelength.

Mr. Trump, whose slogan is "make America great again," may employ the key elements of mutual accommodation – negotiation and compromise – in business, but not in politics. When he complains that "we have no victories," he's clearly thinking in terms of winners and losers.

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As for Mr. Putin and his supporters, their strategy is "like some kind of conservative cultural revolution," one of his former advisers (who has since left the country) told The Globe's Mark MacKinnon not long ago.

"They are going back to the past, saying everything modern is bad, and everything old is good."

If, instead, Mr. Putin could move forward along a path of greater mutual accommodation, Russia would gain far more lasting influence and would be, along with Europe and the rest of the world, far better off.

"Men of destiny" such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump live in a world quite different from that of most people – who are trying to get ahead or just keep up.

Jean Piaget, the pioneer Swiss child-development psychologist, saw the path to adulthood as that of a child taking from its environment and accommodating. This worked for static, self-contained societies whose greatest challenge came from nature. Now, we live in a big, ever-faster environment that we have made for ourselves. Taking from and adapting to it is not enough. Only ever-expanding mutual accommodation can work to sustain it and manage the huge transformations now under way everywhere

Strength leads to success

Two powerful sets of ideas concern the individual (separate) in relation to the mutual (connected): The more separate you want to be – as a person, society, group or country – the more connected you need to be. And vice versa.

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Accommodation is most successful and long-lasting when both parties are strong and believe in it. Throughout history such powerful partners have been few and far between – Canada has had more than its share, which is why the federation thrives as well as survives. The lack of good partners makes mutual accommodation more difficult, but not less relevant or important.

It is a big, two-way idea that involves sharing with, and making room for, others. The "mutual" part is as essential as the "accommodation." In fact, force may be required (preferably not) to make it possible.

For example, the force of law is needed to deal with the immediate threat of domestic terrorism. But in the longer term, we need faith that the power of Canada's freedom and inclusiveness will prevail. The right anti-terrorism strategy is to broaden Canada's inclusive order and, at the same time, to contain whatever rejects inclusion.

However, not every mutual accommodation is necessarily a good thing. If its purpose is evil, negative, destabilizing or dysfunctional, the fact that mutual accommodation is the best way forward will not redeem it.

Views from outside Canada

Despite the appeal of President Putin and Mr. Trump, mutual accommodation is gaining the attention of serious people outside Canada, primarily because world events are driving them in this direction.

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Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times of London, has written two well-reasoned essays on the subject. On June 11, 2014, he wrote: "We are doomed to co-operate. Yet we remain tribal. This tension between co-operation and conflict is permanent. In the past century, humanity has experienced extremes of both. The history of the next century will be shaped by how we approach very similar choices."

Then, last Jan. 13, he asked how we can share the world with the "true believers behind global turmoil" – Islamic State and its fellow jihadists, in particular, but what he says also applies to less extreme true believers, such as the "no compromisers" within the U.S. political system.

Mr. Wolf rightly finds a direct relationship between extremism and frustration. Anyone – rich, poor or otherwise – can qualify, and the most deeply frustrated are those who see a threat to the essential meaning of their lives.

He also compares the challenge presented by terrorist-driven true believers with that facing post-1945 Europe – collapsed, morally degraded and even suicidal after four terrible decades of war, depression and political extremism.

The essence of his advice for today is to adopt the same approach that the U.S.-led West took at that time: a long strategic commitment to broadening the global inclusive order, containing what cannot yet be included, and acting collectively. The global moment for mutual accommodation will arrive when the cumulative pain of non-accommodation finally becomes too great.

Recently, two Americans – Paul Volcker, possibly the greatest of central bankers, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security adviser now teaching foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University – also have had encouraging words about mutual accommodation.

In June, the University of Toronto presented Mr. Volcker with an honorary doctorate. In his acceptance speech, he said:

"A good Canadian friend of mine … makes a point of extolling what he sees as the essential point of Canadian history and its governance – he calls it a capacity for 'mutual accommodation' … What has happened here is truly remarkable and has lessons for others," he continued.

"The Canadian nation, built out of different national instincts and cultural traditions, whether indigenous or from abroad, has in the end held together. The narrow bank of population stretched over 3,000 miles of difficult landscape no longer seems so subject to centrifugal force. Today, we need some of the Canadian genius of mutual accommodation, of a shared order."

Mr. Brzezinski, in turn, stated in a recent interview that "the decisive axis of the new order increasingly involves the United States and the People's Republic of China. The Sino-American competition involves two significant realities that distinguish it from the Cold War: Neither party is excessively ideological in its orientation; and both parties recognize that they really need mutual accommodation."

Also, if we are prudent and lucky, he predicts, a more politically assertive liberal middle class will reappear in Russia and "quite naturally wish to live in a society like that of Western Europe. A Russia that gradually begins to gravitate toward the West will also be a Russia that ceases to disrupt the international system."

As well, this month "mutual accommodation" essentially received a Nobel Peace Prize when the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – a coalition of national agencies – was recognized for its efforts in helping Tunisia become the only country to experience the Arab Spring and see its democracy survive.

The way the Quartet fostered a dialogue between Islamist and secular parties to arrest a growing crisis was similar to the way in which francophone Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and anglophone Robert Baldwin worked together to make Canada the sole country to preserve (and without violence) the reforms that swept Europe in 1848.

Events are slowly starting to teach the world two things: One must go forward; and the only safe way – for individuals and for countries – is through mutual accommodation.

The old Canada's return

Canada's role, as the global movement for mutual accommodation starts to arrive, could be central. Its new prime-minister-designate has already announced that the old Canada is back.

The right kind of laws are often key to internal accommodation. As Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada said while delivering this year's Annual Pluralism Lecture at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the law should lean toward tolerance, not restriction. It should stay out of sociocultural differences as much as possible.

Or, as the late Northrop Frye, one of our great visionaries, put it: "The reasonable person proceeds by compromise, half-way measures, illogical agreements, and similar signs of mature human intelligence ... But even a system of law based on precedent has problems with the pressures exerted by the majority on individuals and minorities. In Canada, before the Charter, our own 'inspired' document, we had a series of ad hoc agreements and compromises like the Quebec Act [of 1774], which made some effort, in fact, a rather remarkable one for the 18th century, to keep the civic rights of both English-and French-speaking Canadians in mind.

"But the indigenous peoples, the Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War and other such groups would tell a different story."

United by 'what works'

Over the last three decades, my wife, Molly Anne, and I have put together a collection of 17th-century Kakiemon export porcelain from Japan, as well as the European porcelain influenced by it. We were attracted by three qualities in Kakiemon wares: their asymmetry (unlike Chinese ceramics and most classic styles), imperfection (like Zen) and negative (empty or unfilled) space.

There are similarities between Kakiemon porcelain and Canada. The success of each comes from this special combination; neither is bound by imposed restrictions; instead, both take a practical, "what works" approach. These qualities lead to a different kind of freedom, with less political, social or cultural restriction.

In each case, there is both the outer (physical) space and the inner (imaginative) space to make room for finding what works. In everyday life, this means looking at things practically, not ideologically, and more individually than meeting expectations from others.

Many of the world's mutual-accommodation challenges come from unfinished business – from the past and looking backward, not ahead. In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in his influential The End of History that what America had achieved was the model for all – a way of looking at the world that always brings trouble with it.

Now, more than two decades later, Russia as well as the Islamic State and Iran are mainly about the past, and the huge unfinished business of race in the United States and indigenous people in Canada remains.

The time to start mutual accommodation is before there is a resort to violence. Those who enjoy detective series on television know that many of the plots are about personal unfinished business where the victim and perpetrator did not find mutual accommodation.

Two insights from Molly Anne's years as a family therapist are relevant. People often fail because they are afraid they cannot do something they should do, not because they are stubbornly against it. Consequently, they get stuck, or they feel cornered – as Japan did in 1941 and Russia does today. To move forward, they have to find the inner confidence that they can do it. At times, some form of conflict may be necessary (hopefully not war), because fighting is the most powerful form of communication. But there's always a risk when you fight: You have to know when to stop, and how to negotiate. Most fail both tests.

Mutual accommodation also requires discipline: What do I need, and am I up to it? What do the others need, and are they up to it? Is the particular mutual accommodation what each of us needs, and will it last?

Every country faces domestic mutual-accommodation challenges. The most immediate one is the probable emergence of an existential eurozone crisis that, hopefully, will not lead to one in the European Union itself.

The United States and China each have internal challenges, but the one between them is certainly the most important in the world. Canada has a role to play with each of these great powers. Canadians need to think about that.

Of course, the first order of business is our relationship with our next-door neighbour. The biggest challenge is to balance our strengths – to put Canada's mutual-accommodation skills at work in the world alongside U.S. economic and military strength, and vice versa.

The drive forward

The question the world always faces is whether it will move forward, and doing that in a way that can work for most people requires all four of the better ways of going about things: compassion, freedom, science – and mutual accommodation. It is the angry, the left-out, the unsure, the fearful and the cornered who lean backward and gravitate to simplistic, either/or, win/lose leaders. It is those with reasons to be confident and hopeful who have the forward drive.

Canadians have those reasons; the U.S. needs to regain them. Right now, Donald Trump is responding to those Americans who are focusing on their sense of the loss of what they used to be. Many of them do not see how much stronger the U.S. has become since the post-Lehman Brothers crises and its withdrawal from geopolitical, economic and financial overreach.

They find it hard to understand how much the U.S. has gained relative to others in economic strength and to accept the implications of the current withdrawal (amazingly successful so far) to ground they can hold.

The refugees from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East are the latest source of destabilization in the world. But the single most worrying development today is a buildup of fear and frustration in the United States that could lead to a Trump presidency. He is the opposite of mutual accommodation. He is domestically divisive, and would quickly become globally divisive, unless he were to go through one more transformation. He reflects U.S. thinking that is very different from the thinking that prevailed among Canada voters on Monday.

Canada stands to have a government more inclined to solve its problems through mutual accommodation. But expanding this approach in the United States will be very difficult, no matter who the next president may be.

This divergence may well give Canada a large edge, going forward. In today's world, mutual accommodation alongside strength is what works best and maximizes influence.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., and has an extensive record of public service. To spark discussion of the country's future, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with assistance from Trent University. See more at www.canadiandifference.ca

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