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In a darkening world, it’s time Canada moved beyond fear

Stephen J. Toope is the Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. This article is adapted from a speech given on Parliament Hill in Ottawa sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

We have entered a new age of anxiety, one marked by rampant distrust in institutions, experts and business-as-usual politics. In that sense, and I hope that sense only, our time echoes the 1930s, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. During that era, political theorist Carl Schmitt – whose arguments were gladly adopted by the Nazis – suggested that the politician who has the ability to overthrow the rule of law, purportedly in the name of the public good, is the force to be reckoned with.

We see claimants to that power all over the world today: Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Beata Szydlo in Poland, and, of course, Vladimir Putin in Russia. Not to speak of the political forces in bastions of democracy, such as France and the United States, who claim that their country's national politics has produced only decay and failure.

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How should our country position itself in this anxious age? The world has changed fundamentally since Canada's internationalist heyday under Lester B. Pearson. Much of it is a mess: the Middle East, obviously, but also Europe, as it struggles with mass migration and right-wing extremism. Britain is self-absorbed as it endeavours to disengage from the European Union. Russia's economy is failing, but its president projects an unsettling external influence. China's government suppresses dissent more forcefully than we have seen since the Tiananmen Square debacle, but has also positioned itself as a global leader, with massive investments throughout the developing world.

Carl Bildt: Restoring faith in globalization

Meanwhile, globalization has prompted economic changes that eliminate or downgrade the jobs of many workers. Open trade plays a role in these job losses; call centres in India and auto factories in Mexico exist. But every shred of evidence suggests that the real economic dislocation in Western countries is caused by technological change that isn't going away, no matter what Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen may promise.

Globalization is not new. It has been part of economic cycles since at least Medieval times, when a body of non-national commercial law used by merchants was built up across Europe to facilitate trade. This period ended with the religious wars of the 17th century. The long era of brutal colonization in the 19th century marked another wave of globalization, a period disrupted by the conflagration of the First World War. Then came the rapid spread of industry across much of the Northern Hemisphere, unsettled by the Great Depression. In our own day, the silicon-chip revolution prompted further globalization, interrupted by the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

We should not be surprised that our era feels anxious.

For more than 70 years, Canada and the rest of the world counted on the United States to lead in building a world to follow the one built by the great imperialist powers of the 19th century. Collectively, we constructed global financial and political institutions, promoted democracy, and struggled to further human rights. All these developments shaped an ever-larger global economy. For all its policy missteps and political and military abuses, the U.S. was, for the most part, a net provider of stability and prosperity.

Not any longer. Internal political dysfunction and an incoherent White House mean that the United States simply cannot be counted on to lead the world.

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But the Trump presidency is a symptom, not a cause. The world order is shifting. America will not be "great again," because its relative position in both "hard" economic and military power and "soft" social and cultural power has decayed. Although China is returning to its historic role as a centre of power and influence, it will not again be the Middle Kingdom (to borrow a term the Chinese have long used to describe themselves). Nor is there the prospect of what might be called a G2: The U.S. and China together cannot shape the global order, in part because they are rivals, not allies. What's more, no balance of power can be achieved by these two states alone, because they simply do not dominate enough. And the old so-called great powers, such as France and Britain, are deeply weakened. Their position alongside the U.S., China and Russia in what might be thought of as the G5 – a.k.a. the United Nations Security Council – is merely an historic anomaly.

Our world is now a constellation of the differentially powerful, none of whom can create a stable order. We need to co-ordinate the wills of so many players that a grand bargain is not possible. Achieving anything of significance through international co-operation will be deeply frustrating for the next couple of generations. The world will feel less like a United Nations than like the loosest of confederations with radically diverse objectives.

This prognosis is not entirely negative, for the political world I describe will reflect a more authentic humanity, more expressive of genuine diversity. That world may therefore be less colonial than at any period in modern history.

However, the new structure of international relations suggests that it is not the time for grand institution-building or the creation of broad new "rules of the game." Instead, Canada and its various partners will have to assess what important institutions are under threat, how we might work together to bolster them, and then divide up the work. Germany might focus on co-ordinating support for the World Trade Organization in a time of increasing protectionist sentiment. The Nordic countries might take the lead to improve postconflict response mechanisms within the UN system, despite American threats to pull financial support from the world body.

The next half-century will be harder for Canada, internationally, than were the previous 150 years. No more hiding behind a colonial or quasi-colonial power. Canada will have to keep strongly focused on the United States, of course, no matter how ill-judged its electoral choices – it is still our most important friend, ally and partner. But there will be no cause to defer on such matters as trade, the environment or even global security. We will also have to strengthen our relationships with an economically powerful but politically oppositional China, an unapologetically authoritarian Russia that might challenge our borders in the Arctic and a weakened but still relevant Europe.

But even that will not be enough.

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Disagreements today over interests and values are economically, regionally, ideologically, religiously and culturally motivated. In response to a crisis or to advance a cause, Canada must work with a more diverse set of countries. We must co-ordinate with many other middle powers – countries with regional and issue-specific influence every bit as significant as ours. These countries include Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland – to name a few. Canada must nurture another set of relationships as well. On important issues today, from financial regulation to energy security to health, many of the most influential players are not governments; they are civil-society organizations, corporations and philanthropic foundations.

These observations raise a crucial question: Where should Canada spend its various forms of capital – monetary, human and political? What areas of focus might have lasting value? I want to suggest three.

Although the potential for "hot" conflict is heightened these days, with tensions rising on the Korean peninsula, in the South China Sea, in Ukraine and in the Baltic republics, the most prevalent international-security threats are likely to be from increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks targeting military, financial and energy infrastructure, breaching walls of privacy and stealing intellectual property.

The investment of political capital – with the aim of building a broadly supported framework of cybersecurity law – is needed to promote international peace and security. These rules would have to be targeted both at hostile state-security forces and at non-state actors, including nefarious private security firms and terrorist organizations. In this sense, cyberwarfare today is a lot like wars in 15th-century Italy. They were characterized by continual low-level attacks, often by mercenaries acting on behalf of states, producing constant, sustainable (but hugely expensive) damage.

Canada would not have to start from scratch, but could lend its weight to efforts such as the "London Process" – the Global Conference on Cyberspace – that have been promoted by NGOs and academics. We have experience in fostering just such a process, when Canada successfully bolstered the anti-landmines movement of the early 1990s.

Canada has earned a strong international reputation for managing the integration of immigrants and refugees with relative success. But the real crisis on this front is not in North America – or even Europe. It is in poor countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where millions of people – 86 per cent of the world's refugees, according to UN estimates – are housed, more or less indefinitely, in camps and slums. Jordan, Turkey and Kenya are prime examples. Canada is well positioned to champion the continuing work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the global South. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, in her recent speech to Parliament, urged our government to focus on refugee education, with special attention to girls. She is absolutely right that failing to do so is not only ethically disturbing but politically foolish. A generation of angry kids growing up with no hope for the future is a disaster in the making.

A third potential area for Canadian leadership is less obvious, but equally important. The rise of nationalism and populism has been abetted by a widespread sentiment that the globalization of business has produced deep unfairness. News that massive global corporations use sophisticated dodges to evade taxes (producing windfalls for shareholders and executives) while working stiffs dutifully pay their 35 to 45 per cent in income tax, cause justified anger. Canada has a credible banking system and a reputation for financial probity. Our government could take a lead in promoting equitable and consistent tax treatment for global corporations. As part of that initiative, redistributive approaches could be explored, using tax proceeds to ameliorate the disruptive effects of continuing globalization, through investment in education and job retraining.

Robertson Davies once described Canada as "a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker." It is time to move beyond the fear. If we build sets of alliances among a wider group of states and other global actors to promote carefully considered and well-targeted objectives, Canada can be one of a handful of countries that helps to steer the world through a deeply troubling period. To do so, we must take current anxieties seriously, and open up our political and economic deliberations to those who have rightly felt excluded from the benefits of globalization.

Video: Freeland says reworked NAFTA could have labour, environmental benefits (The Canadian Press)
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