Jennifer Welsh is professor and chair in international relations at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. From 2013-16, she was special adviser to secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on the Responsibility to Protect.
The speeches at this year's General Assembly of the United Nations – the first for new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – have been short on optimism and long on protestations about the international community's failure to come together to face 21st-century challenges. Mr. Guterres's own opening address lamented that we are living in a world "in pieces," where state leaders are stoking resentment against outsiders for electoral gain, and shirking rather than embracing their shared responsibilities.
Although the Secretary-General didn't explicitly name the key culprits, it was obvious to whom his remarks were directed. When U.S. President Donald Trump took his place on the platform, he voiced precisely the kind of inward-looking, "my-country-first" mentality that sends shivers up the spine of international public servants like Mr. Guterres. Mr. Trump's claim that the success of the UN "depends on the independent strength of its members," combined with his pledge to renew U.S. foreign policy around the "founding principle of sovereignty," do not bode well for achieving and sustaining multilateral co-operation.
The foreign policy of Canada's Trudeau government, by contrast, points the way to a different kind of sovereignty. Over the past two years, the country has positioned itself as a beacon of openness – to trade, to refugees, to collaboration on seemingly intractable problems such as climate change. When so many established liberal democracies are swaying toward populism and nationalism, and closing their doors, Canada has seemingly bucked the trend.
Through his speech to the General Assembly on Thursday, however, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken openness to a whole new level. By using his remarks to highlight one of Canada's greatest domestic challenges – its relationship with Indigenous peoples – he suggested that a modern, sovereign state is not only one that opens its borders and shares responsibility. It is also one that talks openly and frankly about its own dirty laundry. While Mr. Trump's address in New York followed previous U.S. presidents by conjuring up the image of America as a dazzling "city on a hill," there for all the world to admire and emulate, Mr. Trudeau's time at the podium was spent insisting that Canada is far from perfect and still "a work in progress."
At a moment in time when Canada is campaigning for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and when others are asking awkward questions about how it will concretely re-engage in peacekeeping, many will scratch their heads at the choice to focus on the country's quest for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Is this the right time to indulge in self-criticism?
But the theme of the Prime Minister's speech can also be seen as refreshingly forward-leaning. Whereas 25 years ago liberal democratic states confidently predicted the onset of a new world order and energetically exported their political and economic system, our world is one in which liberal hubris is on the ropes.
No society is immune to injustice, to crisis or to instability. Mr Trudeau's address, which included references to the lack of clean water in Indigenous communities and the threat of violence haunting Indigenous women, was partly designed to remind his fellow Canadians that poverty and rights violations do not only happen on "distant shores." But his comments were also aimed at making the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a truly shared enterprise, rather than another paternalistic campaign to lift up countries of the so-called Global South. The Prime Minister linked recent government initiatives on Indigenous peoples to specific SDGs, suggesting that these targets need to be as meaningful at home as they are abroad.
More broadly, the speech can be read as another plank in the Trudeau government's quest to signal what sovereignty means in the 21st century. Whereas populist movements in other Western democracies are marked by nostalgia for the past and a simpler world of self-contained and homogeneous states, Canada is openly admitting that its past wasn't always quite so "great."
Through his speech to the General Assembly, the Prime Minister is suggesting that today's sovereign states will be better able to address their internal challenges if they are both transparent about what is working (and what is not) and willing to constructively support other societies as they pursue their own paths to self-correction.
This humbler approach to international co-operation – that is based on an awareness of shared vulnerability as well as shared responsibility – might be just what is needed in this decade of the United Nations and beyond.