Canada Amid Chaos: Quo Vadis? 

African singer Angélique Kidjo performs at the centenary of the 1918 World War One armistice in Paris on November 11, 2018, where the existing rules-based international order was represented, as were the authoritarians. Adam Scotti photo


Amid a level of existential churn in Western democracies unseen since the Second World War, Canada—whose commitment to multilateralism, human rights and democracy has been a defining national characteristic—can turn crisis to opportunity by leading the global fight against authoritarianism. That begins with an investment in our relationship with the United States that looks beyond Donald Trump. 

Jeremy Kinsman 

November 11, 2018: 70 world leaders walked shoulder to shoulder in the pouring rain up the Champs-Elysées, toward the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a clump of black umbrellas, clustered around the president of France. They came to honour and reflect upon the 1914-18 “War to End All Wars” that, in Winston Churchill’s words, left “a crippled, broken world.” 

However—ominously—two neo-nationalist leaders, the presidents of the United States and of Russia, didn’t walk the rainy walk but stepped out of their limos at l’Étoile, and only after the others were in their seats. Had China been present, there would probably have been a third ego-limo at the Arc.

They sat stone-faced as French President Emmanuel Macron warned that “old demons” were re-surfacing, especially nationalist populism. Justin Trudeau knows nationalism constitutes a wrenching challenge to Canada’s interests and values. As would re-kindling the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia.

History shows that the punitive terms of the 1918 armistice, aggravated by a crippling world depression, spawned competitive economic nationalism, and the rise of populist, nativist regimes, notoriously in Germany, where a short-lived democracy died. 

The ensuing catastrophe of the Second World War forced victors and losers alike to construct, at last, a cooperative global system that might truly prevent war by mitigating destructive nationalist ambition. This time, instead of staying aloof, an enlightened America led the way. Canada made multilateral cooperation its foreign policy mantra.

Of course, not all wars were ended. Global power alignments played out in proxy conflicts for the Cold War that held a divided world hostage to the shadow of mutually assured destruction.

But in 1989, the Cold War’s collapse made it easy to believe cooperative liberal internationalism was the triumphant new norm. Over the next decades, “globalization,” driven by a ubiquitous digital technology revolution, lifted more than a billion people out of poverty. 

The demonic attacks of September 11, 2001 pole-axed our complacent priorities. The disastrous U.S./U.K. war of arbitrary reprisal against Iraq combined with what remains a perpetual war in Afghanistan turned the Middle East into the first failed region, whose refugees de-stabilized the iconic post-war project for a European Union that would end Europe’s murderous wars forever. 

The 2008-09 financial crisis that ruined middle class lives with barely any retribution or systemic reform left a bitter impression that greedy interests kept the system fixed so that, as Leonard Cohen put it, “The poor stay poor, the rich get rich, that’s how it goes. Everybody knows.”

As change accelerated, disrupting old certainties of identity, populist nationalist leaders stoked the cynicism, sense of victimization by the political caste, and fear and distrust—of migrants, of “globalism”, of expertise, and even of democracy—all fired up by distorting and irresponsible social media. The New York Times labelled Twitter as “a super highway of hatred.”

In 2016, fear and reactive nationalism prompted the U.K.’s narrow but catalytic Brexit referendum result, sending the country into its gravest—and still unresolved—crisis since the Blitz. Months later, angry Americans elected Donald Trump, whose populist and nationalist mantra of “America first, always America first” made it “a new ball game” for the world, and rationalized an otherwise unthinkable withdrawal of U.S. leadership.

Trump began to trash international institutions and longstanding partnerships. He withdrew the U.S. from critical cooperative pacts, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, while weaponizing unilateral tariffs against U.S. allies, even disrupting international Summits—the G7, NATO—with egregious personal hostility.

No wonder Macron asked rhetorically whether the group photo from November 11, 2018 will be viewed years hence as the last moment before things totally fell apart. Indeed, French rioters took to the streets shortly afterward. As the absence of international leadership became top of mind, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations Tweeted: “The Merkel era is close to ending, leaving the West and the post-WW2 international order without a leader. The U.S. of @realDonaldTrump has abdicated. The U.K. is distracted. Canada lacks means. Macron is too weak. Bodes poorly for stability, prosperity, freedom.” 

His observation about Canada is revealing—that we are seen as a leader; but that we lack the means. In this critical year ahead, Canada needs to acquire the means we need to defend our interests; democracy, human rights, and multilateralism.

Canada has so far escaped disruption by powerful forces of disaffection. But, as John Manley recently said, “Canada has never been so alone in the world.”

Our contextual status quo is gone. We need to work hard to put substance into our ambitious goals of political and economic diversification toward the EU, and with China, Japan, India, and Asia. Yet, our primary outward challenge is our relationship with the U.S. It is complicated by the stark Trudeau-Trump comparison: Trudeau had campaigned on a message of free trade, and getting Canada back in the forefront of liberal internationalism. Trump campaigned opposing free trade and on pulling the U.S. away from liberal internationalism.

How do we reconcile our defining commitment to cooperative multilateralism with our economy’s dependence on access to the U.S. market, given that the superpower neighbour with which we lived in an easy-going extended family setting has gone rogue internationally, and eschewed old friendships? Unilateral U.S. threats to Canada’s economic security and the repeated assaults against truth make it unlikely anyone now in high office in Ottawa will trust this U.S. president again.

We need to be in permanent campaign mode to remain engaged with America. Most Canadians are repelled by the relentlessly divisive aggressiveness Trump shares with his identity-driven nationalist base. But the U.S. narrative is not one-dimensional. Canadians need to channel to the totality of Americans our trust in them and their history to help divert the U.S. from its current trajectory of internal and external hostilities, international disruption, and possible national failure. Meanwhile, we must work professionally with U.S. officials on an everyday basis to optimize as much operational cooperation as possible between the two economies and societies.  

Working now to salvage the machinery and motifs of international cooperation could facilitate U.S. re-entry in time, provided increasingly hostile U.S.-China relations don’t again split the world in two.

Canada has the means to help lead. Only weeks before the recent contentious APEC Summit (which Trump skipped), Canada convened an informal meeting of Trade Ministers of internationalist democracies and the EU (not the U.S., China, Russia, or India) to strategize on defending the World Trade Organization by reforming it and thereby encouraging the U.S. to stay in as a cooperative member. At the subsequent Buenos Aires G-20 Summit, the U.S. welcomed the effort to reform the WTO, albeit truculently. But the meeting otherwise achieved little, as the U.S. resisted a joint declaration condemning protectionism and reiterated its refusal to take climate change seriously.

As the China-U.S. rivalry becomes the dominant U.S. foreign policy preoccupation, China-phobia is a rare issue that is shared by both U.S. political parties.

Canada must succeed with China, indeed with the whole Pacific region (which now accounts for 20 per cent more trade for Canada than does Europe). There had been concern that the re-negotiated NAFTA agreement (the USMCA in Trumpese) contained clauses constraining Canada’s freedom to negotiate a trade agreement with China. It seemed over-blown. 

We need a Canada-China set of trade and investment agreements. They will take years to finalize. We cannot condone China not playing by international trade rules. But the Vancouver arrest of Huawei’s Meng Manzhou to accommodate a dubious U.S. extradition request cost us credibility. We can’t go along with U.S. muscle plays meant to hobble China’s rise to global rivalry.

Life will probably be complicated by a global economic turn-down. Canada has specific economic vulnerabilities, especially from the low price of Alberta oil, hemmed in by lack of pipeline capacity to bring it to market.

Given other re-defining upheavals such as the U.K.’s Brexit mess and France’s turmoil, the temptation—particularly in an election year—will be just to steer the ship, limit the damage, stay transactional, and, in Trump’s pet phrase, “see what happens.”

But higher levels of ambition are called for. Others see us as the “other North America.” Playing that role wisely will be a challenge.

Canada’s profile has arguably not been higher since Lester Pearson’s role in resolving the Suez crisis in 1956, nor its reputation more enviable—because of rare stability, inclusivity, self-confidence, and our values, when “values” are top of mind in other democracies under stress. Few countries were as legitimately forthright in condemning recent human rights outrages in Saudi Arabia,

That won’t get Canada elected to the UN Security Council against two worthy contenders, Ireland and Norway. It was a rookie PMO mistake to inflate that secondary contest into a major event years before the actual UN election, just to show that “Canada’s back.”

Canada is, in fact, substantively ‘back’ as one of a group of key liberal democracies determined to defend the multilateral system and rules-based international order. Public interest and support for that effort are essential. There will be Canadians who admire Trump’s “America first” antipathy to sharing sovereignty, who believe we should mimic it, and confine ourselves to mercantile self-interest. 

The counter-case of a deeper national interest in constructive international engagement and defending democracy needs to be made, and not just by our government, but by civil society. A committed coalition of scholars and advocates is mobilizing outward from the University of Ottawa as an optimistic and solidly grounded sign of Canadian confidence in our creative potential in a chaotic world. 

Relationships matter. Ours are enviable, on every continent. Trudeau’s and those of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland are wide-ranging and valuable. They are supported by multiple relationships of Canadians across the world. But China’s retaliatory grab of two Canadians darkens the Canada-China atmosphere, making our objectives harder to reach. Freeland will now have a new priority for 2019—trying to re-set our understandings with China going forward.

We have vital interests to defend and pursue, including positive inclusive democracy itself. We have solidarity allies, including among like-minded Americans. We need to be careful and comprehensive, but we should not feel we are vulnerable because we are alone. We are many.  

Contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the U.K. and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley.