Global 2021: A Saner, Less Fragmented World 

The G7 in Toronto in 1988, when Canada was not only host, but an influential player at the table. (L to R) European Commission President Jacques Delors and G7 leaders Ciriaco De Mita; Margaret Thatcher; Ronald Reagan; Brian Mulroney; François Mitterrand; Noboru Takeshita and Helmut Kohl. Colin McConnell, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Canada has spent the past four years wedged between an unrecognizably belligerent United States and an unproductively belligerent China. Provided the economic damage from the COVID lockdown doesn’t produce geopolitical consequences that make 2020 look good, a new US administration and a fresh appreciation of both democracy and multilateralism present a new opportunity for Canadian leadership in 2021.

Jeremy Kinsman 

Donald Trump’s exit from the White House wins our disrupted and divided world another chance to get its collective act together to meet existential global challenges.

Only 20 years ago, Canadian diplomacy was at the front end of the post-Cold War effort to design and anchor new inclusive norms for international governance. Do we still have the stuff, the will and ability, to be a key player again?

We have a stake in successful international cooperative outcomes. It needs robust outreach diplomacy. Canada can’t just fall into line behind Joe Biden’s more congenial US leadership and hope for the best.

The world has vastly changed in 20 years. Optimistic assumptions were crushed by events whose residue still disrupts. The jihadist attacks of September 11, 2001 re-cast global priorities, fed enduring terrorism, and prompted the long Afghan war and the disastrous and divisive US/UK invasion of Iraq that spewed refugees into Europe. Borders stiffened and populist nationalism gained traction, bolstered by ubiquitous social networks that polarized publics. With the encouragement of Russia,  nativist populists vilified globalization and liberal democracy. Meanwhile, China continued its remarkable and inexorable rise in economic stature, shifting the global balance of power, with an increasingly nationalist posture.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 had lifted hopes of a reprise of constructive internationalism. But the financial cataclysm he inherited laid bare an unfair system that privileged capital over ordinary people’s welfare. 

The world’s mood trended to pessimism and identity-based nationalism, including in the UK. The US elected as president a disruptive nationalist who wrought carnage on international cooperation and institutions. Pledging to “no longer surrender the country to the false song of globalism,” Trump tore up foundational agreements in the name of “America first,” upending 75 years of US international leadership.

Just how scorched he left the institutional landscape was clear when the increasingly deadlocked G20 met virtually on November 21, under the inauspicious rotating chairmanship of Trump ally Saudi Arabia. Trump mocked hopes of concrete progress on the agenda, trashing the notion of global warming, and skipping the critical session on the global pandemic to play golf.

Most countries now impatiently endure an overlong and dysfunctional US transition, anticipating the remedial succession of Joe Biden, a welcome multilateralist. 

But expectation of restoration comes with a hedge. Germany, as an important example, had since the war viewed the US as its key ally, protector, and democratic mentor before Trump turned the privileged relationship into what Germans came to call the US “catastrophe.” The US reputation for can-do competence plummeted as the world witnessed with a “mixture of concern, disbelief, and schadenfreude,” a “leaderless America slip into a deep pandemic winter,” per CNN’s Brian Stelter. Chancellor Merkel’s observation that “the times we could rely on the US are somewhat over” won’t now be archived just because of a close election. Trump leaves behind a polarized US which could reverse direction again. 

Even though the incoming Biden team is reassuringly experienced, positive, and outward-looking, it will face an obstinate partisan opposition, the overwhelming domestic priority to manage the pandemic and economic recovery, and the many unexpected things that land on the president’s desk. US allies share German worries about the extent to which the new administration will have much room for range and transformative ambitions in foreign affairs. So, others need to maintain creative momentum to reform and reinforce international cooperation. Will Canada be in the front rank?

Princeton University international relations theorist John Ikenberry observes that “the world order has (so far) endured because it is in everybody’s interest.” But that general interest has to be translated into common purpose, and it doesn’t come easily. Two decades ago, as the dean of G8 finance ministers, Paul Martin argued convincingly that the world needed a more inclusive forum to negotiate trade-offs on critical global challenges. It became the G20. But it isn’t working. Notions that a democratic G7 enlarged to include India, South Korea, and Australia would provide a more inclusive but effective forum than either the G7 or the G20 begs how to engage China. The increasingly fractious rivalry between China and the US for economic primacy is apt to define our age.

A rare US bipartisan consensus concludes that China has gamed international trade rules, bullies neighbours, and represses human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Canada, other democracies, and China’s neighbours agree. Incoming US Secretary of State Antony Blinken knows the resolution of key global issues needs agreement between the US and China. He has previewed the bilateral relationship as a composite of components that are adversarial, competitive, and also, where possible, cooperative, recognizing that on global warming and the pandemic, China is an essential factor. The US will resist calls to “de-couple” western economies from China’s and won’t endorse an allied Cold War “containment” strategy. But the Biden administration will move warily and firmly. Other countries need to engage China on multilateral issues. Canada needs a realistic and open-eyed approach only possible after resolution of our debilitating hostage dispute.

Of course, our main bilateral priority is our critical relationship with the US. Canada has, in the Biden administration, a partner on whom we can count for civil discussion and negotiation based on shared facts and evidence. But it will be no pleasure cruise: US political themes are inward and protection-ish. We need to remain in campaign communications mode toward all levels of the US, to temper impulses to “buy America,” and to lift the US view of the benefits of the North Ameri-
can partnership. 

Other regions are organizing. Asian countries including China, Japan and Australia, representing one-third of global GDP have created the tariff-cutting “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.” Canada must succeed in Asia. Looking ahead, our Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU could become the template for a comprehensive North Atlantic economic partnership between the European Union and North America as an expansion of NAFTA.

Canada needs to work every day abroad to strengthen opportunities from a diversity of partnerships, including to build support for global multilateral reform. Twenty years ago, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy was the leading protagonist for “human security,” a paradigm placing people at the centre of new norms of international behaviour and accountability. With like-minded middle-rank states and international NGOs we formed the Human Security Network to design and promote landmark initiatives to end the use of anti-personnel land mines, and to establish both a Responsibility to Protect (RTP) to prevent tragedies such as Rwanda and Srebrenica, and an International Criminal Court to apply principles of universal justice.

Today the United Nations system is bogged down by the fragmentations of our world. We badly need like-minded solidarity groups to galvanize institutional reform and positive outcomes for such essential UN activities as peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, poverty, migration, and public health, including immediately the COMAX coalition of over 100 countries to assure equitable affordable COVID-19 vaccine distribution, in which Canada should be
a protagonist. 

Ottawa has been working with like-minded internationalist countries to try to unlock some key multilateral issues. On trade, the Ottawa Group initiative of middle-power countries to revive and reform the World Trade Organization is making progress. But it will need a wider buy-in from the great powers. More broadly, then-Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland encouraged the formation of the Multilateral Alliance group that brings together Canadian, German, French and other partners seeking ways to re-build trust and purpose in multilateral fora. One exemplary success stands out as a model of international governance—the Arctic Council, an innovative, bottom-up consensus-based organization of the eight circumpolar states and Indigenous peoples that guides the sustainable development and shared custody of the world’s High North in line with the UN’s international legal norms.

Joe Biden has pledged to convene a summit of democracies to address democracy’s global recession and to restore a better example. It should reaffirm that universal human rights are democracy’s building blocks and our commitment to have the backs of human rights defenders everywhere, consistently.

As to our creative policy capacity, the perception in the foreign affairs community is that it atrophied under recent top-down governments centralized in PMOs and leaders with narrower international aims, focused on signaling our virtues, absorbed by electoral politics.

But crisis response has been excellent, notably in procuring PPE, and evacuating Canadians during the pandemic. Work to save NAFTA and craft the ground-breaking CETA with the EU was outstanding. 

We need to revive the creative capacities of the Foreign Service and re-energize our international public diplomacy. The world also sees “the other North America” through interacting with multitudes of Canadian scientists, entrepreneurs, scholars and students, artists, humanitarian workers, military, firefighters, and innumerable family ties. Including public consultation in the policy process is essential.

The pandemic makes it emphatically clear we are all in the same global boat. But it needs fixing to stay afloat. Canadians are globalists. That repair work is rightfully our brand.  

Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian Ambassador to Moscow, former Ambassador to the European Union, and former High Commissioner to London. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Canadian International Council.