Op-ed

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We can cope with Trump. But it's going to cost us.

by Daryl Copeland

iPolitics
January 23, 2017

The Trump presidency carries with it much anxiety and uncertainty, but of this we may be confident: On January 20, under dark skies, the world collectively entered terra incognita.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with his cabinet in Calgary this week to assess options, and has tried to act preemptively by shuffling his cabinet. Liberal party stalwart Stéphane Dion was abruptly replaced by the celebrated and cosmopolitan Chrystia Freeland.

This wasn’t unexpected. As foreign minister, Dion was engaged and knowledgeable, but emotionally tone-deaf and intellectually rigid. He delved deeply into issues, read his briefs and wrote many of his own speeches, but was not at ease as a communicator. He lacked an integrated policy agenda and, as a result, seemed locked perpetually in reactive mode. Unlike the more easily defined, tractable issues which he had previously mastered (climate change, the Constitution) at Global Affairs Canada (GAV) he was unable to find his footing or leave his mark.

Some files — Saudi military sales, human rights, arms control and disarmament, non-proliferation — were seriously mishandled on his watch. And his would-be policy centrepiece, ‘Responsible Conviction’, was obscure and lacked a concrete plan. Adapted from the work of Prussian sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, the ‘responsible conviction’ maxim undoubtedly appealed to Dion’s academic bent. But it was way over the top in Ottawa and stillborn politically.

Enter the urban sophisticate Freeland, an accomplished author, public speaker and journalist, at home in Davos and well-connected in major capitals. She is acutely attuned to the neoliberal political economy of globalization, and to the over-arching importance of addressing its downside: distributive inequality and intensified polarization.

Although her fit with the prevailing mindset in Washington is not natural, concern over the fate of the shrinking middle class may provide common ground for discussions with her U.S. interlocutors. Moreover, given the preponderance of former military figures in Trump’s cabinet, the naming of former Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie as her parliamentary secretary, with special responsibility for Canada-U.S. relations, appears inspired.

Freeland’s appointment may have been a necessary response to the incoming Trump administration, but it won’t be enough. How might she best minimize risk, manage vulnerabilities and maximize opportunity in dealing with the new administration?

It won’t be easy. There are at least three areas which require major work.

Capacity: Whatever international policy initiatives are being contemplated by the Trudeau government, they’re unlikely to succeed until Canada’s diplomatic, development and defence capabilities are rebuilt.

Canada’s international policy institutions all are seriously run-down and underfunded. By any measure this country is not paying its fair share. GAC in particular was savaged during the Tories’ decade of darkness, and its yawning human resource and financial deficits were not addressed in the last federal budget. A patient who has been on life support for many years is in no condition to get up and run a marathon.

Reinvestment is essential — not least in expanding Canada’s network of representation on the ground in the United States, which was dramatically enlarged during the first decade of this millennium but has since been cut back. If faced with ambivalence — or worse, hostility — in Washington, shared-interest partnerships with other levels of government, NGOs, businesses, think tanks and universities will be a sine qua non. Mutuality, after all, is the mother of cooperation.

Content: What exactly is Canada trying to achieve in the world beyond election to the UN Security Council in 2021? If Canada is “back”, then where are we going? These important questions remain largely unanswered.

Defence and development reviews are underway — but what of diplomacy, immigration, trade and commerce? What sort of signature initiatives — like the land mine ban, International Criminal Court, conflict diamonds or the Responsibility to Protect doctrine — might be developed to support a new program? A comprehensive international policy review, including attention to Brand Canada, is long overdue.

Coherence: Without charts and a destination, Canada will remain adrift. This is the time for a national conversation about grand strategy — where we are, where we want to go, how we can get there. Only with a clear ‘big picture’ can long-term plans can be drawn up, benchmarks established and contingencies mapped. Even the most brilliant splatter is no substitute for shape and direction.

At is happens, the enduring message from contemporary America just might be that Plato was right. Democracy can too easily be hijacked by demagogues, devolve into mob rule and degenerate into tyranny.

Even under the best of circumstances (and that excludes the present) that outcome would be a disaster. If Canada is to be in a position to survive the protracted instability which lies ahead — or, better yet, to turn adversity into opportunity — the rust-out, drift and incoherence must be corrected.

Photo: Steve Pope/Getty

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