Commentary from Colin Robertson

Three things Trudeau can do to bolster Canada’s international reputation

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
January 5, 2016

“It’s 3 a.m. There’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. ... Who do you want answering that phone?” National security experience didn’t do it for Hillary Clinton in 2008, but this ad could do the trick in 2016. Public anxieties about security and a fragmenting international order are rising.

Assessing geopolitical risk is a booming business for diplomats, spies and money managers.

Continuing instability in the Middle East and North Africa tops the Council on Foreign Relations’ annual Preventative Priorities Survey. At the top of the list is the conflict in Syria and Iraq that creates refugees and breeds terrorists. Current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are a piece of the deep, historical divisions between Shiite and Sunni, Persian and Arab.

Other top-tier contingencies include a crisis with North Korea; disruptive cyberattacks; a terrorist attack on the U.S. or an ally; political violence in Turkey; political instability in Egypt or Afghanistan. Lower-tier contingencies include more Russian aggression in Ukraine; Russia-NATO tensions; European Union divisions caused by the refugee influx; South China Sea confrontations sparked by China.

Nor can we count on prosperous times to assuage tensions. Economists predict another anemic year for China and Europe. Global trade, the engine of growth since 1945, has slowed.

Another challenge that should worry policy-makers: Global democratization is in retreat.

In its annual assessment of social, political and economic freedoms, Freedom House reports that the state of freedom worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world.” The bright spots last year were few: fair elections in Argentina and Tunisia, Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in Myanmar.

With more governments censoring information and expanding surveillance, Internet freedom declined for a fifth-consecutive year. Not since the Cold War have nation states’ commitment to an international system built on democratic norms been less durable.

Other human rights watchdogs drew similar conclusions, warning that women are particular targets of Islamic terrorists, such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.

Amnesty International wants a “dramatic shift” in how the international community handles the 19.5 million refugees. Resettlement placement remains disappointingly low. Canada, it noted, provided inspiration in pledging to welcome 25,000.

To demonstrate that “Canada is back,” we can do more to support international order.

First, actively recommit to internationalism.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rededicated Canada to multilateralism, and he actively engaged at the quartet of recent international summits (G20, Commonwealth, APEC, Climate). On climate change, Canada put up money and worked constructively to help close the Paris deal.

More effective than creating new democracy institutes is bringing vigour and accountability to existing multilateral programs. This should include our own Parliamentary Centre and our international youth leadership programs.

Second, identify those niches where we can make a difference.

Our expertise in international refugee matters should be reactivated, drawing on our successful experiment in pluralism. We can also demonstrate to the Trumpsters and scaremongers that a generous resettlement policy is good international citizenship and builds a stronger nation.

Containing nuclear proliferation is another niche where we can help. We have both experience and expertise that can also serve our commercial interests in a world that wants to wean itself off carbon.

The “Canadian vaccine” that helped contain the Ebola epidemic makes the case for continuing investment in collaborative scientific research.

Water will likely replace oil as the vital commodity of the 21st century. It’s already the source of regional conflicts. With a century trans-boundary water-management experience, we can help. Significant advances in effective water usage by our oil, gas and hydro industries have wider potential.

And third, let’s invest in the Canadian Forces, especially our navy.

In an era of recurrent humanitarian disasters, there will be frequent calls at 3 a.m. for first responders. The Canadian Forces have demonstrated proficiency, but they need both trained personnel and new kit.

The promised defence review must re-examine our procurement policies. What continuing premium are we prepared to pay, not just in dollars but in fleet readiness, to “Buy Canada”?

Earning our way back to a level of international engagement commensurate with our aspirations means activist diplomacy and Canadian Forces with muscle. This requires long-term investments in money and resources.

The post-Second World War institutions that guided international relations through decades of bipolarity and years of unipolarity are under intense stress.

Coping with the new multipolarity requires every nation, including Canada, to step up their commitment to multilateralism. Queen Elizabeth II got it right in her Christmas broadcast, saying: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

The international scene will test Mr. Trudeau’s “sunny ways.” By finding our niches, we can demonstrate that “Canada is back.”


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