Colin Robertson’s speech at the XXVII Economic Forum on Trade and Security in Krynica, Poland


“Forty years ago I was a freshly-minted, twenty-something, Canadian diplomat at the United Nations.

I was in the UN delegates lounge with group of young diplomats, Canadian and European. We were jawing about America and complaining about its Administration because it had failed to put a fisheries treaty it had negotiated with Canada through Congress. We thought America was in decline.  Times Square was dirty, there were gas lines. The Soviets would shortly invade Afghanistan. American diplomats would be held hostage in Teheran.

When we Canadians, who like to think we know America better than anyone else, had finished our complaining, an older diplomat from Poland quietly asked us: “Would you rather be us?” Born before World War II, he had endured first the Nazi and then Soviet occupations. It put things in perspective.

Management of the US relationship has become much more difficult with the Trump Administration. We face an administration unlike any we have encountered. It is nativist, protectionist and unilateralist. In Mr. Trump’s policy of ‘America First’, ‘Buy American and Hire American’, his cavalier treatment of the NATO Alliance and G-7, his sweeping aside the Trans Pacific Partnership, the European trade deal and the Paris Climate Agreement we witness a radical departure from post-war American policies.

Many Americans and much of the rest of the world think that America has its worst president ever. An unpredictable force he is disrupting traditional trade and security relationships. Canada and Mexico are currently renegotiating the NAFTA, an agreement Mr. Trump continues to call the “worst trade deal ever” despite all economic evidence to the contrary.

On the security front, Mr. Trump’s musings which sound a lot like an endorsement of spheres of influence, are music to the ears of Vladimir Putin and Xi-Jinping.

China under Xi harkens back to that ‘Middle Kingdom’ period when it exercised its sphere of influence in much of Asia. Meanwhile, Russia under Putin sees itself as a power the equal of Europe and the United States. That is the Soviet legacy. The Russian imperial legacy is that Russia begins on the Vistula.

Thucydides long ago described the great powers’ spheres of influence approach to international affairs as “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Athenians, who followed that maxim, came to a bad end, having alienated all their allies

I am confident that, with different leadership, the US will return to its traditional role as the anchor of the rules-based liberal international system. As Churchill once remarked “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they've tried everything else.”

But for now, the more America turns inward, the greater the requirement for Canada to broaden its foreign policy options and to deepen its investments in our diplomatic and defence capacities and capabilities.

In a practical sense, this means working in tandem with our partners – trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific – in shoring up our trading relationships. We are trying to resurrect the Trans Pacific Partnership, leaving room for the USA when times are different.

Canada’s free trade agreement with the European Union – the CETA -  will be implemented in two weeks. As trade agreements go it is state of the art covering not just trade but labour, the environment and disputed settlement. Trade agreements are great but they simply open the door. Now begins the hard work of making it work for companies, for workers and for our citizens.

Canada, in league with other middle and like-minded powers, who value representative government, human rights and freer trade, need to again step up and reassert our interest in sustaining and preserving the rules-based liberal international system

What middle powers like Canada, like Poland cannot do is sit on the fence or play it safe.

For Canada, for Poland and for Europe, NATO continues to be the insurance policy that has guaranteed peace and security for generations.  Trade whether it be trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific -  depends on secure sea-lanes and freedom of air passage.

In the impudent phrase of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, the organization was designed to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”  Today, NATO needs a fully committed Germany. Keeping the Russians out continues to be a sad reality, but keeping the Americans ‘in’ is imperative.

Americans are doubting the role that they have played since 1945 in bearing the burden of global primacy.  Donald Trump channels this frustration. Successive presidents and secretaries of defence have become increasingly explicit: Having the U.S. shoulder approximately 70 per cent of NATO’s defence expenditure is not sustainable. It undermines the core of the transatlantic relationship and makes a mockery of the “collective” in collective security.

So what do Canadians and Europeans need to do?

First, the USA needs to know that we will shoulder our share of the security burden. In dollar terms, we should set as goals of good international citizenship a contribution of 2 percent of GDP to defence spending – the NATO norm -  and .7 percent of GDP for development –the Pearson Commission standard. If Poland, Estonia and the United Kingdom can manage it so can we.

Second, commitment means taking a greater share of the political and security burden as Canada is doing in Latvia by leading one of NATO’s forward brigades. But the security burden goes beyond Europe. The pace of deterioration in global security demands an increased presence in the world beyond Europe. It means helping out with threats beyond NATO’s traditional theatre of operation. Today, it is the interplay of Eurasian and Asian powers that threaten global instability.

Third, commitment means demonstrating a greater interest in U.S. security concerns. War today is as much about cyber-hacking, fake news, subversion and espionage as it is about fighter jets and tanks.  NATO needs a minimal baseline for members’ readiness to meet the requirements of hybrid defence, including police services, counterintelligence services, emergency preparedness and public affairs.

The global order that has defined the world in our age is in various ways challenged, crumbling, bursting at the seams or being transformed into something else. The situation is difficult but not unmanageable. No other organization has NATO’s unique combination of common defence planning, a common command structure and a North Atlantic council making political decisions on a 24/7 basis.

Middle powers like Canada, like Poland and others here today need to re-embrace ‘functionalism’ – the recognition within the international system that competence, not power, should determine membership and weight in dealing with issues like food and refugees. Functionalism gives middle powers place and standing.

As for Mr. Trump? Well, as my mother would say, this too shall pass. We must rely on the wisdom and foresight of America’s Founding Fathers who designed their system specifically to prevent a king.  The American Constitution is based on checks and balance and separation of powers. Between Mr. Trump and the Founding Fathers. I put my money on the Founding Fathers.

In the meantime, we need to work together and with Americans – there are lots of them who are still internationalists – to ensure that the United States continues to be the anchor and guardian of our rules-based, liberal international system. Middle powers, like Canada, like Poland, can help them by staying true to rules-based internationalism in trade and security. And it starts by picking up our share of the burden.

For Canada, our international relationships will always be conditioned by our relationship with the United States. We cannot change our geography nor would we want to.

The USA is not only Canada’s most important ally and trading partner but when we leverage personal relations and our role as bridge or lynchpin we significantly enhance our diplomatic weight. 

For those worried about America and the future of liberalism and the rules-based order, I’ll conclude with another story.

As a boy, I listened to Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America. He delivered his fifteen minute broadcast weekly from 1946-2004, nearly sixty years to audiences around the world through the BBC. I met Cooke during a second posting to New York in 1980. Cooke had recently finished his epic television series on America: A Personal History of the United States. I asked Cooke what he thought of the future of the United States. He told me that “In America, the race is on between its decadence and its vitality, and it has lots of both’.

Cooke added that one should never underestimate another American quality- it’s remarkable resiliency. American resiliency is being tested but I would still put my money on it.”

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