Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Island Voices: A saner, less fragmented world in 2021

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.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks prior to the holiday at the Queen Theater on Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware. A majority of other countries are looking forward to Biden’s inauguration in January, Jeremy Kinsman writes. CAROLYN KASTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

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 co-operative outcomes. It needs robust outreach diplomacy. Canada can’t just fall into line behind Joe Biden’s more congenial U.S. 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 Sept. 11, 2001, recast global priorities, fed enduring terrorism, and prompted the long Afghan war and the disastrous and divisive U.S./U.K. 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 U.K. The U.S. elected as president a disruptive nationalist who wrought carnage on international co-operation 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 U.S. international leadership.

Just how scorched he left the institutional landscape was clear when the increasingly deadlocked G20 met virtually on Nov. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. as its key ally, protector, and democratic mentor before Trump turned the privileged relationship into what Germans came to call the U.S. “catastrophe.” The U.S. 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.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s observation that “the times we could rely on the U.S. are somewhat over” won’t now be archived just because of a close election. Trump leaves behind a polarized U.S. 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. U.S. 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 co-operation. 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 U.S. for economic primacy is apt to define our age.

A rare U.S. 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 U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken knows the resolution of key global issues needs agreement between the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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: U.S. political themes are inward and protection-ish. We need to remain in campaign communications mode toward all levels of the U.S., to temper impulses to “buy American,” and to lift the U.S. view of the benefits of the North American 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 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 more than 100 countries to assure equitable affordable COVID-19 vaccine distribution, in which Canada should be a protagonist.

The enduring trans-national challenge of moderating global warming will be eased by U.S. re-entry to the Paris climate accord, and by President-elect Biden’s commitment to carbon net-zero targets by 2050. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s initiative to upgrade Canadian carbon abatement re-positions Canada to contribute more to the international effort.

Ottawa has been working with like-minded internationalist countries to try to unlock some other 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.

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.

Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Moscow and the EU, and high commissioner to London. He is a distinguished fellow of the Canadian International Council. He lives in Victoria.