Canada – from International Wannabe to Serious Citizen

Canada needs to turn to local action in order to address global challenges. Doing so will make a better contribution to a tumultuous world than would international busy-ness.

by Feb 25, 2020

“This is what happens when you think you are an island in an intermestic world”, says author George Haynal

A frisky kind of foreign activism has served Canada and the world well in the cosseted environment of a US centric world order. We have used our diplomacy effectively to exercise a modest influence,and to stay in line with but, critically, keeping our distance from the United States on whose protection and forbearance we relied for our security and prosperity. We were able to benefit from the stability provided by international institutions the US had founded and led at token cost to ourselves. Our active internationalism has also served over generations to foster national pride, if not complacency, about our good fortune as a prosperous, stable society. But foreign policy no longer serves us in the same comfortable way in today’s diffracted world of global challenges, one in whose future power, rather than partnership, are increasingly the determinants. While effective diplomacy is vital to the pursuit and defence of our interests, our international action can only be meaningful if it is an extension of, rather than a substitute for real engagement with global issues within our own borders. We are obliged, for the first time since the great sacrifices of two world wars, to pay a real price for a world where we ourselves are safe and can prosper.

The Comfortable World Of The Post-War Order Within Which Canada Could Frolic, Is Gone

The mutating world order has sidelined the middle power cohort, in whose leadership Canadians have taken pride during the Cold War. Its members which include Canada, are now so locked into (or out of) regional blocs as to be unable to form a cohesive trans global force. More important, a more diverse superpower rivalry and regional hegemonies have replaced the static order of the Cold War world, and do not readily accept a role for the multilateral institutions within which middle powers are able to play a balancing and directional role. Canada’s room for more than symbolic international activism is, in other words, severely constrained.

An Intermestic World Is, By Definition, Both Intrusive And Porous; It Constrains But Also Gives Domestic Action International Impact

A globalized world is one where borders are porous, making them deeply vulnerable to global forces, but also leaves an opportunity for middle powers to make a difference in new ways. Borders have become less and less relevant in containing and channeling what are now global flows of all kinds: goods, technology, people, finance, disease, crime, and above all, potentially catastrophic, and epochal climate change. These flows have created a new class of “intermestic” challenges for our societies, challenges that can only be met effectively through the combination of effective domestic responses and shared collective action. Effectiveness in the face of global, “intermestic” challenges requires a new understanding of state sovereignty as something that can only be meaningful if it is both substantive and shared with common purpose.

The Rise Of Denialist Isolationism

While this need for both substantive and shared sovereignty may seem obvious in principle, it is far from accepted in practice. Some states have chosen the path of denial and succumbed to nativist, populist isolationism in response to global flows, neither acting to address them effectively nor prepared to share with others in doing so. The United States Administration has set an example of denial and advocates it as a universal norm, destroying shared institutions that might house collective action.

The open nature of our society, our culture of comity, our diverse economy, and our experience in sharing sovereignty within our borders, have allowed us to resist denialism in the face of global challenges. We are therefore in a unique position, indeed are obliged as a matter of self interest, to take the action necessary to address them. If we do not take substantive action within our borders in relation to these issues, we forfeit any right to claim influence on the international level, and risk being overwhelmed ourselves by a collective failure of effort. Preaching or preening on the world stage might be helpful politically at home but worse than not enough in real terms.

It Is Only In Acting Locally That We Can Help Change What Happens Globally

The list of core global challenges are already the bread and butter of our current national discourse. Facing them effectively here will help others to join collective effort: on the other hand, if we cannot or will not manage them, it is hard to see how institutions, social capital, and others less privileged in terms of wealth, can do so.

What Global Issues Are Local? A List Of Six:

-We are both leading producers and consumers of carbon-based energy and other resources whose exploitation taxes the global environment. Our continued prosperity and cohesion as a regionalized federation depends on a national consensus relating to the balance between the economy and the environment, but it is also critical as a contribution to the global effort to do so. It is proving to be an extremely difficult balance to draw in our prosperous society; it is infinitely more difficult to balance globally.

-We must adapt, as a matter of national priority, to the changes brought to society and the economy by exponential developments in information technology, modernizing our culture as well as our social, regulatory and educational systems in a hurry. Our future security, economy and social structures depend on it, as do those of every other democratic society.

-We are uniquely successful in attracting and integrating migrants from diverse cultures. We have to reassess and sustain that capacity in the face of new realities, including the fact that forced migration is growing worldwide, in part due to climate disruption, and that many jurisdictions have vainly chosen to build walls in face of this global phenomenon. Another area, where if we cannot manage, no other society can.

– Canada’s role as a haven for international money laundering now enables the destruction of global and national institutions on which not just our own prosperity but that of every other country depends. We need to step up the commitment to fight the global flows of illicit wealth that are corrupting institutions everywhere. We have the privilege of a cogent system of culture, law and institutions to stem corruption, one far more effective than those of most jurisdictions.

-We must maintain a national commitment to the complex process of reconciliation between our aboriginal peoples and modern society, drawing on the cultural wisdom that they bring us on social and environmental issues, at a time when indigenous peoples are marginalized and their cultures systematically devalued elsewhere.

-We must impose substantive sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic and the North, areas that are being transformed by climate disruption, and ones that we hold as part of the global commons, to ensure that they are under effective rule of law and managed sustainably.

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

It is easy to argue, as many have done, that one country alone cannot address global challenges to any effect. But this claim of individual impotence leads inevitably to collective failure. Global challenges are intermestic challenges: they are amenable only to solutions that come from combining individual efforts, not from paper agreements to collective effort. To put it politely, the evidence is that effective collective action from treaties, conventions, and declartions are elusive in the current world order. Canada depends too much on the outside world to put its hopes into “followership” on global challenges. Our interests and values demand that we take real responsibility for action in our own space, however hard that may sometimes be, and make that a critical spur and contribution to collective effort. We can then legitimately urge that effective multilateral efforts follow; they clearly cannot now be a precondition for fulfilling our global responsibility within our borders. Doing anything less within our jurisdiction, relying on symbolic gestures, and waiting for common action on the international stage would be both dangerous to ourselves, and amount to hypocrisy as an international actor, something of which we have been accused with some justice, too often.

 An earlier version of this article previously appeared in Globalist magazine. 

The campaign for a short stay  on the UN Security Council:
Concede, to make lemonade from a lemon.

The insistence on continuing the campaign should raise concerns about the Government’s ‘glitter’ approach to diplomacy. A tempory seat on the UN Security Council gives Canada no real influence. It gives only the illusion of influence and only within Canada.

What it does do is give us a US problem that we definitely do not need. We either align with the US as it votes, in which case our presence is less than useless; or we disagree, which makes us uniquely vulnerable to US pressure on the bilateral front at a time when managing our relationship with a mercurial Administration is a huge and daily concern.

It is embarrassing that we have to campaign so hard, but even more so, it is unlikely that we will prevail. We are up against highly credible candidates (Ireland and Norway) and have done little to earn universal respect in recent years. Much better to wait, if we really do want the role, for next time with a much weaker field. But, who knows, beware of the hard reality should we have our way this time around.

Much better to turn a potential embarrassment to our advantage and trade our concession on an empty and risky seat at the UN,  for support of an outstanding Canadian someone who can actually make a difference for a global role. We have not had such a person making a difference since Maurice Strong fifty years ago. Mark Carney is already a world leader on the environment and the economy. He would make an outstanding leader for the UN Environment or Development Programmes.


George Haynal was a career foreign service officer. His last domestic role was as Assistant Deputy Minister for the United States and the Americas. His last posting abroad was as Consul General in New York. An alumnus Fellow of the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University, after retirement, he joined Bombardier Inc. as vice president for international and government affairs, a position from which he retired in 2012. He has been a member of a number of association boards of directors, and was most recently the Chair of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.