Canada’s Accidental Global Leadership

While American hegemony enters a death spiral, Canadian policy circles are unimaginative at propelling Canadian ideas to fill the void.

by Nov 27, 2017

Prime Minister Trudeau’s November 15, 2017 announcement of Canada’s new contribution to a rapid reaction force, airlift capabilities and monetary fund to recruit and train female UN peacekeepers and police is far different the originally announced goal of 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel and 150 police officers more than a year ago. Flickr/Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s November 15, 2017 announcement of Canada’s new contribution to a rapid reaction force, airlift capabilities and monetary fund to recruit and train female UN peacekeepers and police is far different the originally announced goal of 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel and 150 police officers more than a year ago. If it is an innovation or unimaginative non-event remains to be seen.

Historian Paul Kennedy famously concluded in his Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1988) that the ebb and flow of national power (or as the case may be, superpower) was a function of economic health. With this in mind, Canada should congratulate its policy-makers for helping escape the worst consequences of the 2008-2009 “Great Recession” by virtue of fiscal responsibility and judicious budgeting. Our policy makers, however, rarely contemplate what this success means relative to other powers which have not fared so well – namely, our primary trading partner, the United States.

True, job growth in the United States is stellar, but job growth is an indicator of national power only if it translates into tax revenue. The latest news is that the Congress has passed a new tax bill, which the Wall Street Journal calls the most significant tax overhaul since 1986. Meanwhile, the United States government has been unable to pass a single budget since 2008, resorting instead to Continuing Resolution Authorisations (CRAs) which are in effect permissions to raise the debt ceiling, and to borrow more, some four months at a time. True, much of this inability is due to partisan clashing. However, despite historically-low interest percentage rates, the US government’s debt is higher than its GDP  according to the Pew Research Center. The combination of these factors may continue to distract it from its (mostly self-imposed) global obligations. The Pentagon already complains that a reliance on CRAs prevent it from engaging in meaningful long-term strategic planning.

Even if it weren’t the case, there is a far more damning trend at work; that of the death-spiral of American hegemonic authority. First, there is the ever increasing distrust of President Trump at the national level , but there is also the overwhelming decline of global trust in the United States as an honest broker; the Pew Research Center’s website allows one to track the relative popularity of countries around the world, based on Pew Research surveys, and the results are unmistakable – ever since the final years of Obama’s presidency, trust in the United States has been collapsing. In contrast, Germany has become the number 1 tourist destination, and Canada’s positive influence rating, based on the World Economic Forum, stands at number 1 also at 81 percent .

Positive influence rating is an interesting term. Influence means the ability to effect meaningful change. Can we really say that Canada has been doing that? Canadian policy makers have trouble identifying the country’s real worth worldwide – leading Canadians to clutch to the familiar. Witness Canada’s 150th Anniversary birthday bash; beavers, free healthcare and maple syrup. That’s the view from here in Germany. Canadians don’t dare admit it, but we are much more than that, and other countries are starting to notice. And they may hold us to account for the future state of the world. That is, as U.S. hegemony dwindles, we and a few other countries may be prompted to use our talents and resources to support the West’s continued dominion on what we deem positive and constructive global development and prosperity. The frequency with which Prime Minister Trudeau and Chancellor Angela Merkel are positively identified with change on popular online media (the most influential – if not always trustworthy) like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Upworthy only equals negative broadcast of Mr. Trump’s and the U.S. image worldwide.

“Many are comfortable with ‘having a seat at the table’…but we should be interested at building that table.”

For those content with the current state of affairs, they may quote Joseph Nye who is convinced that the days of U.S. hegemony are far from over. But it scarcely matters whether they are or not. What matters is what people believe, and, increasingly, feel. Other powers feel they cannot trust the United States anymore. As evidence, we can turn to the revision of the nuclear deal with Iran, NAFTA and the intermediate ballistic missile treaty. Before Mr. Trump, we could also point at President Bush’s decision to abandon the ABM Treaty to develop missile defence. These attitudes will contribute to United States’ isolation, so that when it needs political support from allies, friends and neighbours, no one will come to their aid. And without support, there is no legitimacy for action.

The United States will continue to exercise attraction to those thirsty for freedom. But even cultural appeal is starting to dwindle. Evidence for this is measured by the diversity of new socio-cultural points of attraction. This attractiveness is a symptom of excellence which we as Canadians are frequently ill-at-ease to acknowledge. But I am French Canadian, and unencumbered by such considerations, so let me lay it out for you. Mark Carney, the director of the Bank of England is Canadian. The new enfant-chéri of Hollywood is no longer Quentin Tarantino, but Denis Villeneuve. Airline duty-free sky shops now feature “Soirée Montréal” products on par with Swarowski. The international community more and more frequently turns to Canada when disaster strikes; witness the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Or NATO’s operations over Libya, commanded by a Canadian, or reassurance initiatives in the Baltic States, where the Canadian element leads in Latvia. Bombardier’s C series is so good it seems to represent an existential threat to Boeing. Likewise, Bombardier’s trains rival with that of giant Siemens in Germany and Austria. These are only some examples. But everywhere, Canadian excellence is crystalizing our soft power into something ever harder – and precious.

Canada, I fear, will be called to take on global leadership roles more often and this will cost resources and precious power. All the more reasons to use it wisely. However, Canadian policy circles are unprepared for that; we have a bureaucracy that is a picture of stability and predictability, but somewhat unimaginative when it comes to propelling Canadian ideas worldwide. Many are comfortable with “having a seat at the table”, to quote Prof. Joel Sokolsky, but we should be interested at building that table, and having an authoritative say at what goes on in the world, rather than merely being a guest. Failure to do so would mean dashing the expectations of those who turn their eyes to us for solace and support, and, without having reaped any of the benefits of leadership, we will lose our own credibility.

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Frederic Labarre
Frederic Labarre is a Senior Associate at the Security Governance Group, and he currently living and working in Germany conducting project management and consultancy work.