New Canadian Alliances in a Changing World Order

Yes, change is in the air and there are unmistakable signs of shifting alliances and new alignments in politics and trade. But neither the old order is vanishing completely nor a drastically new foreign policy is need of the hour for a middle power like Canada. A rejuvenated and fresh approach to its political and trade linkages with Europe and the Pacific countries would be able to see Canada through the initial upheavals in the wake of impending big power competition.

by Aug 20, 2020

During the last decade, in the wake of rising right-wing nationalism in various parts of the world especially the US, we have been hearing concerned voices on the fate of existing international liberal order. The doomsayers predict ‘collapse’ of the order and a resultant ‘chaos’ where the primacy of US and its allies would vanish and authoritarian states like China, Russia and Iran would hijack the helm. Then there are voices who point to rising level of rivalry between the US-led West on one hand and China and Russia on the other, resulting in a shifting of age-old alliances and changing balances of power so painstakingly woven by the western allies after the WWII.

Actors in the old system of alliances are watching the rapidly changing scenario from the sidelines and figuring out where their national interests would lie if big-power competition starts and old alliances start to crumble. These concerns are valid and perhaps urgent. But before we look into that, let’s try to find out what it means by changing international liberal order. Is it really collapsing and vanishing in thin air? If not, what shape or form it might take? Are we at the cusp of a new cold war? If we are, then what choices are there for middle powers like Canada, which is geographically, economically and perhaps politically tied to the United States. If the US abdicates from its responsibilities and leadership, who would anchor the politics and economics of the Western allies? These are the questions that are giving nightmares to leaders around the liberal world.

True, there are unmistakable signs that the old order is going through an unprecedented upheaval and would continue to convulse until a new order starts taking shape. But is it liberal international order that is set for change or is it globalization that is under threat? This is the real question. And more importantly, is the US set to pack up and suddenly retreat to go on a 100-year spiritual meditational sojourn? I don’t think so, especially when all the indicators point to the fact the US is still at its peak of political, economic and technological power and leadership. China is rising compared to its past and maybe would continue to rise if the circumstances remain favourable as they were a few years ago. All signs project that favourable trade, freedom of having no military challenge from anywhere and having status of workshop of the world may be over soon.

Yes, the world and the international liberal order is changing, but it would be still liberal and it would be still based on values the West shares but may become circumspect, smaller and target-oriented. In other words, the club is still open but the membership is becoming stricter and old member list is being vetted and retrenched.

We can call it a new international liberal order led by the US and its allies in Europe, Americas and the Pacific. Free movement of people and goods would still be a cornerstone but not at the scale of WTO and its globalisation mandate. It is definitely end of the unipolar world but not the end of the international liberal order. Europe and its principal powers would definitely be part of this order though less integrated internally in terms of politics and economics. The new order would be more pronounced in the Pacific and Indian Ocean with Australia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India. This new order could expect some solid challenges from alliance shaping up among China, Iran and Russia which has considerable influence in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and some African states. Pakistan can be another headache as well.

Moreover, China has built considerable inroads in the pillars of old international order like WTO, UNHRC, WHO and to some extent in the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and APEC, while erecting parallel institutions of its own like Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, RECP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). It would be a lot of debris to clear and now policymakers must be mulling on whether to clean these institutions or abandon them and build need-based smarter ones.

Now before we drift any further, let’s have a look at where Canada stands and where it can pivot to. With strong values and robust credentials, it is a middle power that is viewed by the world as peaceful and liberal, having a solid economy and a reliable trading partner that always stands for value-based order in international relations. It may reside in North America but it is not the US nor Mexico. It has gained respect for its international standards and does not hesitate to shed its blood and treasure when its values are threatened. I can imagine Canada underpinning this new order with few reforms and modifications.

The new order will be different from the current global one. The liberal countries and allies in this order may not have the luxury to depend on each other economically. And they might compete with one another in search of new markets that seek technological innovations. But the ideals of the free world and a counter-force might help it gel strongly. Apart from trade with the US, Canada will have to find new markets within allies in the Pacific and Europe. It can still sell lumber, beef and dairy to the US but it now urgently requires technologies to export to Pacific and Europe. For that to happen, Canada needs a next-gen silicon valley of its own where cutting-edge research in cyberspace and AI could give it a competitive edge in trade.

In terms of political clout, the post-WWII approach of US in the driving seat and everyone else enjoying the landscape looks set for change. Everyone from the alliance in Europe, Pacific or Americas will have to build and buy clout of its own. This may sound constraining, but it can open up a whole new range of possibilities for countries like Canada, Australia and Germany. In emerging scenario, the UN, and especially the UNSC may lose its power and effectiveness. But there will be new systems and arrangements that would replace them. Here Canada would need to take initiative and lead by building alliances in far-off lands of Africa and Asia.

The world is heading this direction fast – COVID or no COVID. The pandemic, however would exacerbate and pronounce the faultlines in several countries around the world. With poverty and impoverishment spreading to wider populations of the world, and authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran digging trenches, the old order based on its globalist worldview would have become inadequate and lost potency anyway. Canada needs to act fast and decisively.

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Mohammed Rizwan is a fellow at the Pragmora Institute.