Skip to main content

Mutual accommodation – the willingness to compromise, if required, to settle a dispute or move forward – may not always work, but it should always be an option. Even when circumstances don't seem promising, we should keep in mind the impact that flexibility could have.

Canada's story shows that mutual accommodation is one of the better ways to conduct human governance that emerged from the 20th century. Non-violent resistance is another. It sparked the great achievements of Mahatma Gandhi in India, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in the United States – which ultimately also became achievements for those who opposed them, those who initially resisted before giving up ground rather than resorting to drastic measures.

Non-violence is a particular way of achieving mutual accommodation but since 1945 the Western world has developed other effective techniques for avoiding war and achieving peace and prosperity:

  • collective rather than unilateral action;
  • broadening the inclusive order both at home and abroad; and
  • containing (rather than defeating) what cannot be included at any particular time.

Hazards to world peace

At the same time, three new threats to the inclusiveness and scope of the global order have emerged:

  • Vladimir Putin’s Russia;
  • the multidimensional mess in the Middle East; and
  • an expansion-minded Iran.

Each has emerged, in part, because the United States has forgotten what has worked so well for it and the rest of the world since 1945.

Mike Mullen, the admiral (now retired) who served as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, recently criticized his country's triumphalism and lack of assistance to Russia after the Soviet collapse. The U.S. would have been better to approach the diminished Russia the way it did Germany and Japan after the Second World War even if the two situations aren't comparable. In fact, Russia, like Iran and the Islamic State, has two traits that make it hard to handle – a thirst for revenge and a desire to reconstruct a lost "empire."

These narratives look backward, not forward. They get in the way of seeing a better, more collaborative and safer way ahead. This makes it extremely difficult for other countries to work constructively with any of them.

The United States, more than most countries, is seeking paths forward that strengthen the global order. By contrast, these three danger zones have expansionist ambitions that threaten their neighbours and undermine that order.

A forward-looking expansionism that takes the needs and interests of others into account – that operates through mutual accommodation – can exist within a peaceful and prosperous world order. But a fixation on vengeance and lost empires is more likely to respond to a strategy of containment, of "disintertwinement," than to the increasing inclusiveness of the world order.

It demands uncompromising stands and decisive actions rather than the small steps that mutual accommodation allows – steps that feel less risky for all participants because whatever is done requires consent. This kind of limited accommodation happened more than once during the Cold War in key areas such as arms control.

Russia, the Islamic State and Iran are each of special importance right now. They pose huge, immediate and imponderable risks to the global economy and to long-term global security. Their strong geopolitical drivers are not a good fit for what their own countries and the world need right now.

Let's begin with Russia. Mr. Putin had a real opportunity to become a major player in making the global order better in ways that also worked for Russia. So far he has not followed that route, but he or a successor can still do so at some future date.

Looking backward no longer works in a world that, since 1945, has been on a fast and powerful track forward. Both the Soviet Union and China lost ground for decades because they did not acknowledge that fact. Now Russia, from a weaker position, seems back into the same kind of overreach that plagued the Soviet Union before it collapsed. It may have some early success, but over time it will further weaken Russia. The sooner Moscow acknowledges that it must collaborate with Europe, the better it will be. Europe and Russia need each other.

Neither Iran nor anyone else in the Middle East has given any indication of being ready to become a positive participant in the inclusive global order. By its very nature, Islamic State could never be a partner, but Iran could be – if it set its sights on that goal.

Unfortunately, though, in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Iran, the revenge and reconstruction stories are reinforced by cultures that have found modernization difficult. Countries in the Middle East cannot overcome these backward-looking drivers any time soon. There are simply too many obstacles preventing them from moving forward. In Iran, however, a large part of the population is looking to the future, or already there.

The West and these troubled places have only one constructive way forward – mutual accommodation. Given their complex history, that is not a natural way for any of them to think or operate. One good thing about mutual accommodation is that it is hard to do. It requires minimal illusion among all parties. That same quality makes it safer to try and safer once it is accomplished.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran's leaders were right to try to find a mutual accommodation on the contentious nuclear file. That is so, even if the deal fails to achieve its goals. The nuclear talks are limited in scope and aspiration, which is good. Although the purpose is big – to forbid any additional nuclear weapons in the Middle East – it, too, is limited in scope. After 50 years of distrust between the countries, an agreement will not in itself bring trust or peace, but it could be the first step along the way.

Iran may or may not be open to a different way of going about achieving its aspirations. It has a significant population that is attracted to the West but also key players who are stuck in the past. Now that a nuclear agreement is near, the West needs to think about the longer-term benefits for both sides in the dispute if Iran can be persuaded that a more collaborative approach will be both safe and productive. In the meantime, policies and active efforts to thwart destabilizing Iranian behaviour will be needed.

At the same time , the U.S. itself remains a potential global risk due to its hyper-partisan, no-holds-barred politics, which reflect a lot of divisiveness within U.S. society. If that divisiveness were to derail the agreement Iran, the ramifications would go far beyond nuclear weapons and the rising risk of military action in the Middle East. It would be the U.S. turning its back on the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as Germany. It is hard today to get other countries on the same page. To get the U.S., France, the United Kingdom and Germany on the same page with China and Russia does not happen often or easily. Having the U.S. refuse to go along because of what the world sees as its dysfunctional politics could not fail to weaken Washington's ability to attract international support for other geographical and economical challenges.

The fading U.S. presence

All three of these troubled places would be better off, as they look forward, if they can view the United States as a less dominating threat than it has been in recent years. In fact, it is withdrawing, not because of weakness but of overreach. This withdrawal is making the country stronger and, simultaneously, less dominating.

There will always be geopolitical dangers in a fast-moving world. The most striking feature of the Cold War and the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been how containable big crises, including high-risk moments such as Cuba in 1962, have been. In the past, similar events have led to catastrophe. If we consider some significant "moments" in the past two centuries – the bad Napoleonic wars (up to 1815), the good Western Europe era (1815 to 1914), the bad Western Europe era (1914 to 1945), the (on average) good global period (1945 to 1990) and now the post-Cold War era – we have to conclude that we are now back in a "bad" era. It is not clear where the world is headed. Almost certainly, though, it is in a more manageable state than it was in the first 50 years of the last century. So far, extreme outcomes are being avoided.

Major countries like Russia and China do not consider the current world order suited to their needs. They see it as something imposed by the United States. For that reason, the inclusive global order will be less inclusive and less global. At the same time, no major country wants either the economic or the security foundations of the global order to collapse. Both China and Russia seem to worry about the social and economic risks they would face from a weakening global economic order, even as they build their security strength opposite that of the United States.

In principle, today is not very different from the postwar era that ended in 1990. Both Russia and China are strong military countries with clear borders, and their governments are in control of their territory. The big difference is that they are more intertwined with the global economy, so the idea of containment is not as simple today as it was in 1950. And disintertwinement is a central and difficult-to-implement part of any containment strategy.

Russia could become a second 50-year containment challenge. There is little immediate prospect of becoming a positive player. That is just not how President Putin sees Russia's future. Western policy has to figure out how to deal with that reality in a way that avoids extreme outcomes.

The several failed states in the Middle East present a completely different set of problems: Islamic State's absolute brutality, the absence of functioning states, the huge number of refugees, the thousands of immigrants fleeing from Africa, all alongside the poor stressed middle classes and unemployed youth everywhere. This set of challenges has no real historical precedent. It will be a fundamental challenge to all Western countries and require action from both governments and private institutions.

The United States faces a new and difficult world, one that has never been more connected – yet so disconnected at the same time. It is in the late stages of withdrawing from ground it can no longer hold to ground it can hold. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lived in the two-superpower world that marked the years after the Second World War. Then, for a few years, the U.S. was the only superpower.

But a superpower is not what it used to be. America is bumping up against challenging limits it has yet to think through. Other countries also need to rethink the current global realities as the U.S. withdraws. It is still a superpower, but it has definite limits on its effective reach. It is still indispensable, but not as pervasive as it used to be.

In his new book Superpower, political scientist Ian Bremmer, a consultant and active observer of political risk, has outlined three broad choices for America's role in the world. All non-Americans, including Canadians, should think about his arguments carefully. No country will be more important to the world over the next few decades than the United States. It needs to get the part it should play as right as possible, but its divisive politics will make that very difficult. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, America's role is too important to be left to the Americans.

A Canadian contribution

Great powers usually don't feel any particular need for mutual accommodation as they go about their business. But without it, lesser powers like Canada cannot make much progress on anything. To thrive, Canada needs to rethink its role, that of the United States and how, together, the two countries can use their individual strengths in a world that desperately needs fresh thinking, more vision and greater collaboration. This reconsideration should be at the top of the new government's to-do list after the federal election in October.

Canadians in the past have chosen a peacekeeping role, but there's now little call for that. Canada will be most useful if it commits its resources and experience to disintertwinement and long-term, humanitarian-based broadening of the inclusive global order.

North America has seen the creation of two improbable countries: the United States in the 18th century, driven by freedom and individualism, and Canada in the 19th century, driven out of necessity by mutual accommodation and collective action. Now may be the moment when these two neighbours, who are very different but share many values, can work together in a new way.

It is possible that Canada's talent for accommodation could could join the economic and military strength that are the fruit of U.S. freedom and science – and thus become a dominant and indispensable force in the 21st century.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., which consults on government relations and economic policy, and has an extensive record of public service. To bolster his campaign to hold a nationwide conversation about the state and nature of the country, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with assistance from Trent University. For more about the venture – and to see Mr. Macdonald's essay, Canada: Still the Unknown Country – please visit

Interact with The Globe