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paikin and scott

Zach Paikin (left) and Jonathan Scott (right)

We're living in a changing world, one the young – and those who think young – are best positioned to negotiate. In order to address Canada's major challenges, new ways of thinking will be required.

Our politics must be disentangled from outdated modes of thinking. Many politicians born in the Baby Boom are stuck in a thought process prioritizing norms over interests. In such an interconnected world – where social media can topple dictatorships just as well as the 101st Airborne Division – President Lincoln's famous remark holds true: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

Those governing the West during the Cold War – the era in which today's political leaders were educated – could afford to place the values of one's society ahead of a more complex grand strategy. After all, in the bipolar world prevailing until just before our lifetime, any strategic gains for NATO states came at the expense of the Eastern bloc. In such a zero-sum game, the major international dynamic was framed as one between two competing systems of government. It was a world of two collective norms trumping individual national interests.

Yet, as the United States continues its relative decline, we are slowly but surely entering a multi-polar world in which the limitation of conflict will be ensured once again by a balance of power rather than by international institutions such as the United Nations.

In the 21st century, Canada could theoretically be the cause of destabilization in North America in three principal ways: Russian or Chinese intervention in the Arctic, the decomposition of our Confederation and the inability to get Canadian debt levels under control. All three are compounded by the spectre of climate change.

Young leaders – the most tech-savvy generation ever – are not constrained by outdated Cold War-era mentalities. And, both for simple self-interest and moral compunction, we understand any consideration of the Arctic must begin and end with the perils of climate change, for the life and livelihood of local communities and for the broader world.

Canada's immediate geopolitical Arctic challenge centres around the Northwest Passage – a shipping lane in a region with as much as 25 per cent of the world's oil reserves, progressively thawing due to climate change. Both China and Russia could threaten Canadian sovereignty over the waterway. The United States refuses to recognize Canada's claims, insisting that the passage be treated as an international strait.

Close diplomatic, economic and military relations between Canada, China and Russia may appear inconceivable to many MPs today. Yet, increased exports to Asian markets will allow Canada to act as a balancing force between the U.S. and China – the two principal powers of the next several decades. Canadian recognition of Russian sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route, according to University of Toronto Professor Irvin Studin, would secure Canada's position in the Northwest Passage and drastically increase Ottawa's influence in Europe.

In other words, a 21st century vision of Canada as the fulcrum between the United States and China could be realized, counterbalanced by Russia's influence on both superpowers.

Similar new ways of thinking can address Canada's other two principal challenges.

The Conservative Party's significant support in English Canada is a reflection of the electorate's fatigue with constitutional negotiations. The next generation, however, feels no such thing: Ours is less an issue of constitutional ennui than general political apathy. Yet, new political leaders will have new energy available to put forward, not necessarily focused on the Constitution of Canada but instead around more practical concerns such as affording our social programs in light of a sluggish economy and high North American debt levels.

National unity in its traditional sense – literally keeping the country together – strengthens Canadian military strategy and legal claims in the North. Yet a deeper connotation of unity – in the sense of every region of the country working in unison to achieve economic goals – will be required to address the pressure an aging population is placing on our health care and pension systems.

Again, it is the young people of today who will have to bear the burden of these concerns. Politicians born during the Baby Boom have no electoral incentive to veer from attempts to placate today's older voting population. Yet, if an inter-generational compromise is not found before the impending demographic and environmental crises arrive, the consequences for Canada's economy and geopolitical position will be dire.

All of these challenges are not theoretical and primarily affect future generations. Action is required today – not tomorrow – in order to address these issues. The lesson is clear: The time for young political leadership in Canada is now.

Zach Paikin was a candidate for National Policy Chair of the Liberal Party of Canada at the party's 2012 biennial convention. Jonathan Scott is President of the University of Toronto Liberals.

How can Canada get young people more involved in politics? Chat with the chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, on Thursday, Sept. 20.