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Canadian and Afghan soldiers and members of the Afghan National Army in action in 2006. More recently, Steven Toope writes, when nations important to Canada have run into trouble, ‘we have done our bit, but not much more.’

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canadians must recognize that the world has changed since the heyday of Pearsonian internationalism. There is no global superpower able to impose order. Key decisions are taken through networks that include not only countries but sub-state actors like cities and provinces, as well as non-governmental organizations, philanthropists and corporations. The postwar international institutions are under increasing pressure to change, to become more representative of a world in which the West is not so dominant.

Much of the world is in turmoil: the Middle East, obviously, but also Europe as it struggles with mass migration and the rise of right-wing extremism (especially in the East, where nationalist, anti-Europe governments already control Poland and Hungary). Britain could pull out of the European Union. Russia's economy is in freefall; despite its bluster, the country is collapsing. China is not growing fast enough to satisfy the expectations of its people, and the government is cracking down on dissent more forcefully than we have seen since the Tiananmen Square protests.

Canada's relative position in the world also has changed, and not for the better. Many states can aspire to the status of middling power, and not just the usual suspects. Korea, Mexico, and Indonesia, among others, carry increasing political and economic weight. Yet, given our location, aging population, resource endowment, history, and commitment to democracy and human rights, certain issues and relationships simply demand active Canadian engagement.

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If, after a decade or more of diminishment, we want to be "back" on the world stage, we need foreign policy that is focused and attentive to the real, not imagined, assets we bring to bear on global issues. We have to identify clearly the interests and values that we hope to defend and promote. We also need a more expansive understanding of the countries with which we have to build relationships.

Here is how the new government should go about finding that focus.

Friends and traders

North America is an oasis of relative stability – at least it may be, depending upon the outcome of the next U.S. presidential election. It is always logical for Canada to invest heavily in strengthening the economic relationships framed by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and in reinforcing our cultural and social ties with Mexico and the United States. In a world of turmoil, that imperative is even stronger.

We should focus great effort on keeping the Canada-U.S. border open for business, and co-ordinate as actively as possible with both the U.S. and Mexico on continental security. (In assessing future military needs, joint operations with their armed forces deserve some priority.) Canada should also work hard to reignite the spirit of NAFTA, especially in relations with Mexico. Lifting visa requirements for its citizens was a good start, but we have to promote a much greater exchange of students, cultural ambassadors, tourists and business people, especially given that Mexico is an entry point to other growing and stabilizing countries in Latin America.

Canada is also a Pacific nation. Although NAFTA and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), assuming it is ratified, are important to Canada, we need to tie ourselves to economies that are growing far faster than those of the U.S. or Europe. Opening active negotiations toward a free-trade agreement with China should be a high priority, as should ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership (although there are likely some tough negotiations ahead on much-needed side deals).

We must also pay close attention to what happens in the wake of treaties we have already made, such as the one with South Korea. Concluding an agreement is only the beginning of the hard work of trade and investment promotion. We have to do a better job in helping medium-sized businesses connect with global supply chains.

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At the same time, Canada must work to build political and cultural relationships in the Asian region, especially China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan (which still has the world's third-largest economy and is beginning to play a more active diplomatic role). These bonds should be strong enough to allow honest expressions of disagreement when important values are at stake. We don't have to stand on a soap box, but we should always be clear just what we are "standing on guard" to protect.

Connections with Asia are not only an economic and political imperative. Changing migration patterns mean that Asia is now by far the largest source of new Canadians. We will need many immigrants – even more than we are currently admitting – if we are to maintain our standard of living in the face of a low domestic birth rate.

How we invite people to Canada – and whom we admit – speaks volumes about our global connections and intentions for engagement. Our attitude toward international students is a good test case. Do we see them simply as much-needed sources of cash for universities and colleges, or as critical connectors for business and culture?

If the latter, we should make it easier for them to gain Canadian work experience, and strive to stay connected with those who decide to return to their home countries.

Energy and innovation

As we watch the continuing collapse of oil prices, it is obvious that global energy policy is of great importance to Canada, especially in how it links to environment and climate policy. How we price carbon, lessen our reliance on fossil fuels, and promote alternate energy sources will matter to all of Canada, not just to the energy-producing provinces. We are in a period of transition; for some years to come, oil and gas will continue to power our lives in large measure. China has already said that it will be more interested in a free-trade deal if Canada can do a better job of getting its carbon-based fuel to the coasts. At the same time, the world's commitment to slowing the growth of global warming, expressed more clearly than ever in Paris last January, will require tough action in Canada, and hard negotiations with partners. Might we try to engage in massive emissions trading with Southeast Asian countries that are the world's fastest-growing producers of carbon, deploying carbon sinks in our forests? Can we lead a move away from heavy oil to natural gas by privileging those exports?

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Canada's economic engagement with the world will also be defined in part by choices we make in domestic industrial and innovation policies. For more than two decades now, we have struggled to reverse a trend of falling productivity. That does not mean that Canadians have not worked hard enough. Our growing productivity gap with the U.S. and other G7 countries is caused almost entirely by a lack of business investment in research and development. Yet what has passed for innovation policy in Canada has really not focused on innovation, but been a mash-up of regional economic development and corporate welfare. Innovation can exist, and is needed, in all industries, including those in the natural-resource sector. We have to be careful not to confuse "innovation" with "high tech." Our services sector has been a source of export growth for Canada. Perhaps government policy should be re-examined with a view to promoting more innovation in services like finance, insurance, engineering and law.

To foster innovation, we need to define much more clearly what we hope to achieve, and then target our efforts. We must be attentive to the rules governing intellectual property, and not get caught in concerted efforts to export U.S. models that effectively protect established players in Hollywood and Silicon Valley at the expense of smaller businesses trying to grow by exploiting their innovations. Should we provide further public support for Bombardier? Probably, because it has been a site of creativity and international expansion – but only on condition that it reform both its management and corporate governance. Industrial policy also has to take into consideration the values that we say we stand for and try to promote globally. Does Canada want to be an arms supplier to regimes and rebels in the Middle East? If so, let's be forthright about it. If not, then why should the Canadian government provide export guarantees and trade-support services to arms exporters?

Democracy, security, migration

Canadians are committed to democratic government, the rule of law and human rights. Poll after poll reveals that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is widely seen as a precious legacy, connected to our traditions of social inclusion and pluralism. These values mean that Canadians can and should promote the same rights and freedoms for people around the world. That was why we fought the Second World War and the Korean War. In large measure, it justified our disproportionate engagement in Afghanistan. But the latter case also shows why we should promote democratic values, rather than imagine that we can impose them. Military action will always be a last, worst option.

Canadians were once widely active, with the support of the government, in legal and judicial reform efforts, in the promotion of human rights (particularly the rights of women), in helping to build institutions of inclusion such as local governments, and in aid to emerging democracies. With our almost constant scaling-back of international development aid over the last 25 years, those efforts have waned. These are areas where Canada has credibility and expertise; our contribution could be significant globally.

One example: Canada also has a longstanding interest in the security of the Korean Peninsula. More than 500 Canadians lost their lives in the Korean War, and the dangerous and unpredictable regime in the north is trying to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could target North America and destabilize all of Asia, with profound global consequences. Canada will not participate in the needed revival of the "six-party talks" (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States), but we could play a role behind the scenes in promoting dialogue, especially as concerns weapons of mass destruction.

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Our military and security services' primary purpose is to create as safe a setting for Canadians as possible. That requires, first and foremost, the capacity to police and defend our land, sea and ice borders. Which in turn implies a need for some "forward" capacity: the ability to work in partnership with close allies to identify and prevent threats before they reach Canadian soil. And there are times when, to be credible as an ally, Canada has to commit resources to combat common threats.

Historically, Canada has also been favourably disposed to working through the UN system with partners that are not close allies. These partnerships were once framed as peace keeping, but today what is often required is far more aggressive peace making: intervention in civil wars, stabilization in post-conflict societies and protection of countries against aggressors. Canada must define its military and security priorities, and shape its procurement and staffing in the light of those potential priorities. (This may seem basic and utterly obvious, but successive political and military administrations have failed to do so.)

Security threats can arise unexpectedly, and in surprising places. Five years ago, there was little talk of Islamic State. That is partly why the world's response has been so fragmented and tentative. Canada could choose to build a much stronger capacity for rapid response, always working with allies, but capable of early action. Our position with allies in the fight against Islamic State would be more comfortable if we had been able to announce an alternative to our air-combat deployment far sooner. If we had been able to offer to work closely with France in North and West Africa, deploying special forces and anti-terrorist-training personnel to aid the G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Chad), for example, the entire fracas over the Canadian role against Islamic State in Iraq could have been avoided. I suspect that we simply weren't ready to make such an offer.

Foreign policy, including security and international development, must always be flexible enough to respond to events. Unexpected crises can produce massive refugee flows. Canada could choose to be actively involved in global policy debates on migration, in part simply because we are a country of immigration but also because the world needs to do more to support weak and failing states in the Global South. During the Cold War, many oppressed and impoverished people could not move, because borders were closed. Now borders are porous and many unsavoury actors will smuggle desperate migrants for a fee. The civil war in Syria, along with the appalling brutality of Islamic State, has threatened the stability of important Canadian partners in the Middle East, especially Jordan. Yet, until very recently, we did not seem ready or able to provide concrete assistance to a country we count on for moderation in a region marked by extremes. We have done "our bit," but not much more. Is it enough?

A middling power amid change

Many of our global institutions are not entirely "fit for purpose." What worked well at the end of Second World War, and well enough over subsequent decades, is not working now. Canada has always been seen as a helpful player in multilateral institutions. Now may be the time to consider a few of the places where reform is both required and possible.

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Within the UN, the World Health Organization has been damaged by repeated failures in meeting its mandate. But, as the rapid spread of the Zika virus reaffirms, the prevention and containment of health emergencies is more important than ever. Canada has remarkable expertise in global health, but we have been slow to offer up that expertise.

Reform of the Security Council is needed, but likely to be almost impossible. Canada could still provide a service by signalling its support for reform, even if this simply opened up a more robust debate on what can be achieved on security issues through the UN. Canada could also push for the creation of a rapid deployment force subject to Security Council control, so as to allow fast action in cases of impending genocide or great threat to peace.

There is also a real need to promote greater collaboration on the prevention of terrorism. Drawing together and updating some existing UN treaties into a comprehensive agreement would be a helpful role for Canada; so, too, opening a real discussion on the future role of the G20, an organization inspired by Paul Martin when he was finance minister, but whose purpose has been drifting for some years.

Canada need not engage on every global initiative or respond actively to every crisis. Given our size, our resources and our relative weight as a middling power, we must choose quite consciously how best to defend and promote our interests and values, and when we can usefully contribute to shaping a global agenda.

We simply can't be "back" on every issue or initiative. If we try, our involvement will soon turn to meaningless rhetoric.

This is a great risk for Canada. It is true that one of our assets is our positive reputation around the world; most people "like" us. But we can also be annoying when we pontificate without committing to actually do anything. The last government's supposed status as "best friend of Israel" is an example. For all the chest-thumping, did Canada accomplish anything significant in support of Israel? We provided political cover for worrying policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, but our "support" did nothing to enhance Israeli security.

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Similarly, the government of Stephen Harper was the world's most strident critic of the Russian president, to no discernible effect.

From optimism to resilience

Canada's voice can matter, when it it is raised in situations where our concrete contributions can also matter. The risk that rhetoric will not be matched with real commitment for the current government is the inverse of the risk under the former prime minister: We should now avoid patting ourselves on the back about our inclusive society and lecturing others about how many refugees they should take. We should also recognize that many of our friends and allies are under enormous strain. That includes countries as diverse as Germany, France, Turkey, Japan, Haiti, Israel, Jordan, Senegal, and Côte d'Ivoire. I am all for optimism, but "sunny ways" will soon turn to overcast skies if we do not make hard choices, and commit real resources, to help in addressing a select number of situations of global concern.

On the other hand, the inherent optimism of the current Canadian government could be very productive, if channelled in a particular way. We live in anxious times marked by random terrorist threats, widespread economic instability, environmental degradation and climate change.

Some governments, and many campaigning politicians, try to use fear as a motivational tool. The president of France largely repeats the utterances of President George W. Bush, whose "war on terror" and failed invasions have facilitated even more extremism. Donald Trump wants to ban the immigration of Muslims to the U.S.

These politically driven strategies are risky because they actually undermine social resilience. They promise a safety blanket that will inevitably fail. And when it fails, when more attacks take place, all we can do is ratchet up the rhetoric further, and back ourselves into corners that prompt more catastrophic policy choices. So Canada could play a useful role in working globally to temper the language of anger and fear, and the false promises of total security. We need to turn optimism into resilience in our domestic and foreign policy.

Canada is not a major power. It is now one of quite a few countries with an ability to help shape events. We must avoid nostalgia for a lost time of outsized impact, which can lead to foolish commitments that we will not sustain, and resentment from allies when we pull back. Canada must conduct an honest assessment of our assets, work to build more diverse relationships. and focus our foreign-policy resources and objectives. In so doing, we can defend and project our interests and values, and play a role of leadership on particular issues that matter in the world.

As the global curiosity and excitement surrounding the new Prime Minister's initial foreign forays showed, there is an appetite for Canadian re-engagement. Yes, we can be "back." Let's just make sure that being back means looking forward, dealing with the world as it is, and making a real difference where we can.

Stephen J. Toope is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. This is the second instalment of a two-part essay examining Canada's foreign policy.

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