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Afghan refugees who supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan prepare to board buses after arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Aug. 24.

MCpl Genevieve Lapointe/Reuters

Lloyd Axworthy was the federal minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000, and the chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council. Jean Charest was the minister of environment from 1991 to 1993 and the premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012. Jennifer Welsh is director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies at McGill University. Jeremy Kinsman was ambassador to the European Union, Italy and Russia, and the high commissioner to the U.K. Ben Rowswell is president of the Canadian International Council.

The disastrous retreat from Afghanistan is yet one more development that shows the U.S. has lost the primacy it once enjoyed in international affairs. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have demonstrated a faltering resolve for global leadership. America’s commitment to work with allies in upholding the international order is in question as never before.

Without effective U.S. leadership, the onus to address burning international issues falls more heavily on the rest of us in the democratic world. The rise of illiberal nationalism and authoritarian rule, the declining self-confidence of liberal democracy, the return of protectionism and trading blocs, runaway nuclear proliferation, global health and climate crises – these are issues that countries such as Canada must now confront if superpowers cannot or will not.

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But in a Canadian election campaign that was launched on the same day as the fall of Kabul, foreign policy does not seem to feature on the agenda of our political parties. The government has called the election to allow Canadians to pronounce on choices facing them on health, social policy and economic recovery. As geopolitical rivalries intensify, climate change accelerates and the international economy transforms in unpredictable ways, how will our country participate in efforts to create greater stability and more effective international solutions? So far the election campaign has offered no answers to voters.

And yet recent efforts have shown that voters care quite a lot about greater Canadian global engagement. This past spring, 444 everyday Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast and from every walk of life gathered for up to 12 hours to deliberate the major choices facing Canada in the world. In the deliberative democracy exercise called “Foreign Policy By Canadians” – co-organized by the Canadian International Council, the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) and Global Canada – citizens demonstrated a principled yet pragmatic approach to international affairs. When presented with the facts and the opportunity to quiz experts, they had little difficulty seeing how core interests at home depend heavily on developments abroad.

They saw clearly, for instance, that we can’t protect Canadians from future COVID-19 variants if poor countries remain barely vaccinated. A succession of expert panels, including one recently commissioned by the G20, have presented concrete proposals for delivering better pandemic preparedness and response for future health challenges. Will Canada step up with financial commitments and diplomatic energy to reach a consensus on these urgent innovations and reforms?

Meanwhile, the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a “Code Red for Humanity” over its clear documentation of the fastest temperature increase in 2,000 years. How fast can we transition to clean energy sources to rein in further increases? And with climate change opening up the Arctic to sea traffic and seabed exploration, how will Canada establish more of an Arctic presence and improve the lives of our northernmost citizens?

Then there are the questions raised by the fall of Afghanistan. The sad spectacle of civilians fleeing the return of intolerant and suppressive rule is but the latest of the migration waves stemming from economic, climate and conflict-related insecurities. Can Canada help find new ways for the citizens of other countries to hold their rulers accountable for the kind of corruption that undermined public faith in the Afghan government?

Over the years, our country has taken the lead in promulgating the protection of civilians, especially women and children. The risks to these most vulnerable victims are on the increase. There are glaring gaps in health, nutrition and education. What is Canada prepared to contribute to meet these critical needs?

For three generations, Canada has had the luxury of a powerful neighbour assuming responsibility for upholding the international order, even as we disagreed with U.S. goals and tactics from time to time. “Foreign Policy By Canadians” showed us that Canadians recognize that simply deferring to the U.S. is not a viable approach, and domestically puts our economy at risk.

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Instead, Canada should draw on the important relationships we have developed over decades of diplomacy and forge new ones, in order to exercise collective leadership. By working with allies and partners, we can set a pathway to a more effective and equitable international order – if we honour the demands our citizens have for greater global engagement.

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