Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
After two chaotic years under U.S. President Donald Trump, the world is a messier and more dangerous place. Unless constructive powers such as Canada step up, the multilateral system is headed down the drain. Constructed after the Second World War, with its emphasis on rules-based order, it underwrote decades-long peace and prosperity, lifting billions out of poverty. And now it’s under threat.
With Mr. Trump cheering the way, nationalism and competition are dominant global trends. As with Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort, this President personifies and appeals to the darker forces. If two years of Mr. Trump have taught Canada and its allies anything, it is that he cannot be trusted and that we need to take a collective stand against his bullying.
Unfortunately, populism, protectionism and polarization will persist after his presidency. So will conflicting U.S. partisan priorities. Consistency in U.S. policy and bipartisan support for alliances and multilateralism no longer apply. Canada and its allies need to adapt.
As with Mr. Trump, Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia also see the world differently. They are building authoritarian systems based on state capitalism. Western hopes that they’d become “responsible stakeholders” were ill-founded. Instead, they are weaponizing cyberintrusion, surveillance and big data to ensure domestic stability. Now they are using these tools to subvert democracies.
Together with Mr. Trump, they share a contempt for the rules-based order. They’d rather see a concert of great powers, each exercising respective spheres of influence. Thucydides long ago described this school of international affairs: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
As the Huawei situation clearly shows, China is giving Canada a taste of what life will be like in this new order. This future would be a disaster for liberal democracies such as Canada.
Mr. Trump’s policy of “America First” leaves a vacuum that all constructive powers need to fill. No one country can do it alone, but working together, we can shore up the system. Even while multilateralism is taking a beating, recent global compacts on climate and migration and a raft of regional trade deals demonstrate its worth.
But multilateralism needs constant reinvigoration. This means repairing or reforming what is breaking down in the face of technological, climatic and demographic changes. We have to help those hurt by change.
Security must be the first priority. Our top general warns of great-power dynamics, especially Russia and China. All allies have to reinvest in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It’s time to expand our durable, collective-security alliance into the Indo-Pacific and the Arctic. Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand are already NATO partners. They should be full members.
Given the growing maritime challenges, Canada needs more investments in its navy: procuring the next generation of submarines with under-ice operability and a half-dozen “hospital” ships for rapid deployment to increasing numbers of natural and man-made disasters in coastal areas.
Securing our democratic institutions is also vital as we prepare for an election later this year. Our intelligence agencies warn that our electoral process is not immune to bad-actor interference. Are we ready to tackle bot-controlled disinformation?
Our second priority should be to shore up the global trading system that generates our prosperity. Mr. Trump has a point about its ineffective dispute-settlement process. The solution is to fix it as Canada and others will continue to do this week when they meet in Davos, Switzerland.
The third priority must be addressing climate change. Rather than fixate on carbon pricing, we need to collaborate – on global knowledge in battery storage, renewables, and efficiencies in building codes. Use COSIA – (Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance) with its commitment to sharing technological innovations that mitigate environmental damage – as a model.
As with Humpty Dumpty, the global operating system has had a great fall. Mr. Trump and his fellow travellers will eventually face an accounting, but, until then, we need to focus on fixing rather than blaming.
Canada and other constructive countries know that we all do better when we agree that rules are the principle upon which we base our order. They level the playing field and establish norms of behaviour. Multilateralism is worth fighting for.