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Paul Heinbecker is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and chief foreign-policy adviser to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He is currently a distinguished fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Our country does not have to choose between vassal status and dangerous isolation.


Ours are the best of times, as Charles Dickens would likely tell us, and the worst of times. But these days, Canadians are mostly preoccupied with the latter. Headlines report on episodes of Chinese hostility, American bullying, British distemper, Russian truculence and Saudi brutality – all of which remind us how bad things can get and how vulnerable we could be in a world where power trumps law. Such jungle law is in the interest of the largest predators, but not always. It is definitely not in Canada’s best interest.

But it is not inevitable, our fate. The country does not have to choose between vassal status and dangerous isolation. We are not alone among countries in wanting to preserve and reform a system that has helped avoid war among the major powers for almost 75 years and brought breathtaking improvements to the human condition. Previous generations worked diligently to create international rules of the diplomatic road and underpinned them with co-operative institutions. But times change and those rules need updating and reinforcing, particularly as regards China’s stubborn intransigence and the United States’ disappointing retreat from leadership. Successful reform of the global governance system requires leadership, co-operation and, above all, sound perspective. It will also require us to assimilate some hard truths.

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The most troubling truth to absorb is the fact that the President of the United States and his West Wing bobbleheads really are a danger to world peace. This President, who has apparently been investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Russian agent, seems bent on dismantling NATO, ripping up the United Nations Charter and undermining the Bretton Woods system, especially the World Trade Organization, the pillars of multilateral co-operation that have helped preserve peace between the major powers since 1945 and promoted nearly uninterrupted global economic growth. We saw in the North American free-trade agreement renegotiation and the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs that the U.S. leader had no patience for facts and enjoyed bullying his allies more than confronting his country’s adversaries, while his acolytes sought to replace the postwar order with a Washington-centred hub-and-spokes system.

Whether Donald Trump’s presidency proves to be an aberration or a secular change remains to be seen; he has clearly tapped into a deep if narrow vein of grievance. In any case, for Canada as for others, geography is destiny. While we can and should exploit the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the free-trade agreement with Europe, out of sheer proximity the United States is destined to remain our dominant and, at times, domineering economic partner. That fact alone calls for a relentless, full-court diplomacy by Team Canada – federal, provincial, business and labour – on Congress, state governments, business and union leaders, trade groups and the media. We need all the American friends we can get.

A related, enduring truth is that for all of our legitimate criticism of the Americans, a Pax Americana, however checkered, is vastly preferable to any plausible Chinese or Russian alternative. Recent events, including especially vis-à-vis Canada in the Chinese case and Britain in the Russian case, reveal how thuggish these regimes really are and how utterly empty is their commitment to the rule of law. President-for-life Xi Jinping and neo-Czar Vladimir Putin don’t have to fret about impeachment.

Still, it is distressing but regrettably not shocking that neither the President nor Congress nor even the American media has manifested much concern that Canadians face extreme jeopardy in Chinese courts because of a U.S. extradition request whose legitimacy we are taking on faith. Our U.S. allies are content to let Canadians bear the brunt of Chinese reprisals for an initiative they took. Better it be Canadians than Americans, in their minds. America first, after all. White House attitudes toward Canada have regressed to those of the 19th century.

A further truth of current events is that the Chinese have “outed” themselves as too brutal and dangerous to be a formal diversification partner. They have kidnapped Canadians off the street for barter, all the while uttering ad hominem insults about our Prime Minister that would be laughable if the victims’ lives and liberty were not at stake. If Huawei really were just another private business and not an agent of the Chinese government, why would the Chinese ambassador be threatening such reprisals by the Chinese state? Thanks to an aggressive communications strategy by Ottawa, we are not the only ones criticizing China’s outrageous behaviour, as this week’s open letter to Mr. Xi from 100 former ambassadors, senior officials and scholars demonstrated.

Whatever China’s immediate actions, it is also evident in current events that China is playing a long game. Through its Belt and Road policy, China is buying influence in Africa and Asia especially, creating debt traps for its impoverished clients as it goes along, shearing foreign investors in China of their profits and intellectual property, stealing technology from abroad and flexing its muscles at its more immediate neighbours.

In another part of the global jungle, Russia is behaving murderously toward its domestic and foreign critics, openly threatening Ukraine and others, blatantly interfering in foreign governance including the United States' and ours, and endlessly facilitating slaughter in Syria in the service of Russian interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Saudi Arabia, too, has “outed” itself, detonating its self-promoted brand as a Middle Eastern moderate. Having put itself in the dock of global opinion for the horrific state-perpetrated murder of a journalist in its Istanbul consulate, Saudi Arabia’s silence thus far on Canada’s granting refugee status to the young Saudi-born woman Rahaf Mohammed is telling. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has inadvertently taught Canada a happier lesson, one that some Canadian pundits and former leaders would be wise to internalize – that is, with a GDP more than double theirs, ready access to major world markets, values-based alliances, a highly advanced education system and very large oil reserves (the third-largest in the world, albeit land-locked), it is clear Canada does not need to concern itself overly with Saudi censure.

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There is another truth to derive from current events, one that hits closer to home for Canadians: Canadian travellers and expatriates abroad need more than ever to be concerned with their security and the need to protect themselves. Kidnapping is a global growth industry and seems likely to increase as terrorists and criminal gangs seek to make a fast buck. That said, hostage-taking by states, as China has done, is medieval diplomacy and seems unlikely to proliferate. As China is finding out in the Canadian case, bad publicity is bad economics. Hostage-taking scares foreign investment, burdens Chinese investment abroad (e.g., Huawei), deters tourism and damages China’s brand. Still, for the estimated 2.8 million Canadian expats living abroad and the many millions more travelling each year, danger awareness and risk management should become increasingly important lifestyle calculations.

A final, different truth to be drawn from current events is that for all our preoccupations about shrinking geopolitical options and growing security dangers, we are, in fact, living in Dickens’s “best of times." One hundred years ago, about 70 per cent of the world’s population lived in poverty, many in extreme poverty. Now only about 10 per cent do. A century ago, a large majority of people worldwide were illiterate. Today, the numbers are reversed; about 85 per cent of the world’s population can read and write. One hundred years ago, most women could not vote. Now most can.

Thanks to technologies and industries that scarcely existed even just a generation ago – Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Samsung, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – the world is vastly better connected and informed. Half of the world’s population now has a mobile-phone subscription and more people have access today to a phone than to a flush toilet.

Levels of physical well-being are also vastly improved. People everywhere are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, according to the World Health Organization. Infant mortality has declined by half in the past 25 years. Measles deaths have decreased by almost 75 per cent. And in the space of two generations polio has been all but eliminated worldwide.

As we consider the challenges of a shifting international order and shrinking options, we need to keep a sane perspective. Humanity has come a very long way from Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of the natural state of humanity as one of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man [was] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." For all our anxiety about our place in the world, Hobbes’s and Dickens’s contemporaries would have traded their situations for ours in a heartbeat.

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