The release of a new study by the Pew Research Center, a respected, non-partisan and self-described U.S. "fact tank," offers Canadians a fascinating glimpse into a "fear" mirror. The subject of the Pew research project: global opinion on the greatest security threats facing the planet.
The survey asked respondents to rank eight different threats: the power and influence of three major countries – the United States, China and Russia – concerns about the health of the global economy, the fear of refugees from the Middle East, cyberattacks, climate change and the Islamic State (IS). Canadians were surveyed alongside respondents from 37 other countries – almost 42,000 in total. (Alas, the survey could not penetrate China.)
Two very different kinds of threats came out on top: climate change and the Islamic State. Statistically they ran neck and neck, with IS listed as the leading threat by 62 per cent of those surveyed and climate change by 61 per cent. Dig deeper into the results and you find considerable divergence between regions and between countries. The Pew survey also found deep political and ideological divides within countries, notably in the United States, where left-right polarization on security issues is strong.
Where in all this does Canadian opinion sit? Somewhere in the middle, but with interesting flourishes. One notable aspect is that Canadians seem relatively unfazed by China's growing power. In fact, China is ranked third behind the United States (first among powers seen as a major threat by Canadian respondents, with 38 per cent saying so) and Russia.This may come as a comfort to a federal government seeking greater trade relations with China.
Canadians are with the global majority in seeing climate change as a security threat – though there is still work to do on that file, as 28 per cent of respondents listed it as a "minor" threat.
We are pretty middle of the pack when it comes to the threat from IS: 55 per cent of Canadians listed it as a major threat, which is well below the numbers recorded by European respondents (France at 88 per cent) and Americans, at 74 per cent. But these countries, after all, have greater reason to fear IS.
Greater public education is clearly needed in Canada about the risk posed by cyberattacks. Only 47 per cent listed it as a major threat, while 40 per cent pegged it as a minor threat. Among our Five Eyes intelligence partners, Canada ranked last in appreciation of the cyberattack threat, well behind the United States and Britain and slightly behind Australia as well. This laggardly public view comes at a time when the federal government has introduced new legislation (Bill C-59) designed to give Canada's Communications Security Establishment greatly increased powers to tackle cyberattacks, including a new offensive mandate.
On the threat posed by refugee flows, Canada is among the more enlightened. Only 25 per cent of Canadian respondents viewed refugees as a major security threat. The figure climbed to 36 per cent south of the border and rocketed up to 60 per cent for respondents who identified as being on the American political right.
Canadians are pretty confident about the health of the global economy, a view we share with most of our European trading partners and the United States.
Three principal themes stand out as we peer into the Pew mirror. One is that the Canadian government has its work cut out for it if it wants to educate the public about the broader range of security threats and find strong political consensus. We seem a little too attuned to the terrorism threat and a little too unaware of the dangers posed by cyberattacks and climate change. We are also a country clearly divided on left-right political lines about security threats, with some polarization over refugees, the IS threat and climate change, although not approaching the degree of divisiveness in the United States.
A second reflection is that, over all, Canadian opinion is diverging from that of the United States on some major security issues – especially on the issue of refugees. Not surprising, but we will have to "mind the gap" in our dealings with Washington. Within the global community, we are a true middle power, not given to extremes. That is no bad thing, keeping in mind the fears offered by global insecurity.