If the next presidential election reveals the United States is hurtling toward political instability and even violence, what can Canada do?
There are risks if our politicians speak up during the election and risks in staying silent. But Canadians must ready themselves for a future in which the United States is no longer our ally and friend, as hard as it is even to think on such a thing.
Thomas Homer-Dixon is a Canadian political scientist who views global security through the lens of economic and environmental stress. On Saturday, The Globe and Mail published an essay in which he warned: “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence. By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship.” Canada, he said, must prepare itself for the consequences of that possible collapse.
I don’t believe the future is that grim. The United States’ culture and economy remain robust and resilient, able to withstand high levels of political dysfunction.
But a large minority of American voters appear to have lost faith in their political system, egged on by media organizations, such as Fox News, that stoke and profit from that alienation. Supporters of former president Donald Trump are ascendant within the Republican Party, and appear determined to secure victory in the next election by hook or by crook.
If Mr. Trump, or one of his Republican acolytes, wins the 2024 presidential election – either legitimately or by manipulating the results at the state level – what will be left of the judiciary, the public service and a constitutionally constrained military after four more years? And how will their most fervent supporters react if the Republicans lose?
Typically, when asked about American presidential elections, Canadian prime ministers say they look forward to working with whoever wins. But that may not cut it this time. The 2024 American president election could greatly influence this country’s future. Do we just stand by and watch?
Stephanie Carvin researches security issues at Carleton University. She believes Canada acting on its own would have little impact on the American election. “Our voice does not ring loud in the conversations that are happening in the United States,” she said in an interview.
It might be possible for Canada to join with other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, the Group of 7 or some other assembly of allied states to voice concern over and support for American democracy. But allied leaders would have to tread carefully.
“It’s a risk/reward thing,” Prof. Carvin explained. “Trump hates the European Union and hates NATO.” If they or any other American allies were seen to try to influence the outcome of an election that Mr. Trump won, she believes “that could lead to further actions against the alliance.” On the other hand, “if he wins another term, the alliances are gravely endangered anyway.”
Peter Loewen, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, believes Canada should remain on the sidelines, whatever happens. “I’m reluctant to say that we should be involved,” he told me.
But he does believe that Canada’s economic and political leadership must prepare now for the possibility of a postdemocratic America. “We have to think the unthinkable, in which we are not really close to them in the future. And a lack of policy imagination has kept us from actually pondering that in a deep way.”
What would NORAD or NATO look like in a world in which the United States is internally divided to the point of instability? To what extent could multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization function without American participation?
These questions are stomach-churning. But better to face them than to watch passively.
We need to bolster our military and protect our borders, especially in the North. We need to strengthen our bonds with other democracies, and promote democracy through trade and cultural ties. And we need to engage with the United States, however it evolves, as a great power we live beside and must get along with.
A future in which the United States is no longer a stable democracy is not a future any of us want to face. But we may have little choice.
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.