The Retreat From Internationalism – Part II

In the last entry, I tried to illustrate how changes in domestic Canadian politics, in combination with the imposition of capacity reductions on the Department of Foreign Affairs, had contributed to a turn away from this country’s internationalist traditions. Today, I continue that line of inquiry with an exploration of the profound shifts in the nature and orientation of media coverage, as well as the impact of Canada’s rapidly changing demography.

As the Euro-zone’s continuing debt and monetary crisis has underscored, growing global economic interdependence means that all nations are vulnerable and exposed to events unfolding beyond their frontiers. At the same time, travel, tourism, immigration and the Internet have contributed to a vast increase in cosmopolitanism. These realities, however, are rarely reflected in the overall news mix, and less so in the content behind the headlines. Even as Canada’s increasingly diverse and multicultural  population charges ahead ever more completely into the culture and ethos of globalization, the coverage of international affairs in the mainstream media – television, radio, newspapers – continues to slide. To the extent that the media informs and conditions the public and political spheres, this paradox will have broader implications.

Why the general pullback from international affairs reporting? Among the explanations: the crisis in journalism associated with the rise of on-line publishing, and the resulting budget and personnel cuts; media multiplication and fragmentation; a loss of institutional memory; the closing or consolidation of foreign bureaux; a preference for shorter and less complex stories; an absence of analysis; a fixation on personalities the visually and emotionally sensational… earthquakes, tidal waves, family tragedies, plane and train wrecks.  Fewer journalists, with increasingly stretched resources, are covering the IR ‘beat’, and those that do tend to prefer writing about the military, especially if they have been embedded. Meanwhile, citizen reporters with hand held digital devices provide an increasing amount of the raw feed – think about the dominant images of  9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Arab Spring or the storming today of the British Embassy in Tehran. Crowdsourcing rules. For these reasons and more, there appears to be a widespread conviction among media managers that Canadians, for example, just aren’t as interested as they once were in receiving professional reporting on world affairs.  Those who are have little choice but to rely upon specialized sources and the web for anything but the most basic information.

These changes in media structure and reporting priorities have both prefigured and reflected major shifts in the public environment.  From roughly the end of WWII until the late 1980s, the notion of a bi-lingual, bi-cultural, ‘true north strong and free’ was one of the mainstays behind Canadian internationalism. There existed in Canada a broad, comfortable, middle class consensus around the most central aspects of international policy, which included containment and deterrence, but also a commitment to development assistance and peacekeeping. Such was the essence of Cold War comfort. But those old verities no longer fit. In the intervening years, that entente has been riven, and its demise hastened by the emergence and growing popularity of highly particularistic, single interest lobbies. The pre-occupations of these groups range from from Timor to Tibet, from rainforests to reefs, and from alternative energy to “ethical” oil. They include gender, human rights, small arms, and child soldiers, to name a few.  It is difficult just to reach, let alone attempt to draw together such a fragmented constituency.

The crumbling away of a cohesive and supportive domestic  foundation for Canadian internationalism – and Canadian diplomacy – seems also to be associated with the rise of non-state actors. Trends in the domestic polity are now deeply influenced by the activities of all sorts of new players – philanthropic NGOs, transnational businesses and religious extremists come immediately to mind.  All compete for attention. So, too do the international machinations of prominent individuals such as Bono, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie and George Soros. States and statesmen have had to make room for celebrity diplomats and civil society.

In recent years, and especially since the Great Recession of 2008-10, job insecurity, stagnant or shrinking incomes, and a growing disquiet over matters closer to home have joined with the rise of issue-driven advocacy and generational change to increase levels of discomfort. They have also induced fatigue, apathy, and cynicism.

Today many citizens, perhaps feeling adrift in this turbulent and confusing world, appear to have redrawn the lines of their individual moral engagement in closer proximity to the front door. Beset by lingering doubts about governance at home and facing a range of vexing, if not intractable challenges abroad, many seem to be re-scaling their engagement in the world. In most  OECD countries the majority of people now see their government’s priorities as overwhelmingly domestic – health care, education, the environment and managing the economy dominate, with most issues related to international affairs (defence, aid and foreign policy) barely registering in comparison.

Whether anaesthetized by spin doctors, spoon fed by embedded journalists, or turned off by endless streams of infotainment, people everywhere seem to be paying less attention to either the world or to their place in it. There are occasional spikes –  the invasion of Iraq, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, echoes from events in Iran or North Korea. But these are at best minor peaks in a valley of indifference. Global issues, including the hardy perennials of peace, development and human rights are rarely rated among the most pre-eminent of popular pre-occupations.

Now the province mainly of specialists and experts, international policy has come to exist in a kind of floating world, a disconnected bubble somehow severed from the everyday and animated more by a sense of visceral values than an appreciation of concrete interests. It has become somewhat of an exotic, far removed from more pressing or immediate concerns. As was demonstrated convincingly during Canada’s spring 2011 election campaign, citizens are looking inwards, just when they should be looking out, and this bodes ill for any kind of a broadly-based internationalist revival.