“Canada’s Back” Can the Trudeau Government Resuscitate Canadian Diplomacy?

Blogger’s Note: The Liberal government headed by PM Justin Trudeau has launched defence and development reviews, but little is known of its intentions regarding diplomacy, international policy or grand strategy.  This is the second installment in a three part series on Canada’s role and place in a changing world – where we were, where we are, and where we may be going.


Part II:

Globalization, Power Shift and Heteropolarity –  The Way Things Are


In the last posting, I made the case that during the Cold War period, whatever its many hazards, Canadians were able to find ample room for diplomatic manoeuvre.

Are opportunities still available today?

Perhaps, but, navigation is difficult. World order has given way to a whirled order, with many of the old distinctions and assumptions, as if placed in a blender, either blurred or erased.  There is less political or ideological conviction, and more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In the 25 years since the Soviet Union imploded and the icy grip of Cold War constraint melted away, much has changed. The Great Thaw has transformed the operating environment, freeing up virulent strains of ethno-nationalism, nourishing religious fundamentalism, and gestating a  new threat set.

Defining features?

  1. Intensified Globalization. With ever increasing levels of trade, investment, travel and migration, globalization accelerates time while compressing and deterritorializing political space. Paradoxical, totalizing and highly asymmetrical, it both integrates and fragments, connects and differentiates. Driven by the revolution in information and communication technologies, it is the defining historical process of our times. Resilient and complex, the globalization age came fully into its own at the end of the Cold War, and has survived the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001, the Great Recession of 2008-09, and the passing of the US unipolar moment.

Globalization’s flagship is the Internet, and its transnational tides have eroded sovereignty and reduced the importance of borders. That said, globalization is not a neutral force. It is inextricably linked to deregulation, privatization, free trade and austerity, all parts of a laissez-faire package intended to reduce the size and scope of government and enlarge the role of the private sector. Globalization creates wealth, but not for all. Its tendency towards the socialization of costs and privatization of gains exacerbates inequality and distributive injustice. By polarizing at all levels, globalization creates deeper divides, sharper edges, winners and losers. Whatever its virtues – not least the efficient allocation of productive resources – the greater connectivity which is a hallmark of globalization has also engendered mass anxiety, resentment and alienation.

On globalization’s underside – in the world’s banlieues, barrios and export processing zones – underdevelopment and insecurity flourish. The erstwhile global village looks increasingly like a modern day Dickensian dystopia, a smattering of gated “green zones” engulfed by a seething sea of shantytowns. Brexit, Trump, populism, plutocracy… cosmopolitan, but unrepresentative elites are in trouble most everywhere as the tribes rise and the demons multiply.

  1. Power Shift. Since leaving behind the comparative stability of the Cold War, power at all levels is now on the move. Much has been made of emergence of BRICS and migration of the global political economy’s centre of gravity from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific. Of equal significance is end of state-centricity in international relations and the concomitant emergence of new actors. Foreign ministries, for their part, have lost a good deal of their turf to cabinet offices, executive bodies and other government departments.

Power is shifting  up (to central agencies and supra-national institutions), out (to multinational corporations, NGOs,  private philanthropic foundations,) and down  (to sub-national players such as states,  provinces, cities, and even wealthy celebrities. Both rising and declining power require careful handling and management. Given the stakes associated with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, we must do a better job of managing the shift than was the case during the 20th or previous centuries, when war served as the ultimate arbiter. In this very fluid environment, traditional diplomatic methods and tools will need to be supplemented by less conventional, more innovative approaches to diplomatic practice and representation.

  1. Heteropolis Rising. Received wisdom regarding a return to multipolarity notwithstanding, the model of world order currently under construction better described as heteroopolar. During the multi- and bi-polar eras which marked the past few centuries, the sources and vectors of power and influence among countries at broadly analogous levels of development were for the most part similar and easy to measure and calibrate – military might, population size, national wealth, territorial extent, number of colonial possessions, and so forth. Today those sources and vectors are characterized by difference (heterogeneity) rather than similarity (homogeneity), and hence are much more difficult to compare or balance.

Great statesmen with longstanding interpersonal familiarity – think Metternich, Castlereagh and Tallyrand – each with a slightly different hand but playing from the same deck, no longer gather regularly to negotiate over green felt tables. Unlike the clubby days of the Congress of Vienna and Concert of Europe, in the 21st century the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia  and Japan have little in common. Moreover, many poles are not states – they may be multinational corporations, groups of states (ASEAN, the EU), NGOs (Medecins sans Frontieres, Amnesty International), or even individuals (Bill Gates, Bono). In the emerging heteropolis, balancing power is becoming ever more complex and difficult. This world order in the making will be diverse and dynamic, but messy, complicated, and highly competitive.

The effective management of global issues, conflicting interests, and of the planetary commons which must be shared, will above all require evidence-based policy and decision making, and knowledge-based, technologically enabled problem-solving. As there are no military solutions to the most pressing challenges facing humanity, these functions will of necessity depend primarily upon diplomacy rather than defence.

We will assess the implications for Canada in the final installment.