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Canada can play a constructive role in the “new age of anxiety”: Stephen Toope

In a farewell address, Dr. Toope stated that Canada must seek out “middle-power” countries to help advance its causes, now that it is no longer tied at the hip to the U.S.


U2 frontman Bono famously declared in a speech at a federal Liberal leadership convention in 2003, “The world needs more Canada.” Stephen Toope, director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and soon to be vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, didn’t phrase it quite like that, but the message was similar.

Dr. Toope, in a talk on Parliament Hill on May 2, said “Canadians rarely suffer from an excess of ambition on the world stage.” But, we’ve entered “a new age of anxiety,” he said, and “Canada can be one of a handful of countries that helps to steer the world through [this] deeply troubling period in global affairs.”

The talk, sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, was a bit of a farewell for Dr. Toope, who leaves this October to become the first Canadian to lead Cambridge. He currently serves as president of the federation, was president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia from 2006 to 2014, and previously served as president of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and as dean of law at McGill University.

“Canada can be one of a handful of countries that helps to steer the world through [this] deeply troubling period in global affairs,” says Stephen Toope. Photo by Riley Stewart/University of Toronto.
“Much of the world is a mess – the Middle East, obviously, but also Europe as it deals with mass migration and right-wing extremism,” said Dr. Toope. Britain is self-absorbed as it strives to disengage from the European union. Russia’s economy is failing, while its president “projects a malign external influence.” China’s government is supressing dissent “more forcefully than we’ve seen at any time since the Tiananmen Square debacle.” Meanwhile, “anti-immigration sentiment and nationalist rhetoric are on the rise in many parts of the world.”

For more than 70 years, Canada has been “tied at the hip” to its southern neighbour, Dr. Toope continued. “We and the rest of the world counted on the United States to lead in the building of global financial and political institutions, the promotion of democracy, the struggle for human rights, and in building an ever-larger global economy.” For all its policy missteps and political and military abuses, the U.S. was for the most part a positive actor, a “net provider of stability and prosperity.”

Not any longer. “Internal political dysfunction and an incoherent White House mean that the U.S. simply cannot be counted on to lead the world,” he said. Nor is China in a position to play that role, and the old powers like Britain and France are greatly weakened.

A loose confederation of nations

“So our world is not unipolar, not bipolar and not even multipolar. Our world is now a constellation of the differentially powerful, none of whom can create a stable order,” said Dr. Toope. In this new global reality, “achieving anything of significance through international cooperation will be deeply frustrating for the next couple of generations. The world will feel more like the loosest of confederations, whose members have radically diverse objectives, than a set of ‘united’ nations.”

This loose structure will mean it’s going to be harder for Canada in its strategic positioning than it has been for the previous 150 years. “No more hiding behind a colonial or quasi-colonial power,” said Dr. Toope. The U.S. “is still our most important friend, ally and partner. But there will no longer be cause to defer on many matters.”

Instead, in this new international order, Canada must work with a more diverse set of “middle-power” countries – Brazil, Germany, Mexico and South Korea, to name just a few – when responding to a crisis or advancing a cause. Canada must also nurture relationships with non-governmental actors, such as corporations and civil society organizations, on important issues in areas like financial regulation, energy security and health.

These observations beg the central question, said Dr. Toope: “Where should Canada spend its monetary, human and political capital? What areas of focus might have lasting value in the world I describe? I suggest three – they’re not the only three, but we’ll keep it to that.”

The first area is cybersecurity. The world, he said, is seeing increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks targeting military, financial and energy infrastructure, breaching walls of privacy and stealing intellectual property. “We need inclusively supported cyber rules for peace and security. These rules would have to be targeted at both state security forces and non-state actors, including private security firms and terrorist organizations.”

Second, Canada has earned a strong international reputation for managing the integration of immigrants and refuges with relative success. This means Canada is well-positioned to champion the continued work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the global south.

The third area, said Dr. Toope, is countering the rise of nationalism and populism, which has been abetted by a widespread sentiment that the globalization of business has produced deep unfairness. “Canada has a credible banking system and a reputation overall for financial probity. Our government could take a lead in promoting equitable and consistent tax treatment for global corporations. As part of that initiative, redistributive approaches could be explored using tax proceeds to ameliorate the disruptive effects of continuing globalization.”

“Take a deep breath, don’t overreact”

As Canada contemplates this “well-focused higher profile,” Dr. Toope counselled his audience to “take a deep breath and don’t overreact. We don’t actually know where the present moment of populism and renewed nationalism will lead us. The precedents are bad, but history is not an inevitable succession of mistakes. It is in our power to contribute to making the world safer and fairer by taking current anxieties seriously.”

In response to a question on whether Canada is “immunized” from the world’s problems, Dr. Toope replied: “I am struck that this is a very healthy political culture right now, comparatively.” However, Canada is “absolutely not” immunized. Graduate students at the Munk School have investigated online hate and violent right-wing groups, he said, and “it’s pretty grim.” The situation in Canada is not as bad as in parts of the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, “but we have the virus.”

Consequently, “we have to be really attentive … to how we manage integration of refugees and immigrants, because every piece of evidence tells us that it is the defining issue for most of these groups. It is not, despite all the rhetoric around the Trump win, purely economic. Cultural identity issues play a much bigger role.”

Hate groups are trying to organize in Canada, he continued, but so far not successfully. “But, they’re there, and you can pull on those threads if you want, and I would hope that our politicians would strongly resist pulling on those threads.”

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