Imagining a More Ambitious Canada

By Taylor Owen and Roland Paris

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 2, 2014

The world has undergone enormous changes since Ottawa last conducted a foreign policy review nearly a decade ago: the rise of China and other emerging economies, the transformation of global energy markets, the Arab uprising and other “public square” protests, and the proliferation of digital technology, to name a few.

What are the implications of these changes for Canada? Are we positioned to succeed and to be a constructive global actor in the 21st century? What recommendations might emerge from a foreign policy review today?

All the discussions – from international trade and investment to the challenges of cyber-security and climate change – highlighted the danger of complacency and the urgent need for innovative policy responses.

In May, we convened an extraordinary group to discuss these issues over two days. The Ottawa Forum, co-organized by the Centre for International Policy Studies and the Canadian International Council, brought together some of the country’s brightest “next generation” thinkers and most seasoned policy practitioners to brainstorm options for Canada’s international policy.

The roughly 150 speakers and attendees included Toronto’s chief planner, a mining company executive, former foreign ministers and senior government officials, NGO leaders, representatives of business organizations, researchers in think tanks and universities, and students.

There was broad agreement on the need for Canada to pursue a more comprehensive, constructive and ambitious international policy – more comprehensive in involving private actors and civil society groups in the conception and implementation of policy; more constructive in working with other countries, non-government organizations and multilateral institutions towards common goals; and more ambitious in placing Canada at the forefront of efforts to make the world safer, more prosperous and healthier.

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All the discussions – from international trade and investment to the challenges of cyber-security and climate change – highlighted the danger of complacency and the urgent need for innovative policy responses. Robert Greenhill, managing director of the World Economic Forum, put it well: in a more competitive and crowded world, “standing still is falling behind.”

The good news is that Canada has tremendous comparative advantages:  an educated and diverse population; extensive connections to the world; expertise and creativity in all of these areas; and the capacity to bring people together. But we must make better use of these advantages. Among other things, we need more initiatives like Grand Challenges Canada (which supports innovative ideas to improve global health, much like a venture capital firm) in other areas of international policy.

We should also be open to framing foreign policy differently. We tend to think of cities, for example, in relation to local politics. Yet, major cities have become important international actors in their own right: many are tackling transnational issues such as organized crime, human migration, multicultural tolerance, and climate change. Are these local, regional, national or international issues? Answer: all of the above.

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Moreover, effective international strategies often require coalitions of state and non-state actors, private organizations, advocacy groups and individuals, both inside and outside Canada. The Conservative government has adopted this method to advance its maternal and child rights agenda, but more constructive diplomacy is needed in other areas.  Public-private networks can be diplomatic “force multipliers” for Canada.

Others noted that the rule-based international order is under increasing strain and that Canada should do more to strengthen and sustain global norms and institutions. This might include experimenting with new forms of multilateral cooperation, while also supporting and helping to reform the existing architecture of international institutions. Canada has an enduring interest in a world governed by the rule of law, not the law of the jungle.

The participants’ specific policy proposals, some of which were previewed in these pages last week, will appear in a book to be published in early 2015. But the desire to continue this discussion was already clear. We were therefore delighted to announce that the Ottawa Forum will be held again next year.

Taylor Owen is research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism of the Columbia School of Journalism and editor-in-chief of

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