This 2-part CIPS blog is based on my guest presentation at a seminar for graduating trainee diplomats at the Institute of International Relations (IIR), University of West Indies, Trinidad, on 20 March 2019. The session was led jointly with Professor Winston Dookeran, a former Trinidadian Minister of Foreign Affairs. See Part 2 here.
My goal today is to try to describe to you, as aspiring diplomats, key features in the evolving global environment where I see a country such as Canada operating as a middle power, one with a strong sense of global partnership. We are members of the powerful and collegial G7 founded back in 1975 (France, Germany, USA, UK, Japan, Italy, and Canada). However, recent G7 meetings have often been a process of working around the demands of one mega-power, the USA, which bluntly claims to be FIRST in the world.
Diplomatically, Canada tends to be a less assertive actor. While we are the colonialists of our own country in the eyes of our Indigenous population, we have no history as an overseas colonial power comparable to the UK, France, or Spain! We rather want to see ourselves as a nation that can act as a bridge between more assertive parties. Until recently, we complacently saw ourselves as followers of a unifying liberal democratic order. “We” itself is an ambiguous term since Canada today is a country of many nations living in a largely successful multi-racial harmony.
This contrasts with the modern tensions we see as waves of poor refugees, not organized immigrants, enter Europe, including in today’s Brexit-obsessed UK. Worst is the racist anger mobilized by President Trump in the USA, our neighbour to the south. Today’s early Canadian immigrants, once the poor and hungry unemployed of many European countries a century or so ago are now comfortably middle class. Later, in the post-WWII era, immigrants came mainly from the developing world, mainly Asia and Africa, including, recently, a few from a decolonialized Trinidad.
But the modernizing economic and social reform ideas propagated by the victors of WWII under the rubric of the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI) are no longer a reliable framework for future global relations, political and economic. Even within our own societies, populism brings a more self-interested tone to our goals for the international arena. The remnants of that old, relatively tidy, international order are being further buffeted by the ignorance and personal ambitions of one very powerful American individual whose global perspective is one that none of us find satisfactory, not even our old conservative political parties.
At the same time another grouping of global leaders of emerging economies in Asia, the Americas, and Africa — the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) — are following their own path rather than the BWI order, which is often seen as neocolonial by the Global South in bodies such as the UN. The Global South also reminds the North of its global majority by calling itself the G77.
Today’s world increasingly defines itself via such “clubs” of nations. Many are stable partnerships, a healthy transition from the old order of victor and loser nations in WWII. One that now deserves more attention is the G20, founded by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in 1999, bringing together finance ministers from old G7, along with the BRICS and a politically balanced selection of so-called emerging economies. These clubs and their balancing acts are a key part of Canada’s diplomatic scenery.
Today’s leaders’ version of the G20 came into being as the breakthrough coalition of North and South nations needed to break the back of the “Global Financial Crisis” of 2008, essentially triggered by the greed of New York megabanks. China, without forcing the US to eat humble pie, essentially saved the day. Not as perfectly as one would desire, this event has led Western, even US policy-makers to recognize the interdependence of North and South, something President Trump is still trying to pretend is not the new reality.
Despite their self-important declarations, the G20, and especially the G7, are not all-powerful global instruments. The formal centre of global governance is the United Nations, with its 193-country membership and the South’s assertive G77, providing a voice for small states and opportunities for increased South–South co-operation. Somewhat contrary to this sense of UN inclusiveness is the elite inner circle of the UN Security Council, comprising five permanent, veto-holding nations and ten rotating member nations.
Standing in diplomatic contrast, there used to be a Non-Aligned movement to forward the decolonialization agenda. It was started in 1961 as a partnership of peers, in Bandung, Indonesia. They formed a first generation, never replicated, network of peace-focused, Southern political leaders of newly formed independent nations: Nkrumah in Ghana, Sukarno in Indonesia, Nehru in India, and Nassar in Egypt, with China and Russia joining later.
Its antithesis perhaps is NATO, a military alliance of Western nations created to confront Russia in the “Cold War” competition between nuclear powers. For a decade or so in the 1980s to early 1990s, NATO seemed to have faded into obsolescence, shaped substantially by more pacifistic EU members who were more focused on creating a new economic power in Europe. International diplomacy now meant trade and investment, not guns and bombs, freeing up diplomats for new roles, working to build healthier societies and economies. The odd man out was the war mongering US.
John Sinclair is a Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa, and a retired Canadian diplomat and development advocate with an extensive career as a senior official with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank.