Canadians live in increasingly uncertain times. The global economic picture is very unpredictable. The IMF’s latest global update forecasts a 4.9% contraction for the world economy, suggesting its impact could be comparable to the Great Depression.
There are signs of another crisis, this one economic, substantially triggered by the Trump driven tariff war with China, something that hurts both Canada and the emerging world.
The growing diversity of Canada’s human capital and it’s abundance of natural resources suggests that the best way forward for our economy lies in a clear strategy built around new global partnerships.
To achieve this, we have to act longer-term; there is no quick fix! But where can the opportunities be found to help deliver our economic and societal goals for the coming years? Critically, in emerging economies, ones starting to take-off pre-COVID-19, with the potential to be new, energizing partnerships.
All this uncertainty is likely already triggering a serious political and economic debate around the Cabinet table.
Partnerships with some emerging economies could help Canada break out of its painful dependence on our relationship with the US. However, the coming years contain no magic opportunities, or ‘low-hanging fruit.’ We will instead need to recognize that the transformational outcomes we seek will require a sustained, substantive shift in Canadian strategies. Such opportunities could be there over the next 3-4 years amongst recovering emerging economies that could be explored as new partnerships.
A few decades back, Canadian economic policy and the thinking of private investors pointed mechanistically due South to the US. Looking forwards from today, we need to focus more on resource-scarce, but human capital-rich, regions such as Asia, which are also entrepreneurially active.
Making Partnership Work
There are many variables in defining an optimal partnership for Canada. One can point to models of radical transformation in recent decades, such as Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea.
We know successful partnerships require that the partners must have compatible interests: there needs to be mutual trust and commonality of geopolitical goals. For Canada, it would mean being prepared to act courageously to make a longer-term commitment with countries already on new paths. Government and critical parts of our private sector would need to be seen by potential global partners as genuinely committed to investing in new ventures, not ones driven by whims.
If South-East Asia is to be where our new partnerships will lie, then we must engage with the region as it is not how we might imagine it to be. Like everywhere, Asia has its particular collection of warts, mega-powers, strong egos and authentic pride in its various cultural histories. The area, increasingly enriched by its successful emerging economies, has suffered through decades of competitive hostility, such as that which persists between India and China, with attitudes and goals shaped by centuries of intrusions by western colonialism.
Canada has many advantages to bring to new partnerships. We are respected as a country without an imperial legacy. For many potential partners, especially their senior officials or political leaders, Canada was once a place where they studied, one with a very positive image, that of a flexible mid-sized donor operating under the now-abandoned CIDA logo.
They will be cautious if all they hear are messages that repeat past undelivered G7/G20 promises. We should not go expecting a red carpet until we have demonstrated our commitment and essential empathy. As a new partner, Canada would need to embrace ‘equity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ as working goals.
Moreover, brownie points can come from the soft-power prowess of Canadian institutions. For example, our well-respected universities, which are well attended by international students, many of whom are from Asia.
Mr. Trudeau’s slogan, ‘Canada’s back,’ was a good catchphrase with which he tried to reinforce our soft power advantage back in 2015. However, the rhetoric was not matched by any Canadian geopolitical successes over recent years, and this is partly because our foreign policy is too aligned with Washington.
Global Partnerships properly delivered should mutually beneficial. For success, they need linkages at both government and business levels. A single fat contract does not make a new future. Success can involve complimentary relationships between senior politicians and business elites. We need to mobilize Canadian skills and personalities that complement the interests of potential partners.
We will need Canadian spokespeople with the right mindsets in leadership positions, political and bureaucratic, visibly committed to building substantive partnerships, not as one-off PR events but for the long term. We should learn the lessons losing the recent election to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council with all its leadership connections.
A sense of urgency Canadian officials will be crucial, especially with the prospect of many other countries attempting new approaches following the pandemic. Exploratory dialogues could start soon. One striking Asian example lies in the newly created RCEP, Asian trade and economic alliance of 15 largely successful regional nations and their political leaderships. We sadly missed engaging them earlier.
In contrast, Australia has had a foot in the door for more than a decade, to establish itself as an Asian regional actor. Too often, Canada seems to have dropped into ASEAN meetings and left, having made no substantive impact, beyond joining the closing photo-op.
The recent moves by International Development Minister Karina Gould focusing ODA funding on the poorest COVID-19 vulnerable nations are potential game-changer. Particularly as its programming is aligned with the ‘UN Agenda 2030‘ and its core goal of ‘no one left behind.’ As a strong voice at the cabinet table, she is well-placed to press for an inclusiveness dimension in our approach to new partnerships.
How to Move Ahead
Global partnership opportunities have often been there, but to become operational, they need committed Canadian leaders. Partnerships will be no picnic!
Canada will need to make the right political moves to signal its commitment. We will need to nurture our global ambitions within a competitive, connected world of traditional donors and successful emerging economies. The list of partnership opportunities for Canada leadership will be enhanced by a strong public stance on development cooperation: gender equality and poverty reduction. Partnerships can best develop within a Canadian policy context of ‘sharing’ (which was once one of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s favoured policy theme).
Today, strong partnerships can be built via trilateral cooperation, the coming together of several donors with a fragile state. The G20 potentially a good starting point as a global organization but, like the G7, needs some bold reform. It could become an incubator for partnerships. Of note, G20 finance ministers recently agreed to fund a multi-billion dollar debt relief fund for post-COVID-19 reconstruction in most impoverished countries.
A global partnership could be a natural fit with contemporary policy perspectives promoting global roles for our well-educated young citizens and the ever-growing diversity amongst new Canadians, often from emerging economies.