Teaching in an Era of Flux: International norms and institutions, once a given, are now on shaky ground

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.

By: /
April 29, 2019

I’ve been teaching undergraduate courses on Canadian foreign policy since 2012, and it’s getting harder. It has long been the case that teaching introductory Canadian foreign policy requires engaging with scholarship from across political science, international relations, political economy, history, sociology and law. The scope of Canadian foreign policy was broad but the highlights were fairly clear: Confederation, empire, the world wars, the Cold War, free trade, the post-Cold War 1990s, 9/11, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror. How Canada pursued its national interests was structured around its involvement in key global and continental institutions: the United Nations, NATO, NORAD, the G7, NAFTA, the WTO, and the bedrock of the Canada-US bilateral relationship. Even though global politics has, in retrospect, been on a turbulent path since the start of the twenty-first century, we could still identify patterns of continuity around Canada’s role in the world because these institutions were durable and the major issues underpinning Canadian foreign policy appeared relatively constant.

Today, many of these supposedly durable institutions are sagging under multiple strains and the unprecedented capriciousness of the Trump presidency towards allies, partners and enemies alike. Just in the last year, the Trump administration has forced Canadians (and many others) to seriously contemplate: an overt lack of US commitment to NATO, driving renewed discussions of how Europeans cannot trust America as a reliable partner in their defence; the threatened end of the World Trade Organization and of the North American free trade area, including on-going steel and aluminum tariffs imposed against Canada on the grounds of national security; US acquiescence to Russia’s violations of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty through the annexation of Crimea; a determination to undermine the Iran nuclear deal that America negotiated; and, even more recently, American implicit support for the murder of a US-based dissident journalist on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Each of these issues affects Canada’s national interests and influences its foreign policy, which is always sensitive to developments in Washington. Yet unlike past episodes of executive misguidedness, America’s current bout of irrational foreign policymaking is set against a more ominous backdrop: the decline of democratic norms and rise of illiberal democracies in Europe, Asia and Latin America; the disastrous fallout from the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war that continues to unfold across the Middle East; deep divisions within America itself over racism, wealth inequality, rule of law, and violence characterized as ‘populism’; and the ongoing, largely unmitigated crisis of climate change and global environmental devastation.

In this harsh new light, the apparent reliability of many of the structures that have mediated Canada’s role in the world while insulating it from some of its greatest challenges seems a distant memory. In an emerging global order characterized by willful American insularity, and the weakening of liberal and internationalist norms at precisely the moment that global threats most require cooperative solutions, the future is dim, if not grim. And while these effects ripple out and touch our lives in many ways, they are central to how we research, teach and learn about Canada’s place in the world. A country whose engagement with the world has too-often been complacent is unlikely to be well prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, and students of Canadian foreign policy can no longer take for granted some of the cornerstones which, in the past, seemed as certain as the future was bright.

Also in the series

How to teach international affairs in an era of flux:

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.