Have Brexit and other global pressures created space for more Canadian leadership?

As major powers deal with political shuffles at home, Canada is poised to take concerted steps toward international leadership, argues John McArthur. 

By: /
3 August, 2016
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a working session of the North Atlantic Council at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
John McArthur
By: John McArthur

Senior fellow, Brookings Institution 

It’s a rare moment of geopolitical geometry when the global policy community looks anxiously to Canada for leadership. Now is such a moment, judging from comments a number of senior international figures have recently made to me. We need to recognize it and act accordingly.

The context is framed by large emerging risks to international co-operation and problem-solving. These are partly driven by the proliferation of nativist political pressures in many other advanced economies. They are also driven by underappreciated practical consequences of the UK’s recent Brexit vote.

Over the past 15 years, the UK has played a leadership role on key global challenges, such as infectious disease, extreme poverty, food insecurity, climate change and basic education. At a political level, whatever their individual shortcomings, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and many of their senior cabinet members all helped drive major advances on these issues. Today, however, for the first time in nearly a generation, we simply do not know whether a sitting British prime minister, now Theresa May, is equally committed on these fronts. Early signals are worrisome.

But even if the UK’s headline political commitment continues, its government machinery will likely be preoccupied with Brexit processes for years. Instead of focusing on building the next wave of multilateral efforts to tackle priorities, such as AIDS, girls’ education or governance in fragile states, a vast number of civil servants and their expertise will be focused on realignment with the European Union.

All of this prompts outsized attention on Canada, for three reasons. First, at a strategic level, Canada has long been something of a swing voter in global affairs, akin to Florida or Ohio in a U.S. presidential election. We are one of a handful of countries with an outsized ability to help the world’s coalitions and norms turn in one direction or another. Second, at a psychological level, many international actors see Canada as an uplifting rare source of ongoing positive news and political energy. Third, in terms of resources, after a generation of underinvesting in global affairs, Canada is seen as one of the few influential countries with an ability to do much more.

How can Canada best to step up to fill global gaps? Political commitment to openness is important, but we also require a deliberate buildup of expertise, investments, diplomatic strategies and engagement across public and private actors. Otherwise, we will never make the jump from contributing lots of positive actions to helping solve specific international problems.

An early case study is taking shape in the realm of climate change. The new government’s dramatic shift in stance from its predecessor sent a clear signal to the world. The energetic minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, then played a key role forging the historic Paris climate agreement, a swing voter role on vivid display.

More recently, she worked with nearly 20 major Canadian companies to join the global Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition. Meanwhile, Ottawa is openly pushing for an all-province carbon pricing agreement. If this succeeds then international policy-makers will be knocking down doors looking for advice on how to replicate the breakthrough.

Canada will soon have more opportunities to take concerted steps toward international leadership. In September we host the replenishment of the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and malaria. This offers a chance to discuss how these three diseases fit with broader global health imperatives, such as pandemic response, mental health, and reaching marginalized populations. A few days later Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama will help co-host a special UN session on refugees.

At these events and elsewhere, Canada needs to focus on making the leap from good global citizen to leader in global problem-solving. No country can lead on every issue, but Canada could “chair the board” of partners taking the lead across many issues. It will take time and practice to mobilize the right technical and financial resources. The returns of doing so will be tremendous. Much of the world is eager to see what we can deliver.

This piece was first published in the Toronto Star.

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