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Showing Leadership in a Changing World

Former Prime Minister Joe Clark on Canada’s place in a new world.

By: /
2 July, 2012
By: Joe Clark
Former prime minister of Canada

Power among nations is shifting dramatically. Goldman Sachs has projected that, by 2050, the seven largest economies in the world will contain only one western nation – the United States, which will rank second in economic power, well behind China. Next in order would be India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and Indonesia. Canada would rank 16th – a little behind Vietnam, and a little ahead of the Philippines.

That trajectory is not about anyone’s decline, but is rather about the rise and assertion of new strengths. The shift is not just economic – it is also political, military, diplomatic, and, most significantly, cultural (what languages, which values, what sense of community will characterize the future?).

Consider two dimensions of these changes.

First, where does conflict come from in the modern world? Not much from ideology, as in the Cold War, and not simply from poverty and inequality. Instead, conflict so often arises from culture and identity and faith.

How might we respond? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate clearly that these conflicts cannot be resolved by mere military power, or simply by “the magic of the market.”


Many of these deadly, growing conflicts are rooted in the fear that vital values or identities are under siege. Such fears are as old as humankind, but they are more easily inflamed in an age when information travels so fast and so far, challenging sacred assumptions, creating new aspirations, and stimulating anger or envy or extremism. 

The critical talent, in such a world, is the ability to respect and bridge conflicting identities – and different values – and to patiently seek enough common ground to build trust and respect and, then, collaboration. No country in the world is better at that than Canada. And our capacity increases as our population diversifies, making us more like the world. So, the habit of common purpose – the sense of with whom we might empathize or co-operate – is larger than it was before. That is a significant asset.

The second change is that the shift in power is not only occurring between nation states, but also between nation states and non-state actors – such as the environmental movement, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, foundations … and organized crime, and terrorists.

Today, Greenpeace has more influence on public policy than most national governments. The Gates Foundation is more innovative. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies employ more than 300,000 people. Of the world’s 10 biggest multinational companies in 2011, as ranked by “Fortune Global 500,” only five – Walmart, three Chinese state companies, and Toyota motors – employ more people internationally than Red Cross/Red Crescent. And that is just the beginning of the non-state list. World Vision is in 97 countries, with more than 40,000 staff and more than 100,000 volunteers. The NGO BRAC, rooted in Bangladesh, is the largest NGO in the world.  Amnesty International has offices in 80 countries – more national offices than most countries have embassies.

These groups have more than numbers and reach. They are innovators. They are on the ground, able to act directly. They are not bound by a formal protocol that a state may have signed, or by an informal protocol requiring the approval of some official thousands of miles away. They invent new instruments (look at micro-credit, for instance). They build personal trust, which is the basis of creative partnerships. They are not hog-tied by a veto in the United Nations Security Council.

But what they don’t have is the authority to change the rules. Non-state organizations often have the imagination the world needs. But only states have the mandate and the power to change laws and regulations and obligations. 

We need to marry mandate and imagination. Again, Canada is one of a handful of countries that, in the past, has been able, willing, and trusted enough to establish strong purpose-specific partnerships with non-state organizations. (Witness the international treaty to ban landmines, the campaign against apartheid, the agreement on blood diamonds, and several other initiatives pursued by Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments of Canada.)

Of course, these capacities to manage diversity and build partnerships are not a whole foreign policy. We have vital economic, trade, environmental, and security interests to pursue. But these are all in jeopardy if conflict thrives. Our skills at building partnerships and respect could be a distinguishing Canadian credential. They speak to the most challenging issues of the future, and they are capacities where we are not 16th in the world. Our place is among the leaders.

Ironically, governments and publics pay more attention now to the world’s “new threats” than to the world’s “new solutions.” There is an enormous difference between the money and attention that western governments spend on defence and “homeland” security and that which they invest in the growing capacity to achieve co-operation, understanding, and tangible improvements in the conditions that give rise to violence, crime, and terrorism.

Canada’s foreign policy has never been static – it always evolves: from Robert Borden’s steady assertion of sovereignty, to Lester Pearson’s creation of peacekeeping, to the trade initiatives of the 1980s.

So, being innovative is nothing new for Canada. There is abundant experience in this very room.

Some of you may recall a recent controversy in the United States about whether foreign military assistance in Libya would be led by France and Britain, rather than by the United States. A “White House advisor” supported that very sensible proposition, but was careless enough to describe it as “leading from behind.” American hawks went wild, and that description was disowned. 

But, as power disperses in the world, so does the capacity to lead – and, in almost every case, the most effective leadership will have to be shared not only among states, but also with other entities and, often, with citizens. The model now should be “leadership from beside.” That is highly relevant to Canada and Canadians – it is what we have often done – and it helps make the world more stable, so that our citizens, enterprises, and values might be more secure. It also defines a collaborative, respectful, innovative world in which Canadians’ role – the role of our governments, our people, and our organizations – could be more important than it ever was before.

This essay was originally a speech delivered at the Public Policy Forum’s 25th Annual Testimonial Dinner & Awards

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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