Peace Can Be Dangerous

By: /
June 20, 2011

I feel privileged to be in such creative company—and really look forward to seeing what our roundtable dialogue produces. I also feel a little guilty discussing Canadian foreign policy because I'm a long-term exile – having spent almost fifteen years working at the Geneva-based WTO, as well as with the IMF and the World Bank. What I've discovered living abroad for so long is that you actually learn most, not about the wider world, but about your home and your roots. At least that's my excuse. And I want to applaud CIC—especially Jennifer Jeffs— for working so hard to ignite a national debate about foreign policy and raise awareness about Canada's place in the world. This initiative could not be more timely.

Peace can be dangerous. Crises are forgotten, the world returns to normal, and complacency sets in. Great causes are replaced by technical discussions. Grand alliances are eroded by petty rivalries and squabbles. Global issues take a back seat to domestic concerns. A few voices warn of looming global threats, but no one wants to disturb the peace—so the doomsayers are ignored and the barbeques are turned on.

Canada is enjoying its moment of peace and prosperity. We just went through a general election where foreign policy was almost wilfully ignored—except for allegations that Michael Ignatieff's extensive experience abroad disqualified him from representing the country. Canadians see themselves as an island of tranquillity. But by any measure—trade, finance, immigration, the environment, security—that island has never been more exposed to shifting global currents. And those currents are becoming a torrent.

Even more worrying is our complacency about events across the border. We've watched America's decline with a combination of smugness (couldn't happen here) and schadenfreude (about time the superpower was taken down a notch) —as if the US were an ocean away and not our key partner—and strategic ally—in an ever more interconnected and interdependent continent.

We're doing fine without them. We'll just sign more free trade deals with Asia and Europe. Except that Canada's global economic leverage increasingly hinges on the strength and competitiveness of North America as a whole—our shared innovation, infrastructure, and production chains. Not to mention our shared security. "Who ya gonna call" if Russia muscles in on Canada's Arctic? Beijing? New Delhi? Brussels? We could never afford to ignore the elephant next door—all the more so now that the elephant is wounded. That these wounds are largely self-inflicted should not make Canadian's any less anxious to see America's health restored.

Canada is not alone. The world too seems allergic to global issues at the moment—even as globalization binds us closer together. Despite the Great Recession, world exports were over 50 per cent higher in 2010 than in 2000—and 183 per cent higher than in 1990. Developing countries' trade is growing fastest of all—symbolized by China overtaking Germany last year as the world's top exporter. But beneath globalization's shiny surface, tensions are growing—from continued financial instability, to global imbalances, to environmental stresses, to deteriorating US-China relations. A recent poll suggests that only a third of Americans now view globalization positively—a far cry from the optimism that greeted globalization after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Another poll found that only 37% of Europeans see globalization as an opportunity, while almost half see it as a threat.

An integrated global economy fundamentally requires political cooperation to sustain it. But globalization seems to be outpacing—even weakening—our willingness to do so. Witness the deadlocked Doha trade talks. Or our paralysis on climate change. Or our dithering and disunity in the face nuclear proliferation. So much easier to turn away from a complicated and messy world—mind our own business—see no evil, hear no evil.

But make no mistake. Our peaceful world is starting to look like a more dangerous place. Has anyone noticed?