Leading ‘Munk’: An interview with Stephen Toope

The new director of the Munk School of Global Affairs talks funding, elections and the state of the world.
By: /
January 23, 2015
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Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs welcomed a new director earlier this month. Stephen Toope was most recently the President of the University of British Columbia, and is also the former President of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and dean of McGill University’s Faculty of Law. He officially began his directorship on Jan. 5 and this week discussed with OpenCanada — offices of which were previously in the Munk School — the state of research institutions in Canada, what it means to partner with the government, and which foreign policy terms he would like to see retired.

How have the first few weeks on the job been?

Well, quite busy but happily so. I am just taking the opportunity to try and meet as many people who have a connection with the Munk School as possible, both internally and outside the university. I am also of course teaching a full course now for the first time in 12 years… So it has been fun. I’m enjoying it very, very much.

You have some big shoes to fill as the first director beyond the first, Janice Stein, who was with the institution from its inception in 2000.

Right, exactly. Janice and the team here have done an absolutely remarkable job building the Munk School from a very, very small base. There had been of course the [Munk] Centre for International Studies and they had done good work, but the School is operating at a completely different level and it has only been a school for not even five years. So great, great work done.

Are there people or events from your past positions that have impacted your outlook for this one?

Going right back to when I was a very young professor at the Law Faculty of McGill, I thought of a person who made a huge impression upon me and that was Max Cohen. Max Cohen was a former Dean of Law at McGill and to my knowledge the only other international lawyer to be a dean in Canada at the time. What impressed me about him was his open-spiritedness intellectually. He was just someone who was always looking to see what was next. He wasn’t satisfied with the status quo around curriculum or around Canada’s role in the world.

More recently I was very fortunate to serve as the Chair of what was called the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances at the UN at the same time that Louise Arbour was the High Commissioner for Human Rights. So I got to work with Louise and got to know her even more than I had previously. I had known her for a long time but again impressed that she was someone that didn’t want to feel the constraints of her role. She was always, I thought, pushing at the edges of the role and trying to make it the most it could be and not being satisfied to just do what was necessary. That was inspirational and by the way, not an easy environment. Politically not an easy environment, bureaucratically not an easy environment and yet I always felt that she was pushing the edges.

[With the UN Working Group], one event that comes to mind which was extremely affecting for me was going on a country visit to Nepal and actually finding people in jails who had been disappeared. Whose families had lost them for five years or two years or whatever. Finding them and being able to report back that they were alive and trying to create a mechanism for them to be in touch with their families again.

When you were President of UBC, you said a challenge for Canadian universities is to compete against U.S. and international institutions for the top students and faculty. Is this challenge any different when it comes to attracting top talent here for research on global affairs?

There is of course a challenge in attracting the very best professors and the very best students, because there are so many opportunities. Not just in the United States where we often tend to look, but in Europe — the Geneva international programs, you’ve got the Blavatnik School at Oxford. You’ve got other programs being created all over Europe. You’ve got the Max Planck centres in Germany. So yeah, it’s a real challenge.

The way to address it is to be as particular as possible about what Canada has to offer, and more precisely what an individual school is going to focus on and really try to develop…niche is the wrong word because that makes it sound small. These could be very big picture questions, but they are not exactly the same questions that other people are asking. That is one of the things that attracted me to the Munk School. So you’ve got for example The Citizen Lab here, which does amazing work on cyber security. You’ve got an Innovation Policy Lab that really is thinking about innovation in some quite creative ways. Both in terms of regional innovation and cities, but also now more and more thinking about innovation for the poor and a role that Canada I think can actually make a contribution to. Then we’ve got a Global Justice Lab which has focused so far primarily on questions around international institutions, criminal law, etc. but I think again has the capacity to carve out an area that is not exactly the same as what is happening at the Woodrow Wilson School or at the Kennedy School or at the Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore. I think the more clear we are about our own relative areas of advantage and particular interest, the better we can be at attracting the very best people.

And is there a responsibility to Canadians to facilitate dialogue around global affairs?

Absolutely. Well first off we are in public universities that are funded by the citizens of Canada. I think that alone gives us a sense of obligation. But beyond that we are part of a set of interlinked communities: Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the world, global society. Because of that I think we do have an obligation to help people understand as much as we can of the unbelievably complex setting in which they find themselves. Things that could look like they are just local issues turn out not to be. Just think of the public transit issue in Toronto. Okay, well you could say that’s just a local issue. But it’s not actually. It’s not a local issue for a whole number of reasons. First of all, the funding of it is not going to be solved purely locally. It is certainly going to be solved provincially and nationally. If you think about how you are going to improve infrastructure, well you are probably dealing with supply chains and manufacturers that are not all based in Toronto or even in Canada. If you are thinking about how people use the subway or other public transit and you think about how we understand our community life through public transit, the fact that we are a certain type of community with certain types of people who come from different parts of the world, it actually changes the dynamic of our experience. So you know, that is maybe a funny example; it’s a small one. But there are so many ways in which everything that is local is also global.

People are a bit frightened I think of what they think of as global affairs today. You look at the world and it doesn’t look like a particularly happy place. So helping people confront their fears is also part of our role I think.

How do you see the current state of research institutes and think tanks in Canada? We have seen the closure of a few in recent years, including the North-South Institute and the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, for instance. Has it become more important for the stability of a centre to establish partnerships, for instance the recent announcement of the Digital Square project with department of Foreign Affairs.

First off, I feel very fortunate to be at the Munk School, which of course because of the generosity of a tremendous donor — and others but Mr. [Peter] Munk in particular — is quite well endowed and has therefore a stability that is somewhat unusual in this field. So very fortunate there. Rooted in a university that is also in pretty good shape and is strong and has a reputation and all those things.

So there is a real sense of stability here, but your broader observation leads me to conclude that we actually have a very serious problem in Canada. There are very few think tanks that have any stable funding. There are not very many academic institutions comparable in terms of their stability to something like the Munk School. I think if you probably looked at the Balsillie School [of International Affairs], that would have grounding, but a lot of others don’t. They are having to live on year-to-year funding which is hard. It means that you are often distracted from your overall mission because you are just trying to scramble to get resources. There has been a disappearance of quasi-public sector/private sector places for debate. There are others: the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal is gone. The ones you mentioned. Then you have got various public policy outfits that have disappeared over the course of the last five to 10 years. So each one individually you might say ‘Well it’s not a disaster,’ but collectively there are just fewer places for real public dialogue.

It means that we have a responsibility to partner. We have got to find mechanisms to not look at our situations, as they like to say in economics, as a zero-sum game. But to see how we can leverage the resources that do exist and work more collectively together. That is sometimes in government. It is with other civil society organizations, other university-based institutions both nationally and internationally. If I had to say I think we have one flaw in Canada; we are often now very fixed to develop partnerships outside of the country and we don’t spend enough time thinking about where partnerships might exist within the country.

Working with the government then allows for bigger projects to happen, but does it also change the dynamic?

Yeah. Although you have to be really clear who you are when you engage in partnerships. Partnerships are crucial but you have to be operating from a very clear understanding of your own position and your own values base. So for example I happen to know, as I discovered happily, that contracts that the University of Toronto signs with any organization, there has to be an explicit commitment around academic independence and academic freedom. So our role is not to become an implementing agency for someone else’s policy. Ever. That could be corporate, it could be government, it could be some other NGO.

That’s crucial.

It’s crucial that we maintain our stance as an independent academic institution. But that doesn’t preclude partnerships as long as we are clear in our own mind what our role is, which is different from other people’s roles.

Turning to the federal election this year. How do we get voters interested in Canada’s foreign policy, and parallel to that, how do we get younger people more engaged on global issues?

Well let’s separate out the two. Generally speaking I think it’s really tough in an election period to have a sophisticated conversation about global affairs. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep trying, but I also think we have to be realistic. The old story is that elections are both about the economy, and they usually are in the western world, and that they are basically local. So you have got both of those things going on at the same time. So it is hard to break through that. It can happen, the great Canadian election on the [Canada-U.S.] Free Trade Agreement is an example. Where we had one election, although it was economic, was also about a major issue of international engagement for Canada. So it happens every now and then, but it’s hard.

The issue that you raise about younger people is, to me, more challenging and more interesting because I actually don’t believe that there has been any lessening of interest in global affairs on the part of young people. In fact I would say exactly the opposite. In fact if anything, I would say that the gap is national affairs. I think they are often quite bored with the traditional politics at the national level. I don’t think they are at all disconnected from what is happening globally. In fact I think they are better informed than people of my generation were when we were graduating. They have more access to information, they follow it. You could complain about sources and how sophisticated they are, etc. etc., but they are not disconnected.

There is a problem that they are disconnected often from what we see as the institutions that have been the expressions of global connectivity. So they are disconnected from the federal government to some extent. They are disconnected from a lot of international institutions. They tend to be focused much more around self-organized groups, sometimes small scale and sometimes bigger NGOs. I think that as a group of people interested in international affairs what we actually have to figure out is how to bridge those gaps between often really passionate engagement, but typically at a pretty small scale level, and connect it to an institutionalized frame that actually has the capacity to produce global change.

OpenCanada recently ran a piece examining foreign policy terms that can be misused or overused, such as New World Order and Middle Power — do you have three terms that you’d like to see retired?

It’s a good question because it reveals a lot. So I actually agree on ‘middle power.’ I think middle power is not a helpful conceptualization. Partly because I think it’s a wistful way of reconnecting with Pearsonian Liberalism, which was fantastic. It was an amazing construction at the time, but we are not in that world anymore. Canada is not going to play the role of honest broker in a whole range of geopolitical issues as it once did. And that is a not a criticism of any particular government. It is a recognition that relatively speaking we are less influential. There are more players who are comparable to us, and not just the Nordics and the Asians, but we now have South Korea. You have got South Africa. You’ve got Mexico, you’ve got Brazil. You’ve even got, maybe if it got its act together, Nigeria. I mean you’ve got a whole bunch of major middle-ranked states that could play important roles in a whole series of geopolitical issues. We are just not unique in that respect. So I think we do have move beyond that.

Another word that I would love to see us get rid of is ‘hegemony.’ Any form of hegemony, whether it’s U.S.-China, whether it’s some lingering hope that the U.S. will continue to influence in the way it has for many years. I just think the world is so, frankly, divided culturally that we are not going to be in a position where hegemonic power is ever going to be really a helpful way of analyzing what is going on in an increasingly interconnected and complex world.

Another word or phrase I would love to get rid of is ‘War on….’ War on drugs.

The war metaphor.

Yeah, the metaphor of war for confronting complex problems is utterly unhelpful. Of course I’m referring now currently to a ‘War on Terror.’ I think it forces us into constructs of interaction which are not going to address the actual problem we face. It can also lead us to believe that some kinds of old-fashioned responses are still going to be effective. Because we understand war in certain ways, we haven’t really made the transition into cyberwars and all of this. I mean we talk about it, but I think when people think of war there is a known enemy. There are the good guys who are after the known enemy and we deploy certain traditional power mechanisms to address it. It isn’t going to work, so I would love to get rid of that metaphor because I think it’s very unhelpful for the population seeking to understand what we are really trying to accomplish.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.