Living in a world without leaders

‘Diplomacy, like a lot of other things Harper used to regard with suspicion, is back in style.’

Living in a world without leaders

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

In his first speech in the House of Commons as leader of the Opposition, in 2002, Stephen Harper’s chosen topic was “perhaps the most important issue that ever faces Canada: our relationship with the United States.”

Harper was pretty sure the Liberals were making a mess of that relationship. Jean Chrétien didn’t really even like Americans, so he was frittering away time on trade trips to China in a doomed attempt “to revive the failed trade diversification of the 1970s, the Trudeau government’s so-called third-option strategy, which did not work then and is not working now.”

On the matter of Canada-U.S. relations, as on almost no other topic, Harper admitted nostalgia for the days of Brian Mulroney. Now there was a guy who “understood a fundamental truth,” said Harper: “The United States is our closest neighbour, our best ally, our biggest customer and our most consistent friend. Whatever else, we forget these things at our own peril.”

Today Harper and Barack Obama share a sort of blandly pleasant mutual incomprehension, and Harper went to Davos to say he’s making trade diversification, “beyond the United States and specifically to Asia,” a “national priority.” It’s one of the biggest foreign-policy reversals of Harper’s life. Has he forgotten Mulroney’s “fundamental truth?” Is Obama such a dud that proper Canada-U.S. relations can’t work?

There’s a third possibility: that the world is changing in ways that make it important for Canada to look past the U.S. That’s the diagnosis Columbia University political scientist Ian Bremmer lays out in his book Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.

Bremmer offers a variation on a familiar theme, a decline in the ability of the United States to set anyone’s global agenda—on the economy, on security, or on the fight against climate change, if there still is such a thing. The “G-Zero” is Bremmer’s name for a world in which “no single country or durable alliance of countries can meet the challenges of global leadership.”

This wasn’t even a new idea when Fareed Zakaria wrote The Post-American World in 2008, but the notion of a non-omnipotent America was still fresh enough that a photo of Obama carrying Zakaria’s book on the campaign trail helped feed Republican claims that Obama is a fifth columnist plotting to undermine his current country of residence.

Bremmer claims one difference with Zakaria: he doesn’t think Zakaria’s term “the rise of the rest” properly describes the new world disorder. To Bremmer, there is no coherent “rest.” “For the first time in seven decades, we live in a world without global leadership,” he writes. The U.S. is hobbled by “endless partisan combat and mounting federal debt.” Nasty surprises in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the Americans much less interested in playing global cop. Japan is recovering more quickly from a tsunami than from “two decades of political and economic malaise.” China’s not ready for leadership yet, which may turn out to have been a blessing.

Meanwhile, pick your preferred global power structure—the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, G7, G8, G20—they’re all experiencing crises of legitimacy or efficacy. Bremmer’s book opens with an argument he had with Paul Martin over the G20. Bremmer gives Harper’s predecessor high marks for diagnosis. The G7 is, as Martin saw, “an increasingly irrelevant institution.” But adding enough developing countries to make a G20 leaves “too little common ground for substantive progress” except in a crisis. So the G20 seemed like a splendid idea for a few months at the end of 2008, and now it doesn’t work either.

Bremmer’s book is written in the U.S. for a global audience, so only in the wonkiest corners of Canada will it be read as a book-length paraphrase of Harper’s “sea of troubles” speech from the 2011 election campaign. With all the “disaster in the Pacific, chaos in the Middle East, debt problems in Europe, and all kinds of challenges south of our border,” the Conservative leader said at every stop, “Canada is the closest thing the world has to an island of stability and security.”

Indeed, Bremmer includes Canada in a list of countries that stand to benefit in a world without global leadership, because they have “more options and greater influence.” Most of Bremmer’s so-called “pivot states” are developing countries: Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Japan, much of Africa. Canada makes the list too, less dependent on the U.S. than Mexico because our exports to countries other than the U.S. rose from 18 per cent to 25 per cent of total exports from 2005 to 2009. But our commercial independence from the U.S. has been growing for years. “Canada was working to build commercial ties with Asia for years before the recession took hold in the United States,” Bremmer notes.

During much of that time Harper was ambivalent or, when he was in Opposition, openly hostile to the notion of building commercial ties with China. Now Bremmer has more advice for the Prime Minister. “Canada should not [only] be pivoting to China,” he told me in a telephone interview. “They should be pivoting to everyone.” In a world with so many variables driving up uncertainty, this is a lousy time for governments to be dealing with only a small number of foreign interlocutors. Robust diplomacy, like a lot of other things Harper used to regard with suspicion, just came back in style. “If you’re Canada right now,” Bremmer said, “you want to be doubling down on your international capacity and exposure.”


Living in a world without leaders

  1. With the number of new free-trade agreements Canada has pursued in the last five years, it seems that Harper is “pivoting to everyone.” Admittedly I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure I agree with Bremmer’s statement: “For the first time in seven decades, we live in a world without global leadership.” Still, probably a thought-provoking read.

    • It’s what we call “postmodernism.” Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and possibly the imminent fall of the United States, the world has had several countries jockeying for position to be Top Dog.

  2. “Most of Bremmer’s so-called “pivot states” are developing countries: Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Japan, much of Africa”.. Japan is a developing country? Is this some kind of joke, or does this just go to show how stupid Macleans has become?

    • That was my thought too.

  3. Without a doubt ,for all his vaunted strategic ablities, Harper has always gotten it wrong on the main issues until he,s been backed into a corner of irrefutable logic than withstands his thinking. I,m appalled at the way he makes decisions with no awareness of the long term consequences, or if he is aware,, the direction he is taking our country is traitorous in it,s intent. He is usurping the will of the majority of Canadians on so many issues using the thin cover of a majority of seats.I hope and pray that when he is given the boot that we can not only reverse most of the damage, but bring in legislation and rules that make it impossible for any one person to have the absolute power that winning an election now confers on the head of a party.My Parliament has been castrated,metaphorically,by the abuses that have been allowed by these archaic rules now in place and the lack of fortitude in the opposition and backbenchers on the government side.This supposed omnibus bill being the most flagrant example.

  4. “Science has changed global
    governance and can be neither conquered nor defended by armies”, Israeli
    President Shimon Peres said today.
    The Israeli President said
    science cannot be controlled or arrested and it doesn’t respect borders or

    “The major thing is the world is
    becoming ungovernable,” he said. “The real force in our time is no longer
    politics, but science. And science took away the
    strengths of politics.”

    Mr. Peres said citizens now must
    be persuaded rather than ordered.

    “We shall have to act by
    consensus, by agreements; spend much more time to reach an agreement.”

    • I guess that’s why Harper is trying so hard to stifle science – he believes that too.

      • Probably, because science is certainly being discredited, underfunded, undermanned, and eliminated wherever possible.

  5. Canada’s foreign policy has always come down to the economic implications of our foreign alliances. The core of Harper’s party includes the drillers of oil and hewers/pulpifiers (?) of wood pulp that benefit from the rise of China. Mulcair, on the other hand, relies on the backing of workers in industries that can’t compete with China (certainly in the “good old days” of a 63 cent dollar, we weren’t selling cars to China).

    Just as the 1988 Free trade election featured parties on the opposite side as the 1911 reciprocity election (yes, the Liberals used to be the free traders, because they had support in the west, while the Tories were based in Toronto – home to high tech firms that couldn’t compete with the US), I see the germ of a similar reversal in the works. We will see the day when the NDP praises America, while the Tories cheer the rise of China. Why? Because money talks.

    • Mulcair only backs those interests of Quebec, and have you ever seen how many open pit mines they have in Quebec.

      When is the last time you heard Mulcair say the production of asbestos should be stopped?????

  6. bad howler on Japan, as someone pointed out. Presume Wells meant Korea. More substantively, what always annoys me in these Jeffrey Simpsonesque “Harper has abandoned his right wing foolishness and is being like the Liberals on China as he must” pieces is mischaracterization of the Chretien Team Canada stuff. Chretien was kowtowing to get things like insurance licenses for Powercorp companies, owned by his own extended family. Guanxi indeed. Oil trade and food exports are much healthier and we have the power in the relationship, not China, and there is no scope for bribery or crony capitalism and god knows what else goes on when creepy Desmarais are involved.

  7. America does not have a leader, we have someone occupying the white house much like the unruly OWS mobs. Hence the world lacks a leader, the leaders in other countries may have important roles but ultimately they are only supporting actors. Fewer American flags are being burned but the world is flailing as countries are failing. Many around the world are loath to admit it but are hoping that obama will be consigned to the inspirational speaker circuit in January along with luminaries such as carter, clinton, and gore.

  8. When any country is dependent on another country for 75% or more of its trade, you have the potential for what Hitler called an “anschluss.” But when Wall Street catches a cold, the TSX sneezes.