It is well known that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one that means “danger”, the other “opportunity”. Unfortunately, this is a myth—the characters in question don’t mean that at all. And that is too bad because there is truth in the notion. Emergencies can create disorder, which provides an opportunity to reorder and rebuild, better and stronger. Donald Trump is giving Canada one of those moments now.
There are dozens of ways the new administration might damage Canada. The repeal of NAFTA could cripple our economy. The decline of NATO would threaten our Arctic sovereignty. A destabilized Washington, in general, would shake every aspect of our politics and society.
And, after Trump’s dramatic first two weeks in office, we must assume everything he threatened during his campaign is now on the table. What’s more, the situation is made worse by the confusion in Washington—it is no longer clear that agencies understand orders coming from the White House, or as we saw this week, are even aware of them. It’s time we accepted this is officially a crisis for Canada, but one that brings historic opportunities.
First, this is a unique moment for Ottawa to become the “Trump Whisperer”. Every indication out of Washington is that the Prime Minister’s Office has done a remarkable job connecting to the new White House. This administration may seem like an inexplicable puzzle to most Canadians, but at official levels it is less of an enigma. Canadian policy makers share many common social and professional connections to Trump and his team. Former prime ministers, opposition politicians, and leaders in the Canadian private sector are also providing help, making introductions and giving advice on how to manage the seemingly unmanageable.
Canadian diplomats already enjoy a reputation for understanding America and its politics. Operating “inside the beltway” almost gives us a home-field advantage. No one else is better placed to explain Trump to the allies, and vice versa. We are well suited to broker deals, pour oil over troubled waters, untangle mixed messages, and calm rattled nerves—on both sides of the Atlantic. If we consciously pursued this role, it would make us an “indispensable nation”, raising our profile, influence and diplomatic capital to new heights.
And we could use that new capital to take advantage of the second opportunity. This is a moment when we can not only fight for our values, but also change the way we see ourselves, and the way the world sees us. Every few years the Economist magazine puts Canada on its cover and claims we’re the new bastion of liberalism, or multiculturalism, or innovation, and we all get very excited. But the ironic reason we make the cover is because the story is unexpected—Canada is not what comes to mind when people think of those things. The headline says “Canada is cool!” because normally we aren’t. Trump, however, provides a chance to cement the idea that Canada was, is, and always will be an exceptional nation.
Right now, the core principles that Canadians hold so dearly, that define us, such as liberal democracy, multiculturalism and a values-based international order, are being threatened globally. And, what’s worse, there are precious few nations inclined or able to swim against the current tide. Canada is the exception. Unlike France, or Germany, or Australia, no one in our political landscape (who has even modest support) wants to withdraw from the global trading system, close our borders to refugees or abandon our traditional transatlantic alliances. We even have broad agreement on once-controversial topics like climate change.
Canada is uniquely placed to become not just a champion for all of these ideals, but the champion. Our Prime Minister should stand on the world stage and thunder in defence of NATO, the Paris Agreement, NAFTA, and WTO. His ministers should fan out to reinforce or reestablish our allies’ support for these ideas and institutions. The leaders of Canada’s business community and civil society can also contribute, preaching the same message every chance they get. Not only will this fortify the idea that these values are Canadian values—more importantly, it will be critically helpful. For once, that worn-out slogan used to flog books is true: The world needs more Canada.
But in order for this to happen, our government must do more than just add a few lines to a speech. They need to make this a specific goal, poured right into the PM’s “deliverology” alchemy. We could go further, and make this global campaign to champion Canadian values part of the as yet amorphous Canada 150 celebrations. And it will also require resources. If we want to champion NATO, we need to finally step up and support it with troops. We need more diplomats, doing more, and doing it abroad (not filing paper in headquarters). And we need everyone working together—this crusade is important enough to warrant a secretariat, even a war room.
Finally, we need this to be a Canadian campaign, not a Liberal one. The opposition, instead of trying to get the Prime Minister to malign Trump in Question Period, should promote Canada’s efforts to champion these values around the world. The government, in return, should bring them to the table–and form a cross-party committee to support the campaign.
As Chairman Mao allegedly once said: “There is great disorder under the Heavens and the situation is excellent.” This is true. With some imagination, some leadership, and some effort, Canada can emerge from the Trump years stronger, and even more Canadian.