May 1, 2019

What’s Canada’s place in the new world order? The state of democracy and Canada’s international relations

After World War II, the world as a whole enjoyed a relatively long period of stability. But the last decade or so has seen increased turmoil in the form of trading bloc breakups, terrorism and election interference. What does this mean for Canada both at home and on the world stage?

Since the end of the Second World War, Canada has been part of a relatively stable international order — as have many countries all over the globe. Democracies have thrived, economies have grown and Canada has enjoyed strong and reliable relationships with our allies south of the border and around the world.

While there have been periods of conflict marked by brutal regional wars and concern over which countries have nuclear capabilities, generally speaking the world order has run smoothly for more than 70 years.

In fact, international diplomacy, global treaties and trade agreements appeared to be humming along so well that one American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, declared that we had reached the end of history — “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

He spoke too soon.

When Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, the Internet was brand new and full of promise for democratizing information. Social media, Internet trolls and Russian bots didn’t exist. And as we’ve seen, the world and its citizens were not at all prepared for how cyberspace would change political discourse and shake democracy.

Democracy has always come under challenge from different directions and in different ways.

“You can argue that we're in a period of reset because the way that democracy has functioned for a great many decades doesn’t seem to have responded tremendously well to the challenges of the 21st century,” says Dr. Gavin Cameron, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Political Science in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. “There is little doubt democracies — including Canada’s — are facing a series of challenges. But democracy has always come under challenge from different directions and in different ways.”

The world order — and Canada’s place within it — has shifted dramatically in just the last few years. Liberal democracy, a system that we took entirely for granted a few short years ago, is under threat. Two of Canada’s closest allies, the United States and United Kingdom, are in political disarray as many of their citizens show a growing disillusionment with liberal democracy. Russia has begun filling our social media feeds with false information and wild conspiracy theories that have created political instability and influenced elections. We’ve staggered through a global financial crisis and our societies suffer with growing income disparity. Add to this, China’s rising authoritarianism, massive economic might and ongoing trade war with the U.S., and it’s clear that we are seeing an extraordinary upheaval in the global political status quo.

“Quite frankly there has been a growing concern that we are heading into one of the most serious existential threats that Canada has faced in regards to its general security and its security as a democratic state,” says Dr. Rob Huebert, PhD, also an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. “We are seeing, for the first time, growing evidence of specific attacks by undemocratic states to either subvert or undermine Canadian democracy and furthermore to undermine and disrupt the democracy of our closest allies and friends.”

As citizens in Canada observe our allies in domestic turmoil Dr. Maureen Hiebert, PhD, insists we are not helpless. “We are not watching a car accident in slow motion. We still have some control over the car," says the associate professor of political science and senior research fellow in UCalgary's Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. "We need to take control of the things that we can and practice our democracy in a way we want to see it. There is a lot that is still under our control — how we decide as politicians, media and citizens to talk about politics and how to engage in it.”

Canada votes: The state of liberal democracy

With a federal election later this year, Canadians will go to the polls against increasing cynicism in Western nations about government. “We are in an era of skepticism in liberal democracy. There’s no question about that,” says Cameron. “I think you can say that the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K are aspects of this phenomenon. For many people in a number of different countries, democracy that has led to variations of a social, economic and cultural elite switching power between themselves is not an acceptable status quo.”

Much of that growing skepticism is organic and has been building for decades alongside globalization and an increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth. But a lot of unrest with the political status quo has been fuelled by external actors, as we’re discovering with the continuing investigations and indictments pointing to Russian influence in Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign. “There is growing evidence that, in fact, the Russians were very heavily involved in trying to get a disruptive candidate elected in the U.S. — one who doesn’t believe in the system,” says Huebert.

The enemies of democracy have taken our very strength and turned it into a major weakness.

But citizens rejecting the status quo in the U.S. — or in the U.K. with the Brexit plebiscite to leave the European Union trading bloc — is not the same as voters rejecting democracy outright, says Cameron, who studies international terrorism. “It’s not that people who support Brexit want to replace democracy with something else, they’re just not happy with the way democracy has been working for them.”

Trump supporters in the U.S. responded to his simplistic and populist messages and voted wholeheartedly to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., in 2016, but that doesn’t mean they were calling for an entirely new swamp. “It’s not as though most of Trump’s supporters want to replace American democracy,” says Cameron. “It’s that they are intrinsically skeptical because of the perception that the political gains have been rigged against them, particularly since the economic crisis from a decade ago.”

Canada is experiencing some “spillover” of Trump-style populism from south of the border, Cameron says. “In a Canadian context my perception has been that this has been more in terms of some of the themes that have been used in political dialogue rather than anything more substantial or substantive.”

The U.S. should serve as “a cautionary tale” to Canadians, says Hiebert. “The United States is one of the oldest democracies that we have and even it is vulnerable to real democratic backsliding,” she says. “It’s not as difficult as we might have imagined for a consolidated democracy to be fundamentally undermined by actors who are un-interested in upholding the rules of the game.” Trump aside, those actors are less interested in getting any one candidate or party elected. Rather they aim to “sow instability and create discord” in Western democracies so that their citizens become completely preoccupied with increasingly unstable domestic politics.

“It’s a brilliant strategy,” says Huebert. “The enemies of democracy have taken our very strength and turned it into a major weakness. Because even if you remove Trump you still have this population of Americans who say, ‘you know what, I don’t like what the old system represented.’”

Canada on the world stage

Canada, a medium power with a small population on a large land mass, has to co-exist with other nations around the world in matters of trade, defence and diplomacy. And this requires navigating complex relationships, often with governments that don't necessarily share our way of thinking.

Canada has often been a “perceived honest broker” on the world stage, says Cameron. “That's a long-standing role for Canada in the international realm.” And as that international realm is shifting beneath our feet, he suggests we hold our ground. “Canada has never been one of the big powers. That’s not how Canada has conducted itself in terms of foreign policy,” he says. “On a global scale Canada has sought to position itself as an exemplar of internationalism and I suspect Canada will continue to try to serve in this way, and champion democratic accountability.”

Canada’s traditional role expounding the virtues of internationalism is in stark contrast to the current protectionist policies of our closest neighbour, most important ally and biggest trading partner, the U.S. The Trump administration has discarded decades-old political norms, demanded a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and mused about withdrawing from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “Everyone always forgets Canada actually created NATO on the basis of creating an alliance of like-minded states,” says Huebert.

Adding to the turbulence from south of the border, other distinctly non-democratic countries are acting out against Canada. “We’ve had a wake-up call,” says Huebert. China is behaving aggressively, Saudi Arabia has lashed out and Russia has sent an army of bots into our cyberspace. “The Saudis aren’t actively engaged in the same way the Chinese and Russians are, but you see countries that absolutely despise the democratic system, and you’ve got to have this ongoing vigilance against these states,” says Huebert. “Canada needs to focus on the means by which we are able to protect ourselves against these various authoritative entities that would so welcome the disruption of the democratic system.”

Illustration of a salute

We all have a role in protecting democracy, say UCalgary researchers.

China and Russia’s actions outside their borders — such as China threatening Taiwan and Russia invading Ukraine — present a serious challenge for the rest of the world. In the past, liberal democracies have come together in widespread international cooperation to condemn these sorts of assertive foreign policies. The strategy has seen some successes and has been credited for helping negotiate arms treaties for example. “But that sort of international diplomacy or cooperation is more difficult in an era when key countries that have taken the lead in those sorts of roles are preoccupied with other things,” says Cameron, who studies terrorism.

We’re not prepared in the slightest.

In Canada, we need to pay closer attention to our Arctic security, says Huebert, who studies Canada’s north. He argues both Russia and China, which calls itself a “near Arctic-state,” are active threats to our northern sovereignty. “China is already the second strongest navy in the world and it’s just a matter of time before they start actively engaging in the Arctic waters and that changes all of our security considerations,” he says. “We’re not prepared in the slightest.”

Part of protecting ourselves and speaking out against growing authoritarianism from Russia and China is taking a more active role in promoting the merits of democracy. “I think that you have to start reaffirming why democracy is so important, beyond simply 'it sounds good, it's Western, and we like it,'” says Huebert. Rather, he says, Canada should use its voice and steady hand to stand up for all that democracy provides its citizens. “It allows us a respect for others, it allows us to have diversity, it allows us to have different opinions, to try different policies and orientations, and it prevents one individual or grouping of individuals from gathering power, which is always corrupting.”

As the U.S., the U.K. and other European allies are distracted by increasingly disruptive domestic politics, there’s an opportunity for Canada to work with other smaller and friendly nations like Australia and New Zealand to take a larger role on the global stage. “There is a deficit of international leadership at the moment and I think that Canada could have a potential role in that, but it couldn’t do it alone,” says Cameron.

Huebert agrees. “There is always strength in solidarity,” he says. “One of the by-products of the Second World War was the recognition of the fact that we had a certain solidarity with like-minded states.”

As some of those like-minded states continue to struggle, Canada is forced to evaluate how best to protect ourselves, our economy and our place in the ever-shifting world order. “Good guys don’t always win,” says Huebert. "But smart guys can win.”

Protecting Canadian democracy

Every modern country has systems in place to protect its vital infrastructure — things like dams, power stations and pipelines. Equally critical is our cyber-infrastructure, says Hiebert, and we need to ensure it is also safe from any attack. “If we want to protect our own democratic systems we need to protect the political infrastructure of our democracy and treat that as critical infrastructure too,” she says.

Hiebert, who has written a book about identity construction and elite decision-making in genocide, discusses critical infrastructure with students in her Law and Armed Conflict class. “We really do need to take very seriously cyber-security measures to ensure the kind of meddling that we saw happen in the 2016 election in the United States and various elections in Europe do not happen here,” she says. It would be “overly optimistic” to think Canada is not being attacked in this way.

The fact that Canadians vote with old-school, low-tech, non-hackable paper ballots in provincial and federal elections offers a certain level of protection. But “bots and bad actors” infect our social media feeds, she says, and Facebook and other platforms need to up their game in how they respond to this threat and protect users. “They’re aware of the kind of known attempts by external actors to try to manipulate potential voters and public discourse about political matters in an election.”

Flags from around the world

Canada's role on the world stage is changing.

Another concern with social media platforms is that people tend to rely on the “narrow scope of information” that’s provided on their feeds. “That’s problematic,” says Hiebert. Social media algorithms tend to deliver users an echo chamber of similar and reaffirming views which may or may not be grounded in reality. To have robust and civil conversations about important issues and policies, Canadians need to be informed with the facts. “We have to move away from accepting the discourse coming particularly from south of the border that the facts don’t matter,” she says. “They do.”

The “facts” can come at us at an almost dizzying speed. But that’s no excuse for a lack of critical thinking, says Huebert. From Romans building roads, which sped up the travel of information, to Gutenberg’s printing press to daily newspapers to the Internet, citizens throughout the ages have dealt with revolutionary means of communication. “The question is, how do you get better informed?” he says. “What is fact as opposed to fiction? Some argue there is no such thing as objective truth, there are only narratives that are created by social groups. In other words, my lie may be your truth.”

To weed out the lies, we need to broaden our consumption of information from social media. Hiebert suggests seeking out journalism from professional journalists who speak to a number of sources and check their facts before publishing a story. “It’s an old-timey way of gathering and vetting information but I think it’s increasingly important,” she says. Both Hiebert and Huebert argue that it’s important for Canadians to get better informed and remain vigilant about false information and conspiracy theories spread by foreign actors seeking to disrupt our domestic politics. We don’t have to fall in to the increasingly negative and uncivil political discourse that has consumed other countries.

Allowing and normalizing intolerant or hateful language is dangerous for any society. It can, in extreme cases, even lead to genocide, says Hiebert. When negative ideas about a certain group of people “take hold” in a society any calls to exterminate that group become tolerable for most. “Most members of society don’t often act as perpetrators but they do act as bystanders,” she says. And when people become bystanders, political actors can take that as “a green light” to go ahead and target certain groups in society.

“It really is up to us,” says Hiebert. “We should not just roll over to this kind of politics. At some point we have to make a decision. There has to be a critical mass of people in the political arena and just ordinary citizens, whether they’re politically active or just engaging in discussion on social media, to decide for themselves that this kind of uncivil politics is not acceptable and that it can have these incredibly negative outcomes.” The events in the U.S. with Trump and the U.K. with Brexit underscore for those citizens who may be complacent about voting that the “actions that we take at ballot box have real consequences.”

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Dr. Gavin Cameron, PhD, is associate dean, internationalization and global initiatives, and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. His research focuses on international security, terrorism and counterterrorism, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and intelligence. Read more about Gavin

Dr. Rob Huebert, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. His research interests lie in Canadian foreign and defence policies, circumpolar relations, foreign policy studies, international relations, naval studies, ocean politics, and strategic studies. Read more about Rob

Dr. Maureen Hiebert, PhD, is an associate professor of political science and senior research fellow in UCalgary's Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, human rights, human security, international law, political violence, and public law. Read more about Maureen

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