Ben Rowswell is the President and Research Director of the Canadian International Council (CIC). Prior to the CIC, he served as Canada’s Ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017. This capped a 25-year career as a professional diplomat including assignments in Canada’s embassies in Egypt and the United States, and in Canada’s Permanent Mission to the UN. As a practitioner of international relations, his thematic interests have been in human rights and democracy.

His article, ‘Populist unilateralism and the threat to Canadian power’, was published in the most recent issue of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. You can access it for free here.

We sat down with Rowswell to discuss the article and the state of Canadian foreign relations.

Hello Ben, thank you for joining us today. Your article explores the impact of populist unilateralism on international relations and suggests a possible way forward for Canada. First of all, could you define the expression “populist unilateralism” and its relevance to international affairs?

“Unilateralism” is the instinct by national governments to act on their own, not taking into consideration the interests and preferences of others. It is an inherently confrontational way to conduct your affairs in international relations.

The “populist” qualifier is a reference to the most prominent strand of unilateralism right now being practiced by many countries, both democratic and undemocratic. These countries tend to have in common the hyper-concentration of power at the top of government, the invocation of the will of the people for the justification of this centralization of power, and, like all populist systems, ignoring the voices of actual citizens.

This populist unilateralism is practiced by quite a lot of populist dictatorships, from Russia to Hungary and Turkey, but also by populist democracies. Where Canada needs to be most concerned, of course, is the unilateralism being practiced by the populist government of the United States, because the exercise of American power to the exclusion of the interest of other countries like Canada places us in an incredibly precarious position.

And how does that relate to Canada’s broader approach to foreign relations?

In my article, I am basically arguing that the basis for advancing Canada’s interest over the last three generations is coming to an end with the crumbling of the rules-based international order. Rules-based international order presumes that the various countries all see some shared interest in maintaining it, at least to some extent, and have rules around sharing those interests. Unilateralism threatens that order, and that demands that Canada rethinks its approach.

I do not think we are going to come up with a radically different approach to how we define our interests, but we mostly need a new language of foreign policy that recognizes that the basis of our power up until now was in operating this system of rules, operations, and norms. Only through this could we—countries like Canada and other middle powers—collectively create a little bit of predictability in international affairs and channel the actions of the great powers or condition them so that, to some extent, there is a pursuit of shared interest. When that is not there, we have to get back to basics and think about what power we do have, so that we can protect our citizens and advance their interests.

That is the shift that I am calling for with this paper. Our response to unilateralism by others is certainly not to become unilateralists ourselves but to become far more conscious and explicit in discussing power and acting in a way that maximizes our own.

When talking about liberal internationalism, you note that the Trudeau government emphasizes its normative aspects but does not often cite the underlying rationale it provides for maximizing Canada’s power. Can you talk about this rationale in the Canadian context?

The argument that I make is that Canada did not start as a country that favoured multilateralism. We did sign the treaty of the League of Nations and became members in the 1920s, but the dominant current in Canadian thinking was isolationist. We came into multilateralism at a time where we were coming out of World War II and we were anxious to prevent a third world war. We saw the creation of institutions like the UN, or probably more relevantly NATO, as the best way to project our power in the international system.

Now, over 70 years or so, the means to the end – the means being multilateralism and the end being Canadian power – have been obscured. The means have become the ends in the discourse of the Trudeau Liberals, and multilateralism is seen as the final outcome that we are trying to accomplish.

I think that is just natural when a policy has been very successful for 75 years. We become very invested in this particular means. In my case and many of my former [Government of Canada] colleagues, we have all been brought up with values and practices of multilateralism. But the international system has changed quite dramatically and the pursuit of multilateralism as an end leaves a lot of Canadians with an empty taste in their mouth. Somehow the dialogue has not caught up with the reality.

I am certainly not arguing against multilateralism. What I am saying is that we need to go back to the end that we were originally pursuing: the protection of our citizens and the promotion of our interest. And that requires power. Then, we need to figure out how to band together with other countries, which countries, under what terms, and to what ends—all with a view of maximizing our power. So, essentially what I am calling for is a new multilateralism, but argued through the perspective of what gives as much power as possible to Canadian citizens.

You suggest this idea of a “New Alliance” and a new way to approach alliances. Can you tell us a bit about how liberal democracies reach that level of integration and how we can learn from the limits of existing multilateral organizations?

In my article, after having explained why continuing to bang on about multilateralism as an end in itself is a dead-end, I also point out another dead-end, which is quite common in Canadian foreign policy discussion right now: the “friendship strategy”. According to this strategy, if the world is becoming a world of thugs, then perhaps what we need to do is just to befriend the biggest thugs.

I find that very short-sighted, and I also think that it runs contrary to Canadian power. It would be an abandonment of Canadian power for us just to say: “Well, we will stick with Donald Trump no matter what because he is the American President”. This argument has been made most explicitly by Stephen Harper, who argued that we need to be conscious that there are powerful states and weak states and that we need to band together with the powerful states no matter what. I believe that is an abandonment of Canadian power.

So, the better approach here would be for us to start from a perspective of power, realize that we do not have enough of it on our own and that we will have to combine our economic, political, as well as military and intelligence capabilities with those of others.

The language that we tend to use in international relations to that effect is that of alliances, and the argument I am making is that the best partners for such an alliance are those that put their citizens at the top of the agenda in their own countries. Such countries tend to have similar values and instincts to us. They would react to threats in a similar way, and we will just find it a lot easier for us to cooperate.

There is a precedent for this: NATO was originally conceived as a political community of the world liberal democracies, who at that time happened to be concentrated around the North Atlantic. It is not necessarily appropriate now to just think of Western Europe and North America as the place that we would look for partners. But NATO was meant to be a community of liberal democracies with a military arm to it, and that offers probably the best place to think about alliances going forward.

Now, NATO itself has a major limitation in that it now includes dictatorships. Hungary, for example, is a full-blown dictatorship, there is nothing democratic about it anymore. I would argue that Turkey is well on its way to becoming a dictatorship. As a result, NATO is not very effective anymore as a political community.

Meanwhile, there are very strong liberal democracies elsewhere in the world. There are several in Latin America, quite a few in the Asia Pacific region and some in Africa that would be worth partnering with. We should be looking to countries that have similar sets of values and interests to ours, band together where there is economic interest since that will be the lifeblood of the new alliance, and then pursue as deep as integration with those nations as possible.

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article and when it got published. I wrote it at the end of 2018, and so here we are in mid-2020. There is something that has changed in regards to my argument: at the time, I was in favour of an incremental approach, focusing on the Alliance of Multilateralists, the initiative that the French, German and Canadian governments launched in 2018. Post-COVID, where the cost of this new unilateralism is more painfully obvious, I now think we need to accelerate efforts to get right to an alliance of democracies.

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks on the Meng Wanzhou trial and the two Michaels. Last week, in an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, you mentioned that Canada has a track record of standing up, but not alone. Keeping in mind the complexity of this issue, what role can multilateralism, or Alliance for Popular Sovereignty, play in such a case?

The argument I was making in the interview on The Current was in response to the call for a prisoner swap between Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels. It was a response to the argument you hear a lot of the time, that China is a much more powerful country than Canada, and therefore there is not much to do about it, which is historically false. Canada has stood up to some pretty nasty, powerful countries over the years and we won. We have not done it on our own, and no one is arguing that we should do it on our own. But we stood up to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and we beat them, we stood up to the Soviet Union in the Cold War and we beat them.

The operative word of course being we, as it was not Canada alone. The most powerful force that has ever been assembled in the history of the world was a collection of liberal democracies that pooled their efforts, their resources, and to some extent their sovereignty in order to create an unstoppable force that no dictatorship has ever been able to stand up to.

Now, that is probably not going to be necessary in the case of China, and I am certainly not arguing for some new Cold War. What I am saying is: do not think of this as just Canada versus China. There are dozens of liberal democracies out there that are getting bullied by China as well, and while we are focused on this global approach to multilateralism, what China is able to do is to divide and conquer, and to exert pressure on each one of us individually.

If we start to coordinate more effectively, China has more to lose than to gain by continuing this kind of aggressive behaviour and that will change the power calculus in Beijing. This is a longer-term strategy, so whether it results in the two Michaels being freed or not is impossible to predict. But we can stand up to bullies—we have done so in the past—and we do that by banding together with liberal democracies. That is the path forward for Canada’s relationship with China.

Could you expand on the role of Asian democracies in such an alliance, and especially India?

When we create an alliance, it has to genuinely serve the interest and the agenda of all countries. In pursuing an alliance of democracies with Asian democracies, it would take on a very different character from NATO or from some of the previous collaborations between liberal democracies in Western Europe and North America. Each democracy is quite different in terms of its political culture, as well as its national characteristics. What is significant is not necessarily that these other democracies are on other continents, it is just that each one of them is its own political entity with its own traditions and habits.

India is the world’s largest democracy and would be an important partner in such an alliance. It also places tremendous emphasis on non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, and is, of course, quite a powerful world power in its own right, far in excess of anything that Canada has. So, I would not say that India would be calling all the shots, but that things would be driven a lot more by Delhi’s agenda than Ottawa’s.

We would have to show a lot of flexibility and a willingness to follow the lead of other democracies as we are banding together with them. It would certainly require a lot of humility for countries of the Global North, as we are combining forces with other democracies. Ultimately it would be a success if this initiative was seen to be more generally originating inside democracies of the Global South—rather than a “NATO redux”—or an expansion of the collaboration of the democracies of the Global North.

Thank you for taking the time to share some of your insights with us. Finally, can you offer us a sneak peek of what your current projects are? What can we expect out of Ben Rowswell in the second half of 2020?

I have submitted this paper not as an independent scholar, but as the president of the Canadian International Council, an organization that gives citizens a voice in global affairs. We have branches in 16 cities across the country, everyone is welcome to join.

Essentially, what we are going to be doing over the next year and a half is a project to insert the voices of everyday citizens in global affairs. The objective is that the new foreign policy that eventually emerges as Canada’s response to the times is both informed by what citizens expect and what their preferences are, but also explained to them in terms that they understand.

I suspect we will be embracing multilateralism for some time to come because we need to band together with other countries, but we need to do so in a way that is not always evoking public policy from the 1950s. In what other areas of public policy are we so nostalgic from the way we did things in the 1950s? It is so anachronistic, and I do not think it resonates with citizens anymore to say we should be going back to the way we did things 70 years ago.

Therefore, we are trying to come up with a new language for foreign policy, and it is one that we are doing explicitly with everyday citizens so that they feel some ownership of what Canada’s new approach to the world might be. We are calling it the Global Ambition Project, and there is going to be a role for everyone who is interested, whether they are experts in international affairs, organizers to help get other members of the community together, or people with a special skillset like social media or event organization.

We are hoping that as many Canadians as possible join us in this effort, and I invite your readers to do so as well by signing up with their local CIC chapter.


Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

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