Sunny Ways or Gale Force Winds? Trudeau's UN Speech Points the Finger at Donald Trump

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Normally, that alone would be news but as the case-counts soar and the prospect of an autumn lockdown looms, Canadians are otherwise occupied.Too bad. It is a remarkable speech and one that fits the times. “The world is in crisis,” Trudeau declares, and “the price to pay…for failing to act is much too high.”You don't have to be a Liberal to agree with this. From the pandemic to nativism to climate change, something certainly seems to have gone wrong on Planet Earth.In Trudeau's view, this crisis makes institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization more important than ever. Unfortunately, there too, something is wrong. The international system was built on a commitment to cooperation – multilateralism – yet the big powers now ignore the rules at will and with impunity.Trudeau includes China and Russia in this cabal, and for any number of reasons, from detaining innocent citizens to rushing vaccines. But his real focus is elsewhere – on the allies who helped build these institutions, and who supported them since the start, but who are “now looking inward and are divided.” First and foremost, that would be Donald Trump's America.The US used to be the world's champion for multilateralism and democratic values. Today, it looks increasingly like the angry, erratic neighbour.There is a surprising bluntness about Trudeau's speech that made us step back and try to see the bigger picture he is sketching. In our view, he sees leaders like Trump as more a symptom of the crisis than its cause. They are the product of a broken system.These institutions were forged in another era. The builders saw the world differently. They viewed national economies, national identities, and national interests as embedded in a nation state. To them, national sovereignty was non-negotiable, and the “international” system was designed to protect it, not share it.The 21st Century turns this thinking inside out. The communications revolution, globalization, social media, Artificial Intelligence – these and other forces have combined to redefine international space. Today, we see the community as an ecosystem, where everything is interconnected, from economies to the air we breathe; and that changes everything, though not always for the better.Old scourges – pandemics, poverty, mass migration – are taking new forms and new threats are surfacing. Climate change, especially, vaults us into a whole new category of danger and concern. Massive storms or rising sea levels are the standard bearers of a new and terrifying side of this interdependence.The old international system was designed to help nations solve or at least manage their international issues; to work together to find the right tradeoffs between their competing interests. But as Trudeau rightly observes, increasingly these efforts fail.The conceptual cornerstone of the old system – the distinction between international and domestic interests – is crumbling. People of goodwill are often deeply divided over where a nation's interests begin and end, which brings us to the issue of leadership.Demagogues like Trump use this confusion to divide and conquer. Slogans like “America First!” or “Build the Wall!” immerse people in the old thinking. They tell Americans that the world has duped and cheated them and that it is their right to make decisions on their own, regardless of the consequences for others.A disturbingly large number of people find this comforting – even empowering. We see them at Trump's rallies, without masks and refusing to distance. Of course, they are not only in America. This thinking drives nativism everywhere, from Brexit to the yellow-vesters.Trump's special genius is his shamelessness – his unlimited willingness to pander to these sentiments and to assure people that they can have the freedoms they want without paying a price.Perhaps this kind of magical thinking works on Reality TV but it is a perilous way to make decisions on public health or the environment. Belief and reality are not the same thing. Beyond people's beliefs lies a realm of cold, hard facts.Today, seven million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and 200,000 are dead. Those are the facts and that is the price that Americans must pay for embracing lies.We agree with Trudeau when he declares that “We need a new way of thinking. On climate, on inequality, on health.” Sovereignty, of course, remains a critical part of this new thinking, but it cannot be to us what it was to our grandparents. Today, sovereign peoples must be accountable to one another. Borders are inventions of the human mind.As the pandemic shows, opening and closing them provides a measure of control, but we cannot close them forever. And even if we could, the new world is full of perils that even closed borders cannot control, from a new and more insidious virus to the fallout from climate change.In our view, this new thinking starts with new ways of drawing lines between national sovereignty and our shared international space. Big powers like China or America may still believe that a Darwinian order serves them well, but sooner or later reality will intrude.In the meantime, Canadians will persevere with the pandemic but, like our prime minister, we must also stand up in support of a new rules-based, international order. As a middle power, a trading nation, and a strong democracy, our well-being depends on it.There is no alternative.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.