Stephen Toope on the State of Global Affairs and Canada’s Role in the World

Stephen Toope on the State of Global Affairs and Canada’s Role in the World

Stephen J. Toope is Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, Canada’s leading multidisciplinary academic centre focused on international relations. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Dr. Toope currently serves as President of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Director of the Public Policy Forum.  He publishes in leading international journals on international dispute resolution, international environmental law, human rights, the use of force, and international legal theory. He has lectured at leading universities around the world including France, Israel, and China.
Prior to his current post at the Munk School, Dr. Toope was President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia, President of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Dean of Law at McGill University, chairman of the Board of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and Chair of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

In the last week of 2015, Foreign Policy Concepts spoke with Dr. Toope about the state of global affairs and Canada’s place on the world stage.


What, in your opinion, were the most significant developments in international relations in 2015?

Well, 2015 was quite an eventful year, so it’s hard to single out just a few events, but perhaps I’ll try to say something that has been less on the front pages, and which signaled a major potential change. And that to me is the shift that took place in Pakistan’s orientation by refusing to participate in the Saudi military campaign in Yemen; instead, realigning in some sense its relationship with China. There had been, of course, this rather long-term relationship between the Saudis and Pakistan, which I think has been disrupted now by a very strong developing relationship with China. This has been growing over the last while, signaled by China’s commitment to the so-called Silk Road project and the Pakistani buy-in to that project in quite a significant way. I think this signals some very important shifts that we should pay close attention to in relations in the Sunni world and also in China’s growing influence.

So do you think this shift could also impact, if you will, militant movements within the Sunni Islamic world?

Absolutely. Try to imagine how that’s going to play out over the next few years. From the vantage point of today, I think we’re going to see quite significant shifts. And I don’t put myself out to be an expert in intra-Sunni relationships, but I think that there are some signals about rising internal tensions within the Sunni world in the next few years, and not just what many people have perceived as the continuing tension between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

I’ll give a second observation, which is the continuing growth in China’s foreign policy. And by ‘growth’ what I mean is more and more Chinese engagement in more and more parts of the world and yet, with the greatest of respect, I would say without any coherent foreign policy agenda beyond supporting trade and ensuring access to resources.

One doesn’t get a sense that China has developed a geopolitical strategy, to put it that way. There seem to be many initiatives; there’s obviously a continuing sense of competition with the United States. But I’m not sure it’s clear whether or not that is actually China’s core foreign policy now or whether it’s simply a by-product of its desire to be influential in many parts of the world.

Are you suggesting that the growth of this foreign policy by China is not meticulously designed?

I don’t think it is meticulously designed. I think we often over-credit the Chinese with great strategic insight, if I may say. I obviously don’t want to underplay the sheer capacity of the Chinese leadership. There are very intelligent, very thoughtful, very forward-looking people in that leadership. However, at the same time, I think there is genuinely a struggle internally to try to figure out how China should best position itself. One can simply try to imagine a bi-polar world, but that’s an assertion which will not be accepted by many of parties that China wants to engage with closely. So it does not seem to be clear whether or not China wants to focus on becoming a dominant regional power first and foremost, or a bi-polar power first and foremost, or an economic power as opposed to a political power as opposed to a military power. So I think there’s a lot of uncertainty still at play within China on those questions. So yes, great capacity, great foresight, but I don’t think there is a grand strategic plan that one could articulate with any coherence.

How about other important developments in 2015?

Now, I suppose much more obviously the migration crisis in Europe—a result of great changes that are taking place in the Middle East, effectively the end of Sykes-Picot arrangement—is going to play out in dramatic ways over the course of next decade. How it plays out will be internal to Europe and, of course, in Europe’s relationship with the Middle East, and I think with partners like the United States.

Internally, there could be increasing pressure in some parts of Europe towards dismantling of some of the gains that have been made through the European Union. And I think we’re seeing elements of that coming from Eastern Europe. We’re going to see increasing pressures from states that are really having to bear the strongest burden on refugee resettlement. There will be pressure to step back to some extent provisions on the freedom of movement. There will be increasing concern about a European-wide foreign policy, a stronger impetus towards national policies constructed as a result of particular pressures within societies in Germany, France and elsewhere, certainly in Hungary and Poland. So that I think is going to be a major, potentially structural change in international relations.

And then as I said, the external element of that is how Europe relates to the Middle East, particularly to two areas which, in a sense, are no longer states: Syria and Iraq. The question is will Europe attempt to exercise more and more forward control, if I may put it that way, or will it take a more defensive posture? Then of course, that would have implications for its relationship with the United States. I would say all bets are off there, depending on what happens with the U.S election, because it’s not clear what the partners are going to look like in the United States over the course of next four years.

Moving on to Canada, we had a long election cycle here, long by Canadian standards, which took 77 days and culminated in a sweeping victory for the Liberals. In the course of this campaign, there were debates about Canadian loss of prestige on the international stage and the country’s absence in some of the key international accords. What’s your take on where Canada is today on the world stage and whether it deserves a greater role?

To start with the last proposition, I don’t think any country deserves a role on the world stage. I think it has to be earned. There are so many players on world stage and obviously we’ve seen an explosion in the number of states since the end of the Second World War.  Canada used to be able to describe itself as a leader among the middle powers, to use an old terminology.

Today there are many so-called middle powers that in some senses are every bit as important as Canada. I think of Korea; you could think of the rise of Nigeria and obviously some of the BRICS countries are in some senses even more important than Canada has been historically on the world stage. So we don’t deserve any role, I think we have to earn it and, as part of the earning of that role, understand how to work collaboratively with other middle powers, or other powers of middling influence, as I like to say. And I would say that requires Canada to think beyond some of its traditional partnerships.

When we talk about like-minded countries, as they love to say in the UN system, we’ve got to move beyond the idea that the like-mindeds for Canada are a few northern European countries, United States, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. We’ve got to be thinking about countries like Korea, South Africa, potentially Brazil, or Colombia. So that’s one area that Canada needs to recalibrate a little bit.

Is Canada’s role diminished on the world stage? I would say absolutely yes. I think it is diminished and with respect to the last government, my fundamental objection to how the Harper Government conducted foreign policy was that it was almost entirely transactional. Everything was about the latest negotiation around the trade agreement or economic agreement and I think there was a lack of understanding that all of our economic relationships are also deeply connected with our political relationships, and even with our cultural and social relationships.

You have to invest year in year out if you are going to be influential. You can’t parachute in and say ‘ok we are here, let’s have a great trade agreement’ and then leave again and not be responsive until the next need to promote some trade opportunity. So I think we have definitely lost a great deal of stature simply through a lack of engagement. Not because we have done some truly horrible things that have disconnected us from the world, but because we were not taking positions of continuing engagement and leadership on a range of issues where Canada can play a role.

Since the election, we have re-engaged through the Paris COP discussions on the climate change and environment front. We need to re-engage on questions of international sustainable development, where we were almost completely absent over the last few years, largely because we were in some ways absent from the UN system. Yes I know we still have our standard representation at the UN, but there was no sense of impetus, no sense that Canada had a role in driving agendas that are important to it.

I want to be clear about this. It’s not purely a partisan comment because I think this decline actually began in the latter days of the Chrétien administration, where I think there were a loss of focus and a loss of ambition in international engagements, and then the Martin regime was not there long enough and also was not coherent enough to develop a standing for Canada.

Then over the last decade this has been reinforced. So I would say for the last 15 years or so as I travel around the world, the single most common comment that I’ve heard is the question “Where is Canada?” on a whole series of issues. Where is Canada’s engagement with its partners? Where is Canada’s sense of commitment around issues that it wants to pursue?

One hopes that the new government will, indeed, find mechanisms to create an agenda and then try to pursue it working in conjunction with a new range of partners including our traditional partners.

Lastly, I would say that there is a risk with this new government that it will descend into nostalgia. You hear a lot of references to Canada’s traditional role; to how we used to be able to engage on the world stage. The fact is that the world is different from the period of Pearsonian liberalism; it’s different from the first Trudeau government era. It is a far more complicated world. There are far more players; there are far more influential non-state actors. The complexities of international governance institutions are such that there’s not the same confidence level in those institutions that existed 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. So the way Canada has to engage is not modeled necessarily by some of these references back to earlier times.

Do you think Canada’s relations with the Muslim world as well as with Israel will enter new dynamics? If you expect relations to enter new dynamics, what will be their defining characteristics?

This is an area where the answer is genuinely unclear.  I don’t know. What I would say is –and it was said at the foreign policy debate during the last campaign by the current Prime Minister –I don’t actually think there is a fundamental policy difference between the outgoing and the incoming government in relation to Israel. There could be a different tone and that may be productive. I think in many parts of the world there was a certain frustration that the tone of the last government was not merely supportive of Israel, but supportive of every utterance of the Natanyahu government; and I don’t think you’ll see that tone again.

I don’t think any Canadian party has a different policy on the fundamental commitment to the state of Israel, not only its existence but also its thriving. So, there will be no fundamental change there.

With the Arab world, I would say that we may see a greater alignment of the current government with the U.S in attempting to draw out more positive relations with certain Arab countries, but that could shift dramatically depending on what happens with the U.S elections. Canada could find itself in an uncomfortable position there

I’m not hearing anything fundamental from the current government yet about how we think through relations with the Arab world. And I think, to be fair, it’s early days and the government is still struggling with the crisis of engaging with Syria and how we manage that. The bigger picture has not been articulated by the new government at all.

Staying in the Middle East region, do you expect Canada’s relations with Iran to undergo a shift?

Yes, I would imagine and I hope that the Canadian government will re-establish appropriate diplomatic relations with Tehran. We are not going to become best buddies with Iran on the world stage, but I think, for example, that to contribute to the productive monitoring of the nuclear agreement, Canada should be engaged with Iran. Also, to deal with the reality of many Iranian citizens who live, work, and study in Canada we need to have diplomatic relations. I think Canada should attempt to re-engage with Iran because there are now many points of connection between Iran and Canada on the bigger picture in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

What’s your take on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy team?

I don’t have a take really, as it is such early days. I think the appointment of the Honorable Stephen Dion as Minister of Foreign Affairs is an interesting signal. As the former party leader, it’s clearly a traditional appointment as a reward for senior leadership in the party, which is not unusual for a foreign minister in Canada. On the other hand, the association of Minister Dion with very strong environmental commitments is a further reinforcement that could end up being a thrust in Canadian policy going forward. Beyond these dynamics, we have to start to see who some of the major ambassadorial appointments are. We don’t know yet about Washington, London, and the United Nations. These are all likely to be coming up soon.

I think those appointments will send signals. What I will say is that there is clearly a desire to send messages that Canada wishes to be seen more active; that it wishes to be seen as a full partner in inter-governmental institutions like the UN, but also international financial institutions.  Aside from that it’s hard to tell what the team is going to do.

With the Russian intervention in Syria and the subsequent events on the ground, is it fair to suggest that we are at a turning point in the Syrian conflict? Some analysts have suggested that Russia turned the tables on the U.S-led coalition in Syria. What are your thoughts on that?  

The Russian intervention in Syria is fascinating. For one thing, it’s taken the Ukraine very much off the front pages. So in that sense, you have to give President Putin a certain degree of credit. I think he’s taken pressure off himself and off his regime in relation to very bad behavior in Eastern Europe. So the focus is now on Syria.

There may very well have been a turning point with their decision to engage actively in Syria. There clearly is behind-the-scenes coordination taking place at a technical level between the Western powers and Russia, making sure that we’re not shooting at each other’s planes and getting in each other’s way. That can lead, one hopes, to some greater level of collaboration to try to share appropriate information where real risk lies. I also think it is probably the case that the question of the survival of the Assad regime has become a second order issue.

It is funny that after Assad first came to power there were glowing press reports about how he was going to be the new face of Syria and much more Westernized than the previous leadership. All that turned out to be wishful thinking. He’s behaved appallingly. Having said that, he may be less important than the structural problems of Syria and Iraq. And I think that’s in fact where the real negotiations now have to take place between U.S, its allies, and Russia.

You’ve talked and written about the importance and significance of having strong institutions for a well-functioning society. Looking at Western societies today and, to borrow from Niall Ferguson, do you believe the mainsprings of Western institutions and values are in decline?  

I’ll be very honest, I am not a fan of Niall Ferguson. And in response to your question, the short answer is no, but that’s not an entirely fair comment vis-à-vis Ferguson. He is making an important point that there are more and more pressures that call out the potential hypocrisy of superficial commitment to Western values; a commitment that is not always matched up by real action on the ground. So to that extent, I think he’s right that we are not easily going to get away with some of the pious statements that Western societies, and particularly Canada, have been able to get away with in the past.

I think we’re going to be pressed more forcefully by visions of international society that are not fully aligned with what are still post-Second World War institutions. We also need to think creatively about how to overcome those pressures and actually respond to them. For example, it might be interesting for countries like Canada to actively argue for new permanent members on the UN Security Council, not necessarily with vetoes, but by saying ‘yes Canada supports the idea that India should be a permanent member of the Security Council,’ as an example.

We may have to start thinking in those terms, because there are—as we all know with the Chinese particularly—parallel institutions being created, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). We’ve got trade arrangements that are obviously in competition with one another. Instead of just bemoaning these developments, I think there is a role for countries like Canada to try to figure out how we react so we don’t create the notion of dual civilizations challenging one other, another metaphor that I have never liked, or at least giving that impression.

There are actually tremendous opportunities in reinforcing values that we think are important, but doing so in a way that recognizes this is a genuine conversation that is taking place internationally. We can’t simply articulate and impose our values. We cannot simply pretend that we are living our values when we are not.

Much is being said and debated about China’s massive economic and infrastructure investment in the Eurasian landmass known as One-Belt One-Road initiative, also known as the new Silk Road. Is this project heralding a new era in global geopolitics and the emergence of a new balance of power in international relations?

First, I don’t like analyzing international relations in terms of balances of power because that way of thinking presumes more homogeneity within competing blocks than currently exists.
I think we live in a more genuinely diverse society than balance of power arguments will typically allow for. I think there are local, regional, and global balances that actually play off one another, an area where the Chinese are very creative. In addition to the Silk Road project, one can think of massive Chinese investments in Africa and equally massive investments in parts of Latin America.

The question is whether there is a new dynamic being created as opposed to a new balance of power? Absolutely, there can be no doubt about it. Is the United States the sole single superpower? No, it’s not. The U.S is still the strongest country that deeply matters to international affairs and specifically to Canada, but it’s not the only game in town. Nor do I think that we live in a bipolar world. There will be differing alignments on differing issues.

Interests are not solely cast in material terms, but sometimes in ideological, religious and regional terms. So we are going to see a tremendous fluidity in global politics that the rise of China epitomizes in many ways, but it’s only one example.

We can also think of recalibration of relations within the Muslim world as another piece of fluidity that will play out in relation to the rise of China, and in relation to whatever the United States defines itself to be over the course of next 25 to 50 years. So going back to your question, yes, China matters tremendously.

I think the One-Belt One-Road initiative is potentially defining of new relationships and dynamics in Eurasia, but it’s one of a number of dynamics that are playing out. Canada and other countries like Canada are going to be really struggling to find their place in dialogues that are shifting constantly and where constellations of interest and value are shifting.

So based on your remarks on China’s rise and the newly emerging international institutions, it does make sense for Canada to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Yes, I’m actually a supporter of that approach. I think it makes sense for Canada, as for Britain and others, to signal to China that we are not afraid of Chinese influence, that we understand it’s going to happen and that we want to be part of the dialogue that is taking place in relation to that influence.

Going forward, what is in store for the Munk School of Global affairs as a leading Canadian institution in international affairs education? 

I’m happy to say that we just completed a planning process for the school and we have been thinking very actively about our role going forward. The fundamental commitment, not surprisingly, is to continue to try to help our students, especially our Masters of Global Affairs students, to be resilient, and to be able to transcend intellectual, disciplinary, and political borders in their lives. We also want to keep a fundamental commitment to doing top flight globally influential research. But more to the point, we are looking at areas where the school and indeed Canada can have an influence where spaces have not been fully occupied.

We are looking at a major initiative on the question of migration, which is very much in the news. Canada does bring certain expertise in terms of intercultural understanding, and engagement across cultures within the society that I think can be helpful in the wider world.

Without being naïve that we get it all right, because we don’t, migration is going to be an area where the Munk School will try to extend its reach. We are also investing quite heavily in the area of sustainability, particularly looking at sustainable global cities as it is an area of strength for the University of Toronto as a whole. It’s also a place where the Munk School is working with partners at the University of Toronto and elsewhere, which could be quite influential, from both policy and technical perspectives. So those are expansions of some of our current work, which includes innovation policy, work on global justice and safer communities and, of course, political economy.


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