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What's so great about being a global leader?

By: John Kennair

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jan 29, 2014 06:00 am

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Could Canada ever become a global leader? Should it strive to do so? Why are our political elites so transfixed by this ideal, this Pearsonian theme? And would becoming a global leader truly improve the lives of Canadians? Every so often the call is made by our political leadership to pursue that very goal, and some have even lamented that we have lost international status. Most recently, this was the subject of a book by Joe Clark.

In reality, Canada has never truly been a global leader, so we could not have lost that position: the costs of being a world leader is something we could not afford. Instead, we have played a limited role, often mediating between other global powers, assuming stature from our relationships with Britain and the U.S., albeit as the lesser partner.

So, what is it that our political elites are aspiring to?

The term bandied about over the past 20 years, the goal they want to aspire to, is to become a “soft power” state. With the inability to truly become a military or economic power, they have adopted the ideal of becoming an influential, moralistic power. Is this a real possibility?

To have power means that you have the ability to make others do what you want them to do, and that you have the ability to resist being forced into doing things that are not always in your best interest. Does Canada have either of those qualities?

In truth, few states have been eager to follow our path, and we really do not have the ability to make them do so. But why should we care if they follow us or not? Our political leadership needs to do what is right for us. Occasionally international events can have adverse consequences for us, which means that that at times we need an international presence, but, for the most part, our leaders need to provide a domestic environment in which Canadians will flourish.

Canada has predominantly been a follower, complying with the needs of others. This may have included making alliances with states, sporadically spearheading an action, to ensure that Canada prospers, but such actions are less about leadership and more about domestic prestige. But there is nothing wrong with that.

Ironically, when Canada has bucked an international trend, refusing to sign the Copenhagen Agreement and exiting the Kyoto Accord for example, our political leadership has faced domestic criticism. Regardless of one’s position on the environment, the message that was being articulated was to return to the ideal of being a “follower” – do not be different; do what others are doing. We, it seems as a nation, are risk averse, and, paradoxically, leadership is about taking risks, albeit calculated ones. So, the answer to the questions of becoming a global leader may be moot. Canadians may not really want our country to become a global leader, this being just a pipe dream of a few political elite.

John Kennair is an international consultant and doctor of laws who lives in St. Albert.


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